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 eventually becoming a member of the Communist literary elite, “the state-bred genus, a cross between a parrot and monkey,” as he described it. He turned them down. He would not be bought. He also refused to play the victim. “Other people had to go through much more and had a much harder time of it than I did,” he said later. In any case, he continued to be an embarrassment to the regime, a free man who said and wrote what he thought and would not be intimidated. Finally, in 1972, he was forcibly expelled from the Soviet Union and came to United States where, fifteen years later, to the great annoyance of the people who sent him packing to what they hoped to be everlasting oblivion, he received the Nobel Prize for literature.

“No matter how abominable your condition may be, try not to blame anything or anybody: history, the state, superiors, race, parents, the phase of the moon, childhood, toilet training, etc.,” Brodsky wrote. He accepted exile, almost took it in stride. What could be more normal for a Russian than to be made homeless? As far as he was concerned, exile was the metaphysical condition par excellence of the human spirit, permanent and without remedy. It taught one humility—which normally it would take a lifetime to acquire. “If one were to assign the life of an exiled writer a genre, it would have to be tragicomedy,” he wrote. Yes, there’s something funny about misfortune, even one’s own. Tragicomedy is the expression of the exile’s recognition of the fundamental messiness of everything. It refuses to have events and lives reduced to a single label. Humor is one of the essential manifestations of a free spirit. Authoritarians of all stripes live in fear that someone is making jokes behind their back. A tragic poet is a nuisance already, but a poet who also laughs is a handful even for an evil empire.


Brodsky’s essays and memoirs collected in Less Than One (1986) and On Grief and Reason (1995), without being so intended, give us an intellectual autobiography of the poet. After he was kicked out of school, “that loafer,” as his father used to call him, gave himself a solid education. Brodsky was as cosmopolitan a writer as one can imagine. He was born of Jewish parents in the magnificent former capital of a country whose religion was Eastern Orthodox; the political ideal was absolute power, the alphabet Greek, and the architectural style European. In his essays he is curious, probing, imaginative, alert to ideas and their nuances, always irreverent, always opinionated on everything from tyranny to literature, and often very moving. Even when one vehemently disagrees with him, one cannot help but be impressed by his independence and his intellect, and by the quality of his prose. There’s hardly a page in the essays where one doesn’t come upon a lovely phrase worth underlining:

When it comes to poetry, every bourgeois is a Plato.

The real history of consciousness starts with one’s first lie.

For in real tragedy, it is not the hero who perishes: it is the chorus.

Many of his essays, as is to be expected, are about the poets Brodsky admired most, with pointed commentaries on the poems of Auden, Frost, Cavafy, Mandelstam, Tsvetaeva, Rilke, Horace, and Akhmatova. Missing conspicuously are the French poets, the great precursors of Modernism: Baudelaire, Rimbaud, and Mallarmé. Apart from Auden, the European and American avant-garde and its principal figures and ideas are passed over in silence. This is not really surprising. Modernism with its wholesale rejection of tradition, its firm belief that a poet’s cultural inheritance has lost its authority, could not have great appeal for a poet in a country where that inheritance had been made suspect for political reasons and driven underground. In addition, many members of the avant-garde throughout the world supported Stalin and failed to raise their voices in defense of Russian poets who were being persecuted. Some of the greatest names in Russian literature were imprisoned, sent to labor camps, and shot while some of their Western counterparts, particularly in France, wrote poems idealizing their executioners and lived happily ever after.

Modernism’s most scandalous notion is that it is possible to begin from scratch and be entirely original as if in the arts everything remains in doubt and awaits discovery. Brodsky, on the other hand, was pretty sure that aesthetic values endure, that a poet who wrote centuries ago is still our contemporary. Indeed, what links the past with the present are poets, the custodians of tradition, who confer with their predecessors as if they were still among us. Pindar, Ovid, and Villon are not only worth reading but also worth emulating. Brodsky wanted poetry to have innumerable voices, rich and dense as the heart of a bustling city. Poetry, for him, was the place where true history was written. History, as historians practice it, looks for reasons; poetry’s interest is the human smell of the past. As for culture, when all has been said about it, its real task may be to provide us with the consolation for our mortality.

Brodsky had no use for the free verse tradition of European and American poetry. In an essay on Mandelstam he wrote:

Russian poetry has set an example of moral purity and firmness, which to no small degree has been reflected in the preservation of so-called classical forms without any damage to content. Herein lies her distinction from her Western sisters, though in no way does one presume to judge whom this distinction favors most. However, it is a distinction, and if only for purely ethnographic reasons, that quality ought to be preserved in translation and not forced into some common mold.

