Joseph Brodsky (May 24, 1940—January 28, 1996), born Iosif Aleksandrovich Brodsky (Иосиф Александрович Бродский) was a Russian poet and essayist who won the 1987 Nobel Prize in Literature and was Poet Laureate of the United States from 1991 to 1992.
In the Soviet Union
Brodsky was born into a Jewish
family in Leningrad
, the son of a professional photographer
in the Soviet Navy
. In early childhood he survived the Siege of Leningrad
. When he was fifteen, Brodsky left school and tried to enter the School of Submariners without success. He went on to work as a milling machine
operator. Later, having decided to become a physician
, he worked at a morgue
at the Kresty
prison. He subsequently held a variety of jobs at a hospital, in a ship's boiler room, and on geological expeditions.
At the same time, Brodsky engaged in a program of self-education. He learned English and Polish (mainly to translate poems by Czesław Miłosz, who was Brodsky's favorite poet and a friend), and acquired a deep interest in classical philosophy, religion, mythology, and English and American poetry. Later in life, he admitted that he picked up books from anywhere he could find them, including garbage dumps.
Brodsky began writing his own poetry and producing literary translations around 1957. His writings were apolitical. The young Brodsky was encouraged and influenced by the poet Anna Akhmatova who called some of his verses "enchanting."
In 1963, he was arrested and in 1964 charged with parasitism by the Soviet authorities. A famous excerpt from the transcript of his trial made by journalist Frida Vigdorova was smuggled to the West:
- Judge: And what is your profession, in general?
- Brodsky: I am a poet and a literary translator.
- Judge: Who recognizes you as a poet? Who enrolled you in the ranks of poets?
- Brodsky: No one. Who enrolled me in the ranks of humankind?
- Judge: Did you study this?
- Brodsky: This?
- Judge: How to become a poet. You did not even try to finish high school where they prepare, where they teach?
- Brodsky: I didn’t think you could get this from school.
- Judge: How then?
- Brodsky: I think that it ... comes from God.
For his "parasitism" Brodsky was sentenced to five years of internal exile with obligatory engagement in physical work and served 18 months in the Archangelsk region. His sentence was commuted in 1965 after protests by prominent Soviet and foreign literary figures, including Evgeny Evtushenko, Dmitri Shostakovich and Jean-Paul Sartre.
In 1964, Leonid Brezhnev came to power. As the Khrushchev Thaw period ended, only four of Brodsky's poems were published in the Soviet Union. He refused to publish his writings under censorship and most of his work has appeared only in the West or in samizdat form.
In the United States
On June 4
, Brodsky was expelled from the USSR. He moved to the United States
and became a U.S. citizen
in 1977. His first teaching position in the US was at the University of Michigan
. He was Poet-in-Residence and Visiting Professor at Queens College
, Smith College
, Columbia University
, and the Cambridge University
. He was a Five-College Professor of Literature at Mount Holyoke College
In 1978, Brodsky was awarded an honorary degree of Doctor of Letters at Yale University, and on May 23, 1979, he was inducted as a member of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. In 1981, Brodsky received the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation's "genius" award. He is also a recipient of The International Center in New York's Award of Excellence.
In 1986, his collection of essays Less Than One won the National Book Critics Award for Criticism. In 1987, he won the Nobel Prize for Literature, the fifth Russian-born writer to do so. At an interview in Stockholm airport, to the question: "You are an American citizen who is receiving the Prize for Russian-language poetry. Who are you, an American or a Russian?", he responded: "I am Jewish - a Russian poet and an English essayist".
Brodsky held an honorary degree from the University of Silesia and was an honorary member of the International Academy of Science.
In 1991, Brodsky became Poet Laureate of the United States. His inauguration address was printed in Poetry Review.
Brodsky married Maria Sozzani in 1990. They had one daughter.
Brodsky died of a heart attack in his New York City apartment on January 28, 1996, and was buried in the Episcopalian section at Isola di San Michele cemetery in Venice, Italy (the setting of his book Watermark).
A close friend to fellow Nobel laureate Derek Walcott, Brodsky was memorialized in Walcott's poetry collection The Prodigal (pp. 26-27).
A recurring theme in Brodsky's writing is the relationship between the poet
. In particular, Brodsky emphasized the power of literature to positively impact its audience and to develop the language and culture in which it is situated. He suggested that the Western literary tradition was in part responsible for the world having overcome the catastrophes of the twentieth century, such as Nazism
and the World Wars
. During his term as the Poet Laureate
, Brodsky promoted the idea of bringing the Anglo-American poetic heritage to a wider American audience by distributing free poetry anthologies to the public through a government-sponsored program. This proposal was met with limited enthusiasm in Washington.
- Were we to choose our leaders on the basis of their reading experience and not their political programs, there would be much less grief on earth. I believe—not empirically, alas, but only theoretically--that for someone who has read a lot of Dickens to shoot his like in the name of an idea is harder than for someone who has read no Dickens.
- Every writing career starts as a personal quest for sainthood, for self-betterment. Sooner or later, and as a rule quite soon, a man discovers that his pen accomplishes a lot more than his soul.
- There are worse crimes than burning books. One of them is not reading them.
