The Poetry of Joseph Brodsky

By Hecht, Anthony | The Wilson Quarterly, Winter 2014 | Go to article overview

The Poetry of Joseph Brodsky


Hecht, Anthony, The Wilson Quarterly


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During the 1990s, the WQ published a regular poetry feature edited by a series of distinguished poets, who selected and introduced the works of other writers past and present. After the death of our first poetry editor, the Nobel laureate Joseph Brodsky, Anthony Hecht, one of his successors, published this tribute in our Summer 1996 issue. Brodsky's own appreciation of Zbigniew Herbert, the inaugural piece in the poetry series, can be seen here.

IN AN ELOQUENT TRIBUTE TO JOSEPH Brodsky, published almost exactly a month after his premature and widely lamented death, Tatyana Tolstaya, in The New York Review of Books, quotes some lines from the poet's early work:

   In the dark I won't find your deep
   blue facade
   I'll fall on the asphalt between the
   crossed lines

She goes on to conjecture: "I think that the reason he didn't want to return to Russia even for a day was so that this incautious prophecy would not come to be. A student of--among others--Akhmatova and Tsvetaeva (he knew their poetic superstitiousness), he knew the conversation they had during their one and only meeting. 'How could you write that.... Don't you know that a poet's words always come true?' one of them reproached. 'And how could you write that ...?' the other was amazed. And what they foretold did indeed come to pass."

Without any desire to sound mystical, I do think something prophetic can be claimed for Brodsky's poetry, or at least for two details, one of them small, the other large and visionary. The first is from a poem actually titled "A Prophecy," addressed to an unnamed beloved, and containing these lines:

   --And if
   we make a child, we'll call the boy
   Andrei,
   Anna the girl, so that our Russian
   speech,
   imprinted on its wrinkled little face,
   shall never be forgot.

Joseph (as everyone who ever knew him was allowed affectionately to call him) was the father of two children, a boy born in Russia, still there, from whom he was separated by involuntary exile, and a daughter, born in America to his Russian-Italian wife, Maria. The children are named Andrei and Anna.

The larger, more spacious and important prophecy is embodied in a major poem, "The Hawk's Cry in Autumn" (printed here in full), of which Tolstaya remarks in the same tribute: "He has a poem about a hawk ... in the hills of Massachusetts who flies so high that the rush of rising air won't let him descend back to earth, and the hawk perishes there, at those heights where there are neither birds nor people, nor any air to breathe."

To this brief comment I would like to add some of my own. The wind with which the poem begins is the wind of the spirit (John 3:8) as well as of inspiration, the necessary (and destructive) element in which the poet tries to dwell. The bird, at the pinnacle of his flight, guesses the truth of it: it's the end. The Erinyes (Furies) themselves are invoked, as though the aspiration to great heights must necessarily entail retributive punishment, as exemplified in Greek tragedy. And, echoing another ancient tradition, the agony and sacrifice of the bird/ poet precipitates a thing of beauty, the first snowflakes of winter, the poems of a soul that has sustained the punishing climate of Archangelic Russia. The brilliance that delights earthbound children has been purchased at the price of unendurable suffering and death. Whether Brodsky's wind owes anything to Percy Bysshe Shelley's annihilating "West wind," whether the Russian poet's hawk is any kin to Gerard Manley Hopkins's falcon, Thomas Hardy's darkling thrush or his blinded bird, each reader must determine for himself. And can it be that this assertion of Rainer Maria Rilke's played some part in Brodsky's thought?: "Whoever does not consecrate himself wholly to art with all his wishes and values can never reach the highest goal."

In his collection of essays, Less Than One, Brodsky has written so movingly about his early life that I will present here only the most meager biographical details. …

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