“He liked America’s gas stations, roadside bars, endless baseball games.” Adam Zagajewski and others remember Joseph Brodsky on his 80th birthday


Farrar, Straus, & Giroux remembers his anniversary with four books. (Photo: Ann Kjellberg)

Today, May 24, would have been poet Joseph Brodsky‘s 80th birthday. The commemorations are worldwide. The biggest in the Anglophone world may be the republication of three of his landmark books by Farrar, Straus, & Giroux: his two volumes of essays, Less than One and On Grief and Reason, and a fourth, a new Selected Poems, 1968-1996.

Ann Kjellberg‘s “Beyond Meaning: Joseph Brodsky’s Poetry of Exile” is in the New York Review of  Books here. An excerpt:

Literary executor Ann Kjellberg

“We now live in a time of which Brodsky was an advance scout—a time in which many writers operate beyond their original borders and outside their mother tongues, often, like Brodsky, bearing witness to violence and disruption, often answering, through art, to those experiences, in language refracted, by necessity, through other language. In Brodsky’s time there was a cluster of poets, some from the margins of empire, some, like Brodsky, severed from their roots—Walcott, Heaney, Paz, Milosz, to name a few—who brought with them commanding traditions as well as the imprint of history’s dislocations. We would do well now to attend to their song, standing as they did in our doorway between a broken past and the language’s future.”

If you’re up early in this morning, you might check out the Joseph Brodsky Memorial Fellowship Fund Facebook page, where poet Glyn Maxwell will be discussing his translations of the Russian Nobel laureate at 10.30 a.m. PST.

But for the most part, I have chosen to remember in a very different way. When I saw that Adam Zagajewski had published his own massive tribute in Warsaw’s Gazeta Wyborcza here, I spent an unconscionable number of hours on an otherwise busy day picking through the Polish to learn what he said. It became my own homage for the occasion.

Perhaps someday this long essay will appear in English, and I will be humiliated by my humble offering for you below. Perhaps Polish speakers around the world will send in correction and rebuke for my clumsy effort, assisted by Google. But until then, I’m the best you got, so please enjoy my wholly inadequate translation – and this is only a small portion of the whole, which runs to thousands of words. Excerpts below.


He loved bars, baseball, and Chinatown restaurants.

I knew him at his best as a good friend, but also as a follower of high culture, a defender metaphysical impulse in poetry. He was a ruthless enemy of totalitarianism, Soviet and any other, and an opponent of what Nabokov used to describe the words “poshlost,” banality, a lack of taste, smallness. He was able to reconcile his cultural elitism with an enormous fellow-feeling for the American way of life – which is the opposite of elitism. He liked America, including ordinary American gas stations; bars where giant TV screens dominated always, at any time of the day or night, and endless baseball matches. He knew and liked less-than-chic New York neighborhoods in Chinatown, which had his beloved restaurants. …

He loved English, including spoken American. He liked to use American idioms, though it happened that –  as it happens to foreigners – he couldn’t distinguish dead idiomatic expressions from live ones. Idioms live for several years or more then they go to the museum, i.e. to the dictionary, and there foreigners find them. With his arrogance (usually charming) he ignored the difference between “native speakers’ and those who learned the language late – as it happened, he even corrected “native speakers” (I was a witness – of course he was wrong, “native speakers” are always right), and they meekly accepted his correction.


I called him from Houston shortly after arrival from Europe. Usually the first days in Texas were difficult, melancholic for me – that’s why I was calling Joseph.  I was hoping for an intimate, friendly conversation (in other words – just gossip). But Joseph didn’t want to hear about my melancholy. He immediately asked me: what do you think about Horace‘s poetry?

He was just writing his essay about Horace. I mobilized myself to quickly remember what I thought of the poems of Horace, and my mood improved.


John Willett … told me once story related to Joseph. I remembered her exactly because it seemed fantastic and funny to me.

Adam Z. remembers

John, as already said, had known Joseph for a very long time; in some ways, he was a bit of an exotic character among Joseph’s American friends, where poets, poets, writers, and critics predominated. John was a professional diplomat who began his career in African countries, then worked for the State Department in many other countries, including in Italy or Turkey, and twice in Paris (I use the past tense, because unfortunately this educated, witty, and friendly man is dead). Well, John once told me he would tell me a story, which he didn’t tell anyone. It was like this: Joseph  had a mind that was passionate about a range of different topics, not only literature – e.g., military aviation (he knew everything on combat aircraft of the Second World War; when asked on what route he was flying to Europe he said: Luftwaffe) or the story of famous British spies – the Cambridge Four (who later became the Cambridge Five); anyway he wrote an essay about them.

