St. Petersburg’s lost poet

Today marks what would have been the 72nd birthday of poet Joseph Brodsky.

Two months after his death in January 1996, Czeslaw Milosz wrote in Index on Censorship of what was at stake in Brodsky’s poetry:  “In one of his essays Brodsky reflected that Mandelstam was a poet of culture. He too was a poet of high culture and thanks to this, perhaps,worked within the most profound current of his century, where humanity, threatened with the spectre of annihilation, discovered its past in the image of an endless labyrinth.”

At The New Republic Michael Scammell reviews Lev Loseff’s biography of Brodsky, Joseph Brodsky: A Literary Life and shows the complicated dynamics that led to a backlash against Khrushchev’s “Thaw.” He also points out that despite being put in the dock by the Soviet regime he “rejected his identification as a dissident, and fought it for the rest of his life …” He was a poet, period, something which Scammell discovered at first-hand in speaking to Brodsky for Index on Censorship.

Brodsky might have become famous through the unintentional Soviet PR campaign of his 1964 trial yet Milosz ended his tribute by removing politics from a discussion of the Russian poet’s achievments and placing him squarely in the great tradition of Russian poetry:

“Brodsky’s verse was a bridge to the poetry of his predecessors — Mandelstam, Akhmatova and Tsvetaeva — built over a Russian language abused for decades. He was not a political poet, because he would not enter a polemic with an opponent scarcely worth the privilege. He engaged, instead, in the poetic craft as a form of activity unfettered by the tyrannies of time.”


Ironically, today also marks the birthday of Mikhail Sholokhov, a writer who was as accepted as Brodsky was villified. Two years after Brodsky’s trial another literary witch hunt took place in which Andrei Sinyavsky, who wrote under the name Abram Tertz, and Yuli Daniel, who wrote as Nikolai Arzhak, were condemned as literary saboteurs. Interestingly, this trial differed from Brodsky’s and, according to Max Hayward in his introduction to the trial transcripts, was totally unprecedented in the history of the Soviet Union in that “the writers were put on trial for what they had written.”

Back to Sholokov – while writers withheld support of the government’s prosecution and even loyal communists like Louis Aragon were compelled to criticize the case (Aragon’s first public criticism of the USSR, Hayward writes) the author of And Quiet Flows the Don went on a rant that culminated in a lament of the good old days (the 1920s in this case, as the ‘30s were officially removed from the good old days category) when, he implies, counter-revolutionaries like Sinyavsky and Daniel would have been shot.

Now, back to poetry – The Times Literary Supplement’s poem of the week is “Rails” by Marina Tsvetaeva. I wrote recently about Tsvetaeva’s years in Prague among the Russian émigré community

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Categories: Literary History

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