Joseph Brodsky


Rawson House, when it was attached to the back of 40 Woodbridge St, was owned by Mount Holyoke College and was used as a residence for members of the college faculty and staff.  The most famous recent resident of Rawson House was Joseph Brodsky, professor of Russian at Mount Holyoke College, dissident Soviet poet and Nobel Laureate.   

An exhibit to honor the 70th anniversary of Brodsky’s birth was held in Rawson House, opening on October 8, 2010.  At that time there was a rededication of the plaque that once graced his house and then, in the evening, an invitation-only event of Brodsky scholars opened the exhibit.  The exhibit featured large-format photographs primarily of his time in the Soviet Union, many of which were taken by his father, a professional photographer.

Born in Leningrad he was exiled from the Soviet Union in 1972 and came to the College in 1974.  In 1981 he received a MacArthur “genius” award, in 1987 he received the Nobel Prize in Literature, and in 1991 was made Poet Laureate of the United States.  He was Andrew W. Mellon Professor of Literature at Mount Holyoke, 1990-96. He died at age 55 in 1996.

The finest tribute to Brodsky was written by James Billington, librarian of the Library of Congress, at the time of his death.  It was published by the Washington Post, January 30, 1996:

Joseph Brodsky sustained and exemplified the mysterious power of poetry both in the repressive Soviet culture from which he was exiled and in the permissive American culture to which he came. He was the authentic representative in our time of poetry as the deep moral alternative not just to the cruelty but also to the banality and vulgarity of the Soviet form of totalitarianism.

Whether confronting a prosecuting attorney about to send him off for punishment to the Russian north in the 1960s or challenging the commitment of Russian officials retooling their communist credentials in order to stay in power in the 1990s, Joseph Brodsky's searching honesty never linked poetry with the kind of periodic coddling of favor with repressive authority that so many writers in the Soviet era felt obliged to do.

He was the favored protege‚ of the great lady of Petersburg, Anna Akhmatova, and to hear him read her poems in Russian in the Library of Congress was an experience to make one's hair stand on end even if one did not understand the Russian language. Joseph Brodsky was the embodiment of the hopes not only of Anna Akhmatova, the last of the great Petersburg poets from the beginning of the century, but also Nadezhda Mandelstam, the widow of another great martyred poet. Both of them saw Joseph as part of the guiding light that might some day lead Russia back to her own deep roots.

These deep roots for Joseph involved both the rich humanistic tradition of literary Petersburg in which he was born and the Judeo-Christian heritage that was being rediscovered by artists in the late imperial period. Perhaps no poem of Joseph's is more beautiful than his rendering of Mary's presentation of the newborn Christ child in the temple to "the Prophetess Anna," whom Joseph clearly identifies not only with Anne, the mother of Mary, but with Anna Akhmatova.

Deeply influenced not just by Russian tradition but by the English metaphysical poets from Donne to Auden, Brodsky ends with the image of Simeon holding up the newborn child "to light up the path that leads into Death's realm,/where never before until this point in time/had any man managed to lighten his pathway./The old man's torch glowed and the pathway grew wider."

Joseph helped poetry's pathways grow wider in America at a time when poetry had to follow a much straighter and narrower path in Russia. And the key to his poetry was the sonority of language for which he surely had one of the most sensitive ears in both his adopted as well as his original language. Essays he wrote in English, "Less than One" and "In a Room and a Half," provide a wonderful autobiographical introduction and explain why he writes about his parents in English:

"I want English verbs of motion to describe their movements. This won't resurrect them, but English grammar may at least prove to be a better escape route from the chimneys of the state crematorium than the Russian. To write about them in Russian would be only to further their captivity, their reduction to insignificance, resulting in mechanical annihilation. ..."

Although he felt even more deeply about the Russian language than English, he was troubled and ambivalent about Russia and never returned after he was exiled.

Joseph had difficulty understanding why poetry did not draw the large audiences in the United States that it did in Russia. He was proud of becoming an American citizen in 1977 (the Soviets having made him stateless upon his expulsion in 1972) and valued the freedoms that life in the United States provided. But he regarded poetry as "language's highest degree of maturity," and wanted everyone to be susceptible to it. While poet laureate, he suggested that inexpensive anthologies of the best American poets be made available in hotels and airports, hospitals and supermarkets. He thought that people who are restless or fearful or lonely or weary might pick up poetry and discover unexpectedly that others had experienced these emotions before and had used them to celebrate life rather than escape from it.

