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Aloof in Ceasar’s Empire

By (August 1, 2012) 2 Comments

Joseph Brodsky: A Literary Life

by Lev Loseff, trans. Jane Ann Miller
Yale, 2012
In his essay “Writing,” from The Dyer’s Hand, W.H.Auden writes: “The condition of mankind is, and always has been, so miserable and depraved that, if anyone were to say to the poet: ’For God’s sake, stop singing and do something useful like putting on the kettle or fetching bandages,’ what just reason could he give for refusing? But nobody says this.”  At Joseph Brodsky’s trial in 1964, the judge did, although not in so many words:

Judge: What do you do for a living?

Brodsky: I write poetry. I translate. I suppose…

Judge: No “I supposes.” Stand up properly! No leaning on the wall. Look directly at the court!   Answer the court properly! Do you have regular work?

Brodsky: I thought this was regular work.

The trial of Joseph Brodsky, then aged 23, echoed around the world, largely due to the publication of the trial transcript, recorded at great personal risk by the journalist and human rights campaigner Frida Vigdorova. Brodsky became a cause celebre, with Western and Russian literary luminaries lining up to announce their support and to denounce the prosecution and sentence of 5 years internal exile with hard labor. Contemporary commentators read the trial as a battle between the individual and the state, and this is of course right. But reading the trial transcripts fifty years later, what’s striking is that what’s also on trial here is not only the individual poet, but poetry itself and its role in society. One is reminded of the transcripts from Oscar Wilde’s second trial, when it also seems at times as if poetry itself is in the dock. Brodsky was tried not for having written offensive or un-ideological verse, but simply for being a versifier.

Lev Loseff’s biography of the poet (published in Russian in 2006) sheds light on the context surrounding the trial. Brodsky was the victim of forces beyond his control. The first was a general move on the part of the authorities to deal with dissidents by prosecuting them for parasitism rather than for crimes against the state. In this new directive, relations between the Moscow and Leningrad branches of the KGB was another factor: where Moscow lead, Leningrad had to be seen to be following. The third force was the head of Brodsky’s local community patrol, an overzealous and petty-minded bureaucrat named Lerner, who had his sights set on Brodsky as a means to his own advancement. In 1963 Lerner began his persecution of Brodsky by publishing an attack entitled ‘A Literary Drone’ in the local paper. The article concluded: “He persists in leading his parasitic way of life. In the last four years this healthy twenty six year old has made absolutely no contribution to society.”

At this time, Brodsky was in fact working as a freelance translator and poet, with several contracts with Leningrad publishers for more of his work, so the charges in the article were false—as was Brodsky’s age and the extracts from his verses cited in the article, which had been written by someone else. Brodsky’s mistake was that he was working outside the official channels allowed by the state for brainworkers and artists: he was not a member of the Writer’s Union and had never been a member of any of the usual youth groups. In fact, he had dropped out of school and had not been to college. He was an outsider. But what’s also interesting about the article and trial is that they exploit the assumption that poetry (outside the official channels) is not a useful occupation, that it has no utilitarian contribution to make to a totalitarian society. The judge brushed aside evidence that Brodsky was earning a living through poetry and reiterated that poetry was not real work. The prosecution even cited Brodsky’s velvet pants as evidence of parasitism, a reference not so much to Brodsky’s specific wardrobe at the time, but to a Romantically inspired view of the poet as an effete, feckless oddity, with no utilitarian value to society.

Brodsky’s trial has been called Kafkesque, and it is true that it is richly layered with Kafkaesque ironies; but it was also rather Dostoevskian. At the conclusion of the trial, Brodsky asserted the importance of poetry for society, and his right to make it as an individual outside official channels. “I am no parasite,” he said. “I’m a poet who will bring honor and glory to his country.” There was a stunned silence, and then the court erupted into the kind of mocking savage laughter that greets the rapturous outpourings of some of Dostoevsky’s characters—think of Marmeladov in Crime and Punishment, or the reaction to Terentyev’s “Essential Statement” in The Idiot. The argument about the role of poetry in society, the argument between art-for-art’s-sake and the utilitarian view of art, was personified in the Russian scene by the controversy between Dostoevsky and Chernyshevsky. Like Dostoevsky – and Chernyshevsky too—Brodsky was sentenced to exile—first internally, then from Russia—and like Dostoevsky, it was his exile that was the making of him as an artist.


If one’s fated to be born in Caesar’s Empire,
Let him live aloof, provincial, by the seashore.

