Joseph Brodsky Brodsky, Joseph (Vol. 13) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Brodsky, Joseph 1940–

A lyric poet and translator now living in the United States, Brodsky was expelled from his native Russia in 1972, despite defense by some of the most important cultural figures in the U.S.S.R., for his "parasitism" and "decadent" poetry. He is generally regarded as the most important living Russian poet. (See also CLC, Vols. 4, 6, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 41-44.)

[Mr. Brodsky's] poetry is religious, intimate, depressed, sometimes confused, sometimes martyr-conscious, sometimes élitist in its views, but it does not constitute an attack on Soviet society or ideology unless withdrawal and isolation are deliberately construed as attack: of course they can be, and evidently were….

Because of the distractions of the political background, it is not too easy to come to a clear judgment of Mr. Brodsky's poetry. In addition, the irrelevant novelty value of a young Soviet poet expressing himself in terms of God and the devil, angels and cherubim, paradise and hell has to be adjusted to an objective interpretation of how far this area of reference has been convincingly applied. At the moment, Mr. Brodsky's work appears genuine but limited. It may be that his sense of isolation has hindered his development, and while there is nothing inherently wrong in going back to the time of Blok or Mandelshtam or the early Akhmatova for influences, one feels that Mr. Brodsky could well have learnt more from contemporary poetic modes….

Mr. Brodsky is good at evoking certain scenes and atmospheres: an autumn garden, a Christmas in Moscow, a suburban hill-slope with its strange mixture of natural wildness and human detritus, and above all the sleeping snowy London of John Donne in the title-poem ["Elegy for John Donne"]. This last poem, a long meditation on the soul in which the uneasily sleeping Donne becomes a meeting-place of struggling spiritual forces, moves with real power and interesting shifts of perspective. The other long poem translated [in Elegy for John Donne], "The Hills", tries to combine a wedding-party and a murder with an "I to the hills will lift mine eyes" theme, but the material is less well integrated, and this poem is not entirely successful. Some short poems, like "To the New Tenant", show a sensibility not unlike Mr. Philip Larkin's; others, such as "A Christmas Romance", have that almost paradoxical sort of vivid sensuous detail, at once rich and laconic, which is purely Russian.

Altogether this is a volume which is of considerable interest, and it will surprise many who have rigid ideas about the nature of Soviet poetry.

"Work-Shy Element," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London), 1967; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), July 20, 1967, p. 637.

Richard Lourie

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In the poetry written in Russia since Stalin's death, Vinokurov's transparent simplicity and Voznesensky's near incantations define one set of extremes. When Vinokurov fails, his poetry loses a dimension, becoming flat, and too often Voznesensky produces fireworks that dazzle but leave no lasting impression. Only Joseph Brodsky, it would seem, has a reach great enough to span both extremes and a grip strong enough to hold onto both at once, as he does in his "Elegy for John Donne."

This collection consists of seventy-two poems written between 1961 and 1969. Four of Brodsky's translations of Donne are included, as well as a poem on the death of T. S. Eliot, written in imitation of Auden's poem on the death of Yeats. Brodsky's fascination with English poetry makes him especially interesting to us and probably somewhat unique among young Soviet poets. Brodsky can be slangy and toughly sentimental when he draws portraits of his school chums and is at home both with the poema and the lyric (One, "Verses in April," begins "Again this winter / I did not lose my mind."). Though his versatility and dexterity are extraordinary, what is most remarkable in Brodsky is a quality of consciousness which can only be termed religious. It can also be found in the works of Solzhenitsyn and Sinyavsky but, being so individual a matter, should not give rise to undue speculation on a resurgence of spirituality in Russia. (p. 202)

Richard Lourie, in The Russian Review (copyright 1971 by The Russian Review, Inc.), April, 1971.

R. D. Sylvester

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Joseph Brodsky, perhaps the most interesting of contemporary Russian poets, is a moralist and an ironist concerned with the false values men live by in an age which has thrown away the past, and with it the past's spiritual heritage. His work shows a persistent need for contact with poets outside the Russian tradition: Norwid, Eliot, Auden, Cavafy, Horace, and, above all, John Donne, are names that come to mind in a reading of his Ostanovka v pustyne (Halt in the Wilderness). He is, indeed, the first Russian poet I know of who has brought the English Metaphysicals into his poetic workshop, to learn from them and to grow under the influence of his kinship with them. At the same time his poetry has deep roots in the Russian tradition too…. Unlike the older generation, who were nurtured at a time when a great poetic culture was flourishing in Russia, Brodsky, who was born in 1940, grew up at a time when Russian poetry was in a state of chronic decline; as a result, he had to find his way largely on his own. His development has been exceptionally interesting. He began as a dropout from high school, and some of his earliest poems belong to Soviet underground literature of the late 1950s. He has retained the outsider's point of view, but he has given it much wider implications as he has grown. His work constitutes an outsider's critique, but it is a critique of the human condition rather than of political or social organization. Its polemical thrust is aimed at keeping possibilities open for the human psyche, whose need to reestablish spiritual bearings in the twentieth century is proof of the inadequacy of our official doctrines. (pp. 303-04)

