As an essayist Joseph Brodsky (best known to the West by this anglicized form of his Russian name, Iosif Brodskii) was versatile and prolific: in addition to two large, impressive collections of essays and Watermark (1992), an extended essay on Venice, he published more than 100 reviews, introductions, lectures, occasional critical pieces, contributions to conferences, appeals, and letters, in Russian, English, and American periodicals and magazines. Some of his best essays are based on his lectures and seminars, like the painstakingly detailed analyses of the poetry of W.H.Auden, Robert Frost, and Thomas Hardy; others are extensions of introductions. His literary essays, especially on Russian authors, particularly impressed his Western critics. Brodsky brought with him to the West “the most valuable thing Russia can give us—a reaffirmation of the belief that ‘art is an alternative form of existence’” (Henry Gifford, 1986). While in Russia Brodsky’s reputation is based primarily on his achievement as a poet, in the West his essays have played a major part in creating his ultimate stature as a writer, while also bringing an immense benefit to Russian literature as a whole.
Brodsky made his first excursions into the essay genre soon after his forced emigration in 1972. He wrote his first essays in Russian, but soon switched to English and became a regular contributor to the New York Review of Books, Partisan Review, and the Times Literary Supplement. He wrote mainly about poets whose verses influenced his work or who shared his aesthetic values. His own aesthetic standards were high, demanding much of the people he wrote about, but he was also extremely generous in his evaluation of them. He called Auden “the greatest mind of the twentieth century” and Osip Mandel’shtam “a poet of and for civilization.” His essays are marked by quality of perception and supersensitivity toward other writers’ use of language. He praised Andrei Platonov for inventing a language which compromises not only the Soviet ideology but also “time, space, life itself and death,” while the novels of such writers as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Vasilii Grossman he saw as socialist realism in reverse because they adopted the language strategies of their opponents.
Apart from literature, Brodsky discussed a wide range of topics: civilization, history, political forces, ethical choices, time, faith, memory, and other major themes. He also assimilated and processed material from his ceaseless travels. He viewed Venice as a gigantic orchestra, with a restless chorus of waves and “the falsetto of a star in the winter sky.” His ethical and philosophical interpretations of historical events were as ambivalent and polemical as his scattered comments on political affairs reflecting the intensely political nature of his experience, although his political views were never openly expressed. He captured a feeling about tyranny; the Empire, as one of his principal themes, also figured in his essays and was interpreted as a conceptual metaphor for what Yakov Gordin called “forced harmonization in the face of deep internal troubles” (Valentina Polukhina, 1992). We are offered some of his liveliest controversies on time and space when he meditates upon man’s relationship with time: “What can we learn about ourselves from time?—What does it mean to be insignificant?” According to Brodsky, man in all his vulnerability to time and history should structure himself around reliable ethical and aesthetic principles.
“The Guide to a Renamed City” (1979) is a beautiful evocation of St. Petersburg, a city “where it’s somehow easier to endure loneliness than anywhere else: because the city itself is so lonely.” He also wrote about his childhood and his parents (“In a Room and a Half,” 1985) and the terror inflicted by the state. Perhaps in order to avoid granting himself the status of a victim, he said very little about his life in prison or in exile. In his essays, as in his poems, Brodsky remains an impersonal author, a man of intellectual sobriety with a sense of perspective. He did not believe that a writer’s ego, even a wounded ego, was the best material for literature.
Brodsky’s message can be reduced to one main idea: what a great poet leaves behind is his language. Language, for him, is the vessel and vehicle of civilization. In “On Cavafy’s Side” (1977) he demonstrates how language can triumph when empire fails.
Language is older than any state, and superior to history: “language is a millenarian device, history isn’t.” Language operates through and within time but outside history, enlarging writers’ appreciation of life in ethical terms. The writer’s only duty is to his language, to keep it alive “in the light of conscience and culture.” The effect of the Revolution on the Russian language, according to Brodsky, has been “an unprecedented anthropological tragedy…whose net result is a drastic reduction in human potential.”
Exquisite style, poetic energy, sharp intelligence, wit, and paradox are the natural ingredients of his prose. Brodsky’s voice is authoritative, his approach to a subject stripped of sentimentality. In his use of syntax, word order, and lexical nuances he works on extreme levels. Writing at the edge of speech, he increases the depth of the ethical drama played out within his work. “We never forget or are allowed to forget that the critic is a poet” (Gifford). The tension of his essays is created by the rational, skeptical attitude toward what cannot be rationally explained (faith, time, creativity). Believing that “aesthetics is the mother of ethics,” he never fails to make an intrinsic connection between them. He openly declares the unpardonable subjectivity of his views, saying that “extreme subjectivity, prejudice and idiosyncrasy are what helps art to avoid cliché.”
A subtle relationship exists between the style of his essays and his poetry. In his essays Brodsky employs free association, internal rhyme, convoluted syntax, and poetic composition. His first collection of essays, Less than One (1986), forms a cycle, beginning and ending with personal memoirs, with two magnificent pieces on Marina Tsvetaeva at the center, surrounded by essays on Anna Akhmatova, Mandel’shtam, Auden (his “ideal double”), Derek Walcott, appreciations of C.P.Cavafy and Eugenio Montale, homage to Osip’s wife Nadezhda Mandel’shtam, and a criticism of modern Russian prose. Each of his essays, like each of his poems, is a part of the whole.
