Introduction

Poetry after Brodsky

Irina Korina, Vertigo 1. 2012, wool rug, plasticine, wood, metal, 116 1/2 x 65". Courtesy Scaramouche New York.

The most influential Russian poet of the second half of the 20th century was, by far, Joseph Brodsky. While his poetic style, a virtuosic and self-conscious endpoint to the tradition of Russian classicism, was difficult to imitate, his ethical and moral example was contagious. Brodsky’s trial in 1964 — he was accused of “parasitism,” i.e., not working, i.e., being a poet who refused to participate in Soviet society — turned him at the age of 24 into a world-renowned figure, a martyr in the service of poetry. As he himself said many times, including in the lecture he gave on receiving the Nobel Prize, Brodsky was the representative of a particular Soviet generation whose highest ambition was to be left alone; whether they were poets or mathematicians or painters or factory workers, they simply wanted the government to leave them be. Brodsky’s word for this was privacy. “If art teaches anything,” he said in his Nobel lecture, “it is the privateness of the human condition.”

The generation of poets after Brodsky (Dmitri Prigov, Lev Rubinstein, Sergei Gandlevsky, Mikhail Aizenberg) took many aesthetic paths, but all followed Brodsky in their essential belief in the private role of the poet. This was partly out of necessity: you could not write freely within the system of official Soviet publishing. But after the Soviet Union collapsed and the former underground poets started coming out into the light, they did not, for the most part, change their minds. Poetry was a private enterprise. A poet, in his off-hours, could deliver socially engaged lectures and write essays, but poetry itself, lest you fall into old Soviet habits, was to remain simply poetry, nothing more.

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