Works in English, including translations into English
- 1967: Elegy for John Donne and Other Poems, selected, translated, and introduced by Nicholas William Bethell, London: Longman
- 1968: Velka elegie, Paris: Edice Svedectvi
- 1972: Poems, Ann Arbor, Michigan: Ardis
- 1973: Selected Poems, translated from the Russian by George L. Kline. New York: Harper & Row
- 1977: A Part of Speech
- 1977: Poems and Translations, Keele: University of Keele
- 1980: A Part of Speech, New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux
- 1981: Verses on the Winter Campaign 1980, translation by Alan Myers.–London: Anvil Press
- 1988: To Urania : Selected Poems, 1965-1985, New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux
- 1995: On Grief and Reason: Essays, New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux
- 1996: So Forth : Poems, New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux
- 1999: Discovery, New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux
- 2000: Collected Poems in English, 1972-1999, edited by Ann Kjellberg, New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux
- 2001: Nativity Poems, translated by Melissa Green–New York: Farrar, Straus & GirouxEssays
- 1986: Less Than One: Selected Essays, New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award
- 1992: Watermark, Noonday Press; New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux
- 1996: On Grief and ReasonPlays
- 1989: Marbles : a Play in Three Acts, translated by Alan Myers with Joseph Brodsky.–New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux
- 1991 Democracy! in Granta 30 New Europe, translated by Alan Myers and Joseph Brodsky.Interviews
- 2003: Joseph Brodsky: Conversations
Works in Russian
- 1965: Stikhotvoreniia i poemy, Washington, D.C. : Inter-Language Literary Associates
- 1970: Ostanovka v pustyne, New York: Izdatel'stvo imeni Chekhova (Rev. ed. Ann Arbor, Mich.: Ardis, 1989)
- 1977: Chast' rechi: Stikhotvoreniia 1972-76, Ann Arbor, Mich.: Ardis
- 1977: Konets prekrasnoi epokhi : stikhotvoreniia 1964-71, Ann Arbor, Mich.: Ardis
- 1977: V Anglii, Ann Arbor, Mich.: Ardis
- 1982: Rimskie elegii, New York: Russica
- 1983: Novye stansy k Avguste : stikhi k M.B., 1962-1982, Ann Arbor, Mich.: Ardis
- 1984: Mramor, Ann Arbor, Mich.: Ardis
- 1984: Uraniia : novaia kniga stikhov, Ann Arbor, Mich.: Ardis
- 1989: Ostanovka v pustyne, revised edition, Ann Arbor, Mich.: Ardis, 1989 (original edition: New York: Izdatel'stvo imeni Chekhova, 1970)
- 1990: Nazidanie : stikhi 1962-1989, Leningrad : Smart
- 1990: Chast' rechi : Izbrannye stikhi 1962-1989, Moscow: Khudozhestvennaia literatura
- 1990: Osennii krik iastreba : Stikhotvoreniia 1962-1989, Leningrad: KTP LO IMA Press
- 1990: Primechaniia paporotnika, Bromma, Sweden : Hylaea
- 1991: Ballada o malen'kom buksire, Leningrad: Detskaia literatura
- 1991: Kholmy : Bol'shie stikhotvoreniia i poemy, Saint Petersburg: LP VTPO "Kinotsentr"
- 1991: Stikhotvoreniia, Tallinn: Eesti Raamat
- 1992: Naberezhnaia neistselimykh: Trinadtsat' essei, Moscow: Slovo
- 1992: Rozhdestvenskie stikhi, Moscow: Nezavisimaia gazeta (revised edition in 1996)
- 1992-1995: Sochineniia, Saint Petersburg: Pushkinskii fond, 1992-1995, four volumes
- 1992: Vspominaia Akhmatovu / Joseph Brodsky, Solomon Volkov, Moscow: Nezavisimaia gazeta
- 1992: Forma vremeni : stikhotvoreniia, esse, p'esy, Minsk: Eridan, two volumes
- 1993: Kappadokiia.–Saint Petersburg
- 1994: Persian Arrow/Persidskaia strela, with etchings by Edik Steinberg.–Verona: * Edizione d'Arte Gibralfaro & ECM
- 1995: Peresechennaia mestnost ': Puteshestviia s kommentariiami, Moscow: Nezavisimaia gazeta
- 1995: V okrestnostiakh Atlantidy : Novye stikhotvoreniia, Saint Petersburg: Pushkinskii fond
- 1996: Peizazh s navodneniem, compiled by Aleksandr Sumerkin.–Dana Point, Cal.: Ardis
- 1996: Rozhdestvenskie stikhi, Moscow: Nezavisimaia gazeta, revised edition of a work originally published in 1992
- 1997: Brodskii o Tsvetaevoi, Moscow: Nezavisimaia gazeta
- 1998: Pis'mo Goratsiiu, Moscow: Nash dom
- 1996 and after: Sochineniia, Saint Petersburg: Pushkinskii fond, eight volumes
- 1999: Gorbunov i Gorchakov, Saint Petersburg: Pushkinskii fond
- 1999: Predstavlenie : novoe literaturnoe obozrenie, Moscow
- 2000: Ostanovka v pustyne, Saint Petersburg: Pushkinskii fond
- 2000: Chast' rechi, Saint Petersburg: Pushkinskii fond
- 2000: Konets prekrasnoi epokhi, Saint Petersburg: Pushkinskii fond
- 2000: Novye stansy k Avguste, Saint Petersburg: Pushkinskii fond
- 2000: Uraniia, Saint Petersburg: Pushkinskii fond
- 2000: Peizazh s navodneniem, Saint Petersburg: Pushkinskii fond
- 2000: Bol'shaia kniga interv'iu, Moscow: Zakharov
- 2001: Novaia Odisseia : Pamiati Iosifa Brodskogo, Moscow: Staroe literaturnoe obozrenie
- 2001: Peremena imperii : Stikhotvoreniia 1960-1996, Moscow: Nezavisimaia gazeta
- 2001: Vtoroi vek posle nashei ery : dramaturgija Iosifa Brodskogo, Saint Petersburg: Zvezda
- Труды и Дни (Works and Days, 1998) Edited by Pyotr Veil and Lev Losev (Online)
- Строфы века. Антология русской поэзии (Verses of the Century, 1995) Edited by Evgeny Evtushenko