Joseph's idea was picked up -- and thousands of such books have in fact been placed where people may come across them out of need or curiosity.

Joseph's own poetry ranged widely. Many of his poems were dedicated to others -- Thomas Venclova, Octavio Paz, Robert Lowell, Derek Walcott, Benedetta Craveri -- and to many others identified only by initials.

Joseph took themes from Roman poetry and Mexican literature. He transmuted classical themes into his own powerful narratives, doing good stories, and often looking wryly at himself looking at others:

Since the stern art of poetry calls for words, I, morose,/deaf, and balding ambassador of a more or less/insignificant nation that's stuck in this super/power, wishing to spare my old brain,/put on clothes -- all by myself -- and head for the main/street: for the evening paper.

--from "The End of a Beautiful Era," Leningrad 1969)

He mixed the physical and the metaphysical, place and ideas about place, now and the past and the future. His "Watermark" is a journal of Venice that revels in all the other portrayals by artists past -- in words, in paint, in music.

It begins on a station platform on a cold December night and much later during a November at sunset, "you sense this light's fatigue as it rests in Zaccaria's marble shells for another hour or so, while the earth is turning its other cheek to the luminary. This is the winter light at its purest. It carries no warmth or energy, having shed them and left them behind somewhere in the universe, or in the nearby cumulus. Its particles' only ambition is to reach an object and make it, big or small, visible. It's a private light, the light of Giorgione or Bellini, not the light of Tiepolo or Tintoretto. And the city lingers in it, savoring its touch, the caress of the infinity whence it came. An object, after all, is what makes infinity private."

Joseph could be wickedly funny and deftly ironic. He could also be glum and occasionally ill-humored. But he was always passionate about poetry, helpful to younger poets and always open to rising talent. The poets whose work he admired are the subjects of some of his best essays -- as his recent essay on Stephen Spender in the New Yorker testifies. His new book of essays -- that I have not seen -- On Grief and Reason -- apparently adds assessments of Thomas Hardy and of Robert Frost, whom he knew and specially admired. He liked those who mixed, as he did, natural landscapes and metaphysical meaning.

The late-blooming poetic language of Russia from Pushkin to Ahkmatova held the key for Joseph to Russia's postcommunist revival. I remember that he said at one of our conferences in 1991: "About this rapid decay of the Empire. I think it has decayed so rapidly because its foundation was less substantial than the foundation of other empires we are familiar with. The empires of the past have been held together, not so much by the legions, but by language."

He will be remembered as one who lived and cared for language, who won a Nobel Prize for verse written primarily in Russian, and yet became over time both a master essayist and a self-translated poet in the English language. We who knew him will not forget his passion, his impish delight in a good story, and his dedication to the craft and work of poetry. As he said at his opening remarks as poet laureate in October, 1991:

"By failing to read or listen to poets, society dooms itself to inferior modes of articulation, those of the politician, the salesman or the charlatan. ... In other words, it forfeits its own evolutionary potential. For what distinguishes us from the rest of the animal kingdom is precisely the gift of speech. ... Poetry is not a form of entertainment and in a certain sense not even a form of art, but it is our anthropological, genetic goal, our evolutionary, linguistic beacon."

For the biography of Joseph Brodsky published by the Nobel Committee see

Les Prix Nobel. The Nobel Prizes 1987, Editor Wilhelm Odelberg, [Nobel Foundation], Stockholm, 1988. 

For Joseph Brodsky’s Nobel Lecture see

For a long biography, bibliography of his works, and books and articles by and about Brodsky see

Weekend, May, 2014

A Brief History

Montagues at Sycamores

Joseph Brodsky

Brodsky Exhibit

The Sycamores Committee

Outline History of Sycamores and Rawson House
Mount Holyoke Alumnae of 

Sycamores Restoration 

Parlor Wallpaper

Wallpaper and Paint

Concealed Shoes

Rawson House

Water Tower
HABS, Historic American
Buildings Survey

Reflections from the House

Letter from Sycamores, 1832

Bark of the Tree