Who Brodsky Was
Today on Tablet
Books critic Adam Kirsch considers the 20th-century Russian-Jewish poet Joseph Brodsky today in Tablet Magazine, noting that, like most great Russian-language poets up to and including Alexander Pushkin—the country’s Shakespeare—the full beauty and ingenuity of Brodsky’s verse gets somewhat lost in translation.
What remains more intelligible to us is Brodsky’s status as the quintessential modern universalist Jew (“rootless cosmopolitans” Stalin once called the type, though he, y’know, didn’t mean it in a good way).
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.