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Nowhere Man

The poet Joseph Brodsky, kicked out of the USSR and never fully at ease writing in English, was a man of many residences and few homes, as a new biography shows

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With most writers, the passage of time helps to consolidate their achievement and fix their reputation. Fifteen years after a poet’s death would seem like ample time for this posthumous process to be completed—especially in the case of a poet as famous as Joseph Brodsky, who became internationally known in his twenties and won the Nobel Prize in 1987. Certainly there is no mystery about the standing of poets like Seamus Heaney or Derek Walcott, Brodsky’s friends, contemporaries, and fellow-laureates. Whether you enjoy reading Heaney or not, the shape of his achievement is clear; his name stands for a certain kind of writing and thinking.

Brodsky, however, continues to look a little blurry to American readers. His work does not have the currency or influence, among younger poets, that his reputation would suggest. Some critics, especially in England, are prepared to dismiss him entirely, to call his work overrated and his reputation unearned. But most simply ignore him, as though he did not belong to the same conversation that includes Heaney or John Ashbery or Adrienne Rich.

In one crucial sense, of course, he does not. All those poets write in English; but Iosif Aleksandrovich Brodsky, born in Leningrad in 1940, was a Russian poet. This means that it is Russian readers, familiar with Brodksy’s language and literary tradition, who must decide his claims to greatness. And as Lev Loseff shows in Joseph Brodsky: A Literary Biography, his clarifying new book, the best Russian judges have been unanimous about Brodsky from the beginning.

When he was 21 years old, for instance, he was introduced to Anna Akhmatova, the tragic heroine of 20th-century Russian poetry. Loseff, a poet and friend of Brodsky’s, explains that such “pilgrimages” to Akhmatova were common for young writers, who would arrive “bearing flowers and notebooks full of poetry.” Unsurprisingly, the encounter made a deep impression on Brodsky: “I suddenly realized—you know, somehow the veil suddenly lifts—just who or rather just what I was dealing with.” What is more surprising is that Akhmatova, then 72 years old, immediately accepted Brodsky as an equal: “Iosif, you and I know every rhyme in the Russian language,” she told him. In 1965, after reading a poem of Brodsky’s, she wrote in her diary: “Either I know nothing at all or this is genius.”

There is nothing new about English readers being baffled by poetry that Russians adore. On the contrary, it’s a critical truism that Russian poetry doesn’t translate well. Pushkin occupies the same place in Russian literature as Shakespeare does in English, but it has always been hard for us to really understand why. Twentieth-century masters like Osip Mandelstam and Marina Tsvetaeva are probably as well known in America for their life stories as for their writings. If Brodsky belongs in their company, then it makes sense for him to remain a little obscure to Americans, just as they do.

What makes Brodsky’s case so unusual is that this Russian poet spent almost half his life in America. Between 1972, when he was expelled from the USSR, and his death in 1996, Brodsky traveled extensively—“probably no Russian writer ever traveled more,” Loseff writes. But his home bases remained New York, where he lived in a two-room apartment on Morton Street, and South Hadley, Mass., where he taught at Mount Holyoke College. He even managed to become a vital figure in the American literary world, eventually being named U.S. Poet Laureate. This was possible, in large part, because Brodsky translated his own later work into English—first with the help of translators and other poets, then on his own. (Eventually he even wrote some modest original poems in English.) These versions were the ones included in his American collections, published by Farrar Straus Giroux, and now available in Brodsky’s Complete Poems in English.

Yet few English readers have been really satisfied with Brodsky’s own translations. His desire to make them is understandable—by turning himself into an American poet, after a fashion, he was saved from the obscurity and resentment that is the usual lot of the literary émigré. But he never became a master of English, in the way that, say, Vladimir Nabokov did. (As Loseff points out, Brodsky came to English much later than Nabokov and was largely self-taught, while the well-born novelist had English tutors from childhood.) Indeed, Brodsky in English remains, all too often, wrenched, unidiomatic, and unmusical. The genius of the Russian poet can be intuited—you can sense it in Brodsky’s intellectual range, bold metaphors, and rhetorical flow—but not really experienced. Loseff quotes the American poet Robert Hass to the effect that reading Brodsky in English is “like wandering through the ruins of a noble building.”

