The Joseph Brodsky “story” is still close to us. It feels he died just yesterday, and we remain in contact with him not through six degrees of separation but through one handshake. Every more or less well-read Russian knows lines of his poetry by heart. It would not be an exaggeration to say that Brodsky influenced all of us. For some contemporary Russian poets, he revealed new horizons; others learned from his example that great poetry should address great issues and have a “great plan.” Many writers were ruined by hopelessly trying to write in Brodsky’s manner; using his building blocks they constructed airless buildings.
Lev Loseff’s Joseph Brodsky, A Literary Life reflects all these issues in a mild academic manner. With its extensive footnotes, it is a bit professorial, slightly flat emotionally, and fails to reflect the true magnitude of the “Brodsky universe.” Nevertheless it is well-written and easy to read. Jane Ann Miller’s English translation is blessedly shorter than the Russian original, which contains some unnecessary pages, mostly related to personal relationships in the Akhmatova-Brodsky circle. ). Loseff, himself a distinguished poet, spent three decades teaching as a professor at Dartmouth.
Any major poet is a universe in itself. This is especially true of Brodsky, who developed the line in Russian poetry that began with the Acmeists: Mandelstam, Akhmatova, and Gumilyev. Mandelstam formulated the notion of Acmeism as “the longing for the world culture.” Joseph Brodsky embodied that longing better than anyone else.
The twentieth century boasted several great artists -- Nabokov, Celan, Kafka, and Borges, among them -- who belonged to the entire world and not just a single national culture. With such models in mind, Brodsky aimed to master the English language, to write in English, and to establish an expertise not only in W. H. Auden but in English metaphysical poets, such as John Donne.
Galvanized and ignited by the poet’s passion and turbulence, indifferent to partisan American factions and schools, Brodsky’s English-language poetry is directly linked to his friend and mentor, W.H. Auden. To be sure, Brodsky is not an American poet. Nevertheless, his English-language poetry has been underestimated. Brodsky’s use of English syntax and grammar is technically correct, though his lines may sound not quite right to the trained ear of an American poet no matter how sympathetic. I would encourage American readers to consider such gems of English lyric poetry as “Transatlantic,” “In Memory of My Father,” and “To My Daughter.”
The American literary establishment hasn’t yet noticed the emergence of talented writers from faraway places who are creating a new stratum in American poetry. Joseph Brodsky is a major example of this English language “poetry with an accent.”
Andrey Gritsman is bilingual poet and essayist, raised in Russia, lives in New York City.