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Joseph Brodsky, Remembered

Joseph Brodsky
Watch an audio slideshow of Joseph Brodsky with an excerpt from Alexander Genis's book "Brodsky In New York."

Seventy years ago this week, Joseph Brodsky was born in Leningrad. He died on January 28, 1996, in New York.

In the years in between, Brodsky established himself as one of the great Russian writers. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1987 and was named Poet Laureate of the United States in 1991.

Brodsky was born on May 24, 1940, and as a young child survived the Nazi siege of Leningrad. He quit school at the age of 15, working jobs as a milling machine operator, a stoker in a boiler room, and in the dissecting room at a morgue.

He taught himself English and immersed himself in American poetry. Brodsky began writing his own poetry at the age of 18 and became part of an informal group of young Leningrad writers that included Yevgeny Rein, Dmitry Bobyshev, and Anatoly Naiman.

He eventually attracted the attention of the great Russian poet Anna Akhmatova, who called his verses "enchanting."

In 1963, Brodsky was arrested and charged with "social parasitism." In 1964, he was sentenced to five years' internal exile in Arkhangelsk.

"What a biography they are creating for our redhead!" Akhmatova said at the time. "You'd think he hired them."

In a famous exchange at his trial, a judge asked Brodsky his profession and he replied, "Poet and translator."

The judge then asked, "Who enrolled you in the ranks of poets?" Brodsky replied, "Nobody. Who enrolled me in the ranks of mankind?"

The judge then pointed out that Brodsky had not even finished high school.

"I didn't think this was a matter of education," Brodsky said. "I thought it came from God."

Brodsky's sentence was commuted after 18 months following protests from cultural figures including the Russian composer Dmitry Shostakovich and the French writer Jean-Paul Sartre.

In 1972, he was exiled from the Soviet Union. In a letter to Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, Brodsky said he was "bitter" about being forced to leave his homeland, adding, "Once I stop being a citizen of the USSR, I will not stop being a Russian poet."

After brief stays in Vienna and London, he moved to the United States, where he became a naturalized citizen in 1977. He taught literature at various universities, including the University of Michigan, Smith College, Columbia University, and Mount Holyoke College.

He was awarded an honorary doctorate of letters by Yale University in 1978 and was inducted into the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters in 1979. He was awarded the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation's "genius" award in 1981.

Brodsky won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1987 and in 1991 was named Poet Laureate of the United States.

A heavy smoker, Brodsky twice had open-heart surgery. He died of a heart attack in 1996 in his New York apartment at the age of 55.