This and similar pronouncements, of course, did not make him popular with some American poets.

He once told me seriously that American poets of the generation of Williams, Stevens, Moore, and others ought to have imitated Thomas Hardy. “Had T.S. Eliot, for instance, at the time he read Laforgue,” Brodsky wrote, “read Thomas Hardy instead (as I believe Robert Frost did), the history of poetry in English in this century, or to say the least its present, might be somewhat more absorbing.” He refused to accept the possibility that American and English literatures have diverged long ago, that sounding like Hardy or Tennyson while living in Brooklyn or Iowa would have seemed outlandish and worthy of ridicule.

That American poets en masse abandoned rhyme and meter did not make sense to Brodsky since ideal verse forms already existed. The prevalent belief that there is a form appropriate to every individual poem must have struck him as nonsense. Nor did he accept the related view that the old poetic idiom in English was inadequate and that its language had grown stale. He would point out the example of Frost, of whom he approved, for-getting that Frost was in no way rep-resentative. If one were a budding young poet in New York City seventy years ago, the language and imagery of Eliot and Williams would have reflected far better what one saw and heard every day as one rode the subway to work.


Collected Poems in English represents only a third of Brodsky’s poetic work in Russian. Not included is his first book in English, Selected Poems (1973), translated by George L. Kline, which includes his early masterpiece “Elegy for John Donne.” According to the publisher, it will be reissued later in an expanded edition together with a volume of additional poems translated by other hands. What we have under review then are translations Brodsky himself made, the ones he supervised and gave his approval, plus the poems he wrote in English. Brodsky’s output in Russian is large and of the highest quality.* In it the breadth of formal invention and rhetorical complexity is staggering. He wrote just about every kind of poem, including long lyrical sequences, dramatic monologues, narratives, odes, elegies, sonnets, and sundry light verse. Modulating levels of diction, playful, witty, and endlessly inventive, he is a mouthful in the original Russian as anybody who has heard him read can testify. His poems, as with most Russian poetry, have meter and rhyme. Despite the difficulties, of which he was well aware, he insisted throughout his life that they both be faithfully preserved in translations of his work:

It should be remembered that verse meters in themselves are kinds of spiritual magnitudes for which nothing can be substituted. They cannot be replaced by each other, let alone by free verse. Differences in meters are differences in breath and in heart-beat. Differences in rhyming pattern are those of brain functions. The cavalier treatment of either is at best sacrilege, at worst a mutilation or a murder. In any case, it is a crime of the mind, for which its perpetrator—especially if he is not caught—pays with the pace of his intellectual degradation. As for the readers, they buy a lie.

These are very strong words. A demand for fidelity and near-complete identity between the original and the translation is an impossible task to achieve and a prescription for disaster as he himself admitted at times. He said in an interview:

It is easier to translate from English into Russian than the reverse. It’s just simpler. If only because grammatically Russian is much more flexible. In Russian you can always make up what’s been omitted, say just about anything you like. Its power is in subordinate clauses, in all those participial phrases and other grammatical turns of speech that the devil himself could break his leg on. All of this simply does not exist in English. In English translation, preserving this charm is, well, if not impossible, then at least incredibly difficult. So much is lost. Even a good, talented, brilliant poet who intuitively understands the task is incapable of restoring a Russian poem in English. The English language simply doesn’t have those moves. The translator is tied grammatically, structurally. This is why translation from Russian into English always involves straightening the text.

This is perfectly true. Brodsky is without a doubt a great Russian poet and so are Tsvetaeva, Mandelstam, Pasternak, and Akhmatova, but often one would not know that for certain from the available translations of their work. This is an unusual situation in that we can get a fairly good idea of Apollinaire’s or Lorca’s greatness without knowing French or Spanish. Even ancient Chinese poets come across in English better than Russians do. As Brodsky said of Horace, whom he could not read in the original, one is “reduced to judging the stuff by the quality of imagination.” Could this mean that the quintessential quality of Russian poetry, what makes it different from all other poetries in the world, is its inextricable and untranslatable mixture of sound and meaning? Reading Tsvetaeva or Khlebnikov in the original I certainly have come to believe so. On the other hand, I can also think of a lot of poems of Stevens and Crane whose translation is unimaginable.

