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Joseph Brodsky (1940-1996) - Josip Aleksandrovich Brodsky - Iosif Brodskii


Russian-born poet who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1987. After moving to the United States Brodsky wrote his poems in Russian and his prose works in English. As a poet Brodsky was largely traditional and classical. He dealt with moral, religious and historical themes, and often used mythological allusions.

"The poet, I wish to repeat, is language's means for existence--or, as my beloved Auden said, he is the one by whom it lives. I who write these lines will cease to be; so will you who read them. But the language in which they are written and in which you read them will remain not merely because language is more lasting than man, but because it is more capable of mutation." (in Nobel Lecture, 1987)

Joseph Brodsky was born in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg). His father was a photographer, but the family lived mostly on his mother's income. Brodsky studied at schools in Leningrad to the age of 15. He then dropped out of school and first went to work at the Arsenal defense plant. Between 1956 and 1962, he had some thirteen different jobs.

In the essay 'Less Than One' Brodsky tells that he began to despise Lenin already when he was in the first grade – "not so much because of his political philosophy or practice, about which at the age of seven I knew very little, but because of his omnipresent images which plagued almost every textbook, every class wall, postage stamps, money, and what not, depicting the man at various ages and stages of his life." Everyone in his class knew that he was a Jew, but "seven-year-old boys don't make good anti-Semites," he later said. From the library of his uncle, who was a member of the Party, Brodsky found an illustrated, pre-revolutionary edition of Man and Woman, his first taste of the forbidden fruit. At the age of fourteen Brodsky applied for admission to a submarine academy, but because he was a Jew, he did not get in.

After Nikita Khrushchev speech at the 20th Party Congress of 1956, in which he unmasked the cult of personality and condemned the Stalinist encesses, a period of "thaw" occurred in the Soviet Union. Although after the Cuban missile crisis Khrushchev tried to close dissident voices, new ideas managed to emerge in literature and other cultural fields. Brodsky started to write poetry from the late 1950s, earning a reputation as a free thinking writer. He taught himself Polish so that he could read poetry that had never been translated into Russian. Brodsky also demonstrated considerable talent in rendering Russian translations of Donne and Marvell, and he read such Western authors as Kafka, Proust, and Faulkner through Polish translations. In the 1960s, he also translated 'Yellow Submarine' by The Beatles into Russian.

As a young man, Brodsky worked at many occupations, including a milling machine operator, stoker, and geologist-prospector. His output as a freelance poet and self-taught translator did not gain the approval of the authorities, although he never directly criticized the government.  Some of his love poems were devoted to Marina Basmanova, a painter. All of his writings appeared in samizdat (clandestine circulation) editions but was widely read. Brodsky's reputation made him a target for the secret police and he was convicted as a "social parasite". When the judge asked, "And who recognized that you are a poet? Who listed you among poets?" the poet replied according to Frida Vigdorova, a journalist, "No one. (Dispassionately.) Who listed me a member of the human race?" Brodsky was sent to a mental institution, where he was wrapped in cold, wet sheets, a "cure" familiar from Jaroslav Hašek's The Good Soldier Schweik.

Among those, who rose to Brodsky's defense and called the trial illegal, was the composer Dmitri Shostakovich. Brodsky spent some time in Kresty, the most famous prison in the Soviet Union. In the official record he was characterized to be "less than one". It became the title for Brodsky's collection of essays, which was published in 1986. Brodsky was sentenced to five years of hard labour. He spent eighteen months in the village of Norenskaya, three hundren and fifty miles from Leningrad. While in exile, he was vivited by his mother and his friends, including the poet Dmitry Bobyshev, who stole his girlfriend, Marina. Brodsky's sentence was commuted in 1965 after protests by such prominent cultural figures as the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre and the poet Anna Akhmatova, the anti-Stalinist icon, who was his close friend. They first met in 1961 at her dacha in Komarovo.

