Joseph Brodsky

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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

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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...

(This entire section contains 248 words.)

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is at home both with thepoema 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

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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 line and even from one stanza to the next. (pp. 307-09)

Since 1960 Brodsky has done interesting work in the anapest too, using enjambment and a variable line length. A striking example is "Fontan" (1967)…. (p. 311)

One way of looking at these innovations is that through them Brodsky has aimed at developing a style that would be independent of Pushkin, or at least stand apart from the most typical features of Pushkin's verse. Since 1962 he has looked primarily outside the native lyric tradition of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries for his inspiration…. He learned from Norwid (see "Sadovnik v vatnike") how to broach a subject indirectly, giving expression to his wit and playfulness and at the same time allowing the subject to take on whatever serious implications it may. This dates from 1964 and is a turning point in his work.

In Donne's verse Brodsky discovered a poetry of this world, which contains, at the same time, angels and luminous objects, set in a form of discourse that is dramatic, richly metaphorical, and intellectually complex, in which no line of separation stands between the sacred and the profane. Brodsky has incorporated all this into his own style. Donne's influence can be felt in particular ways, as when he borrows an image or a conceit, or writes in a Donne genre. "Otkazom" (1967) and "Strofy" (1968) are valedictions modeled on Donne, but his presentation of the theme of razluka is very much his own. Just as important is the general influence felt in Brodsky's habit of ratiocination through metaphor, and in his syntax, especially his Donnelike manner of steering an argument through twists and turns by using subordinating conjunctions and other hypotactic connectors to create a series of continually changing logical relationships: ibo, raz, to-est', vprochem, khot', posemu, kol', and so on.

Brodsky's themes—or what is really a densely interwoven complex of themes—appeared early in his work. His subsequent stylistic development has been a growth in the means for taking up their various strands, and thus a widening of their implications. An important stage in that growth was his discovery of T. S. Eliot, in whose "spirit unappeased and peregrine" he perhaps recognized a tie of kinship. One very interesting strand in his work is the "imperial" theme, the theme of the state as empire. Eliot's use of the persona in Journey of the Magi and Gerontion lies behind Brodsky's recent treatment of that theme. in "Anno Domini" (1968) the speaker is a poet in exile…. The exiled poet meditates on the lives of the bureaucrats who serve the imperial will, far from the Metropolis at the center of the empire: men long ago compelled to compromise whatever standards of truth and loyalty to spiritual values they may once have known. They are left with an empty legacy, their lives devoid of meaning, eking out their days in trepidation in a remote corner of the empire. It is a moral and political theme; there is an air of blasphemy brooding over these images of a secular order that has gone wrong. Brodsky can at times convey a sense of disgust that reminds us of Swift. At other times the language recalls the summations of Gerontion, in which the irony works more quietly but has a devastating effect….

  —we are not the judges of the fatherland. The sword of judgment shall sink deep in our own disgrace—
...
  the holy nimbus is replaced by the halo of the lie,
    and the immaculate conception—by gossip.
                                           (pp. 312-13)

The search for alternatives to Pushkin led Brodsky, within the Russian tradition, to the eighteenth century. He was drawn there by the work of particular poets like Derzhavin and Kantemir, and by the spirit of an age that believed in universal values but kept a skeptical eye on man and the world. He likes the remoteness and occasional obtuseness of its language, the heavy way it has of making a light point, and vice versa. He has used this to enrich the tonal range of his own poetic language. If Brodsky's early poems are in monotones, his later verse maintains a balance between light and serious, using puns of different kinds and making the most of the possibilities for ambiguity: double meanings abound…. But it is clear from the opening lines that ["Poslanie k stikham" ("Epistle to His Verses") is] a sophisticated treatment of the theme of "writing for the desk drawer" (almost none of Brodsky's work has been published in the Soviet Union), and shows how Brodsky's poetry always contains the potential for commentary on contemporary themes. And this makes it very much a twentieth-century text. (pp. 314-15)

["Almost an Elegy"] gives a good insight into the nature of Brodsky's religious themes. Brodsky sees life as a gift from God. His early interest in yoga reflected an innate contemplative or mystical bent. Now it is his poetry that has become for him a mode of contemplative activity, though it is not only that. He deals with Old Testament motifs from the point of view of one who is on native ground; he identifies easily and naturally with an Isaac or a Jacob. So far, Brodsky's perception of what it is like to know God personally is rooted in an earth-centered, Old Testament outlook rather than in a Christian experience. The "Elegy for John Donne," despite the fact that its subject is replete with possibilities for meditation on Christian themes, nevertheless resolves the problem of death in terms of an eternal rest on the earth under the old dispensation. However, since the early 1960s, New Testament motifs occur in his verse with increasing frequency, especially the Nativity and the Crucifixion. It is natural that he should be drawn to the Christian mysteries of the birth and death of God, for in them there is both the pathos of mortality and a sign of victory over death. (p. 319)

