Having finished Joseph Brodsky: A Literary Life, by Brodsky’s friend and fellow poet Lev Loseff (thanks, Sven & Leslie!), I want to quote a passage from chapter 8 that will give an idea of the kind of thing you won’t find in most biographies, no matter how well researched and written:
Brodsky’s choices in prosody were no less important than his verbal choices and, in fact, preceded them. [...] Prosody is the manipulation of speech within time. “[M]eters are simply different forms of distributing time. They’re seeds of time in the poem. Every song, even the bird’s, is a form of restructuring time.” Thus, for Brodsky, the choice of rhythmic structure is a philosophical one. No matter what the subject of the poem, the contrast between the metrical model and the rhythm introduced by the poet reminds the reader of the two contexts in which that subject is elaborated: one is the monotonous, indifferent beat of time marching on (meter), and the other is an attempt by an individual (the author, the lyric hero) to break that monotony—to slow time, to speed it up, to turn it back (rhythm). The dolniks that begin to dominate Brodsky’s verse in the 1970s allowed him far more leeway to work out his individual concept of time than classical meters could have. [...]
But another direction was to prove more productive—dolniks written in longer lines. Of all that he wrote between 1972 and 1977, Brodsky was most fond of the cycle “A Part of Speech.” Fifteen of the twenty short poems that make it up begin with what seems to be an anapest[...] In Russian poetry, the anapest has a certain sentimental semantic aura to it, perhaps arising from its waltz-like three-beat rhythm. It is rarely found in Blok’s lyric verse, while for Mandelstam it was the rhythm of cheap, vulgar romance. [...] Interestingly, Vladimir Nabokov, that scourge of vulgarity, never sensed this undertone. [...]
Brodsky chose a different way to make the anapest the prosodic foundation of some of his most important texts, those on love and nostalgia. The lines in “A Part of Speech” are very long for anapests (five or six feet, as a rule), and in most of them the anapest is actually transformed into a dolnik by a minimal but decisive break in the meter: immediately before the last stress in the line, one unaccented syllable goes missing. Heretofore, such anapest-like dolnik lines were quite rare in Russian poetry.
Obviously that kind of detailed analysis isn’t for everyone, but if you like it, you’ll like this book.
Speaking of Nabokov, there’s an interesting passage later in the chapter in which Loseff quotes an interview in which David Bethea asks Brodsky which of his books he knew and liked:
I adore Invitation to a Beheading. I adore Gift. I adore parts of Pale Fire. I’ve read, I think, everything:The Luzhin Defense, Pnin. . . [...] To answer your question, Nabokov, to his own mind, was first and foremost a poet. And he wanted to prove that to himself and everyone else. He did not understand that although he was a poet, he was not a great one. In a sense, his meeting Khodasevich was tragic perhaps for him, but this was [his] only tragedy. He recognized the distinction between a true poet and himself.
(I wrote about Nabokov and poetry here.)
And here is Isaiah Berlin on Brodsky: “How could anyone who had not read him in Russian understand him by his English poems? It’s utterly incomprehensible. Because there is no sense that they were written by a great poet. But in Russian . . . From the very beginning, as soon as it starts, you are in the presence of genius. And that is a unique sort of feeling—being in the presence of genius.” Truer words were never spoke.