Loseff’s book is, as its subtitle insists, a strictly literary biography. The outlines of Brodsky’s life are sketched, but private experiences are related only when they directly inspired his poetry. Thus Loseff tells, in brief and general terms, the story of Brodsky’s long, tumultuous love affair with a woman named Marina Basmanova, which drove him to a suicide attempt, produced a son, and inspired some major poems. On the other hand, Brodsky’s marriage, late in life, is dispatched in a single sentence, and there is little about other friendships or relationships.

Where Loseff excels is in sketching the Russian literary and cultural context for Brodsky’s work—the poets he knew and admired, the “schools” that dominated Leningrad poetry in his youth. This kind of analysis is a reminder of how little Brodsky can be understood through an American prism. Likewise, the excerpts from his early Russian poems, translated (along with the whole book) by Jane Ann Miller, show how much we would benefit from a comprehensive new translation of Brodsky’s poetry. Miller’s excellent work is only seemingly slighted by the odd way that each of her verse translations is followed by the word “non-poetic”: This is to show that the translation is not by Brodsky, but in fact, her lucid and convincing versions are often more effectively poetic than the poet’s own.

Joseph Brodsky: A Literary Biography also helps to shed light on the complex question of Brodsky’s Jewishness. In one sense, Brodsky is unequivocal on this subject: “I’m a Jew. One hundred percent. You can’t be more Jewish than I am,” he told an interviewer. Yet he was typical of his Soviet Jewish generation in having absolutely no knowledge of Judaism—apparently he did not even read the Bible until he was in his twenties—and his understanding of Jewishness seems to have been passive and minimal. “When anybody asked what my ethnic background was, I of course answered Jewish,” he explained, “but that didn’t happen often. There was really no need to ask. I can’t say a Russian r.” Brodsky saw Jewishness in terms of such details of speech and appearance, like his prominent nose and pale skin. It could also be a cause of (fairly minor) discrimination: He recalled being teased by classmates and having his application to the Naval Academy rejected because of anti-Semitism.

But his essential identity, as he created it in his poems and essays, was universalist and cosmopolitan. Its key ingredients were the Russian language, European art and literature, and classical history: “Roman Elegies,” “To Urania,” “Venetian Stanzas,” and “Twenty Sonnets to Mary Queen of Scots” are typical Brodsky titles. He seems to belong to the noble tradition of Jewish writers who, emancipated or severed from Jewishness, became universal humanists. One thinks of Marx, or Freud, or especially, in this case, Osip Mandelstam, whom Brodsky described in a superb essay as “a little Jewish boy with a heart full of Russian iambic pentameters.” The phrase is obviously autobiographical as well, and when Brodsky calls Mandelstam “the child of civilization,” he could be describing himself.

The story of the orphaned Jew who is reborn as the child of civilization is one of the great and ambiguous legends of modernity; and all such stories include a scene where the child is forcibly reminded that civilization doesn’t always trump history. That moment came for Brodsky in 1972, when he was abruptly summoned to the Leningrad bureau of OVIR, the office of visa and registration. The acronym was much in the American news at the time thanks to the Soviet Jewry movement. As Gal Beckerman writes in his recent book When They Come For Us We’ll Be Gone, it was OVIR that obstructed Soviet Jews from going to Israel—or, at certain politically opportune moments, made emigration possible. This was one of those moments—in 1972, 32,000 Jews were allowed to leave as a token gesture in advance of President Nixon’s visit to Moscow.

But Brodsky was quite surprised to be one of them. He was by no means a refusenik, and the reason why he was persona non grata with the Soviet regime had to do not with his identity as a Jew, but with his identity as a poet. In 1964, Brodsky had been denounced by a Communist party loyalist for the vague crime of “parasitism,” or refusal to work. In fact, Loseff writes, he held a number of jobs, many of them quite arduous—he had worked on a geological expedition to the Arctic and as an assistant to a boiler inspector. But he had no real career, preferring short-term work that kept his time free for writing, and he shunned the established literary clubs and unions.

In short, he was acting just as a poet should—educating himself in his art, preserving his freedom, steering clear of cant and obligation. In the USSR, however, this was an intolerable display of independence, and Brodsky was subjected to a trial that truly merits the adjective Kafkaesque. As Loseff shows, the witnesses against him were a cross-section of ordinary citizens—a clerk, a soldier, a retiree—who all “began their testimony by stating that they did not know Brodsky personally.” Indeed, they hadn’t even read his poems, few of which had been published at the time. Their testimony amounted to stating that, based on what they had read about Brodsky in slanderous, error-filled newspaper articles, they believed him to be “anti-social.”