One who lives remote from snowstorms and from Caesar
Has no need to hurry, flatter, play the coward.

As these lines from Letters to a Roman Friend suggest, in many ways Brodsky’s main preoccupation as a poet is the relationship between the individual and society—especially the creative individual, the writer. He had a wider experience of different societies to draw from than other poets of his generation: his early life in the communist East, and his exile in the capitalist West. Brodsky’s view, expressed in his verse and in his essays, was that the creative individual is outside politics; and politics—defined as the science and art of government—is beneath the dignity of the creative individual. According to Brodsky in his essay on Auden: “If a poet has any obligation towards society, it is to write well.”

The seeds of this attitude come down to Brodsky’s view of reality. In his memoir of his Leningrad youth “Less than One”, Brodsky claimed that for him and for his generation, reality was “either a nonsense or a nuisance”. Only the reality found in books was actual. He voiced this attitude too in his Nobel Lecture, where he fantasized about the replacement of the state by a library, and opined that we should choose our leaders not on their policies, but on their attitude towards Dickens, Dostoevsky or Stendhal. For the creative individual, reality, especially political reality, happens in a kind of parenthesis. Seeds also lie partly in Brodsky’s belief that “the concept of equality is extrinsic to the nature of art, and the thinking of any man of letters is hierarchical”, with poetry coming at the top of the creative hierarchy. Brodsky saw any collective endeavor, be it democratic or authoritarian, as a move away from the spirit of individualism, towards what he called “the stampede of the masses.” This may sound like snobbery or elitism but, for Brodsky, the sense of individual uniqueness was the essence of life, and this was likely to become watered down by the compromises necessary for life in a society: “the idea of one’s existential uniqueness gets replaced by that of one’s anonymity,” as he put it in his essay “On Tyranny”. Rather than concerning himself with the temporary, contingent issues of society and politics, the job of the poet is to focus on more eternal questions such as the nature of Good and Evil, and the essence of the human experience. It is in the compromises the human individual has to make with social reality that the potential for Evil lies, and, as he put it in his essay “A Commencement Address”: “the surest defense against evil is extreme individualism, originality of thinking, whimsicality, even—if you will—eccentricity.”

The symbol for the position of the individual within society, in Brodsky’s biography as well as his art, is, of course, exile, because here the individual is permanently excluded from a particular society. While the spirit of exile pervades all his work from 1972 onwards, it finds particular expression in those poems where he assumes the persona of an exile writing home: “Letters to a Roman Friend”, “Letters from the Ming Dynasty”, “Odysseus to Telemachus”, “the New Jules Verne”, “Infinitive”, and so on. The model for this is Ovid, who, like Pushkin, was exiled to the Black Sea, but Brodsky was especially drawn to other poets who also had exile as their theme, particularly Dante and Marina Tsvetaeva.

Brodsky was ultimately suspicious of systems of any kind. Loseff claims that Brodsky’s philosophy is inconsistent, but this inconsistency is in fact consistent with Brodsky’s hatred of consistency, his hostility to any kind of system. In the first part of Brodsky’s life, his Russian life, his society and the ideology behind that society was dominated by the thought system of dialectical materialism. Loseff recounts how one of Brodsky’s reasons for refusing to go to university was that he would have to study Marxist-Leninist thought, and he claimed it was not a “real subject.” In his art, dialectical materialism is only obliquely articulated. It is, instead, represented by another symbolic system: Islam. In his 1985 essay “Flight from Byzantium,” Brodsky wrote: “the drawback of any system, even a perfect one, is that it is a system—i.e.: that it must by definition exclude certain things, regard them as alien to it, and as far as possible relegate them to the non-existent.” In Islam, the notion of the sanctity of individual existence is relegated to non-existence. Islam—especially the religiously fanatical side of Islam—represents the triumph of anonymity over individualism: “All these turbans and beards, that uniform for heads possessed by one idea only—massacre—and because of that […] totally indistinguishable from one another. And perhaps ‘massacre’ precisely because all are so much alike that there is no way to detect a loss.” Now, this sounds a lot like bigotry, and in a post 9.11 world, such a view of Islam would perhaps be unacceptable. However, it’s important to bear in mind a couple of things. First, Brodsky is often provocative in his essays: he uses potentially outrageous statements to stimulate thought in the reader, to challenge complacent, entrenched views. Second, Brodsky’s stance towards Islam is not a direct description of Islam itself, but a position on systematic ideologies in general, and on dialectical materialism in particular, represented here by Islam. Brodsky’s remarks on Islam should also be placed in the context of Russian culture and thought. Loseff correctly points out that Brodsky here continues another 19th century Russian theme, namely the tension in the Russian identity between Europe and Asia. Since its founding, Petersburg had been the symbol of Europe-in-Russia; and Moscow, with its onion domes and Byzantine heritage, was more symbolic of Asia-in-Russia. Loseff is right to draw attention to the way Brodsky both continues and differentiates himself from this strand of thought in the work of the 19th century Russian philosopher Vladimir Solovyov. He also cites Lev Shestov as an influence, as it was this philosopher who equated Islam with all totally explanatory systems. Brodsky subtly links Islam, Moscow, dialectical materialism, and the tension between Leningrad and Moscow to which he fell victim in a very early poem called “A Speech About Spilt Milk”, previously uncollected and translated here for the first time by Jane Ann Miller: “Moscow’s calendar is infected by the Quran.” 

