Words Without Borders presents Thirteen Ways of Looking at Joseph Brodsky, an excerpt from a forthcoming book by Valentina Polukhina:

Between 2003 and 2004, Valentina Polukhina conducted a series of interviews about Nobel Prize in Literature recipient Joseph Brodsky. She spoke with former Brodsky student and executive director of The Academy of American Poets (from 1989 to 2001) William Wadsworth; respected American essayist Susan Sontag; and prolific poet, playwright, essayist and fellow Nobel laureate Derek Walcott.

Brodsky is a fascinating and contradictory figure even on the page; in life he was obviously both inspiring and infuriating, and these exchanges frequently make for gripping reading. Wadsworth says “Joseph was tremendously charismatic, but he also came across in many ways as an absolutist, and was frequently given to outrageous statements, even insults. If you couldn’t roll with the punches, if you disagreed with him and your skin was thin, Joseph’s manner could seem overbearing,” and there are several examples of this. Walcott says:

Joseph was somebody who lived poetry. He proclaimed it every time I met him. That’s why I admired him. He didn’t do the English or American thing, you know, of being shy and saying, “I am not really a poet” or, “I don’t like to be called a poet”—any of that nonsense. He was very proud of being called that. He was Brodsky. He was the best example I know of someone who proclaimed that he was a poet; that’s what he did. … He saw being a poet as being a sacred calling.

I continued to be mystified by people who admire his terrible self-translations, but in Russian he is one of the all-time greats, and I hope this book keeps his memory fresh in America.


  1. It seems that there is no rhyme or reason in the distribution of good translators among bilingual (or more) Russian poets; Brodsky has not been called from above for that job, like Nabokov – and unlike Pasternak. His attempt at Stoppard’s “Rosenkrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead” (no, I don’t know what moved him to do it) rarely raises itself above the level of a passable word-for-word interpretation – but it has become the definitive version by simple virtue of having come from him.

  2. J. Del Col says

    I met Brodsky a couple of times. Of course he was infuriating. He was a genius, and he knew it.
    He had no patience with people he thought were fools or hacks. He was also charming and amazing to hear as he recited his own works in both English and Russian.
    Why people expect great poets to be humble, I don’t know. Dante had himself crowned with laurels by the big guns of classical literature. If that’s not egomania, what is?

  3. J. Del Col says

    As far as his work as Poet Laureate goes, Brodsky had a scheme to put inexpensively printed volumes of great American poetry in every motel room in the country, sort of like the Gideon Bibles. He never could get anyone in Congress to take him seriously.
    He also said that in all the time he was PL, only two legislators ever ‘consulted’ him, Senator Alan Simpson of Wyoming asked him to read and comment on verses he’d written. Brodsky didn’t say what the poems were like, but his demeanor suggested they weren’t worth the effort. Another member of Congress from somewhere in the Midwest asked Brodsky for a list of books to read during flights to and from his home district. Other than that, they left him alone.

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