Archive for May 27th, 2012

Joseph Brodsky: How the 15-year-old dropout became a university professor

Sunday, May 27th, 2012
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1972: The poet and the Proffers

Curious synchronicity:  On 19 March, drama critic John Freedman, writing in the Moscow Times, remembered Carl and Ellendea Proffer, the critical link in bringing Joseph Brodsky to the U.S.  I discussed this connection in my post a few days ago here.  It’s not like they show up in ink that much nowadays.

Freedman begins with a panegyric:

One of the most inspirational people in my life was a scholar and publisher whom I never met. His name was Carl R. Proffer and I can’t imagine living the life I have without him.

Along with his wife Ellendea C. Proffer, he founded Ardis Publishers in the early 1970s. This was a case of someone taking the idea of a publishing “house” quite literally. The Proffers began printing unpublishable Soviet and Russian literature at home and selling it by mail. Here you could read the latest stories, novels and poems by contemporary writers Joseph Brodsky,  Vasily Aksyonov and Andrei Bitov, to say nothing of banned works by Osip Mandelstam, Mikhail Bulgakov, Nikolai Erdman and many others from the early Soviet period. By the late 1970s I was unloading as much of my meager paychecks on books from Ardis as I was on records by Van Morrison, Bob Dylan and the Kinks.

One of my greatest joys in those years was receiving the latest edition of the Proffer-edited almanac Russian Literature Triquarterly in the mail. This was a scholarly journal like no other, past or present. There wasn’t a stuffy word in it. Each issue was jam-packed with incredible new translations, fascinating essays, groundbreaking memoirs and eye-opening scholarship. Each deliciously fat issue was also accompanied by oodles of rare, historical photographs and fabulous drawings and caricatures. RLT was an unsurpassed treasure trove of Russian letters.

Vintage republished Ardis edition (with commentary by Ellendea Proffer)

I followed one of the journalist’s hyperlinks and found a 1996 article by Benjamin Stolz and Michael Makin, and tells how Carl Proffer diverted the Russian poet to Ann Arbor:

He happened to be in Leningrad visiting Brodsky in May, 1972, when the poet received notification from the authorities that he was being issued an exit visa for emigration to Israel.  After responding that he was not interested in leaving his native land and culture, Brodsky was warned that the coming winter would be very cold — a threat that was not lost on a man who had been convicted of “social parasitism” for living on his poetry and had served a stretch in exile working on a collective farm in the Russian far north.  He decided to discuss the matter with his American friend, and Proffer, in his optimistic way, told Brodsky that he could come and teach in Ann Arbor.  Brodsky accepted the idea, and Proffer contacted Benjamin Stolz, who at the time chaired the Department of Slavic Languages & Literatures.  After receiving authorization to hire Brodsky, Stolz obtained an immigration visa personally approved by William Rogers, Secretary of State, and flew to Chicago to get a federal work permit.

Brodsky began teaching for the first time in his life in September, 1972 — a daunting assignment for anyone, but especially for a young man who had dropped out of high school at fifteen, even if he was accustomed to declaiming his poetry to large groups of admirers.  He asked Stolz how he should teach his courses, one of which was a course in Russian titled “Russian Poetry” and other, in English, titled “World Poetry.”  Stolz replied, “Joseph, they’re your courses, teach them the way you want to, you’re the expert, ” — a piece of advice that Brodsky didn’t need but never forgot.  Brodsky was an inspiring and unorthodox teacher, who combined significant demands on his students — he insisted that a person who was serious about poetry must know at least 1,000 lines by heart — with  a sense of the absurd.   He was known, upon listening intently to a long theoretical exposition from a graduate student, to respond with a concise “meow.”  His presence at the University offered the chance, in the words of a former student, to experience the dynamics of the poet’s perspective and his relationship to language.

Freedman recounts a recent visit to my old stomping grounds in the University of Michigan’s Modern Languages Building, to the office of the  Nobel poet:

Ugly building, gorgeous literature

Invited in by Professor Shevoroshkin, I spent a few moments in Brodsky’s former office. It is now entirely the domain of a linguist, but a few items have been left as they were the last time Brodsky stepped out into the corridor in 1980. A random gallery of postcards and pictures that Brodsky scotch-taped to the inside of the door still hang there helter-skelter. They include photos of an old Soviet china plate, the Venice canals, a view of St. Petersburg, and several simple designs that surely had little meaning for anyone but the poet.

Shevoroshkin explained that numerous items have fallen off the door over the years but that he hasn’t gotten around to taping them back up. “I’ve got to do that sometime,” he said with a smile suggesting he may never get around to it.

Important as his service to Brodsky was, bringing the poet to Ann Arbor was only one of Proffer’s many significant contributions in bringing Russian literature to America. I well remember that when Vasily Aksyonov was deported from the Soviet Union in 1980, his first stop was Ann Arbor. By that time, for those of us following events, it was the natural, the only, destination Aksyonov could have had in America. Not New York, not Los Angeles, but Ann Arbor, Michigan. Where Carl and Ellendea Proffer were located.

A year earlier I met the poet Bulat Okudzhava and the novelist Sasha Sokolov in California. Both had been published by the Proffers at Ardis.

I interviewed Sokolov for the Michigan Daily, in the Proffers’ basement, where Ardis was situation, shortly after he emigrated. Ardis was publishing his School for Fools at that time.

I also remember those postcards in the Modern Languages Building office.  As for his claim, “There isn’t that much of substance about the Proffers on the Internet, and that is an injustice” – well, this is a start.