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Brodsky, Joseph

(1940–1996), Russian-born poet and Nobel Prize Laureate in literature in 1987. Joseph Brodsky (as he is known in the West; in Russian, Iosif Aleksandrovich Brodskii) was born in Leningrad. He was the only child of Aleksandr Ivanovich Brodskii, a photojournalist who served for a time in the Soviet Navy, and Mariia Moiseevna Volpert, both assimilated Jews. Because of his Jewish background and growing interest in philosophical and literary questions, Brodsky experienced increasing alienation at an early age.

Brodsky left school in 1955 and worked at menial jobs between 1956 and 1962, including stints at a hospital morgue and on various geological expeditions. He soon made his name in the Leningrad artistic underground, producing unorthodox poems disseminated in typescript copies (the earliest date from 1957). In 1961, he was introduced to the poet Anna Akhmatova, who appreciated Brodsky’s work and became his mentor.

Because of Brodsky’s nonconformist literary and civic attitudes, he was briefly arrested by the KGB first in 1960, then in 1962, and finally in 1964. After the last arrest, he was tried for “social parasitism” and sentenced to five years of internal exile. In March 1964, Brodsky was sent to the village of Norinskaia in northern Russia, where he worked as a seasonal laborer and continued to write. Protests from Russian and Western intellectuals secured his release in September 1965, and he returned to his parents’ apartment in Leningrad.

Brodsky then earned a modest living working as a translator, primarily of English metaphysical poets and Polish modernists. Simultaneously, he became an unofficial literary celebrity, maintaining ties with W. H. Auden and other Western literary figures. In May 1972, he was summoned by the Soviet police and advised to leave for Israel. He answered that he had no interest in emigrating but was ordered to fill out forms and was given two weeks to arrange his affairs. After sojourns in Vienna and England, Brodsky settled in the United States.

Brodsky’s early poems take classical form and develop themes of existential quest, personal turmoil, and the moral responsibility of the artist. They have strong links to the poetry of Akhmatova and her generation, and are completely alien to Soviet conventions. Later, Brodsky’s style was influenced by John Donne, Andrew Marvell, Robert Frost, and Auden. His work became more experimental; marked by dry wit, ironic detachment, and involved conceits, his poems are usually still faithful to traditional prosody. Brodsky was primarily interested in language (a concern intensified by his bilingualism), time, and the problems of the individual in the sterile contemporary world. One of many exquisite formulas expressing his attitude to language and universe is found in the poem “Litovskii noktiurna” (Lithuanian Nocturne): “Heaven’s vault is a molecular chorus of consonants and vowels, in common parlance—souls.”

Brodsky’s books of poetry steadily gained in density and complexity. Notable are his Stikhotvoreniia i poemy (Poems and Narrative Verse; 1965), Ostanovka v pustyne (A Stopover in the Wilderness; 1970), Konets prekrasnoi epokhi (The End of the Belle Époque; 1977), Chast’ rechi (A Part of Speech; 1977), Rimskie elegii (Roman Elegies; 1982), Uraniia (To Urania; 1987), Primechaniia paporotnika (Commentaries of Fern; 1990), V okrestnostiakh Atlantidy (In the Environs of Atlantis; 1995), and Peizazh s navodneniem (A Flooded Landscape; 1996). His Less than One (1986), consisting of autobiographical essays and literary studies, was recognized by the National Book Critics Circle as the finest book of criticism published in the United States in that year. Brodsky’s reputation as an essayist was confirmed by Watermark (1992) and On Grief and Reason (1995). He also wrote plays and published numerous translations.

Brodsky was acutely aware of his Jewishness (which, in his view, did not conflict with his Russian identity and Christian leanings), but he treated Jewish topics only in his early work, in poems such as “Evreiskoe kladbishche” (A Jewish Cemetery; 1958) and “Isaak i Avraam” (Isaac and Abraham; 1963). The latter poem deals, even if in somewhat vague terms, with the fate of Jewish people throughout the ages.

In the United States, Brodsky found employment as a poet-in-residence and professor of literature, first at the University of Michigan, then at Columbia University, and finally at Mount Holyoke College. He continued to write in Russian and English, soon becoming one of the most influential authors of his generation in both languages. In 1991, he was chosen to be the fifth poet laureate of the United States. He died of heart failure in New York on 28 January 1996 and was buried in Venice.

Suggested Reading

David M. Bethea, Joseph Brodsky and the Creation of Exile (Princeton, 1994); Valentina Polukhina, Joseph Brodsky: A Poet for Our Time (Cambridge, 1989); Valentina Polukhina, Brodsky through the Eyes of His Contemporaries (New York, 1992).