Diligent research but little heart in Brodsky biography

Joseph Brodsky was different from established dissidents of his time. Joseph Brodsky was different from established dissidents of his time. (Beinecke Rare Book And Manuscript Library)
By Richard Eder
Globe Correspondent / January 16, 2011

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When the young poet Joseph Brodsky was hauled into a Soviet court in 1964 on trumped-up charges of “social parasitism’’ and sentenced to Siberian exile, a clandestine transcript smuggled abroad made him an international cause célèbre. Appropriately it was Brodsky’s voice, caustic and soaring, that, more than speaking truth to power, made a fool of it. “Who told you you were a poet? Who assigned you that rank?’’ the judge demanded. “Who assigned me to the human race?’’ the accused retorted.

“What a biography they’re creating for our redhead,’’ exclaimed Anna Akhmatova, Brodsky’s mentor and the great Pieta-figure in the Soviet gallery of artistic oppression. An unknown when taken up by this towering poet, he was immediately treated by her as an equal. “[Joseph], you and I know every rhyme in the Russian language,’’ she told him, but it wasn’t style that made the relationship — theirs were very different — but soul. Lev Loseff tells us that she would frequently repeat Brodsky’s insistence that poetry above all lay in “the magnitude of the idea.’’

He was very different from what might be called the established dissidents of the time — Evtushenko, Voznesensky, Akhmadulina — subtle, carefully sardonic, measuredly Aesopian so as to barely dodge the regime’s hammer and find a wavering measure of protection in its more moderate elements.

Brodsky was all unaccommodating magnitude, a hard-charging poetic bull who — after the government released him from exile, embarrassed by the outcry abroad even among its Communist friends — refused various suggestions for just a touch of accommodation. (The KGB offered to get his poems published if he would inform on foreign contacts.) The solution, finally, was to ship him West. There, his star soared: teaching posts, honorary doctorates, a MacArthur award, and finally the Nobel Prize.

His poetry had been evolving from its early harshly denunciatory style; though, as Loseff notes, even his most political writing was never rhetorical, but lyrical and specific. In exile, though, his poetry broadened out and deepened; estranged and refined at the same time. No longer battling the universe, the universe begins to battle through him. Here from one of his late Nativity poems:

“There was one far-off/ heavy sigh from the mule. Or the ox./ The star looked in across the threshold./ The only one of them who could/ know the meaning of that look/ was the infant. But He did not speak.’’

The translation is by Seamus Heaney; and indeed the best renditions of Brodsky’s poetry are the translations by other poets. He took a strong hand in trying to do his own English versions, and sometimes to write directly in English. The result was much criticized, and rather unfortunate. Heaney, his admirer and poetic support, wrote of this with his customary mix of affection and critical accuracy in an elegy after Brodsky’s death:

“Nevermore that rush to pun/ Or to hurry through all yon/ Jammed enjambments piling up/ As you went above the top/ Nose in air, foot to floor/ Revving English like a car.’’

It is a pity that Loseff, in giving full measure to the criticism of Brodsky’s English versions, does not quote Heaney. It would do something to give life to a book that, diligently researched and often perceptive — and drawing from the writer’s long acquaintance with Brodsky — has very little life in it. It is written heavily; particularly unfortunate is a kind of PowerPoint presentation where we get brief topical sections: “Brodsky as Jew,’’ “Early Reading,’’ and, of all things, “Brodsky and the Erotic.’’ In some ways it resembles a dissertation more than a book directed at a more general, if poetry-loving, reader.

Loseff disclaims at the start any intention of writing a biography. Nevertheless, “A Literary Life’’ as a subtitle is a little misleading. Brodsky as a living figure appears at times — in the story of his trial, in his not entirely deprived stay in Siberia, in the malice of some of his Russian contemporaries — but vanishes for long stretches. Only two sentences go to his marriage late in life. It is with pleasure that we read a lovely account of Brodsky as teacher, written by the critic Sven Birkerts, who studied under him.

More damaging to the book’s declared intention to concentrate on the poetry (with the biography as a kind of footnote) is that Loseff’s commentary, while no doubt intelligent, pretty much buries it. For every bit of poetry cited there are pages of analysis of the writer’s philosophical, moral, religious, personal, and esthetic thinking. It is poetry in academic chains, and it all but disappears. For all his undoubted devotion Loseff has sent his subject to a second exile. I thirst for a Brodsky line, perhaps the one about Leningrad’s street lights in winter:

“There floats in an abiding gloom/ among immensities of brick/ a little boat of night.’’

Richard Eder, who writes reviews for numerous publications, can be reached at richardgeder@

By Lev Loseff
Translated, from the Russian, by Jane Ann Miller
Yale University, 333 pp., $35