‘The birds of paradise sing without a needing a supple branch’: Joseph Brodsky and the Poetics of Exile

1 August 2016

A poet versus empire

During his lifetime, Joseph Brodsky – political prisoner, exile, Nobel Prize winner – was virtually unknown in his native, Soviet-era Russia. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, in the early 1990s Brodsky’s poetry became officially available to the public for the first time in the country, which had hitherto so furiously rejected him. By then already an established poet and essayist in the West, his quick (albeit posthumous) homecoming fame shortly followed, positioning Brodsky firmly in the minds of first-time Russian readers as a political martyr, poet-iconoclast and a major symbol of the Russian dissident literary world.

The aura of rebellion surrounding Brodsky’s persona and the body of his literary work first started to emerge following the denouncements issued by the Soviet newspapers in the early 1960s when the Soviet authorities accused Brodsky of using ‘pornographic and anti-Soviet’ imagery in his poetry1. For example, in a poem entitled Book2 (1960), written just four years before his first exilic experience in the North of Russia, in a town near the Arctic Circle, the abrupt sentences lash out at the realities of the time:

The traveller at last finds shelter.
The honest blond hero triumphs over a scoundrel.
The peasant stares at the trees
and locks the barn
on the last page of
a book
with a happy ending…
(…)

… In the first chapter, trees
cling to the window in silence,
and in the sleeping hospitals
the sick ones scream like birds.
Sometimes novels end in a day.
the scientist opens a window, having discovered regularity,
that traveller,
who hides behind the hill,
the rest of the heroes meet during lunch break.
the economy is stabilising,
the sociologist casts away all doubt.
Near the elegant bars
modest cars shine.
The wars are over. Generation grows up.
Every woman can count on a man.
(…)
All the trees- at midday –wrap the peasant in a shade.
all planes successfully
return to the airport.
all captains
see the land clearly.
idiots get smart. Liars stop lying.

Through a series of these interconnected sketches, the every-day life gets a parodic treatment. With a quick and precise brush, the poet paints a picture of an unnamed idealised society, which has evolved to the point of eliminating all doubts and all problems; it is not ‘tainted’ by insanity, lies or the evil of wars. This society (which perhaps can only be found between the pages of a work of fiction) shows cracks though – this becomes obvious from the partly veiled allusions to its forgotten, ignored and marginalised members (‘a peasant wrapped in a shade’; the ‘sick ones’ who scream like birds in an otherwise silent hospital). In the end, it is a sarcastic paint-by-numbers triumph of good over evil. Driving this irony home is a confirmation that ‘of course, the scoundrel failed in his plan’ and the poem’s final lines where the allegory of a book-perfect world ends and the poet calls things by their real names:

… if in the first chapter someone continues to scream,
then in the thirtieth, of course, it can no longer be heard.
Sex obsession and social optimism,
good epigraphs from villanelles, sonnets, canzones,
semi-detective plot, called – life.
… send me a book with a happy ending!

In another example (Sonnet, 1962)3, Brodsky paints in intricate detail the daily routine of prison inmates – how they procession from interrogation to interrogation until the months merge into one, their names losing all meaning:

January has passed through the prison’s windows,
and I have heard the singing of the inmates,
ringing through the swarm of brick cells:
‘Another one of our brothers is free’.

If you hear the singing of the inmates
and the footsteps of the voiceless overseers,
you keep singing, singing silent:
‘Good bye, January’. 
You turn your face towards the window,
and take in the lukewarm air in sips,
and again, feeling introspective, I move 
from interrogation to interrogation 
travelling along the corridor
into that faraway land, where 
there is no January, February or March.

The denouncements instigated by the Soviet authorities have culminated in an infamous 1963 show-trial, sentencing Brodsky to five years of exile for ‘social parasitism’ and ‘anti-Soviet poetry that would corrupt the young’4. Following the trial’s conclusion, Brodsky was shipped off from Leningrad to the Archangel region of northern Russia. Although he did not serve the full term of his five-year sentence, his stay in Russia following his time in the North was brief. Back in Leningrad, ‘the growing … discrepancy between the poet’s literary and social status led to extradition proceedings’5 and in 1972 he was leaving Russia for good. As he recalls, ‘I was put on a plane going only in one direction with no return ticket …’6 After a period of statelessness during which the poet spent some time in Vienna and London, he settled in the United States. It was there that he built a new life for himself with help from his friend and mentor W.H. Auden and other supporters and friends, such as Carol Proffer and his wife Ellendea. Brodsky became a poet-in-residence at the University of Michigan and later lectured at Queens College and other universities.7

Exile and what it does to its subjects became recurring ideas in Brodsky’s poetry before his one-year banishment to the North of Russia shortly followed by the poet’s ultimate expulsion from Russia in 1972. His use of the exilic ideas in his poems acquire an almost self-prophesising quality – likely influenced heavily by the feelings of rejection the poet must have been feeling as he was being persecuted and put through his ridiculous trial. Hence, Brodsky’s poetic legacy before and after being exiled take on a meaning of a continuing aesthetic, developed further by the experiences of the exile itself. And yet, in the face of his ordeals, Brodsky insisted that he continued to belong to the Russian culture: ‘I feel part of it, its component, and no change of place can influence the final consequence of this. A language is a much more ancient and inevitable thing than a state. I belong to the Russian language.’8

There are numerous examples of exiled poets and artists from Soviet Russia alone as well from other countries, traditions and canons. Though in his essay Child of the Civilization Brodsky compared his predicament to the likes of Ovid banished to Tristia and Brodsky’s fellow exiled poet and contemporary, Osip Mandelstam. Brodsky wrote of finding himself fitting into an ‘archetypal predicament of a poet versus an empire’.9 In line with this predicament, the poet took on the role of a proverbial mythological hero who ‘never returns’ but ‘always departs’.10

  1. ‘Joseph Brodsky, Exiled Poet Who Nobel, Dies at 55’, New York Times
  2. My translation; a poem in Russian is available from World Art
  3. Joseph Brodsky, ‘Sonnet’ in Pis’ma Rimskomu Drugu: Stikhotvoreniya (Letters to a Roman Friend: Poems), Saint Petersburg: Azbooka Klassika, 2012; my translation).
  4. Anthony Hecht, ‘The Poetry of Joseph Brodsky’, Wilson Quarterly, 2014
  5. David MacFadyen, Joseph Brodsky and the Soviet Muse, McGill-Queen’s University Press: Montreal & Kingston, London, Ithaca, 2000, p. 3 citing D.N. Shalin’s Russian Culture at the Crossroads
  6. ‘Joseph Brodsky: Conversations’ (ed.) Cynthia L. Haven, University Press of Mississippi: Jackson, MA, 2002, p.142
  7. ‘Joseph Brodsky, Exiled Poet Who Nobel, Dies at 55’
  8. Joseph Brodsky in conversation with David Remnick of the Washington Post, poetryfoundation.org
  9. Joseph Brodsky, ‘The Child of Civilization’ in Less Than One: Selected Essays, New York, NY: Farrar Straus Giroux, 2011, p. 128
  10. Joseph Brodsky, ‘Flight from Byzantium’, in Less Than One: Selected Essays, p. 402
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