Life of an exile

February 18, 2024

The life and times of Joseph Brodsky, the exiled Russian poet

Life of an exile


eningrad, the bastion of Stalinism, denounced many piercing intellects. Joseph Brodsky (May 1940 - January 28, 1996), the exiled Russian poet, was one of them. Born resilient, he preserved himself against the gulag’s slough of despond, carried forward the gift of verse to trans-Alantic sojourns, kept a poetic ambition, acutely redemptive, and transmitted the trauma of perpetual journeying. All along, he had faith in reaching out to a global audience. Having the double role of poet-translator, he said: “Poetry is what is gained in translation.”

Carrying a mind smarting from the legacy of Nazi’s agitprop, such as that art must be subservient to the state, Brodsky witnessed the Cold War period in which art, especially in Eastern Europe, was used to resuscitate the political lungs of communism. Dissent, the chivalric core of art often misunderstood as an anarchic commotion, was Brodsky’s forte. A rebel with a cause, he never sacrificed the poetry’s oracle for propaganda. Exile was his paradoxical boon. “Brodsky was a strongly anti-Soviet Soviet poet, but a Soviet poet nonetheless,” wrote Keith Gessen in a New Yorker article.

A protégé of Anna Akhmatova, Brodsky was dazzled by the mystique of her poetic nimbus. Chastened and mesmerised, a young Brodsky had lifted her funeral pall in 1966. In his imagination, she was an apogee of grace, like Maud Gonne to Yeats.

Akhmatova was Brodsky’s porcelain god. He pursued her viscerally, aesthetically and intellectually. In his words, “she was simply, physically, visibly, beautiful… majestic.” Brodsky’s early poems are caves of solace dug around Anna’s imaginative quarry. These are amazingly complex tributes to her memory and art. She is the mystified subject and addressee of his beleaguered imagination, brushing against his Jewishness and the pain of bearing persecution and poverty in the 1960s’ Leningrad. In a dedicatory piece written in 1962, To Anna Akhmatova, he saturates his verse with her persona, interning the past and present in a single flash, mimicking her way of pronouncing sounds and words:

In the warm room, with, as I recall,

no books,

with no admirers, but also not with

them in mind,

leaning your temple on your palm,

You will write about us on a slant.

The young Brodsky relives a phantom moment culled from Akhmatova’s poetic itinerary. The haunting image of the poet working at her desk casts a spell on the invisible observer. But there are no other admirers in his mind’s temple. The conceited pun aligns the physical temple of poetry with the bodily (‘leaning’) temple of the poet-woman-muse. Browsing through her life, Brodsky follows her style of poetry with a spiritual curvature, a kind of a ‘slant,’ that has an aesthetic weight of Russian, a ventriloquism of solidarity with the kindred spirit of creative writers.

This was Brodsky’s baptism into poetry. Akhmatova was her priest. It was her posthumous work, Poem Without a Hero, that Brodsky recast in his poem, Roosters, using the analogy of a commuter train passing through a snow-capped Russian landscape holding lonely roosters, an atmospheric séance containing the voice of poetry along with the silence of political repression:

And, brushing against bushes, they set off

at a good clip? the unscathed soldiers of stifling air,

along boulevards with new haircuts,

like shades of egg-shaped ships.

Brodsky sees the Red Army marching in St Petersburg with ‘new haircuts’ suggesting the death of homily humanism and a relapse into tribal vigilance in the name of revolution. Aligned with this is a reference to Akhmatova’s poem invoking the agony of remaining in Leningrad throughout its 900-day siege during the World War II:

Let the gossip roll!

What to me are Hamlet’s garters,

or the whirlwind of Salome’s dance,

or the tread of the Man in the Iron Mask?

I am more iron than they.

Intelligible as it seems, she casts aspersions at the megalomaniac value of hero-worship ranging anachronistically from Hamlet to Stalin. Conversely, there is a glorification of the human soul wrapped in poetic metaphors, a lateral force of gravity pulling apart Brodsky’s future exile. On the ground, Brodsky was a target for Leningrad and though he published his early work hiding out, a kind of artist-in-retreat, his imagination, cradled by Akhmatova’s commitment to art and aesthetics ricocheting political oppression could not be restricted. The disciple faced the atrocities and landed a counter punch of poetry. Such was his devotion that his typewriter is currently housed in the Anna Akhmatova Museum in St Petersburg, Russia.

Brodsky reiterated his love for the Russian language, memory of the past and trans-geographical experiences by conniving with himself that language has a soul to communicate with a larger audience. 