Brodsky’s essay on Islam aroused much controversy, and was subject to widely different readings, summarized neatly by Loseff:
Solzhenitsyn saw it as yet another attempt to slander Russia, Russian history, and the Russian Orthodox Church. Sanna Turoma, examining Brodsky’s essays in the light of the postcolonial theoretician and essayist Edward Said’s Orientalism, came up with a different diagnosis. Brodsky was suffering from nostalgia for imperialism and stereotypical ‘orientalist’ perceptions. These criticisms come from opposite poles of the political spectrum, but they have one thing in common: both read Brodsky’s texts as ideological statements.

But Brodsky was not writing ideology: he was writing lyric prose. He never offers his reader a finished conceptual system; he is giving us impressions: shepherd’s huts on the slopes of the Tian Shan; the hot, dusty streets of Istanbul. Any ideology here is imposed by the reader: by the true believer and Russian patriot Solzhenitsyn, by the postmodernist Western scholar—and no doubt, by the writer of these lines, who has his own bias.


It was in his exile from Leningrad that Brodsky first encountered the work of W.H.Auden, an encounter that ultimately enabled him to pursue a second career in a second language. Here is how he describes the moment in his essay “To Please a Shadow”: “I remember sitting there in the small wooden shack, peering through the square porthole-size window at the wet, muddy dirt road with a few stray chickens on it, half believing what I’d just read, half wondering whether my grasp of English wasn’t playing tricks on me.” The poem in question was Auden’s elegy on the death of W.B Yeats, and the lines that excited Brodsky so much were:

Time that is intolerant
Of the brave and innocent
And indifferent in a week
To a beautiful physique

Worships language and forgives
Everyone by whom it lives…

Brodsky remarks:

Auden had indeed said that time (not the time) worships language, and the train of thought that statement set in motion in me is still trundling to this day. For ‘worship’ is an attitude of the lesser towards the greater…

Brodsky met Auden on his second day in his Western exile, but was tongue-tied by his then-inadequate English. Brodsky’s English has been a matter of some controversy. Brodsky himself claimed that his original impetus for learning English was to try to put himself “in greater proximity” to the mind of Auden. Brodsky compared himself—with modesty—to Nabokov, Beckett, and Conrad, as artists who worked in a foreign language, but it’s perhaps more instructive to compare him to his near-contemporary in both age and experience, Solzhenitzyn, who refused to write in the language of his adopted home, and who, in contrast to Brodsky’s open-minded, open-hearted embrace of English and American life, isolated himself in a recreated Russian compound in Vermont. Brodsky spoke English, taught in it, wrote prose and verse in it, and translated his own Russian verse, either alone or in collaboration with others. Loseff rehearses both sides in the controversy. Here is what he says about those who were hostile to Brodsky’s English verse:

… withering criticism occasionally sounded from the literary heights as well. The British poet Christopher Reid, who had inherited T. S. Eliot’s post of poetry editor at prestigious Faber and Faber, entitled his review of the English To Urania “Great American Disaster.” In it, Reid finds Brodsky’s poetics pompous and pretentious, enumerates the poet’s sins against the English language, and claims that Brodsky’s reputation is greatly inflated. Just a few months after Brodsky’s death, Craig Raine, a well-known poet and Oxford professor who occupied the same highly influential editor’s chair in the years between Eliot and Reid, published an article excoriating Brodsky’s last English publication and the author himself; it was as if some long-simmering resentment within the small English poetry establishment had finally spilled over.

