The End of a Beautiful Era
Joseph Brodsky's poetry embodied his conviction that language is older than state.
Joseph Brodsky was born in 1940 in Leningrad, in what he called “the most beautiful city on the face of the earth. With an immense gray river that hung over its distant bottom like the immense gray sky over the river. Along that river there stood magnificent palaces with such beautifully elaborated facades that if the little boy was standing on the right bank, the left bank looked like the imprint of a giant mollusk called civilization. Which ceased to exist.” (Less Than One, FSG, 1986, p. 32) This is a perfect description of the place where I grew up, the city that rose out of the swamps in the north-western tip of our insane Soviet motherland that I was privileged to share with the literary legend.
When I was in third grade, I didn’t know that Brodsky was only a few blocks away, incarcerated in the insane asylum that stood on the Pryazhka canal, where I used to walk my dog. “A madhouse,” my mother called it, pointing to a sprawling gray building with disproportionately small windows across the ditch of brown water slick with rainbow patches of gasoline. I was too young then to have access to the papers of his trial, transcribed by Frida Vigdorova and smuggled to the West, in which Brodsky was denounced for being a social parasite and sentenced to five years’ hard labor. In a small village in the Arkhangelsk region, he cut wood and ploughed the fields, reading English and American poetry and writing verse at night. This was, as he later said, one of the happiest times of his life.
Embarrassed by the international scandal his case had created, the Soviet government released him after a year and a half. When I was taking my high school final exams in 1972, I didn’t know that Brodsky was called into the Leningrad visa department on a Friday night, ordered to fill out an application for an exit visa, and put on a plane to Vienna two weeks later, against his request to stay until September. In that case, we can’t be too harsh on the KGB: at least, the plane flew west.
I did know that, in the absence of copying machines in the Soviet Union, my portable manual typewriter, with the word “Erika” written in gold over the keyboard, was the most valuable thing I possessed. Through four sheets of carbon paper, I typed forbidden poetry – the poetry of Brodsky - hitting Erika’s keys as hard as I could to make the words of poems in all five copies legible, to hammer into my brain their uncommon beauty, so different from the poetry of socialist realism available in bookstores. There was nothing in those poems about collective farmers boasting record crops of wheat, or heroic steel workers risking their lives by the furnaces in order to shorten the road to our shining communist future. There were no Young Pioneers, no cosmonauts, no festive crowds celebrating our achievements in missile and oil production. The lines my fingers pounded into the five sheets of paper asked forbidden questions and failed to give the clear answers our textbooks offered. Their rhymes floated from under my fingers, swelling with fearless metaphors and sounds, as raw and intense as life itself.
In Brodsky’s poems – in the absence of our ubiquitous realism - there was love and despair, there was time and space, there was hopelessness and grief. There were bold, unexpected rhymes my friends and I committed to memory.
…and when “the future” is uttered, swarms of mice
rush out of the Russian language and gnaw a piece
of ripened memory which is twice
as hole-ridden as real cheese.
After all these years it hardly matters who
or what stands in the corner, hidden by heavy drapes,
and your mind resounds not with a seraphic “do,”
only their rustle. Life, that no one dares
to appraise, like that gift horse’s mouth,
bares its teeth in a grin at each
encounter. What gets left of a man amounts
to a part. To his spoken part. To a part of speech.
(Joseph Brodsky, Collected Poems in English, FSG, 2000, p. 114)
To my Russian ear, Brodsky’s verses sound more powerful, more flawless in the original. In his conversations with Solomon Volkov, the poet spoke about the inherent difficulty of translating Russian poems into English, a problem that stems from the different grammar and structure of the two languages.
Language to Brodsky was more than a poet’s instrument. He elevated prosody to metaphysical status, claiming that it is language that speaks through the medium of the poet, not the other way around. “One who writes a poem writes it because the language prompts, or simply dictates, the next line.” (Nobel Lecture, in On Grief and Reason, FSG, 1995, p.57). “Language is older than state,” Brodsky argues, “and …prosody always survives history.” (Less Than One, FSG, 1986, p. 52). Hence a society that is impartial to culture, in particular to poetry, Brodsky asserts in his conversations with S. Volkov, will always pay with civil liberties.
I didn’t read Brodsky’s essays or his later poems until I moved to the United States, in 1980. He wrote brilliant portraits of Marina Tsvetaeva, Osip Mandelstam and Anna Akhmatova, the poets of the generation before him, whom he considered literary giants (and to one of whom, Akhmatova, he was a friend.) He wrote about Thomas Hardy, Robert Frost and W.H. Auden (with whom he stayed on arrival in Vienna from the Soviet Union). He wrote about growing up in Leningrad and about his parents who repeatedly petitioned the Soviet authorities to visit him in the West but were never granted permission. He never wrote in prose about his trial, his arrests followed by three periods of imprisonment, his incarceration and forced psychiatric treatment in an insane asylum, or his exile to the north. Brodsky was known for refusing to display his scars. “At all costs try to avoid granting yourself the status of the victim,” he advises graduates of the University of Michigan in his commencement address (1988).
He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1987, and served as the Poet Laureate of the United States from 1991 to 1992. Four years later, we lost him. When the news of his death reached Russia, my former professor, who had been teaching him English in Leningrad, collapsed on a chair at her Foreign Language Institute, and wept uncontrollably. We all wept, on both sides of the Atlantic.
In his essay about Joseph Brodsky, J. M. Coetzee (Stranger Shores, Penguin Books, 2001, p. 136) maintains that Brodsky’s greatest achievement was “…bringing back to Russian letters a quality crushed, in the name of optimism, by the Soviet culture industry: a tragic perception of life.” That was probably the main reason I struck the keys of my Erika typewriter, pulled out carbon paper and stacked the pages in piles: to share Brodsky’s tragic perception of life with friends and those who thought alike, to send his magisterial melancholy through the elaborate and quiet tunnels of samizdat to others who were waiting to read it. Brodsky also “fertilized Russian poetry by importing new forms from England and America.” For all this, Coetzee writes, “he deserves to stand beside Pushkin.”
In St. Petersburg, which the poet knew as Leningrad, there is a monument to Pushkin in the center of the city, but no full monument to Brodsky. His bust was placed in the courtyard of my Philological Department of St. Petersburg University in 2005. Brodsky’s name and a few lines of his poetry are carved into a slab of granite installed in 2011 in another courtyard of what used to be the outskirts of the city, the setting for the engraved poem. There is also a plaque with his name and profile on the apartment building where he lived with his parents in a communal apartment. His real monument is his poetry, his authoritative voice asserting that there is no chance of escape for any of us, his tragic perception of life.
grew up in Leningrad, Russia, and at the age of twenty-four came to the United States with only a twenty-kilogram suitcase to start a new life. She is the author of two memoirs published by Simon & Schuster, A Mountain of Crumbs (2009) and Russian Tattoo (2015). She has a Doctorate in Language Education and currently lives and teaches in New Jersey. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Daily Telegraph, on BBC Radio, and in a number of literary magazines.