While Brodsky was absorbed in the memory and poetry of Anna Akhmatova, the authoritarian establishment of Leningrad flouted his dreams. In 1963 came the first denunciation in a Leningrad newspaper. It described his poetry as “pornographic and anti-Soviet.” He was interrogated and put up in a mental health facility. In 1964, he was again charged with ‘parasitism.’ Later, he was censured as “a pseudo-poet in velveteen trousers.” In her work, The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt states that oppressive regimes can “turn a statement of fact into a question of motive.

Brodsky was sent to an Arctic labour camp, but the physical labour could not stymie the poetic. A fortiori exile was looming over his existence. Israel proposed twice that he should settle there, but he refused. In 1971, he was issued a visa and jetted unceremoniously to Vienne, where WH Auden, a self-exiled poet, arranged his safe passage to the United States. He started writing now from an outsider’s perspective, making him negotiate the otherness of a place. He was now what the Irish poet, Heaney, called an Inner Emigré. Twentieth-Century Russia produced a crop of émigrés such as Osip Mandeshtam, Nikolai Zabolotsky and Anna Akhmatova. With each dislocation, Brodsky’s respect for other languages grew. After he left formal education at 15, he was largely a heuristic learner who taught himself English and Polish. His translations of his poems drove a moderate wedge between Russian and another language. However, he could never forgo his love for the Russian language, an eternal muse

He made poetry his spiritual metonymy, finding a mental reprieve from the pain of leaving his homeland. As his poetry started appearing in the West, he was already a thorn in the communist flesh that was plucked out before becoming a liberating example for the shackled crowd. His first collection Verses and Poems was published in 1965, Elegy to John Donne in 1967 and A Stop in the Desert in 1970. “Brodsky is someone who has tasted extremely bitter bread,” wrote Stephen Spender in the New Statesman.

While the Western literary industry lionised his work, back home he was projected as an ersatz figure. In United States, he was laureled with the American poet laureateship before bagging the Nobel Prize. But much before coming to the US, he had imbibed English poetry and Greek mythology, refusing the conformity of the Russian system, preferring to work in a village farm and doing menial jobs. He had literally gone through the ordeal of earning his bread.

Writing poems on loneliness and exile was Brodsky’s patent route to the return of the native. However, he could not return. His love for the Russian language made him a translator. Brodsky taught poetry, first at Michigan University and later at other places. Since he was a chain smoker, his class was a place where poetry students could feel at home as he vented the suffocation of bygone years. There is a hauntingly surreal image of the poet-teacher looking out of the window in Vienna, seeing his peripatetic existence: “In the little town out of which death sprawled over the classroom.” (From A Part of Speech)

A part of Speech (1965-78) contains poems translated by several poets, including Auden, stressing the subtlety of using words with care and the responsibility incumbent on a poet:

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

Baptised by the fire of exile, watching a continental dépaysement and the will to survive odds. Brodsky wrote about spaces riddled with historical wrongs and subjective miseries. In A Poet in His Own Words from the collection To Urnia, he monologues that “everything has its limit, including sorrow.” In the poem, Letter to an Archeologist, he addresses the motley crowd: “Citizen, enemy, mama’s boy, sucker, utter/ garbage, panhandler, swine, refuge, verruchi,” showing his empathy for people scattered over geographies surviving time and memory. But he could also feel the burden of passing time, as in Six Years Later watching “So long life together been that now/ the second January fell again.” Inevitably, it’s Russia the soul-mate and its temporal hominess to which the poet returns: “I was born and grew up in the Baltic marshland” where “a glance is accustomed to glance back.”

Wedged between home and exile, he befriended Milosz, Heaney, Auden and most of all Stephen Spender. The writers shared the ebb and flow of his years in exile. A lapidary prose writer in On Grief and Reason: Essays (1995), he dwells upon the memory of his childhood, his father, a photographer, and his demurring immersion in American life, his interest in the ’60s, the age of radio, all in all, a pastiche of travel diary. Reverie became a time machine for Brodsky, transporting him to the shoulders of the past. He preferred to live in Italy and in Venice, even built a Dacha, the typical Russian home. The embers of repression he brought along from his native home stoked his verse. What prevented his young and free spirit from corroding was his famous dialogue with the judge facing an unjust trial in Leningrad in 1963:

“Judge: And what is your occupation in general?

Brodsky: Poet, poet-translator.

Judge: And who recognised you to be a poet? Who put you in the ranks of poet?

Brodsky: No one. And who put me in the ranks of humanity?

Judge: Did you study it?... How to be a poet? Did you attempt to finish an institute of higher learning... where they prepare... teach

Brodsky: I did not think that it is given to one by education.

Judge: By what then?

Brodsky: I think that it is from God.”

The writer is an English-language poet based in Lahore. His first collection of poems, Lahore, I Am Coming (2017), was published by the Punjab University Press

Life of an exile