Tuesday, May 16, 2006

"A school is a factory is a poem is a prison is academia is boredom, with flashes of panic."

One of my favorite writers is Joseph Brodsky.

He came to my mind this week. Joseph Brodsky was a Russian poet who was forced into exile by the Soviet government and he immigrated to the United States, later becoming an American citizen. “I’m the happiest combination you can think of," Brodsky said, after being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. "I’m a Russian poet, an English essayist, and an American citizen!”

I remember the night I met Joseph Brodsky. I had gone to an evening reading where he was reading his poetry. I had taken my copy of his collected essays "Less Than One" for him to sign. After the reading I went up to him to get the book signed. People ahead of me all had their brand new copies of his books to sign and I realized - with some horror - that my copy was so worn from my constant reading and re-reading, full of underlined passages and my comments in the margins, it was nearly falling apart. It was bent and dogeared and I thought, oh my God, why didn't I have the sense to go get a new copy? But it was too late and suddenly it was my turn to face the poet.

I handed him my copy of Less Than One hoping he wouldn't be too insulted of what I had done to his book. I hung my head, expecting the worse. He was my favorite living poet. Look what I had done to his book.

He took my copy in his hands and turned it over and over and over again. I realized that others standing around were also watching and I wanted to disappear into the floor. What was he doing? Then he looked at me and smiled, really smiled. I was astonished. Why was he smiling? Finally, he opened to the first page, paused a moment, then wrote something more than his name.

"To Mary," he wrote, "from the man behind these words. Joseph Brodsky."

I didn't realize it until that moment, but I had paid him the highest compliment. He handed me back the book, laughing. I wasn't just a reader. I was his student.

I'll be writing more about Brodsky in the weeks ahead. In the meantime, you can learn more about him below and at at the links at the end of this post.


Joseph Brodsky (May 24, 1940 – January 28, 1996), born Iosif Aleksandrovich Brodsky (Russian: Ио́сиф Алекса́ндрович Бро́дский) was a poet and essayist who won the Nobel Prize in Literature (1987) and was chosen Poet Laureate of the United States (1991-1992).

BRODSKY, Joseph (1940-96), Russian-born poet and Nobel laureate, born in Saint Petersburg (then known as Leningrad). Deeply influenced by Russian and English literature, he began writing poetry in his late teens and became a protégé of Anna Akhmatova. He was denounced in the Soviet press in 1963. Arrested and tried as a "parasite" by the Soviet government in 1964, he was sentenced to five years in a labor camp but was released after less than two years because of international protests.

Expelled from the USSR in 1972, Brodsky settled in the U.S. and became a U.S. citizen in 1977. Writing in both Russian and English, his books of poetry include A Part of Speech (1980) and To Urania (1988); Watermark (1992) is a book of prose (a long essay on Venice). He has published two plays, Democracy! and Marbles. Less Than One (1986), a collection of essays, won a National Book Critics Circle award for criticism and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Award. His poetry has been published in twelve languages. In 1987 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature. He was chosen by the Library of Congress to serve as Poet Laureate of the United States in 1992. Joseph Brodsky was Andrew Mellon Professor of Literature at Mount Holyoke College, and resided in New York.


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