Brodsky's Birthday

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Brodsky's Birthday

James Carman

Remembering—and missing—a distinctive voice.

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Had he lived, the poet Joseph Brodsky would have been 70 today. For a too-brief period in the early 1990s, his prose graced the pages of the WQ, when he agreed to become our first poetry editor. It was an experiment by the editor at that time, Jay Tolson, who was as surprised as anyone when the Nobel Prize–winning poet agreed to introduce a poet in each issue with a short introductory essay followed by a selection of poetry. Brodsky wrote movingly about fellow exile Zbigniew Herbert, intimately about his friend Evgeny Rein, and knowledgably about C. P. Cavafy and other poets he thought deserved more attention, such as Weldon Kees or—typical for a classicist such as Brodsky—the Roman poet Sextus Propertius.

Re-reading these pieces now, I am struck again by how gifted a writer Brodsky was, even in a language that was not his native tongue. Although we communicated only over the telephone I was, for a time, his “editor.” (I include the quotation marks because Brodsky was prickly about his prose, and would only grudgingly agree to any alterations.) It wasn’t long before the restless Brodsky moved on, and one of the WQ’s last poetry sections was an appreciation of Brodsky by one of his successors as poetry editor, Anthony Hecht, at the time of his death in 1996.