Advocate for American poetry Russian: Joseph Brodsky, whose independent spirit and verse got him tossed out of the Soviet Union, spent his last years decrying the neglect of poets in his adopted country.

Sun Journal

January 31, 1996|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,SUN STAFF

Joseph Brodsky began his literary career in a country that took poetry seriously -- seriously enough to send him to a labor camp for writing it. In a Russian tradition that predated the Soviet era, his poems infuriated the authorities, turned him into a major public figure and attracted devoted readers who risked arrest merely by possessing underground copies of his work.

"Tyranny," Mr. Brodsky told an interviewer last year, "will make an entire population into readers of poetry."

Mr. Brodsky, who died Sunday in New York of a heart attack at 55, ended his career in a country that, officially speaking, treated him far better. He was given professorships, granted a MacArthur Foundation "genius award," appointed poet laureate, accorded the respect due the winner of the 1987 Nobel Prize for literature.

Yet he spent many words in recent years decrying the neglect of poetry in America.

Lost in the ocean of free, commercial media, marooned in university literature departments, read by a minuscule audience, poets in the United States are not persecuted, merely ignored, he complained. Mr. Brodsky campaigned relentlessly to expand the audience for verse.

"American poetry is this country's greatest patrimony," he said in his inaugural lecture as poet laureate in 1991. "It takes a stranger to see some things clearly. This is one of them, and I am that stranger."

Mr. Brodsky declared that American poetry should be unloosed from the academy and distributed everywhere. He gave his blessing to a quixotic plan to place anthologies of American poetry in motel rooms, alongside Gideon Bibles; the Bibles shouldn't object, he remarked, since they've been cooped up next to telephone books all these years.

The gentle, ironic lyricist many specialists considered the greatest living Russian poet railed mainly on behalf of great American poets, alive and dead.

"If we were living in a more civilized world," he declared of the work of fellow poet laureate Mark Strand in 1994, "Strand would be spoken off the rooftops."

Poetry, he said, "should be as ubiquitous as the nature that surrounds us, and from which poetry derives many of its similes; or as ubiquitous as gas stations, if not as cars themselves.

"Bookstores should be located not only on campuses or on main drags, but at the assembly plant's gates also. Paperbacks of those we deem classics should be cheap and sold at supermarkets."

Undoubtedly, Mr. Brodsky's frustration at the peripheral place of poetry in American culture had roots in the paradoxical power of literature in his native land. In the Moscow of the 1960s, his own forbidden typescripts were passed hand to hand like some kind of literary cocaine, and a poet such as Yevgeny Yevtushenko, who enjoyed cautious official favor, could fill a stadium for a reading.

In the 19th century, under the czars' rule, "the poets became the conscience of the country," says David M. Bethea, a scholar of Russian literature at the University of Wisconsin and author of a study of Mr. Brodsky. "There developed a bardic tradition in which the people turned to the poets for the truth. I feel Brodsky is the last Russian poet in this great bardic tradition."

The tradition began with Russia's greatest poet, Aleksandr Pushkin, whose work sent him into exile and earned him the vigilant attention of the secret police. In 1826, the czar paid him the ultimate compliment: Pushkin was summoned and informed that henceforth Nicholas I would censor all of the poet's writings.

After the Bolshevik revolution of 1917, the persecution of independent-minded writers gradually intensified, achieving its terrifying apogee under Josef Stalin.

The poet Osip Mandelstam paid ironic tribute to the Soviet ruler's attention to literature: "Only in our country is poetry respected -- they'll kill you for it," he told his wife. "Only in our country and no other."

Mandelstam's death in 1938 of starvation and exhaustion en route to a prison camp underscored his point.

With this terrible history in mind, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn declared that a writer can be a "second government." Indeed, the Soviet regime came to treat Mr. Solzhenitsyn almost as a one-man opposition party.

When the writer directly challenged the regime by publishing abroad his massive history of the Soviet prison camp system, "The Gulag Archipelago," the ruling Politburo met for hours to ponder how the state should respond.

Mr. Brodsky, born in 1940, was a generation younger than Mr. Solzhenitsyn and an utterly different literary personality. A school dropout, he worked as a young man at an astonishing variety of jobs, laboring on geological expeditions and sewing up corpses in a morgue. But he quickly found his gift for poetry and was befriended by the great poet Anna Akhmatova, whose verse had chronicled the Stalinist terror and the Nazi blockade of Leningrad.

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