One of those passions Joseph was the nuclear disarmament issue, the “Missile Gap,” as it was then called – a central issue in the 1980s.

He read all the articles on the subject, knew all about rockets, Pershings, and Minutemen, and on the loading facilities of both sides. He knew what are these rocket varieties were called, as well as their range and power of destruction. And of course he had his own theories.

He told John, who had was between missions lived in Washington – that he would gladly give a lecture at the State Department, in which he would present his concepts about disarmament. For a long time John tried to dissuade Joseph. He told him that, in the State Department, the world’s best experts devote every moment to studying these issues. They knew everything on this subject, and that he, a dilettante – extremely brilliant, but still a dilettante – couldn’t hold any weight in conversation with them, let alone convince them of his theories.

Joseph, however, insisted. And eventually John gave in and it led to a lecture at the State Department, and the great Washington missile specialists came, fresh from determining and calculating the balance of two arsenals.

“Well, how did it go?” I asked John. “You know it didn’t go well,” he replied.


Leszek Kołakowski wrote an essay in the 1950s, which became very famous and is still read in different countries and languages, “The Priest and the Jester.” This ambiguous, brilliant sketch, for which it is impossible to form a single interpretation, indicates a deep tear that is present in contemporary culture.

However, Kołakowski himself seems to have been, as a thinker, both priest and jester. It also seems that some great poets are also, at once, priest and jester. And that was so with Brodsky. Even at the most superficial level, this made itself felt in the way he read (or recited, sang) his poems, faithful to this major Russian poetic tradition, where recitation refers to church singing. However, the attentive listener cannot fail to see that he was singing his poems in a tragic mode – though they were often ironic and the very manner of their presentation hid strong contradictions – strong and interesting.


While Eliot was walking towards deeply understood Christianity, which culminated in “Four Quartets,” dear Joseph … was quite the opposite. His poems centered on Christmas, yet one of the finest cycles in Joseph’s work, slowly withered in United States. In many “Christmas poems,” written every year, we find responses to what Karl Jaspers called the “codes of transcendence”; the reader senses that the religious and Christian sensibility is a shield defending against brutality and ugliness of the Soviet system.

Similarly, in an early, beautiful and important poem “A Halt in the Desert,” in which a Greek church is destroyed by a crane and falls into nothingness, making way for a concert hall, and is mourned by the author. Concert hall and temple: the young poet sadly watches the destruction of the church from home of friends, “a Tatar family,” and considers the architecture of a future “temple of art” …

The narrative of this extraordinary poem is devoid of direct emotion, his expression is suppressed – just like great jazz trumpeters, sometimes in parts lento or largo, put a damper on the trumpet – and what happens is as if viewed through inverted binoculars. We hear a calm, philosophical commentary full of wisdom, saturated with concern not only for the present, but also for the next generation. Young Joseph shows a considerable maturity. He uses the plural, “we” as if, against the facts, he agreed to take part responsibility for the criminal system and for destructive crane.


He kept great reserves of what he was until the end of his life the essence of poetry – lyricism. In his poetic work two basic elements, two basic elements are intertwined: lyricism and intellectualism. Yes, as it should be –because these two energies need each other, even though they often fight against one another. A poet who is only lyrical can bore us. Only an intellectual poet makes us reach out philosophically.

A melancholic poem from 1993 (written three years before death), “Daedalus in Sicily,” shows Daedalus as an old man, an engineer who tirelessly throughout life worked on inventions. The wise reader knows who the daemon of this poem is. And also a beautiful poem – which can easily be considered a late, farewell song, which in fact is very early (“… I will not ask for immortality in death”) – full of pure lyricism, ending with these lines: “But let my young life over my Jewish grave scream persistently ”(translated into Polish by Katarzyna Krzyżewska).

From Christmas to the Jewish grave – here are the stations in the path of a poet who was born in a Jewish family, though not a religious one. But, like Mandelstam, for a long time his poetry chose Christianity. Brodsky’s unusual way of reciting poems, his strong voice, the majesty of melodic lines bring to mind the singing a synagogue cantor or litany incantations, with its very sound it refers to the sacred and liturgical roots of the language.


By the way, you don’t have to be a very attentive reader his poems and essays to notice a significant evolution in the author’s spirituality and worldview.

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