"Almost an Elegy" is a poem about the memory of a miracle as seen after a fall from grace: the poet looks back on a time of former brightness from a perspective of encroaching darkness. The seasonal metaphor for this passage from brightness to darkness is the coming of fall. The next poem, "Verses in April," was written some six months later at the opposite point in the seasonal cycle. It is a poem about a time when brightness (spring) is arriving, and darkness (winter) is passing into memory…. (pp. 319-20)

"Verses in April" is a poem about the memory, not of miracle, but of evil, in a season when evil seems to be receding. Pominanie can be used to mean both the church prayers for one who has died, and the ritual feast celebrated by the mourners. In either case, pominanie zla means "laying evil to rest (now that it is dead)." This is one way of bringing about the ridding of evil. Brodsky chooses a different way. He defines his poetry as a "scapegoat for bearing away wrongs." This also is a ridding of evil, but in doing so it sets those evils down. Just as the memory of a miracle cannot be forgotten (for it is the greatest loneliness), so the memory of evil cannot be forgotten either. This is the motivation for the naming of Mnemosyne in the poem's final line: Mnemosyne, mother of the Muses, is the goddess of Memory.

The idea that the poem is a scapegoat provides a key to the meaning of the image of the desert, or wilderness (pustynia), in the title Ostanotka v pustyne. After Aaron has laid down his own sins and the sins of the people on the scapegoat, the goat is led into the wilderness…. (p. 323)

"Verses in April," like "Almost an Elegy," is a poem in which there is no "music," nor can there be in unruly spring when the Muses crowd and shove, quarreling among themselves. The need to admit wrongs in order to be rid of them is perhaps an unpleasant subject in a season when poems are supposed to be cheerful, and Brodsky wittily lays the blame on the Muses, who are squabbling instead of singing. But of course there is music here: the music of wit and seriousness together, a music something like that "tough reasonableness" beneath the lyric grace which Eliot so prized in Andrew Marvell and the other Metaphysicals. (pp. 324-25)

R. D. Sylvester, "The Poem as Scapegoat: An Introduction to Joseph Brodsky's 'Halt in the Wilderness'," in Texas Studies in Literature and Language: Special Russian Issue (copyright © 1975 by the University of Texas Press), Vol. XVII, 1975, pp. 303-25.

Byron Lindsey

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[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 Ostanovka, but Brodsky's own voice is more intimate, his view of the world more openly exposed. By placing a fine and characteristic lyric from 1971 first in the collection, it would seem that he wishes to make his own introduction. In clean and solid lines the poet-persona observes a second Christmas in Yalta: of the visible world, only the sea transports his doubts of gods and memories of love to another inaccessible but tangible shore. Trapped between existence and hope, the poet makes his way to that shore only through his own lines.

"Nature-morte," a tribute to Cesare Pavese in short, shining lines, and "Ljubov" (Love), one of his most melodic and forthright love lyrics, form an impressive end to the collection. In a world where color is present only through its very absence ("These last days I / sleep in the white of day") the poet walks between light and shadow, sustained at night by illuminated dreams. They speak not of memory as much as of birth and of his own responsibility for saving love's offspring from "the kingdom of shadows."

Cast' reci, a book of the poet's work since emigration (1972–76), is by comparison brighter, more mobile and more difficult. Brodsky seems to explore with simultaneous pleasure and trepidation the real sites of his ongoing imagination: the poems range from a musical divertissement in Mexico, to a sad December in Florence, to Chelsea. The past is as important as before: he writes twenty sonnets to Maria Stuart. The freedom of exploration is seen more significantly in his language itself, particularly in "A Part of Speech," the cycle of short lyrics which gives the book its title. Here there is perhaps greater tension and polish than earlier. In an especially light and graceful poem Brodsky recommends America to a fellow émigré, dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov, as a place to touch down. But the inner landscape seems unchanged: it is a place of myth, old empires and departures also not very new. Language itself, like the lovely, fragile wings of a perished butterfly, is the only embodiment, the only true measure between the poet and Nothing ("Babocka" [The Butterfly]). In American exile Brodsky seems still more distant, more elusive, philosophically perhaps more courageous.

In both volumes there is much more than meets the eye and ear. Brodsky is not a poet of easy statements or facile solutions, whether technical or thematic. He puts any reader interested in Russian poetry to a personal, linguistic and cultural challenge. That Brodsky is a good poet there is no doubt. Even a non-Russian reader can confirm this quickly. As a link to the tradition of the Russian poet who speaks either with his own free voice or with that of the prophet, he commands attention. But whether there is song in his music and purpose in his sometimes chilling distance, only time and his Russian readers—who for the moment can only be few—will be able to say. (p. 130)

Byron Lindsey, in World Literature Today (copyright 1978 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 52, No. 1, Winter, 1978.