During Brodsky's time in prison a collection of his poems, Stikhotvoreniya i poemy, was issued in 1965 by an American publisher in New York. "I had a sensation of something completely ridiculous having happened", Brodsky said later. Also Ostanocka v pustyne (1970) was published abroad. In it Brodsky turned his back on the clichés of the socialist realism and drew on the literary tradition on his search for search for new poetic possibilities.

After reading a poem by Brodsky, Akhmatova wrote in her diary: "Either I know nothing at all or this is genius." Officials declared that Brodsky had "produced a body the system found alien enough to reject". In 1972 Brodsky was forced to exile from the USSR. He never saw his parents, and he was separated from his his four-year-old son, Andrei, whose mother was the artist Marianna Basmanova. His love poems, dedicated to her, Brodsky collected in Novyje Stansy k Avguste (1983). In 1990 Brodsky married in the Stockholm City Hall Maria Sozzani, his student, whom he had met in France.

With his suitcase, made in China, Brodsky first first went to Vienna. The poet W. H. Auden and Carl Proffer, a professor of Slavic languages at the University of Michigan, who had met Brodsky in Leningrad, helped him to emigrate to the United States. Proffer's publishing house Ardis several volumes of Brodsky's verse. He worked as a visiting professor at several universities, including the University of Michigan, Queen College, City University of New York, Columbia University, New York University, Smith College, Amherst College, Hampshire College, Mount Holyoke College.

While in exile, Brodsky traveled extensively. In 1972, he visited Venice for the first time. He returned there again and again and recorded his impressions of those trips in Watermark (1992). The American writer Susan Sontag once remarked that Venice was ideal place to bury Brodsky, since it was essentially nowhere. They had met 1977 and went together to meet Ezra Pound's widow Olga Rudge. Brodsky had translated his poems into Russian as a young man. "The translations were trash, but came very close to being published," he recalled. Olga claimed that her husband wasn't an anti-Semite: "How could he be an anti-Semite? He had a Hebrew name." (Susan Sontag, in Brodsky Through the Eyes of His Contemporaries by Valentina Polukhina, 1992) Brodsky's Watermark has inspired the film Veden peili (2012) by the Finnish writer and photographer Rax Rinnekangas.

For many years, Brodsky rented an apartment on Morton Street, in New York City. With his Nobel Prize money, he renovated the apartment. After the repairs were finished, his landlord needed it for himself and his wife, a Finnish doctor. However, Brodsky liked New York: "... for very well balanced people, it's probably a bad place but for masochists like me, it's OK." In 1977 Brodsky became a U.S. citizen and in 1991-92 he was America's Poet Laureate. He was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, but resigned in protest over the honorary membership of the Russian poet Evgenii Evtushenko in 1987 – he considered Evtushenko a party yes-man.

Brodsky died of a heart attack on January 28, 1996, in New York. Brodsky's parents were not allowed to travel to the West to see him and they died in Leningrad. In his essays about his parents in Less Than One (1986) the author explained: ''I write this in English because I want to grant them a margin of freedom: the margin whose width depends on the number of those who may be willing to read this. I want Maria Volpert and Alexander Brodsky to acquire reality under 'a foreign code of conscience,' I want English verbs of motion to describe their movements. This won't resurrect them, but English grammar may at least prove to be a better escape route from the chimneys of the state crematorium than the Russian.''

Like several dissident Russian poets, Brodsky intended his verse for recital rather than for silent reading. Existential problems are dealt in such poems as 'Isaak i Avraam' (1963), which was based on the Old Testament story, and 'Gorbunov i Gorchakov' (1965-68), in which Brodsky fills a madhouse conversation of two patients with references to literature and history. Later works reflected the poet's idea of the coming of a post-Christian era, during which the antagonism between good and evil is replaced by moral ambiguity. Other favorite themes were loss, suffering, exile, and old age. In his new home country Brodsky did not feel complete secure – disturbing visions penetrated into his mind even in peaceful Cape Cod: "in formal opposition, near and far, / lined up like print in a book about to close, / armies rehearsed their games in balanced rows / and cities all went dark as caviar." (in Lullaby of Cape Cod, 1975) He also recognized in the work of Robert Frost tones darker than his image as the "folksy, crusty, wisecracking old gentleman farmer" would suggest.

