Joseph Brodsky was born and raised in the Soviet Union, arrested and sent to the Gulag for several years. He wasn’t seen as a political enemy as much as a sort of decadent person who didn’t share Soviet values. Eventually he was returned to Soviet society, but in 1972 he was involuntarily exiled. He came to the U.S. in 1972 and in 1991-92 he served as Poet Laureate of the United States
The poet, translator and Novel Prize winner Seamus Heaney writes that Brodsky
I have this image of him assigning himself a “time to write poetry.” He sits, perhaps looks around, and if the . . . room – meadow – airport – river – . . . is seen by him as interesting, then he writes about that. If the poem is not a visual stimulation, perhaps he goes into memory of a letter from a friend, an evening out, a book he’s recently read, and within the hour or so that he’s set aside he would have produced at least a modestly decent draft of a poem."exemplified in life the very thing that he most cherished in poetry -- the capacity of language to go farther and faster than expected and thereby provide an escape from the limitations and the preoccupations of the self."
He writes many long poems. Poems of 10-20 pages are not at all unusual. Many of these are much more like strings of very short images, dozens of them a page, each somehow relevant to the title or theme, be it about a season, a location, a person, or an historical event. There is virtually no “story” or developed theme other than the similarity of the images to the main theme. At the same time the images are astonishingly creative, bold, or unusual. Many are so startling and imaginative that the image alone is worth reading that particular poem.
Many of these attempts left me wondering what made them poetry, other than his constant search for new and even startling images. But his topics and manner of treatment often are done in modes that I’ve never seen in poetry before.
He writes poems of historical and social commentary that are often several pages long. It would help were I to know more of the places where Brodsky has lived and visited, but its seems he’s been about everywhere on Earth!
“Homage to Yalta” is a 16 page poem which is a murder mystery with three suspects being questioned. It was such a strange thing to do in poetry. But this seems a trait of his poetry. This book of his collected English poems is 500 pages long and I’ve never before read a poet who writes about more diverse topics, things that I’d never seen attempted in poetry before.
In one poem the narrator tells us:
“Letter to a Roman Friend” is a wonderful glimpse of Roman history with some pointed criticism of Julius Caesar, but it’s mainly about everyday life in the less than ideal empire.“ Testimony
of witnesses will follow in the order
in which it was obtained. Herein lie an
example of how truth depends on art,
and not of art’s dependence on the truth.”
“Nunc Dimittis” is a story poem of Mary presenting Jesus in the temple and their meeting with the old Simeon and Anna. The poem is imaginative and powerful, giving the reader a “feel“ of the story, much more so than either the dry Biblical tale or other commentaries I’ve come across.
“Mexican Divertimento” is a 10 page poem of Mexican history and misery from Maximilian’s reign in the 1860s until today. It is powerful, sad, challenging and enlightening but surprising as well since it sounds much more like the subject of a history lesson than a poem. Yet it succeeds marvelously as a poem. Again the diversity of what Brodsky does as poetry is displayed.
“Lullaby of Cape Cod” is intriguing, difficult and challenging. It talks of his move from Russian to the US and his adjusting to the “New World.” He made this journey in the hot of summer and it is the images of that summer’s weather allow him to describe his personal journey of meaning in this shift of geography. This poem is a quite good read.
“The Fifth Anniversary
This is a powerful and touching poem. It appears to be the anniversary of his leaving Russia. There are things he misses and regrets at having had to leave, but, in the main he realizes that he had no choice, no option to remain, he would likely have died either directly by state action, or by his own inability to continue on.
June 4, 1977”
One of the last things I would have thought to find was a FUNNY poem in Brodsky’s work. He just hasn’t sounded like someone who would write a comic poem. It’s called“There I thought I would die. From boredom or from terror.
If not in friendly arms, then at their hands. But there or
somewhere nearby. Today I see my error.
I see that I was wrong. For on a stage the actor
means less than backdrops do. Space is a greater factor
than horsemen. Space won’t tell the front legs from the back two.
Well, I’m no longer there. The sense of loss, as much as
this was indeed a loss, is best displayed by statues
in galleries, or by their vases’ mute ‘Don’t touch us.’”
“Slave, Come to My Service”
There are 11 stanzas. 10 of them have the same form. The king calls for the slave, tells him what he wants to do, the slave lavishes praise on the decision, and then the king says: No, I’ve changed my mind, and immediately the slave agrees with the king. Here is one example:
A version from the Sumerian
However the stakes dramatically change in the last stanza and the slave’s reply does too.“’Slave, come to my service!’ ‘Yes, my master, Yes?’
‘Fetch water, pour it over my hands: I am to eat my supper.’
‘Eat your supper, my master, Eat your supper.
Frequent meals gladden one’s heart. Man’s supper
is the supper of his god, and clean hands catch the eye of Shamash.’
‘No, slave. I won’t eat my supper!’
‘Don’t eat your supper, master. Don’t eat your supper.
Drink and thirst, food and hunger
Never leave man alone, let alone each other.’”
A delightful joke. I just wasn’t expecting anything like it!“’Slave, come to my service!’ ‘Yes, my master, Yes?’
‘If all this is so, then what is good?’
‘To have your neck broken and my neck broken,
to be thrown into a river, that’s what is good!
Who is so tall as to reach the heavens?
Who so broad as to embrace plains and mountains?’
‘If that’s so, I should kill you, slave: I’d rather you go before me.’
‘And does my master believe that he can survive for three days without me?’”
“At a Lecture” is a delightful poem on the nature and experience of a poetry reading looked at in the larger perspective of the lecture hall tradition itself. I’ve been to so many poetry readings in universities and have experienced what he speaks of.
I very much enjoyed the content of his very long poem, “History of the Twentieth Century” which is actually only “part 1” and only goes up to 1914 and the beginning of the First World War. He treats of each year from 1900-1914 with what he chooses as the highlight notions to remember. I think it is simply horrible poetry, but I enjoyed the content very much and was just fascinated with what he chose to include, and even more interesting for me was what he chose to leave out! Very fun, even if almost embarrassingly bad poetry.
The very last poem in the book is by Wislawa Szymborska, one of my very favorite poets. It’s an appropriate title for a final poem “The End and the Beginning.” However, I wasn’t sure it was one of hers, so I pulled out my meager collection of four volumes of her poetry, and happily found it. The translation, however, might well be by Brodsky, since it is different in places from that of Joanna Trzeciak who translated that poem for Szymborska’s book “Miracle Fair.”
It was interesting to note the subtle difference in the two translations, but I haven’t a word of Polish to help me decide which is the more faithful translation. I am sorry to have to say that in just over 500 pages of poetry, the one by Szymborska was my favorite. I think she is just a significantly better poet than Joseph Brodsky.