Henry Gifford

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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 he has learnt much at various times from Tsvetaeva, Khlebnikov and Mayakovsky—none stands closer to him…. For Brodsky as for Mandelstam there can be no question of the poet's authority. He explains in one of the new poems here, "Conversation with a Celestial Being" (1970):

           … if my soul had a profile
                 you would see
                 that it too
           is merely a mould from my
                           sorrowful gift,
              that it possessed nothing more,
           that together with this it is turned
                           towards you….

The responsibility that lies on the present [Russian artistic] emigration is clearly understood, but the basic problem remains. Can a culture survive in dispersal?…

It is natural, then, that the later [volume Chast' rechi: Stikhotvoreniya 1972–76] by Brodsky should interest more [than the earlier]. There are excellent pieces in the earlier [Konets prekrasnoy epokhi: Stikhotvoreniya 1964–1971], which foreshadows the situation he must accept; and the period before his departure shows a mind preparing itself and devising the appropriate forms for the new experience.

The second volume closes with "A Cape Cod Lullaby" (1975), in twelve parts, followed by a shorter poem "December in Florence" (1976). Brodsky is remarkably good at evoking the spirit of place. The other volume has an attractive set of poems about Lithuania, and here not only Cape Cod but also the Thames at Chelsea and Mexico make their appearance. These poems, too, are about empires in decay (London), or illusory (Maximilian in Mexico), or actual (the United States, forming the reverse side of the familiar coin). The theme of his "Lullaby" is the change of empires. (p. 902)

The man who leaves behind his native country to settle where his own language is not spoken brings with him as it were a thick wad of traveller's cheques which cannot be supplemented. Thus Brodsky, coming upon a statue of Mary Queen of Scots in the Luxembourg, writes twenty sonnets in her honour, and says in the first, "I spend what is left of Russian speech / on your likeness full face and lustreless shoulders". The group of poems that precedes "A Cape Cod Lullaby", like the second book itself, is entitled "A Part of Speech", and in the last but one of them he says:

                                   Life, which
              like a thing given you do not look
                             in the mouth,
              bares its teeth at every meeting.
              Of the whole man there is left to
                                   you a part
              of speech. A part of speech
              in general. A part of speech.

Not the whole stretch of the language, a part only. Yet for the man to be made whole again there is only one resource: he must cling on to his participation in the language.

The poem that closes the second volume, "December in Florence", carries an epigraph from Anna Akhmatova: "This man, going away, did not look back …". (pp. 902-03)

The poem to which Brodsky alludes here is a tribute to Dante for refusing to end his exile by public penance: "With lighted candle he did not walk / Through his Florence, desired / Perfidious, base, long-awaited…." Dante did not look back, as did Orpheus, and again Lot's wife, to their own ruin.

Eight of the nine stanzas in Brodsky's poem have Florence as their setting, but behind it there are hints of another scene. He notes a "decrepit goldfinch" caged in a café, and this recalls the bird with whom Mandelstam identified in his exile. The association is deepened as a ray of light comes through

            and the goldfinch overflows in the
                   centre of a wire Ravenna.

In the final stanza Brodsky speaks of "cities to which there is no return", and the scene has shifted to Leningrad:

         there the crowd speaks, as it
         besieges the corner of the tram,
         in the language of the man who has
                                      gone away….

[The] man in the poem has been diminshed by his going. As, when Orpheus looked back, Eurydice faded away, so the true self of the poet, empowered by his full possession of the language, seems to shrink away at the poem's close.

              Yet look back he must—the Muses
          were the children of Mnemosyne,
          … and at the word "future" from
                             the Russian language
          run out mice and a whole horde
          they nibble away the sweet morsel
          of memory like your cheese in
                                    holes….

That becomes the natural movement of his thought….

Whatever Brodsky may fear, he is still marvellously at home in the language. At the same time, he is putting exile to good use, by seeking out affinities and extensions….

An accident of the cruellest kind (and common enough in our century) has thrown Brodsky into the cosmopolitan world. The potential loss, to him and to Russian poetry, is plain enough….

He is more fortunate, however, than his American contemporaries. The Russian language that has so recently answered the needs of Tsvetaeva, Pasternak, Mandelstam and Akhmatova must be a source of undying strength to a modern poet, even away from Russian soil and Russian voices. He has not been left with "shabby equipment always deteriorating", even in this "second-rate epoch". One may hope that the Russian language has momentum enough to carry it through the barren decades until a divided culture is brought together again. Meanwhile, by an irony characteristic of our time, it could be that the best poetry from America in recent years is the work of this Russian. (p. 903)

Henry Gifford, "The Language of Loneliness," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1978; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), August 11, 1978, pp. 902-03.

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