Farewell to Brodsky, 'modern philosopher' Appreciation: Brilliant poet will be remembered clearly as teacher, defender of language and enemy of elitism.

January 30, 1996|By JACKIE POWDER | JACKIE POWDER,SUN STAFF

He stood at the head of the classroom, dressed in his uniform of dirty jeans and a tweed jacket, encircled by the cigarette butts he had tossed to the floor while chain-smoking and discussing the poetry of W.H. Auden and Thomas Hardy.

That's how Nobel Prize-winning poet Joseph Brodsky, who died Sunday of a heart attack at 55, looked to his students at Mount Holyoke College. He was the kind of professor who marked papers with "B, for barely readable" and insisted that his students memorize poems to immerse themselves in their language and meter.

"A poem is not written for the sake of the story, just as a life is not lived for the sake of an obituary," he told them.

They knew, of course, that Mr. Brodsky was one of the premier poets of the 20th century. Later, he became the first U.S. poet laureate born outside this country.

"In my opinion, up until Sunday, the three greatest living poets of any language were Joseph Brodsky, Derek Walcott and Seamus Heaney," said Robert Straus, Mr. Brodsky's friend and publisher at Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Exiled from the Soviet Union in 1972 for his "decadent" poetry, Mr. Brodsky went on to establish himself as a leading lyrical poet, in the tradition of Robert Frost and W.H. Auden, two writers who greatly influenced him.

Shortly after his expulsion, Mr. Brodsky came to the United States where he became poet-in-residence at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. He became an American citizen in 1977 and never returned to the Soviet Union. Eventually, Mr. Brodsky settled in New York, and in 1981 accepted a teaching position at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Mass., where he also maintained a home.

Mr. Brodsky taught at several colleges in this country and published plays, essays and criticisms in addition to writing poetry. His work appeared in the New Yorker, the New York Review of Books and other magazines. A book of his essays, "Less Than One," won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1986, and in 1987 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. He used his Nobel money to help Russian refugees come to the United States.

In 1991, Mr. Brodsky was chosen as the Library of Congress's Poet Laureate, a position established to honor the nation's top poets.

"The thing about Joseph's poetry is that it is completely comprehensible," said Mr. Straus, of Farrar Straus and Giroux, which published Mr. Brodsky's three best known works: two volumes of poetry, "A Part of Speech," and "To Urania" and "Less Than One." "You know what he's saying, why he's saying it, how his mind works and how he feels."

"He believed in rhyme and meter; he detested free verse," said Peter R. Viereck, a professor of Russian history at Mount Holyoke College and one of Mr. Brodsky's early supporters in this country.

Mr. Brodsky's reverence for language is apparent in a letter he sent to the former head of the Communist party, Leonid Brezhnev, the day he left the Soviet Union in June 1972.

"A language is a much more ancient and inevitable thing than a state. I belong to the Russian language . . . the measure of a writer's patriotism is not oaths from a high platform, but how he writes in the language of the people among whom he lives.

"Although I am losing my Soviet citizenship, I do not cease to be a Russian poet. I believe that I will return; poets always return, in flesh or on paper."

Mr. Brodsky saw poets as "modern day philosophers" and railed against a publishing industry that marketed poetry to an intellectual audience, said Joseph J. Ellis, a professor of history at Mount Holyoke and a friend of Mr. Brodsky's.

When he was appointed poet laureate, Mr. Brodsky spoke about his wish to make poetry more accessible in this country.

"He thought we ought to publish books of poetry in mass quantities and put them in grocery stores, drug stores and airports," Mr. Ellis said. "He said this idea would work because Americans had lost their capacity to have a long train of thought, and poetry is the literature of sound bites, poetry is succinct."

Of course, Mr. Brodsky had very little formal education himself, and was largely self-taught.

Born in Leningrad in 1940, Mr. Brodsky left school at the age of 15 and supported himself as a laborer, mill-worker and merchant seaman while writing poetry. He taught himself English by translating the poetry of Robert Frost and 16th century metaphysical poet, John Donne.

Mr. Viereck said the poet's academic credentials were a topic of discussion when he proposed that Mr. Brodsky become a Five College professor at Mount Holyoke, Amherst, Hampshire and Smith Colleges and the University of Massachusetts, shortly after the poet emigrated to the United States.

"One of the [college] deans said 'Who is this Brodsky anyway and where did he get his Ph.D.?'" said Mr. Viereck, a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet. "Of course Joseph never had a B.A. or anything else."

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