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PEN Case (1963): Josef Brodsky – USSR, Arrested/Exiled

© Sergey Bermeniev, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons


Josef Brodsky was born in May 1940 in Leningrad, USSR.  Although he left school at 15 he was able to teach himself Polish and English and in 1957 began to write poetry and translate literary works. 

In 1963 Brodsky was arrested after being denounced in The Evening Leningrad newspaper which claimed his poems were “pornographic and anti-Soviet. “After spending brief periods of incarceration in institutions for the mentally ill, he was officially charged with “parasitism” in 1964 and sentenced to five years of internal exile and hard labor.  The sentence was commuted due to international protests, and Brodsky was released after eighteen months.

Upon his release, Brodsky continued to write despite being faced with constant harassment from the Soviet authorities.  In 1972 he was given a visa to leave the USSR and subsequently was deported to Vienna, from where he immigrated to the United States. There he taught at the University of Michigan and became Visiting Professor at Queens College, Smith College, Columbia University, and also at Cambridge University in the UK.  In 1977 he became an American citizen and ten years later he won the Nobel Prize for Literature.  He died as a result of a heart attack in January 1996 in New York.

Throughout his career Brodsky produced works in both Russian and English including Less Than One: Selected Essays (1986). He was the first foreign-born citizen to be appointed Poet Laureate of the United States in 1991. 

Writing Sample

Prison is essentially a shortage of space made up for by the surplus of time; to an inmate, both are palpable. Naturally enough, this ratio – echoing man’s situation in the universe – is what has made incarceration an integral metaphor of Christian metaphysics as well as practically midwife of literature. As regards literature, this stands to reason, in a certain sense, since literature is in the first place a translation of metaphysical truths into any given vernacular.

It’s not that prison makes you shed your abstract notions. On the contrary, it pares them down to their most succinct articulations. Prison is indeed a translation of your metaphysics, ethics, sense of history, etc. into the compact terms of your daily deportment. The most effective place for that is of course solitary, with its reduction of the entire human universe to a concrete rectangle permanently lit by the sixty-watt luminary of its bulb under which you revolve in pursuit of your sanity. After a couple of months of that, the solar system is thoroughly compromised – unlike, hopefully, your friends and close associates – and if you are a poet, you may end up with a few decent lyrics under your belt. Pen and paper are seldom available to a prisoner.

So you are best off with rhyme and meter to make the stuff memorable, especially in view of some interrogation methods that render your output frequently unreliable. On the whole, poets fare better in solitary confinement than do fiction writers, because their dependence on professional tools is marginal: one’s recurrent back-and-forth movements under that electric luminary by themselves force the lyric’s eventual comeback no matter what. Furthermore, a lyric is essentially plotless and, unlike the case against you, evolves according to the immanent logic of linguistic harmony.

From ‘Forward’ in This Prison Where I Live, ed. Siobhan Dowd (London: Cassell, 1996). ISBN: 0-304-33306-9

Useful links

Biography on the Nobel Prize Website:

Article by former WiPC Chair, Michael Scammel, on the life of Joseph Brodsky, 2012:

Obituary New York Times, January 1996: