Nowhere Man

1294084012kirsch_122310_380px Adam Kirsch on my old teacher, in The Tablet:

With most writers, the passage of time helps to consolidate their achievement and fix their reputation. Fifteen years after a poet’s death would seem like ample time for this posthumous process to be completed—especially in the case of a poet as famous as Joseph Brodsky, who became internationally known in his twenties and won the Nobel Prize in 1987. Certainly there is no mystery about the standing of poets like Seamus Heaney or Derek Walcott, Brodsky’s friends, contemporaries, and fellow-laureates. Whether you enjoy reading Heaney or not, the shape of his achievement is clear; his name stands for a certain kind of writing and thinking.

Brodsky, however, continues to look a little blurry to American readers. His work does not have the currency or influence, among younger poets, that his reputation would suggest. Some critics, especially in England, are prepared to dismiss him entirely, to call his work overrated and his reputation unearned. But most simply ignore him, as though he did not belong to the same conversation that includes Heaney or John Ashbery or Adrienne Rich.

In one crucial sense, of course, he does not. All those poets write in English; but Iosif Aleksandrovich Brodsky, born in Leningrad in 1940, was a Russian poet. This means that it is Russian readers, familiar with Brodksy’s language and literary tradition, who must decide his claims to greatness. And as Lev Loseff shows in Joseph Brodsky: A Literary Biography, his clarifying new book, the best Russian judges have been unanimous about Brodsky from the beginning.

When he was 21 years old, for instance, he was introduced to Anna Akhmatova, the tragic heroine of 20th-century Russian poetry. Loseff, a poet and friend of Brodsky’s, explains that such “pilgrimages” to Akhmatova were common for young writers, who would arrive “bearing flowers and notebooks full of poetry.” Unsurprisingly, the encounter made a deep impression on Brodsky: “I suddenly realized—you know, somehow the veil suddenly lifts—just who or rather just what I was dealing with.” What is more surprising is that Akhmatova, then 72 years old, immediately accepted Brodsky as an equal: “Iosif, you and I know every rhyme in the Russian language,” she told him. In 1965, after reading a poem of Brodsky’s, she wrote in her diary: “Either I know nothing at all or this is genius.”

There is nothing new about English readers being baffled by poetry that Russians adore. On the contrary, it’s a critical truism that Russian poetry doesn’t translate well. Pushkin occupies the same place in Russian literature as Shakespeare does in English, but it has always been hard for us to really understand why. Twentieth-century masters like Osip Mandelstam and Marina Tsvetaeva are probably as well known in America for their life stories as for their writings. If Brodsky belongs in their company, then it makes sense for him to remain a little obscure to Americans, just as they do.

What makes Brodsky’s case so unusual is that this Russian poet spent almost half his life in America.