“We all work for a dictionary,” Brodsky said of the poets. He meant that the Muse is not some nebulous female presence, but a thick, dog-eared book lying on the table. He also said, “In order to write verses you have to stew in the idiomatics of the language constantly.” I agree. However, the thicker the stew, the harder it is for the translator to duplicate the recipe. Images and figures of speech can be translated and equivalents found for idioms, but the sound of a mother tongue, its music and what that music evokes in the native reader, cannot be brought over from one language to another. The earlier translations in Collected Poems are the work of such well-known poets as Richard Wilbur, Anthony Hecht, Derek Walcott, and Howard Moss, who, not knowing Russian, were given a literal translation and despite the odds, usually with Brodsky’s collaboration, made out of them such good poems that his reputation in this country and England was established straightaway.

It’s worth looking closely at how Brodsky himself went about translating his poems. Here is a poem of his I admire in Russian, but cannot say the same for his English version:

MAY 24, 1980

I have braved, for want of wild beasts, steel cages,
carved my term and nickname on bunks and rafters,
lived by the sea, flashed aces in an oasis,
dined with the-devil-knows-whom, in tails, on truffles.
From the height of a glacier I beheld half a world, the earthly
width. Twice have drowned, thrice let knives rake my
nitty-gritty.Quit the country that bore and nursed me.
Those who forgot me would make a city.
I have waded the steppes that saw yelling Huns in saddles,
worn clothes nowadays back in fashion in every quarter,
planted rye, tarred the roofs of pigsties and stables,
guzzled everything save dry water.
I’ve admitted the sentries’s third eye into my wet and foul
dreams. Munched the bread of exile: it’s stale and warty.
Granted my lungs all sounds except the howl;
switched to a whisper. Now I am forty.
What should I say about life? That it’s long and abhors
transparence.Broken eggs make me grieve; the omelet, though, makes me vomit.
Yet until brown clay has been crammed down my larynx,
only gratitude will be gushing from it.

The words and lines I have left out of italics are either not in the original or if they are, they have been completely reworded with mixed results. For instance, line 3 of the original reads, “lived by the sea, played roulette.” There are no “truffles” in the original, no “earthly width,” no “knives rake my nitty-gritty.” The original says simply, “Thrice drowned, twice was ripped open.” The line about broken eggs reads, “Only with grief do I feel solidarity.” These paddings serve to keep the meter and rhymes, but they sacrifice the elegant conciseness and the emotional impact of the poem in Russian. Some of his substitutions are amusing, like “flashed aces in an oasis,” but others sound unidiomatic and just awkward. Brodsky has perfect pitch in Russian, but this cannot be said of many of his translations and of the poems he wrote in English. They feel for the most part contrived. This is not always the case, of course, and the originality of Brodsky’s poetry can still come through. But it’s obvious to anyone reading him in both languages that he can be deaf to nuances of usage in his adopted one. Even his heartbreaking final poem in Collected Poems, “Taps,” suffers from a number of unfortunate word choices and forced rhymes. I cannot imagine his editors and American poet friends not pointing this out to him. Most likely, he did not take their advice.

I’ve been reproached for everything save the weather
and in turn my own neck was seeking a scimitar.
But soon, I’m told, I’ll lose my epaulets altogether
and dwindle into a little star.

I’ll twinkle among the wires, a sky’s lieutenant,
and hide in clouds when thunder roars,
blind to the troops as they fold their pennant
and run, pursued by the pen, in droves.

With nothing around to care for, it’s of no import
if you’re blitzed, encircled, reduced to nil.
Thus wetting his dream with the tumbled ink pot,
a schoolboy can multiply as no tables will.

And although the speed of light can’t in nature covet
thanks, non-being’s blue armor plate,
prizing attempts at making a sifter of it,
might use my pinhole, at any rate.

The ideal translation of Brodsky, I imagine, would require a collaborative effort of John Donne, Lord Byron, T.S. Eliot, and W.H. Auden. Here, for instance, are two stanzas from Auden’s “Letter to Lord Byron” that may give an idea of Brodsky’s wit and deftness in Russian.

I’m writing this in pencil on my knee,
Using my other hand to stop me yawning,
Upon a primitive, unsheltered quay
In the small hours of a Wednesday morning.
I cannot add the summer day is dawning;
In Seythisfjördur every schoolboy knows
That daylight in the summer never goes.

To get to sleep in latitudes called upper
Is difficult at first for Englishmen.
It’s like being sent to bed before your supper
For playing darts with father’s fountain-pen,
Or like returning after orgies, when
Your breath’s like luggage and you realize
You’ve been more confidential than was wise.

