Joseph Brodsky, from Soviet Exile to U.S. Poet Laureate

Joseph Brodsky, an exile from the Soviet Union, was the first foreign-born poet to be appointed Poet Laureate of the U.S. (1991–92). His meditative, lyrical elegies, often fused with classical themes, explored personal issues of loss and loneliness as well as such universal ideas as death and the meaning of life. Praised for writing in both Russian and English, Brodsky published several poetry collections in his lifetime as well as three collections of essays. In 1987, he received the Nobel Prize in Literature for “all-embracing authorship, imbued with clarity of thought and poetic intensity.”

Brodsky was born on May 24, 1940, in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), Russia. After leaving school at age 15, he worked at a variety of jobs, primarily as an unskilled laborer. He also read voraciously and eventually taught himself Polish and English through poetry. By 1960, his own poems were circulating widely in the underground press.

Although Brodsky was not a dissident, he attracted the attention of Soviet officials. In 1964, he was arrested and formally charged with “social parasitism” because of his sporadic employment. Sentenced to five years labor on a farm in the north, Brodsky was released in 1965 after serving 18 months. He continued to write poetry after his return to Leningrad, but despite his growing reputation as a gifted and committed poet, he was ultimately forced to leave the Soviet Union in 1972.

In the years between his arrest and exile, Brodsky wrote one of the most important poems of his early career. Comprising 14 cantos and nearly 1,400 lines, the epic “Gorbunov and Gorchakov” records the dialogue between two patients in a psychiatric hospital, interspersed with the patients’ philosophical monologues and interrogations from their doctors. “I feel my very self’s at stake / when I don’t have an interlocutor,” muses Gorchakov, alone one night. “It is in words alone that I partake / of life.” Writing the poem proved therapeutic for Brodsky, who had stayed in a similar institution for a short period during his 1964 trial.

Brodsky settled in the U.S. in 1972 and had become a U.S. citizen by the end of the decade. He had a self-proclaimed “love affair with the English language” and translated many of his poems himself. He wrote numerous essays in English, and in the late 1980s, he even began composing poems in English. Yet the pull of his homeland—and native tongue—remained strong. As he states in “A Part of Speech”: “What gets left of a man amounts / to a part. To his spoken part. To a part of speech.”

A thread of displacement, loneliness, and loss runs through many of Brodsky’s poems. “I don’t know where I am or what this place / can be,” he writes in “Odysseus to Telemachus,” which draws on Homer’s Odyssey. “To a wanderer the faces of all islands / resemble one another.” In “Lullaby of Cape Cod,” he writes of moving between empires and navigating unfamiliar landscapes, while in “Lithuanian Nocturne” he asks, “Muse, may I set / out homeward?”

Ceremony Program (click to order)

Brodsky never did return to Russia, but he embraced the country he came to call home—and the U.S. embraced him in return. In addition to teaching at universities in Michigan, New York, and Massachusetts, he published poems and essays in the New York Times, Vogue, and other places. He received a grant from the MacArthur Foundation in 1981 and the 1986 National Book Critics Circle Award for Less Than One, a collection of essays about Russian and American poetry.

As Poet Laureate of the U.S., Brodsky sought to make poetry more accessible to Americans. “This assumption that the blue-collar crowd is not supposed to read it,” he stated soon after his appointment, “or a farmer in his overalls is not to read poetry, seems to be dangerous, if not tragic.”

Stricken with a heart condition that made him frail at a young age, Brodsky had a heightened sense of his own mortality, and images of time and death persist in his poems. “Lately I often sleep / during the daytime,” he writes in “Nature Morte.” “My / death, it would seem, is now / trying and testing me.” Brodsky died in New York City on January 28, 1996.

Joseph Brodsky is one of ten poets featured on the Twentieth-Century Poets pane. The stamps will be issued on April 21 in Los Angeles, California, but you can preorder them today!

National Book Month: Sylvia Plath’s Collected Poems

As an adolescent, I idolized poet Sylvia Plath. While my friends talked endlessly about their favorite bands and actors they wanted hanging over their beds, I spent hours poring over Plath’s poetry and journals, desperately trying to know everything I could about this mysterious woman.

Although Plath published just one collection of poetry and one novel in her lifetime, her complex body of work showcases her ability to conquer such weighty themes as marriage and motherhood, gender and power, death and resurrection, and the search for the self. Her posthumously published Collected Poems (1981) received the Pulitzer Prize in 1982. The collection includes poems written from 1956 until her suicide in 1963.

Plath’s most famous poem, “Daddy” (1962), delves into the painful subject of her father’s death when she was a child. Written in the singsong style of a nursery rhyme, the emotional verse evokes the feelings of sorrow and anger she felt at not having the opportunity to know her father before he died. This anger quickly changes direction, focusing on her husband, whose betrayal is connected, in Plath’s mind, to that of her father’s. By the end of the poem, the narrator has shed the burden of grief for both of these painful relationships.

As a teenager I wanted to be a poet, and Plath’s highly autobiographical style appealed to me. The way in which Plath reveals honest details of her life and innermost thoughts seemed so extraordinary. Though I no longer hold a romanticized image of becoming a poet, I do still love Sylvia Plath’s writing. With simplicity of language and self-reflection, she gives a voice not only to her own experiences, but those of many women. She is, in my mind, truly one of the greatest American poets of the 20th century.

Upon learning about the Twentieth-Century Poets stamps issuance later this year—and that the set of ten esteemed bards includes Sylvia Plath—my excitement for the 2012 stamp program spiked. Along with Plath, the commemorative pane will pay tribute to Elizabeth Bishop, Joseph Brodsky, Gwendolyn Brooks, E. E. Cummings, Robert Hayden, Denise Levertov, Theodore Roethke, Wallace Stevens, and William Carlos Williams. Designed by art director Derry Noyes, the Twentieth-Century Poets stamps will be issued in April.

“Sylvia Plath”, n.d.
Photograph by Rollie McKenna
@ Rosalie Thorne McKenna Foundation
Courtesy Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona Foundation