Joseph Brodsky: Poet, Dissident, Jew

June 23 2017

Published first in Russian and then in English, Brodsky among Us is a memoir about the renowned Russian poet by his publisher and friend Ellendea Proffer Teasley, who was instrumental in getting him out of the Soviet Union. Marat Grinberg, in his review, discusses Brodsky’s politics and his Jewishness:

A staunchly philosophical poet, Brodsky shunned any explicit reference to politics in his verse—which was a political gesture in itself. Proffer . . . emphasizes that his opposition to Soviet power was presented in starkly moral terms [and] implicitly links Brodsky’s Jewishness to this resistance to the “evil structure” [that was the Soviet Union]. It is a primary subject of their first encounter, which she describes thus: “Joseph is voluble and vulnerable. He brings up his Jewish accent almost immediately; when he was a child, his mother took him to speech therapy to get rid of it, he says, but he refused to go back after one lesson.”

The “Jewish accent” had to do with Brodsky’s inability to roll his “r”s, which, while by no means unique to Jews, was a mark of the Jew in the largely anti-Semitic Soviet environment. Brodsky bought into the prejudice and at the same time wore it with pride, making it his own.

Jewishness is an ongoing theme in Brodsky’s early poetry of the 1960s, in which he speaks of a Jewish cemetery on the outskirts of Leningrad and imagines his future “Jewish gravestone.” His [poem] “Isaac and Abraham” is a beautiful, tortured, and complex midrash on the binding of Isaac. Brodsky transplants the biblical patriarchs onto the Soviet landscape, making the relationship between Abraham and Isaac symbolic of the rift between Russian-Jewish fathers and sons, who are burdened by the loss of Judaism as well as historical traumas both near and distant. The poem reveals Brodsky’s familiarity with Hebrew scripture as well as the kabbalah.

In his later poetry, the explicit Jewishness all but disappears in accordance with his goal of becoming the greatest Russian poet of his era and instead becomes a powerful undercurrent.

Welcome to Mosaic

Register now to get two more stories free

Register Now

Already a subscriber? Sign in now

Read more at Commentary

More about: Arts & Culture, Joseph Brodsky, Poetry, Russian Jewry, Soviet Jewry

To Today’s Cosmopolitan and “Oikophobic” Left, Israel Can Never Be Acceptable

Aug. 23 2019

On the day the Knesset passed its nation-state law last year, Benjamin Netanyahu proclaimed, “This is our state—the Jewish state. . . . This is our nation, language, and flag.” This declaration, argues Wiliam Voegeli, points precisely to what the American left finds so unpalatable about Israel:

Sign up to read more

You've read all your free articles for this month

Register

Sign up now for unlimited access to the best in Jewish thought, culture, and politics

Already have an account? Log in now

Read more at Claremont Review of Books

More about: Anti-Zionism, Leftism, Nation-State Law, Nationalism