This is an old routine. The Proven- çal poets pretended to write in a saddle, the Romantics on the bare backs of their sleeping mistresses, the Beats scribbled in back seats of cars speeding across America: the poet as a diarist in a hurry. He jots down what he sees, reports local gossip, dazzles us with his elaborate conceits and metaphors, talks about everything from erotic adventures to God, thinks up rhymes without breaking into sweat. Here are two stanzas of Brodsky’s “The End of a Beautiful Era” in a translation by David Rigsbee and the poet himself:

Since the stern art of poetry calls for words, I, morose,
deaf, and balding ambassador of a more or less
insignificant nation that’s stuck in this super
power, wishing to spare my old brain,
hand myself my own topcoat and head for the main
street: to purchase the evening paper….

Everything in these parts is geared for winter: long dreams,
prison walls, overcoats, bridal dresses of whiteness that seems
snowlike. Drinks. Kinds of soap matching dirt in dark corners.
Sparrow vests, second hand of the watch round your wrist,
puritanical mores, underwear. And, tucked in the violinists’
palms, old redwood hand warmers.

Brodsky is the great poet of travel. Perhaps only Allen Ginsberg roamed as much as he did and wrote about it. A poet who gets around has to be able to describe what he sees and Brodsky is unsurpassed in his ability to evoke the feel of a place. He has poems about London, Venice, Vilna, Mexico City, Florence, Berlin, San Francisco, Belfast, Delphi, Lisbon, Rome; and they are some of his best. He is at his most eloquent in old cities, where the timeless and the transitory come together, where various historical periods live their afterlife side by side. He is their master elegist, the one paying homage and refining the poetic idiom of his predecessors. Wherever he happens to find himself, memories of other worlds pursue him. Brodsky’s cross is his uncontainable historical imagination, his ability to see analogies where others do not suspect them. He wanted to be a universal poet, someone at home everywhere, and he largely succeeded. Here’s the beginning of one of his finest poems, the twelve-part “Lullaby of Cape Cod,” in Anthony Hecht’s marvelous translation:

The eastern tip of the Empire dives into night;
cicadas fall silent over some empty lawn;
on classic pediments inscriptions dim from the sight
as a finial cross darkens and then is gone
like the nearly empty bottle on the table.
From the empty street’s patrol car a refrain
of Ray Charles’s keyboard tinkles away like rain.

Crawling to a vacant beach from the vast wet
of ocean, a crab digs into sand laced with sea lather
and sleeps. A giant clock on a brick tower
rattles its scissors. The face is drenched with sweat.
The streetlamps glisten in the stifling weather,
formally spaced,
like white shirt buttons open to the waist.

It’s stifling. The eye’s guided by a blinking stoplight
in its journey to the whiskey across the room
on the nightstand. The heart stops dead a moment, but its dull boom
goes on, and the blood, on pilgrimage gone forth,
comes back to a crossroad. The body, like an upright,
rolled-up road map, lifts an eyebrow in the North.

Despite their backdrop of history, Brodsky’s poems are immersed in the present. Like his beloved Frost, he’s primarily a poet of existential terror. “Because watches keep ticking,” he writes in “Lullaby of Cape Cod,” and because one’s life, of course, is a part of that ticking, one has little choice in the matter. Time, the voiceless, needs a poet’s mouth. A poem, that paradox of motion and stillness, makes time speak. Whoever reads a poem overhears someone’s dialogue with his mortality. It’s possible, however, to make one’s fate a part of a bigger story. Most poets can’t pull it off. Only a few, and Brodsky is certainly one of them, are able to include in that dialogue the story of their times. Their wish is to be historical witnesses and their hope is that we recognize ourselves in their words.

In “Lullaby of Cape Cod” one can almost hear the poet breathe with difficulty. It is a stifling night. In a small apartment at the ocean’s edge, alone and sleepless, he is mulling over his strange life, where he came from, where he’s going, the vastness of this other Empire he exchanged for the old one, the mute, infinite heavens over it, and his own minuteness in comparison. Brodsky was a man of uncommon personal courage and integrity. He did not want to be fooled even by his own rhetoric. He is going for broke, since what he wants is to fully understand his predicament, and follow that knowledge to its bitter end with its thoughts of death and nothingness. He conveys the exhilaration of such moments of clarity, their strangeness and visionary quality:

…a cockroach mob in the stadium
of the zinc washbasin, crowding around the old
corpse of a dried-up sponge. Turning its crown,
a bronze faucet, like Caesar’s laureled head,
deposes upon the living and the dead
a merciless column of water in which they drown.

Even with the serious problems of translation, there’s still plenty of fine poetry in Brodsky’s Collected Poems in English.

This Issue

October 19, 2000