by Benjamin Stolz and Michael Makin, December 1996
On July 9, 1972, Joseph Brodsky came to Ann Arbor to take up a teaching position at the University of Michigan. He had been deported from the USSR barely a month earlier. This past November, members of the University faculty as well as visiting speakers gathered in Ann Arbor for a Commemorative Conference in his honor. The conference organizers had invited the poet, himself, and he agreed to attend. Joseph Brodsky, however, died at his home in Brooklyn, New York, on January 28, 1996. The conference took place on November 7-9, under the collaborative sponsorship of the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures and the Special Collections Library of the Graduate Library, and with funding from several University sources and a leadership grant from Irwin T. Holtzman. Concurrent with the conference was an exhibition of materials about Brodsky's life and work from the private collection of Irwin T. and Shirley Holtzman, at the Special Collections Library.
Joseph Brodsky was an exceptional man, one with strong connections to Ann Arbor and the University of Michigan. He dropped out of high school at age 15, and the first degree he received was an honorary doctorate. He was promoted to a tenured professorship at the University without being formally nominated; and after receiving the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1987, he became the first foreign-born citizen to be appointed Poet Laureate of the United States, serving from 1991 to 1992. In this capacity he followed in the footsteps of an American poet whom he revered — Robert Frost, who had taught at Michigan some five decades earlier.
Brodsky arrived in Ann Arbor in 1972 — at thirty-two, already a highly esteemed Russian poet, though one officially blacklisted by the Brezhnev regime — to become poet-in-residence at the U-M. How did he manage to land in Ann Arbor so soon after being forced to leave his native country? What brought him to the University?
The crucial link between Brodsky and the U-M was the late Carl R. Proffer, professor of Russian Literature. Proffer and his wife Ellendea were co-founders of Ardis Press, which had published a number of Brodsky's works. He happened to be in Leningrad visiting Brodsky in May, 1972, when the poet received notification from the authorities that he was being issued an exit visa for emigration to Israel. After responding that he was not interested in leaving his native land and culture, Brodsky was warned that the coming winter would be very cold — a threat that was not lost on a man who had been convicted of "social parasitism" for living on his poetry and had served a stretch in exile working on a collective farm in the Russian far north. He decided to discuss the matter with his American friend, and Proffer, in his optimistic way, told Brodsky that he could come and teach in Ann Arbor. Brodsky accepted the idea, and Proffer contacted Benjamin Stolz, who at the time chaired the Department of Slavic Languages & Literatures. After receiving authorization to hire Brodsky, Stolz obtained an immigration visa personally approved by William Rogers, Secretary of State, and flew to Chicago to get a federal work permit.
Brodsky began teaching for the first time in his life in September, 1972 — a daunting assignment for anyone, but especially for a young man who had dropped out of high school at fifteen, even if he was accustomed to declaiming his poetry to large groups of admirers. He asked Stolz how he should teach his courses, one of which was a course in Russian titled "Russian Poetry" and other, in English, titled "World Poetry." Stolz replied, "Joseph, they're your courses, teach them the way you want to, you're the expert, " — a piece of advice that Brodsky didn't need but never forgot. Brodsky was an inspiring and unorthodox teacher, who combined significant demands on his students — he insisted that a person who was serious about poetry must know at least 1,000 lines by heart — with a sense of the absurd. He was known, upon listening intently to a long theoretical exposition from a graduate student, to respond with a concise "meow." His presence at the University offered the chance, in the words of a former student, to experience the dynamics of the poet's perspective and his relationship to language.
Brodsky remained on the Slavic Department staff until 1981, though he frequently visited at other colleges and universities during the 1970s. During this time, he rose from lecturer to tenured professor ( the latter rank was bestowed upon him by Billy Fry, without the bother of a formal recommendation or review, following Brodsky's election to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences). In 1981 he left the U-M and began to split his time between New York City and Mount Holyoke College, in Massachusetts.
During his time at the University, Brodsky gave a number of poetry readings to large audiences. In March, 1984, he returned to take part in a panel discussion featuring émigré Russian writers and artists including Mikhail Baryshnikov, who gathered to honor Carl Proffer, by that time fatally ill. He gave another poetry reading here in December, 1988, when he received an honorary doctorate and delivered the commencement address (published in his volume of essays On Grief and Reason as "At the Stadium.") His last poetry reading in Ann Arbor was in October, 1992, when he attended the Slavic Department's fortieth anniversary reunion.
During the second half of this century, Joseph Brodsky was the most remarkable poet in a culture rich with poetic talent and achievement. But perhaps he was even more remarkable for transcending that very culture at a time when it had, largely through both accident and design of totalitarianism, become more introverted than ever before. While most of Brodsky's generation devoted itself to the meticulous archaeology of recovering the literature that thrived first before and then in defiance of Stalinism, Brodsky combined that project with an international eclecticism which was part of a sophisticated literary world view long before he found himself beyond the boundaries of his motherland. His poetry precisely articulated the point of view of the educated Homo sovieticus, whose savage irony was the last bastion against despair, while equally brilliantly presenting the totally original discoveries in language, imagery and wit of a master-poet. Manipulating the classical language, forms of Russian verse, and their multiple connotations, Brodsky mixed high and low registers to create a stylistic dissonance which was all the more powerful when contained within familiar verse forms. His penchant for the witty aphorism and for the radical deflation of cultural cliche has given Russian language many memorable lines.
Brodsky's poetic oeuvre is large and extraordinarily diverse — indeed, he was a poet of staggering energy. Abroad he applied that energy to the creation of an even greater literary self (one critic has called him an "intellectual conquistador"). In America he became a brilliant essayist, often writing separate and markedly different versions of the same essay in Russian and English. And quite unlike most all of his contemporaries in Russian literature (wherever they might reside), he was constantly delighting in new literary territories, well beyond the boundaries of his native language and culture. He even wrote original and often very successful poetry in the language of his host country, and many of his auto-translations convey superbly the unique flavor of his Russian verse.
Although for many years his poetry could reach Russia only by underground and illegal means, his influence was such that it has been said that no one could write in a style or genre approaching his manner or on his favorite topics without being derivative. In particular, his restatement of the myth and idea of his native city, St. Petersburg, has had enormous power, and has located Brodsky unambiguously among that city's literary greats, from Pushkin to Mandelstam.