Iosif Alexandrovich Brodsky (1940 - 1996)
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.
Iosif Brodsky was born in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg). His father was photographer. Brodsky studied at schools in Leningrad up to the age of 15 and started to write poetry from the late 1950s, earning a reputation as a free thinking writer. He taught himself Polish so 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.
As a young man, Brodsky worked at many occupations, including stoker and geologist-prospector. His production as a freelance poet and self-learned translator did not gain authorities approval, although he never directly criticized the government. His poetry appeared in samizdat (clandestine circulation) editions but were widely read. Brodsky's reputation made him a target for the secret police and he was convicted as a 'social parasite'. He 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, but the sentence was commuted in 1965 after protests by such prominent cultural figures as the composer Dmitri Shostakovich and the poet Anna Akhmatova, who was his close friend. During Brodsky's exile a collection of his poems was issued by an Ameican publisher in 1965.
In 1972 Brodsky was forced to exile from the USSR. He first went to Vienna, where he was helped by the poet W. H. Auden, and finally he emigrated to the United States. There 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. In 1977 he became a U.S. citizen and in 1991-92 he was America's Poet Laureate. He was a member of 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 heart attack on January 28, 1996, in New York. He was married with Maria Sozzani, he also had a son with Maria Basmanova. 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's 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 also 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." (from Lullaby of Cape Cod, 1975) He also recognized in the work of Robert Frost darker tones 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."
(from 'Cafe Trieste: San Franciso', to L.G.)
As an essayist Brodsky started in the 1970s, writing first in Russian, but he soon switched to English. 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 '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 life time 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 notes that after the Great Patriotic War theatres showed Hollywood films - war booty from Germany - and Tarzan films influenced on the dissolving of the Stalin cult more than Nikita Khrushchev's speeches.