For the record: more on Brodsky and the Marlin Café


Back in the U.S.S.R.

At first I mistrusted M.G. Stephens‘s “Sunday Morning at the Marlin Cafe,” which was published in Ploughshares in autumn 2008.  It recounts an encounter with Russian poet Joseph Brodsky as a Sunday morning drunk at a seedy café near Columbia University, sometime in the mid-1980s.  I wrote about the tale in a recent post, “M.G. Stephens on Brodsky: “It is the voice that seduces us” (And wrote about J.B. more recently here.)

Then I got a note from M.G. Stephens himself, writing at 6 a.m. from the U.K.  He insists that it’s all true.  “Going to the Marlin was a kind of slumming for people from Columbia. It was a run-down old-man’s bar at 110th & Broadway. I taught my creative writing classes there. Other profs frequently hung out there. It was quite dodgy, but also a place where Morningside Heights intellectuals let down their hair, away from the glare of academe. It was more intimate, too, than the West End Café up the road.”

Moreover, he told me, “I did not write that Brodsky essay for many years until I could verify my facts.” Ten years, actually, “checking with as many people as I could to be sure it was him.”

It's true.

He noted that “upwards of fifty people from Columbia, where he taught, and I also taught, his former students, people from the neighborhood, and three of the bartenders in that bar all verified that he frequently came to the Marlin, drank vodka, and sometimes got too drunk.”

“That was my only encounter with him, though I did see him in there myself many times,” he added.

Stephens is also a theater historian, from Yale, who has taught at University of London, though he is retired now. Hence, he was not intimidated when challenging the Nobel laureate’s perceptions regarding Greek drama, especially its comedy. They had differences of opinion about whether “Aristophanes was a kind of Richard Pryor of his time.”  Read the rest here.

“My next project is to read his poetry more thoughtfully. Many Russians in London have told me that I should, and I believe them.” Indeed, he should.


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