The judge, a caricature of a party hack, asked Brodsky who had given him the right to call himself a poet: “Did you try to attend a school where they train [poets]?” His reply—“I don’t think it comes from education … I think it’s from God”—is deservedly legendary. Indeed, the trial created such a loathsome spectacle—a stupid bureaucracy persecuting an idealistic young poet—that it became an international embarrassment for the Soviets. Brodsky was sent to do hard labor in exile, but after pressure from abroad, including a statement by the usually pro-Soviet Jean-Paul Sartre, his sentence was commuted after a year.

The official malice toward Brodsky remained, however, and he was not allowed to publish his poetry in the USSR, even as unauthorized editions appeared abroad. In 1972, then, the authorities decided to take advantage of the Soviet Jewry agitation to get rid of Brodsky once and for all—and it was his Jewishness that gave them the means. Summoned to OVIR, he was told that he must write out a statement accepting an invitation to Israel, or else he’d be “in big trouble.” He had no interest in going to Israel, or even in leaving the country; but within four weeks Brodsky was on a plane to Vienna, the transfer point for Jewish émigrés. He never returned to Russia, not even after the fall of Communism, and he never saw his parents again. Nor, of course, did he go to Israel; and while he became an American citizen, his body is buried in Venice. Loseff quotes his friend Susan Sontag’s telling explanation: “Venice was the ideal place to bury Brodsky, since it was essentially nowhere.” Does being a child of civilization mean belonging everywhere and nowhere? As Brodsky himself put it, in his poem “Venetian Stanzas I”: “At night here we hold soliloquies/ to an audience of echoes, whose breath won’t warm up, alas.”

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Sontag’s remark is telling. As I recall,residents of Venice have funerals by boat taking coffin, clergyman, mourners to a burial place on an island. Venice itself is sinking. Since almost all Italian metropolitan areas have had ghettoes–Origin of GHETTO
Italian, from Venetian dialect ghèto island where Jews were forced to live, literally, foundry (located on the island), from ghetàr to cast, from Latin jactare to throw — more at jet
First Known Use: 1611

I no longer have clear recall whether Jews were carried after death to another island as well? Do not think it is in the script for,The Merchant of Venice, because I did a recording of that for the Blind. That means there is a likelihood that it is in the text of mystery writer Donna Leon who has done a series on the Police Commissioner Guido Brunetti.

My own favorite cemetery is Il cimitero acattolico di Roma, long known as the Protestand cemetery or English cemetery although many ancients are buried there. My friend Gregory Corso, the poet, was buried there because he wished to be buried near Shelley; and his wish was granted.

Pamela Renner says:

Brodsky’s poetry may not translate well into English, but his essays (“On Grief and Reason”) are masterful, playful and intellectually elegant in the best sense; they speak about his voluntary exile, his affinity with a West that no longer quite exists, and his literary readings of his Frost, Rilke, and others. Not to be overlooked, especially for readers– like myself–who are curious about Russian poetry but unable to read the originals.

His essayistic work has brightened up a long winter for me; particularly a long piece called “The Spoils of War” which gives one a sense of the significance of American films and jazz that filtered into Russia after the WW II conquest of Germany. It’s possible to fall for Brodsky’s mind without knowing the poetry at all.

It’s a shame that we don’t venerate Brodsky and Mandelstam, though Babel is deservedly worshiped.

Pamela, thanks for the recommendations.

Splendid review of a complex and elusive figure, whom I met soon after he came to the US, since one of his first jobs was at Queens College, where I taught. I found him extremely touchy when Jewish subjects came up, yet he acted as if they had nothing to do with him. Many years later I heard him give a poetry reaing in Southampton, reading first the English translation, then the original Russian. His English pronunciation was so bad that I actually had a sense that I understood the Russian better than the English. Partly out of veneration for Auden’s metrical verse, he had the (mistaken) notion that translations should reproduce the meter and rhyme scheme of the original. This may explain why a simple prose translation, hewing close to the sense of the original, might actually seem more effective poetically.

