Working for the Dictionary

To you insane world
But one reply—I refuse.
—Marina Tsvetaeva

Poets have two ways of achieving fame in autocratic societies: they can either sing the praises of the men in power, or they can irritate them. In the past, it was the monarch and the clergy they had to watch out for. If they got into hot water, banishment and the promise of eternal damnation were the usual punishment. In our time, ideologues of new utopias, from the Soviet Union to China, turned out to be far more bloodthirsty overseers of poetry. Even in the United States, poetry books with real or imagined erotic and blasphemous content are regularly removed from the shelves of school libraries to please some self-appointed thought policeman.

Still, when it comes to making martyrs out of its poets, no country in the history of the world can compete with Russia. Of course, exile, prison, and violent death have been the fate of millions of its citizens in the last century, so one should not single out the misery of poets. In a place where for almost seventy years there was one and only one official pseudoscientific truth, anyone who insisted on his or her own explanation of reality was in grave danger of being sent to prison. Lyric poetry, that most marginal and seemingly inconsequential of activities, came to be regarded as potentially a form of subversive activity. To put the situation another way, a poem became a moral act, the ethics of language in a system where lying every time you opened your mouth was every citizen’s sacred duty.

Joseph Brodsky, who was born in 1940 in what was then still called Leningrad and died in New York City in 1996, got into precisely that kind of trouble. He said in a moving memoir of his parents, “I am grateful to my mother and my father not only for giving me life but also for failing to bring up their child as a slave.” He paid dearly for it. He left school at the age of fifteen, worked in a factory, in a city morgue, and at number of other jobs across the Soviet Union, and began writing poetry when he was eighteen. As his finely composed and ideologically improper poems became known in literary circles, he was twice locked up in a mental institution and eventually in 1964 tried and sentenced for the crime of social parasitism to five years of hard labor in a remote village in the far north. He shoveled manure and wrote poems that continued to circulate in manuscript in Russia and eventually abroad. Twenty months later, he was released after an appeal to the authorities by prominent Russian cultural figures. When Brodsky returned to Leningrad, he was a hero to the young, a famous poet, and a public enemy without having yet published any poetry.

Subsequently, the KGB made several attempts to remedy that, offering Brodsky publication in a prestigious journal with the attractive prospect of …

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