"Still, if sins are forgiven,
that is, if souls break even
with flesh elsewhere, this joint,
too, must be enjoyed
as afterlife's sweet parlor
where, in the clouded squalor,
saints and the ain'ts take five,
where I was first to arrive."

(in 'Cafe Trieste: San Franciso', to L.G.)

As an essayist Brodsky started in the 1970s, writing first in Russian. He soon switched to English, but never fully mastered the language. Brodsky became a regular contributor to the New York Review of Books, Partisan Review, and The Times Literary Supplement. He wrote mostly about literature, evaluating Auden as "the greatest mind of the twentieth century" and Osip Mandelshtam "a poet of and for civilization". Language was for him a vehicle of civilization, superior to history, living longer than any state. Poems are a vehicle to restructure time – poets should keep language alive ''in the light of conscience and culture.''

Brodsky finished in his lifetime two collections of essays. Less Than One explored the works of Marina Tsvetayeva, Anna Akhmatova, Mandelshtam, Auden, Derek Walcott, C.P. Cavafy, and Eugenio Montale. On Grief and Reason (1995) includes tributes to his favorite poets Frost, Hardy, and Rainer Maria Rilke. In one essay Brodsky claimed that after the Great Patriotic War theatres showed Hollywood films – war booty from Germany – and that Tarzan films influenced the dissolving of the Stalin cult more than Nikita Khrushchev's speeches.

For further reading: Joseph Brodsky: A Literary Life by Lev Loseff (2011); Seisahdus erämaassa: elämäkertaa ja kirjoituksia Joseph Brodskysta by Jukka Mallinen (2010); Joseph Brodsky: Conversations, ed. Cynthia L. Haven (2002); The Poet As Traveler: Joseph Brodsky in Mexico and Rome by Alice J. Speh (2003); Through the Poet's Eye: The Travels of Zagajewski, Herbert, and Brodsky by Bozena Madra-Shallcross (2002); Joseph Brodsky and the Soviet Muse by David MacFadyen (2000); Styles of Ruin: Joseph Brodsky and the Postmodernist Elegy by David Rigsbee (1999); Joseph Brodsky and the Baroque by David Ward Macfadyen (1999); Conversations With Joseph Brodsky by Solomon Volkov (1998); Joseph Brodsky and the Creating of Exile by David M. Bethea (1994); Brodsky Through the Eyes of His Contemporaries by Valentina Polukhina (1992); Joseph Brodsky by Valentina Polukhina (1989). - Note: In his collection of essays, On Grief and Reason (1995), Brodsky found from his exile and from his relationship to Leningrad similarities with Ovidius's Rome, Dante's Firenze, and Joyce's Dublin. The text was written in 1987. When receiving his Nobel Award, Brodsky named Osip Mandelstam, Marina Tsvetajeva, Robert Frost, Anna Ahmatova, and W.H. Auden as the better qualified poets, who should stand at the ceremonies. Suomeksi Brodskylta on myös julkaistu runokokoelmat Joulutähti (1999) sekä Keskustelu taivaan asujaimen kanssa (1995), kummatkin on valikoinut ja suomentanut  Jukka Mallinen 

Selected bibliography:

  • Bolshaja elegija Dzonu Donnu, 1963 - Elegy to John Donne and Other Poems (translated by Nicholas Bethell, 1967)
  • Stikhotvoreniya i poemy, 1965
  • New Underground Russian Poets, 1969 (poems by Yosif Brodsky and others, translated by George Reavey and others)
  • Ostanocka V Pustyne, 1970
  • Chast rechi, 1977 - A Part of Speech (translated by Anthony Hecht et al., 1980)
  • Debut, 1973 (translated by Carl R. Proffer)
  • Joseph Brodsky: Selected Poems, 1973 (translated by George L. Kline, foreword by W. H. Auden)
  • V Anglii, 1977
  • Konets Prekrasnok Epohi, 1977
  • Verses on the Winter Campaign 1980, 1981 (translated by Alan Myers)
  • Rimskie elegii, 1982
  • Modern Russian Poets on Poetry, 1982 (editor, with Carl Proffer)
  • Novyje Stansy K Avguste, 1983
  • Mramor, 1984 - Marbles: A Play in Three Acts (translated by Alan Meyers with the author, 1989)
  • History of the Twentieth Century, 1986
  • Less than One: Selected Essays, 1986 - Ei oikein ihminenkään (suom. Kalevi Nyytäjä, Eva Sikarla, 1987) & Katastrofeja ilmassa (suom. Paavo Lehtonen, 1988)
    - F
    ilm Hrustaljov, autoni!, 1998, dir.  Aleksei German, based on Brodsky's short story. According to some sources, the original idea for the film came from the Finnish director Pekka Lehto, who met Brodsky in Finland in 1988
  • Uraniia, 1987 - To Urania: Selected Poems (tr. 1988)
  • The Nobel Lecture, 1988
  • Ostanovka v pustyne, 1988
  • 1972 God, 1989 - 1972  (woodcuts by Ilse Schreiber; translated by Alan Myers with the author, 1989)
  • Demokratiia/Démocratie, 1990 - Democracy (translated by Alan Meyers, 1990)
  • Primechaniia paporotnika, 1990
  • Osennii Krik iastreba, 1990
  • Stikhotvoreniia, 1990
  • Razmerom podlinnike, 1990
  • Chast rechi: Izbrannye stikhi 1962-1989, 1990
  • Bog sokhraniaet vse, 1991
  • 'Tragicheskii elegik (o poezii Evgeniia Reina), 1991 (in Znamia 7)
  • Kholmy: Bolshie stikhotvoreniia i poemy, 1991
  • Sochineniia, 1992-95 (4 vols., edited by G.F. Komarov)
  • Forma vremeni, 1992 (2 vols., edited by A.S. Potupa)
  • Vspominaia Akhmatovu, 1992 (with Solomon Volkov) 
  • Watermark, 1992 (photographs by Robert Morgan, 2006) - Veden peili (suom. Marja Alopaeus, 1994)
  • Rozhdestvenskie stikhi, 1992  (photographs by Mikhail Lemkhin) - Nativity Poems (translated by Melissa Green et al., 2001)
  • Kappadokiia, 1993
  • Isaak i Avraam, 1994 (illustrations by Mikhaila Karasika)
  • V okrestnostiakh Atlantidy: Novye stikhotvoreniia, 1995
  • Peizazh s navodneniem, 1995
  • On Grief and Reason, 1995 - Keräilijän kappale (suom. Kalevi Nyytäjä, 1987)
  • The Essential Hardy, 1995 (selected and with an introduction by Joseph Brodsky)  
  • So Forth, 1996
  • Peizazh s navodneniem, 1996
  • Brodskii o TSvetaevoi 1997
  • Sochineniia, 1997- (6 vols., edited by G.F. Komarov)
  • Sochineniia Iosifa Brodskogo, 1998- (edited by G.F. Komarov)
  • Gorbunov i Gorchakov, 1999
  • Discovery, 1999 (pictures by Vladimir Radunsky)
  • Gorizonty, 2000
  • Peizazh s navodneniem, 2000
  • Collected Poems in English, 2000 (edited by Ann Kjellberg)
  • Ostanovka v pustyne, 2000
  • Novye stansy k Avguste: stikhi k M.B., 1962-1982, 2000
  • Konnets prekrasnoi epokhi: stikhotvorenniia, 1964-1971, 2000
  • Stikhotvoreniia, esse, 2001
  • Peremena imperii: stikhotvoreniia, 1960-1996, 2001
  • Kentavry: antichnye siuzhety, 2001
  • Venetsianskie tetradi = Quaderni veneziani, 2002 (with others)
  • Joseph Brodsky: Conversations, 2002 (edited by Cynthia L. Haven)
  • Osennii krik iastreba: stikhotvoreniia, 2008

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