John Matthias says:

Like Marris Dickstein, I met Brodsky early, first at one of the Poetry International Festivals in London when he had just left the Soviet Union and was still very confused, leaning heavily for moral support on W.H. Auden, and soon after at Notre Dame, where I brought him to read shortly after he begin his brief teaching stint at Michigan. He was still reading in the traditional Russian declamatory manner that seemed to me so inappropriate for the content of most of his poems. He wasn’t, after all, a Red Square rhetorical poet. He said, when pressed, that “all Russians read like that; we learn it at school.” The best book to read about the difficulties (agonies, really) of working with Brodsky on translating his poems is Danny Weissbort’s “From Russian With Love.” Weissbort worked with Brodsky for decades, and has a wonderful personal as well as literary story to tell. He was, with Ted Hughes, founder and editor of Modern Poetry in Translation.

Ryan Ruby says:

It also proved to be the ideal place to bury Ezra Pound, whose grave, I discovered this Summer, is fewer than fifteen feet from Brodsky’s. Brodsky, I imagine, must have known this, since he died two decades later. Do we know what Brodsky thought of Pound–and whether this would count as an irony of history or nothing more than a contingent fact?

Richard Burnett Carter says:

As always, Adam Kirsch writes an intelligent, sensitive review of his author. I would particularly enjoy an essay by Kirsch on the tension between the essential urbanity of being Russian–which Kirsch touches upon en passant–and essential cosmopolitanism of being a Jew and also a poet. Except for the citizens of modern Israel, all Jews after the diaspora are necessarily cosmopolitan; and, all poets worthy the name are cosmopolitan. No exceptions.
Kirsch obviously loves real poetry and their poets; he is also an American Jew. What a perfect mix–especially now that the term, “forefathers”, no longer has an meaning to us.(All Jews have forefathers! Bless them!)
Please Adam! Write that essay!
Thank you.

G. E. Schwartz says:

More than being a “child of civilization,” I found that when I was part of one of his workshops in 1995, to be a man living more in the world of words. More than any poet at that time, even more so than Robert Graves who casme up with the idea, Brodsky believed first and forever that the life of a poet was the language. Only paul Celan and W. S. Graham matched his intensity, and to Celan’s holocaust and Graham’s cold war, Brodsky provides an antidote of considerable poise and faith.

He also embraced the cavalier poetsa and the sitcom, the pre-socratic philosophers and Peter Sellers, J. M. Synge and Kurt Switters, quantum theory and good whisky equally, in haunts ranging from the baudy to the sublime, but all of them a place, a need for vision and for learning how to burn authentic answers, and more importantly,genuine questions onto the page before him.

Brodsky mentions visiting Ezra Pound’s widow Olga Rudge in his essay on Venice “Watermark.” He writes there about Pound: “For someone with such a long record of residence in Italy, it was odd that he hadn’t recognized that beauty can’t be targeted, that it is always a by-product of other, often very ordinary pursuits.”

I spent a day with him at a Pennsylvania literary conference in 1978. Completely unpretentious. Wanted to learn Russian to get at his work. No Go. Closest was my palaver that day about a recent two week visit to Russia. He listened amiably, smiling at my innocent enthusiasm!Patrick D. Hazard, Weimar, Germany.

Richard Burnett Carter, Brodsky’s cosmopolitanism was of a very special, and unique, kind: he basically introduced English-language poetry and, more broadly, culture and world-view to Russia. Russia’s literature and cultural tradition are, in many respects, derivative to German and French; up until the later part of the last century few people even learned English as a foreign language: it was mostly German. Brodsky was genuinely influenced by Auden and Frost, influenced as a Russian poet. Hence his unique voice. Nadezhda Mandelstam, Osip’s widow and a first-rate writer herself, once referred to him, somewhat condescendingly, as “our American”.

Eli, Babel wrote prose, whereas Brodsky and Mandelstam are poets, hence not really subject to translation.

Denis Joe says:

Your mention of the English attitude towards Brodsky is a telling one. perhaps the worst poetry published today emanates from these isles. The attitude to poetry is that which seems to be the same of all arts; it has to tie itself to some social issue. It has to dictate its meaning to the reader rather than allow the reader to find their own meaning.

A poet such as Brodsky doesn’t have a chance.

I think that you also hint at ‘meaning’ when you seem to dismiss Brodsky’s translations of his work. I came to Brodsky through the Collected poems In English, I don’t know a word of Russian but as they stand these poems are the work of a true genius. One who simply told us of a life that was not our own and respected the reader enough to make of the poems what they will. in that sense his work is generous.

There is a simplicity in his narratives, one that may offend the elitist literati in Britain, who, like our own laureate, will stitch together a footballer (David Beckham) with a Greek myth (Achilles) to appear clever and pretentiously high-minded.

