Adam Kirsch’s review of Lev Loseff’s Joseph Brodsky: A Literary Life makes it sound like something I’ll have to read:

Loseff’s book is, as its subtitle insists, a strictly literary biography. The outlines of Brodsky’s life are sketched, but private experiences are related only when they directly inspired his poetry. Thus Loseff tells, in brief and general terms, the story of Brodsky’s long, tumultuous love affair with a woman named Marina Basmanova, which drove him to a suicide attempt, produced a son, and inspired some major poems. On the other hand, Brodsky’s marriage, late in life, is dispatched in a single sentence, and there is little about other friendships or relationships.

Where Loseff excels is in sketching the Russian literary and cultural context for Brodsky’s work—the poets he knew and admired, the “schools” that dominated Leningrad poetry in his youth. This kind of analysis is a reminder of how little Brodsky can be understood through an American prism. Likewise, the excerpts from his early Russian poems, translated (along with the whole book) by Jane Ann Miller, show how much we would benefit from a comprehensive new translation of Brodsky’s poetry. Miller’s excellent work is only seemingly slighted by the odd way that each of her verse translations is followed by the word “non-poetic”: This is to show that the translation is not by Brodsky, but in fact, her lucid and convincing versions are often more effectively poetic than the poet’s own.

And I’m glad Kirsch is willing to come right out and say “Brodsky in English remains, all too often, wrenched, unidiomatic, and unmusical.” Incidentally, Loseff was himself a fine poet; I quoted one of his poems in this post. (Thanks, Paul!)

Update. I reviewed Loseff’s bio here.


  1. The problem with Brodsky in English was Brodsky. He had a tin ear in his adopted tongue. He seemed to think that his ability to come up with a rhyme was enough. It isn’t. Walcott’s translations of his poems are great. Brodsky’s renderings of his own stuff plodded.
    (Haas has a scathing early review of Brodsky (as an up-and-coming poet) in his “Twentieth Century Pleasures.”)
    I remember thinking, “Now that he’s dead, maybe we’ll get some good translations.” Looks like we’ll have to wait a little longer.

  2. I read Losev’s book in Russian when it came out in the ЖЗЛ series a few years back. This new translation makes me wonder how many others from that series have been translated into English. I wouldn’t think that there would be an Anglophone audience for many of them; Brodsky seems a special case.

  3. I heard about a Russian animated series, Масяня, that supposedly All The Kids are into. This episode, picked at random, has some gratuitous Brodsky hanging around and being poetic. I was surprised to see any poet at all used for cheap yuks in an animated series: in the US hardly any poet is known well enough for an animated series, even the relatively highbrow Simpsons. Why a poet? Why Brodsky? Does he appear in other episodes, too?

    The animator lives in Israel these days, but the series is based in Saint Petersburg.

  4. It’s not cheap yuks. I think it’s really funny to juxtapose the recent quarantine with the Brodsky’s verse. I guess it works only for Cool Kids (or for adults pretending to be teh cul kidz), not for mass production.

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