Joseph Brodsky: From Outcast to Nobel Laureate

This week, we’re exploring the lives of outcasts. In the biblical traditon, the greatest prophets often were outcasts. The jury is still out on whether Jay Bakker will, one day, rank as a great prophet. But there’s no question that the life of poet Joseph Brodsky took him from the old Soviet prison system to acclaim as a Nobel Laureate.
TODAY, we are recommending Lev Loseff’s compelling new biography, “Joseph Brodsky: A Literary Life,” which is available from Amazon.
ALSO, in reviewing the book as Editor of ReadTheSpirit, I’ll share my own fondest memory of Brodsky.

Why We Should Care about Joseph Brodsky (1940-1996)

Joseph Brodsky’s poetry is not easy for most Americans to enjoy. As Lev Loseff points out in his new literary biography of the poet, some of his most potent verses reflect on experiences such as riding as a convict in a filthy Soviet prison train. That’s not exactly a theme you’ll find rappers taking viral on YouTube today.

But, as Loseff also demonstrates, there remains a powerful, relevant message in Brodsky’s life interwoven with his poetry and prose: At his best, Brodsky proved that a stateless pilgrim—wandering between countries, between languages, between religious traditions—can build a new life, word by word, relationship by relationship, year by year. Having known Brodsky for one year—and having followed his work across many years—I continue to be startled by how much he understood about Western, English-language literature. Then, he became an English-language man of letters himself.

My son Benjamin’s favorite Brodsky book is the somewhat obscure, “Watermark,” which sometimes is mistaken as a travel book about Venice. In fact, “Watermark” is Brodsky’s prose tour de force about a city that he selected as a new kind of home for himself. What an audacious idea! Simply select a spot on the planet and declare it a new home! Yet, Brodsky did that and, after many years of visiting Venice, he wrote this book-length essay on his beloved city. Young adults today, facing a rapidly changing global community, would do well to learn from Brodsky’s life.

Loseff’s book is largely about the connections between Brodsky’s life and his literary work. So, someday in the future, there’s still room for a “definitive” biography of Brodsky. But, I was so pleased to find that Loseff chose to include what I have always considered to be some of the best moments in Brodsky’s life. Among those scenes certainly are vignettes of Brodsky in a Soviet courtroom. In a nutshell, the young Brodsky refused to play by Soviet rules as an official writer, so he was charged as a “parasite.” This Kafkaesque legal charge arose, despite the fact that he tried to work as a writer and translator. He wrote outside the official system. By definition, in the Cold War Soviet view of society, his refusal to bow to official pronouncements made him a criminal. Here is one exchange between the courageous young poet and the judge—a ruthless and clueless figure one might imagine from some John Le Carré novel.

JUDGE: And what is your profession?
BRODSKY: Poet. Poet and translator.
JUDGE: And who told you you were a poet? Who assigned you that rank?
BRODSKY: No one. (nonconfrontational) Who assigned me to the human race?
JUDGE: And did you study for this?
BRODSKY: For what?
JUDGE: To become a poet? Did you try to attend a school where they train poets—where they teach—
BRODSKY: I don’t think it comes from education.
JUDGE: From what then?
BRODSKY: I think it’s (at a loss)—from God.

Remember: You can orderJoseph Brodsky: A Literary Life,” by Lev Loseff, from Amazon at a discount.


Joseph Brodsky Leningrad 1964 photo by Lev PoliakovI studied poetry under Joseph Brodsky, when he was a freshly exiled university lecturer and still was largely unknown in the West. I can recall him restlessly rambling around Ann Arbor at that time, enjoying beers with students, vigorously debating a few lines of poetry for hours—and never suffering fools. Any student who came ill prepared or tried to take on Brodsky with bias masquerading as intellect would be quickly dispatched with one of Brodsky’s verbal darts.

In my own book, “Our Lent: Things We Carry ” I included this scene in Brodsky’s class:

In the mid-1970s, I was among a group of University of Michigan Creative Writing students who were disappointed to learn that our poetry seminar would not be led by one of the leading lights in our division of the university, called Residential College. Instead, we were to be shoved off on a Russian immigrant, rumored to have quirky habits like chain-smoking foul-smelling cigarettes. It wasn’t even clear if he knew much English.

So, the first evening of that nighttime seminar, we all wandered skeptically into an RC lounge where our class was to meet, draping ourselves over the beat-up easy chairs and frowning at the sour smoke already filling the room.

Poet Joseph Brodsky smirked at us, shook his head disdainfully, stubbed out his cigarette in an already overflowing coffee cup, lit another, inhaled, exhaled—and then asked in a thick accent: “So, who among you knows a Psalm?”

The silence was so complete we could hear his breath sucking through the cigarette.

“I can wait,” he said. And he did.

Then, a cigarette later, he repeated his plea, “Let’s hear a Psalm. Surely you know them. You must. Because if none of you knows a Psalm—a single Psalm—then we have got so much more to memorize in this class than I had planned.”

He sighed wearily. The ominous word “memorize” transfixed us.

Finally, a brave young skeptic brushed the shaggy curls from his eyes and said, “This is a poetry seminar. Why would you expect us to memorize the Bible?”

Brodsky smoked his way through the rest of that cigarette. Then, he stubbed it out. Lit another.

At length, he said, “Because, someday, if you are sent to a prison camp—the poetry you carry in your memory may be your entire world. So, we must choose well what world we will carry, no?”

Remember: You can order Our Lent: Things We Carry at a discount from Amazon now.

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