Americans know the value of common parlance, one need only read snippets of the greatest, Walt Whitman. But also how the voice and language evolves through the tongue of those whose Mother tongue is not English.

For me Brodsky could be talking about himself and his standing in Britain when he wrote:

“Here he runs a risk
of being shot at random
and pinned to an obelisk
as a symbol of freedom”

[‘Mexican Romancero’ part IV]

Brodsky, however, continues to look a little blurry to American readers.

Speak for yourself. Brodsky towers above Ashbury and Rich. He is simply the victim of American parochialism.

geoff king says:

I’m in full agreement with Pamela Renner: Brodsky’s two-volumes of essays [On Grief and Reason] and [Less Than One]struck me like a sledgehammer of intellect as well as a new voice some twenty-five and fifteen years (respectively) ago. Whatever the claims of his inexperience with English in his poetry are emphatically not true in these essays, which are masterful rhetorical tropes.

I know Brodsky first and foremost from the essays; can’t honestly say I was much moved by his poetry. And while I respect Auden, I could never quite buy into Brodsky’s unalloyed enthusiasm for his poetry. His analysis of Frost, a poet I love, is without peer.

He taught me a great deal about the power of subordinate clauses: “A good use of subordinate clauses will accelerate the language beyond the psyche, will take the author further then she intended to go….”

And finally, [In Praise of Boredom] is Brodsky at his rhetorical best.

Brodsky’s essays about Leningrad, Istambul, Auden, life in exile, etc. are masterpieces. He had no ear for the english language, hence is wasn’t an english poet. But he has the brightest mind and a clear vision of the relationship between civilisation and literature, a fact highly visible for any reader of “Conversations with Joseph Brodsky: A Poet’s Journey Through the Twentieth Century”, an interview with Solomon Volkov.

Valerian says:

I once heard him recite in Russian, in’72 or ’73, down in New Orleans. When he was done I shook his hand and said “dosvedonya.” I was not surprised, astonished, or disconcerted when he won the Nobel.

Valerian says:

As I was when Saul Bellow won it. Henry Miller was a better writer than Saul Bellow. And Thomas Wolfe was better than both of them.

Helga du Mesnil-Adelée says:

I knew Josef, mended his treanch coat and shared a goose on a Christmas eve, (that I baked) and we watched on tape his NobelPrice speech. Unfortunately, he smoked tu much.

Shalom Freedman says:

I agree with those who commend Adam Kirsch for another excellent, informative and very interesting piece.
I also agree with his observation that Russian poets do not translate well into English. He could have added Pasternak to his list.

Miha Ahronovitz says:

Brodsky’s verse; “At night here we hold soliloquies/ to an audience of echoes, whose breath won’t warm up, alas.” is a premonition of twitter. :)
A blog – which is not poetry – is for most people a howl to the moon. But Brodsky as a poet is a poet because he lived in USSR, now known as Russia, but not the same thing.

Real poets must live “kafkaesque” experiences to make God reveal them. Kafka himself, as Roger Kamenetz says in his Burned Books, lived an eternal, 24 by 7 days Yom Kippur and he was his own harshest judge, expecting punishments for every minor conversation he felt he said the wrong words.

This mechanism of poet enhancing experience is much easier in absurd dictatorships. Had Brodsky be born in New Jersey, he might have had been a PH.D from Columbia or Yale and write books to be made into movies. Or may have become a minor founder in Facebook or similar. As Saul Below said, American writers are mixture of book worms and readers of Road and Track magazine. I my opinion, Dostoyevski would have never had written Crime and Punishment in USA. But then , how many people still read Crime and Punishment in US?

Pamela Sund says:

This, as well as other reviews on the Brodsky book, point out that his wife Maria is only mentioned in passing. The reason for this, according to many other interviews about Brodsky conducted by V. Polukhina, is that Maria Brodsky will not allow a full biography with personal details until Brodsky has been dead for 50 years. So writers are not allowed by the estate to print, with permission, these details.

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Adriana Feoli says:

Very well written, an honest approach.
Adriana Feoli
“Sulla terra tocco il cielo”
Venice/Italy
Great Barrington, Mass./USA

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Nowhere Man

The poet Joseph Brodsky, kicked out of the USSR and never fully at ease writing in English, was a man of many residences and few homes, as a new biography shows

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