On the other hand were those poets of Brodsky’s own stature—and close personal friends of his: Walcott, Heaney and Stephen Spender, who were more clear-sighted and nuanced about the strengths and weaknesses of Brodsky’s English verse.

One of the faults with Brodsky’s English verse, as Loseff sees it, is that Brodsky tried to reproduce in English the stricter metrical qualities and rhymes of Russian. He was either ignorant of, or simply didn’t care about, the conventional strictures in English governing feminine rhymes, for example, and used them as freely in English as they are customarily used in Russian.  His rhymes, whether rhymes for the eye on the page, or rhymes for the ear in the voice, are often idiosyncratic (perhaps it’s only a non-native speaker who would rhyme ‘Lady Godiva’ with ‘saliva’). His goal as a translator was always to try to reproduce the prosodic features of the original, and he was quite capable of ditching a metaphor, or choosing another one, if greater adherence to the metrical properties of the original was thereby preserved.

Like his idol Auden, he was more interested in the craftsmanship of poetry than in the free expression of a poetic idea, and Derek Walcott notes in his essay on Brodsky: “He returns discipline to what it should be, creative agony.” Brodsky’s English verse and translations breathed new life into English poetry by reusing archaic, out-of-favor forms. This generalized, modest, but firm refusal to pander to the prevailing trends has its roots in Brodsky’s rejection of the view, expressed in his Nobel Lecture, that “a writer, in particular a poet, should make use of the language of the street, the language of the crowd.”

For Brodsky, this view was tantamount to the death of language, to the death of the autonomy of literature, and to the death of the individual:  

For all its democratic appearance, and its palpable advantages for a writer, this assertion is quite absurd and represents an attempt to subordinate art, in this case, literature, to history. It is only if we have resolved that it is time for Homo sapiens to come to a halt in his development that literature should speak the language of the people. Otherwise, it is the people who should speak the language of literature.

In contrast, his essays, written for the most part in English, were universally admired, both for their language, and for the range and depth of their ideas. Loseff makes the excellent point that Brodsky wrote his essays in English “because he wanted to speak to Auden as an equal, as if to make up for his muteness at their meeting” and no less a commentator than John Bayley has likened Brodsky’s essays to Auden’s.

Brodsky’s view of language was that it is autonomous, larger and more enduring than those who use it, and that it is poetry more than any other kind of language, that ensures the future of that language, and the future of the individual within society. In “York: In Memoriam W.H. Auden,” he writes:

Subtracting the greater from the lesser—time from man—
you get words, the remainder, standing out against their
white background more clearly than the body
ever manages to while it lives, though it cry “Catch me!” —

Thus the source of love turns into the object of love.


In contemplating the arc of Brodsky’s biography, you notice a number of ironies in the relation between poet, poetry and society. In any society a poet is not expected to be able to earn a living by the practice of poetry alone, and this was certainly true of the two societies where Brodsky lived and wrote. In an interesting footnote to the book, Loseff quotes from an official literary encyclopedia, that of 343 “unofficial writers” in the Soviet Union, 109 of them made their living by physical labor, 46 of these as stokers or boiler operators. In America, similarly, Brodsky was expected to earn his living by teaching, reviewing and other freelance work, but not by writing poetry exclusively because there was no demand for it. In Soviet Russia, he was castigated and persecuted by the authorities, but read and memorized by ordinary people. In the capitalist West, he was feted by the authorities, awarded their highest honors, but ignored by ordinary people. Brodsky himself was aware of these ironies, and articulated them. Of the Soviet attitude, he wrote—in Russian:

And when they would finally arrest me for espionage,
For subversive activity; vagrancy, for ménage
A trois
, and the crowd, boiling around me, would bellow,
Poking me with their work-roughened fingers, “Outsider!
“We’ll settle your hash! “—

then I would secretly smile and say to myself, “See,
this is your chance to find out, in Act Three,
how it looks from the inside—you’ve stared long enough at the outside-
so take note of every detail as you shout, ‘Vive la patrie!‘”

In contrast, of the Western attitude, he wrote—in English:

In the republic of ends
and means that counts each deed
poetry represents
the minority of the dead.

Perhaps, though, it’s best to leave the final word on the question of the role that poetry plays in society to Brodsky’s great friend and fellow Nobel laureate Derek Walcott, who wrote, in “Forest of Europe”:

What’s poetry, if it’s worth its salt

but a phrase men can pass from hand to mouth?

From hand to mouth, across the centuries,

the bread that lasts when systems have decayed…


Quentin Brand is a freelance writer. He lives in Taiwan, where he teaches English.