It’s the birthday of Russian-American poet Joseph Brodsky (1940) born Iosip Aleksandrovich Brodsky in Leningrad. He left school at 15, worked a series of odd jobs, and began writing poetry. In the 1960s, he taught himself Polish and English, and he began to translate poems from these languages into the Russian tongue. He even translated the Beatles’ “Yellow Submarine” into Russian. His irregular work record led to his arrest in 1964 for being a “social parasite,” and the fact that he was a Jew didn’t help him either. He was sent to a mental institution and then was sentenced to five years in an Arctic labor camp. His sentence was commuted after protests by philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, composer Dmitri Shostakovich, and poet Anna Akhmatova.
He was exiled from the Soviet Union in 1972, and he moved to the States, where he became a naturalized citizen in 1975. In 1993, he co-founded the American Poetry and Literacy Project. His goal was to place poetry in public places like airports and supermarkets, to make poetry “as ubiquitous as the nature that surrounds us … or as ubiquitous as gas stations, if not as cars themselves,” as he put it. Poetry, he said, “is the only insurance against the vulgarity of the human heart. Therefore it should be available to everyone in this country, and at a low cost.” One of the organization’s first projects was handing out free copies of the book Six American Poets in hospitals, hotels, and homeless shelters around the United States.
He was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1987, and in his acceptance speech he said:
“I who write these lines will cease to be; so will you who read them. But the language in which they are written and in which you read them will remain not merely because language is more lasting than man, but because it is more capable of mutation.”