[There are] two key images that run through his work. The first is rodina, birthland. It occurs without adjective or pronoun modifiers that would circumscribe its meaning, and this keeps open its potential for accumulating a weight of meaning that is something like "what one is born to" in every sense. In traditional Russian usage, rodina is a strongly positive image of one's native land, or even native region or city. Through overuse in patriotic slogans it has become a kind of icon. Brodsky never mocks nor rejects rodina, but he does use irony to chip away at its false, official halo…. For Brodsky rodina has a religious meaning in addition to its concrete meaning of "native land." In its spiritual sense rodina is the place where the last illusions and falsehoods are stripped away: where a man, or a people, stand naked before the Word of God. In connection with the theme of rodina, Brodsky has made extensive use of the Christian motif of Rozhdestvo (Nativity), a word which has the same root as rodina. It is, of course, the Christmas holiday, as celebrated in Moscow…. The themes of rodina and Rozhdestvo are always accompanied by pain, but it has to be understood that this is a salutary pain, which affirms more strongly than anything else in Brodsky's poetry the reality of the divine, or sacred, order of life. Rodina is the setting in space, and Rozhdestvo the setting in time, of that central experience in which man most truly faces God—or feels his distance from Him.

The second key image that one needs to keep a bearing on in reading Brodsky is razluka, separation: the separation of lovers, but also separation in a wider sense, from others, from self, from God. It prefigures the final separation, which is death. Just as Brodsky uses the Christian motif of the Nativity in connection with rodina, so in connection with razluka he uses the Crucifixion. Here, too, there is always pain, but it is the pain of devastating loss; if there is anything salutary to it, it is only to be found in the paradox that separation for eternity constitutes a kind of faith in eternity. (pp. 304-06)

Brodsky's work continues the lyric tradition that has been associated since the eighteenth century with his native city of Leningrad, but its relation to the tradition is not quite what might be expected and has become much more complex as his art has developed. When he began to write in 1958 at the age of eighteen, it was stylistically outside the tradition altogether. The earliest poems were short fables and allegories like "Khudozhnik," a statement of the artist's need to go his own way and his determination to believe in himself…. Brodsky, to his credit, did not try to hide this youthful pessimism, expressed in the images of martyrdom that appear in a great many of these early poems…. The short, brilliant "Stikhi pod epigrafom," written in a style that recalls Tsvetaeva, transforms the martyrdom image into something positive by asserting the basic validity in this life of the religious ideas of suffering and immortality. (pp. 306-07)

Around 1960 Brodsky began to work with traditional meters, especially the iamb and the anapest…. Continuing these experiments over the next ten years, Brodsky has developed the iambic pentameter into a line that bears his own individual signature…. Out of these experiments grew the verse of two of his long poems, "Isaac and Abraham" and "Elegy for John Donne" (both 1963). What makes this verse-line so remarkable is that it achieves nearly the maximum possible density of stressed syllables…. This saturated line is difficult to sustain, because it requires the use of predominantly one- and two-syllable words. Yet Brodsky manages to do it, and in his hands it becomes a powerful rhythmic device that creates an iambic music with a sense of maximum fullness in the line.

At the other end of the spectrum are his experiments with mobile intonational breaks that lead to a very high frequency of enjambments, and his development of the long sentence with complex syntax, which spills over from line to...

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Byron Lindsey

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Brodsky] is no doubt the most important name in contemporary Russian poetry, both at home and in emigration. It is no new reputation, but stems from the 1960s, when the intensity and severity of his lyrics, read mainly in manuscript, awakened memories of dormant muses, of Annensky, Mandelstam, Tsvetaeva. His poems to John Donne and T. S. Eliot were striking, especially coming from a young Russian poet. (p. 129)

Konec prekrasnoj èpoxi (The End of a Fine Epoch) comprises poems written in the period 1964–71 and, for its time span and diversity of style and theme, is probably the best collection for making first acquaintance with Brodsky. The early poems seem inferior to those collected in...

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Henry Gifford

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Since 1972 Iosif Brodsky, the most talented Russian poet of his generation, has been living in the United States. When some forty years ago Auden (whom Brodsky knew and admired) made a similar choice, the implications for him were scarcely so grave as for a Russian poet today…. [Auden's] ears were not constantly assailed by a foreign language; he could not know the dread of being estranged from the native hearth, and of gradually losing touch with what Mandelstam once called "the formidable and boundless element of the Russian language", and with the creative processes at work in popular speech.

Mandelstam is particularly relevant here, because of all Brodsky's predecessors in that generation—and...

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