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Making It Happen
Food, shelter, clothing -- and words. For Nobel laureate Joseph Brodsky, a giant of 20th-century Russian literature, poetry was as basic a requirement for living as the air he breathed. Sent to the Arctic labor camps by Russian authorities and eventually expelled from the Soviet Union for his writings, the late Brodsky remains a symbol of the activist writer, the poet for whom poetry was a matter of life and death.
The Collected Poems in English, edited by Ann Kjellberg, brings much of Brodsky's poetry together under one cover for the very first time (two-thirds of his work remain to be published in English translations). Brodsky's are big poems about death, love, life, and duty. Since Anna Akhmatova's early support, Brodsky's powerful, awe-filled poems -- and his equally powerful argument that verse must chronicle and fight for the world it lives in -- have inspired poets around the globe and drawn a slew of talented translators determined to bring Brodsky into English. From his earliest collaborations with poets and friends such as Derek Walcott, Howard Moss, and Richard Wilbur to poems composed directly in his adopted tongue, The Collected Poems is the essential volume of the Nobel winner's work.
Despite his commitment to the craft, the irony of creating beauty in the language of his tormentors was certainly not lost on Brodsky. In "The End of a Beautiful Era," Brodsky approached his role as poet of the country that termed him a "social parasite" with a characteristic mix of awe and duty:
Since the stern art of poetry calls for words, I, morose,
deaf, and balding ambassador of a more or less
insignificant nation that's stuck in this super
power, wishing to spare my old brain,
hand myself my own topcoat and head for the main
street: to purchase the evening paper.
Outside of the Soviet Union, Brodsky's views on poetry as the main and necessary vehicle of language has had a major effect on American poetry, with Susan Sontag, Mark Strand, and Derek Walcott among his most ardent supporters.
Though at turns humorous and often fiercely political, Brodsky is also regarded as a poet of love, a believer to the end in the power and comfort of romance. One of his magnificent contributions is "Six Years Later," which presents six stanzas of six lines each about the quotidian, predictable life of a man and a woman who have lived together for a long time.
So long had life together been that she
and I, with our joint shadows, had composed
a double door, a door which, even if we
were lost in work or sleep, was always closed:
somehow its halves were split and we went right
through them into the future, into night.
For Brodsky, the familiar is as big a cause for wonder as the shocking. A natural death is as amazing as a violent death, and a love that lasts for decades is still worthy of a poem, just as a sudden infatuation is. Poetry matters no matter what the occasion and no matter what the language. This was Brodsky's personal twist; he impressively proved that the specific language was secondary to the inherent power of verse. As both author and translator, Brodsky's poems are at once translations and original creations. He refused to give up the pleasure of a poem. In either language, Brodsky was -- and remains -- a poet of wonder.