Although they stand as independent, self-sufficient pieces, they benefit enormously from being read in context: their essence becomes more visible.
In 1995, just before Brodsky’s untimely death, his second collection of essays, On Grief and Reason, was published in New York. Like the first collection, it also includes travel essays (“After a Journey”), historical pieces (“Collector’s Item” and “Homage to Marcus Aurelius”), essays on political displacement (“The Condition We Call Exile”), tributes to his favorite poets (Frost, Hardy, Rainer Maria Rilke), and meditations on the past (“Spoils of War”). Inspired by Mozart and Haydn, Brodsky cultivated his own technique of developing “themes and variations”: ideas circulate and reverberate from one essay to the next throughout the book. His Christian attitude toward art is openly stated: every poem is an act of love, a flash of memory and faith.
Two particular qualities characterize his essays. First, Brodsky used the full force of his intellectual power to offer new answers to old questions, thus providing an unforgettable intellectual education. Second, he possessed a remarkable power of observation and a sharp eye for detail. Like Mandel’shtam and Tsvetaeva before him, Brodsky played a pivotal role in re-creating and redefining the essay genre. Like the latter, he allowed the agonies of spirit to flower, taking ideas to their most extreme conclusions; like the former, he tried to control his arguments with the discipline of logic.
Like both, he responded to a large diversity of world literature by assimilating not so much Greek, French, or German literary traditions, but those of the Latin, American, and English. His essays are characterized by a dynamic interaction between dazzling language, conceptual thought, and poetic narrative process. They are as brilliant as his poetry, in both their philosophical complexity and their verbal inventiveness. His studies of the poets are models of close reading, a valid demonstration of how poetry works: “how to get to the marrow of every image and phrase” (D.Rayfield, 1986). These essays “should be required reading for students of modern Russian literature and history. They imply a canon” (G.S.Smith, 1988). They are the best introduction to his poetry, for as Brodsky himself put it, poets’ prose is “nothing but a continuation of poetry by other means”: the same precision, speed and intensity of thought, the same syntactic ambiguity, the same density of tropes. They offer an intellectual feast prepared by the master.
Iosif Aleksandrovich Brodskii. Born 24 May 1940 in Leningrad. Studied at schools in Leningrad to the age of 15. Convicted as a “social parasite,” 1964, and served 20 months of a five-years’ hard labor sentence; later exiled by the Soviet government: emigrated to the United States, 1972, and became a U.S. citizen, 1977. Taught at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Queen’s College, City University of New York, Columbia University, New York, New York University, Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts, Amherst College, Massachusetts, Hampshire College, and Mount Holyoke College, South Hadley, Massachusetts, 1972–96. U.S. Poet Laureate, 1991–92.
Married Maria Sozzani: one daughter; also had a son with Marina Basmanova.
Mondello Prize (Italy), 1979; National Book Critics’ Circle Award, 1987; Nobel Prize for Literature, 1987; Guggenheim Fellowship; MacArthur Fellowship; honorary degrees from ten universities. Member, American Academy of Arts and Letters (resigned in protest over the honorary membership of the Russian poet Evgenii Evtushenko, 1987);
corresponding member, Bavarian Academy of Sciences; Legion of Honor (France), 1991.
Died (of a heart attack) in New York, 28 January 1996.
Essays and Related Prose
Less than One: Selected Essays, 1986
On Grief and Reason, 1995
Other writings: many collections of poetry and two plays.
Collected works edition: Sochineniia, 4 vols., 1992–95.
Bigelow, Thomas, Joseph Brodsky: A Descriptive Bibliography 1962–1996, forthcoming
Kline, George L., in 10 Bibliographies of 20th Century Russian Literature, edited by Fred Moody, Ann Arbor, Michigan: Ardis, 1977:159–75
Bayley, John, “Mastering Speech,” New York Review of Books, 12 June 1986:3–4
Bethea, David M., “Conjurer in Exile,” New York Times Book Review, 13 July 1986:3, 38
Bethea, David M., Joseph Brodsky and the Creation of Exile, Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1994
Coetzee, J.M., “Speaking for Language,” New York Review of Books, 1 February 1996:28–31
Dunn, Douglas, “In Whom the Language Lives,” Poetry Review 76, no. 3 (1986):4–6
Gifford, Henry, “Of Petersburg, Poetry and Human Ties,” Times Literary Supplement, 19 October 1986:1019
Philips, William, “Brodsky’s Less than One” Partisan Review 1 (1987):139–45
Polukhina, Valentina, Joseph Brodsky: A Poet for Our Time, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989
Polukhina, Valentina, Brodsky Through the Eyes of His Contemporaries, Basingstoke: Macmillan, and New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992
Rayfield, D., “Grist to the Mill,” Times Higher Education Supplement, 10 October 1986:18
Russian Literature issue on “Brodsky’s Genres,” edited by Valentina Polukhina, 37, nos. 2–3 (April 1995)
Smith, G.S., “Brodsky’s Less than One,” Slavonic and East European Review 66, no. 2 (1988)
Venclova, Tomas, “A Journey from Petersburg to Istanbul,” in Joseph Brodsky’s Poetics and Aesthetics, edited by Lev Loseff and Valentina Polukhina, Basingstoke:
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