Joseph Brodsky Biography

Poet, Educator (1940–1996)
Russian-born poet Joseph Brodsky was awarded the 1987 Nobel Prize in Literature for his important, sublime works of poetry.


Born in Leningrad, Russia on May 24, 1940, Joseph Brodsky wrote poetry as a teen. He was charged with "social parasitism" by the Soviet authorities, who sentenced him in 1964 to five years of labor. The sentence was later commuted. Exiled from his country in 1972, Brodsky relocated to the U.S. He won the Nobel Prize in 1987 and served as poet laureate from 1991 to '92. He died on January 28, 1996.

Early Life

Born on May 24, 1940, Joseph Brodsky grew up in St. Petersburg (then known as Leningrad), Russia. His father was an officer in the Soviet Navy for a time, but he was unable to advance his career in the service because he was Jewish. His mother helped support the family, working as a translator and a bookkeeper.

During his school years, Brodsky was treated poorly by his teachers because of his Jewish heritage. He also chafed under the communist doctrine he was forced to learn. Around the age of 15, Brodsky walked out of school for forever. He studied on his own, immersing himself in literature and teaching himself Polish. By learning the language, Brodsky could read the works of such Polish writers as Czeslaw Milosz in their native language.

Rebellious Poet

Brodsky started writing poetry in the 1950s, but he found few opportunities to publish his work. He became a popular street poet, sharing his art with the public. To support himself, Brodsky also worked a number of jobs. But his refusal to find a state-approved career ended up getting him in trouble. He was harassed by the government and media in the early 1960s and was even sent to a mental institution on two separate occasions.

In 1964, Brodsky was put on trial for "social parasitism." The government sentenced him to five years' hard labor. He was sent to a work camp in the north near Arkhangelsk. After toiling outside all day, Brodsky spent his nights learning English and reading British and American poetry. The metaphysical poets, such as John Donne, were important influences. After Soviet leader Leonid Ilich Brezhnev lost power, many Soviet and Western writers and artists were able to successfully campaign for Brodsky's release.

Life in Exile

Not long after gaining his freedom, Brodsky began to publish his works abroad. His first Russian volume of poems was released in 1965. Two years later, a collection of English translations was published in London. But he still faced challenges at home. In 1971, Brodsky was invited to emigrate to Israel. Soviet officials basically forced him to accept this offer the following year, warning him that his life in his native country would become even more difficult if he stayed.

Brodsky first spent time in Europe, visiting with English poet W.H. Auden. He eventually ended up in the United States as a poet in residence at the University of Michigan. In 1973, Brodsky published Selected Poems in the United States, which featured a foreword by Auden.

Nobel Prize Winner

In 1980, Brodsky published another well-received collection of poems, A Part of Speech. He moved to New York City around this time and began teaching at New York University and Columbia University. Over the years, Brodsky taught at other area colleges as well.

Brodsky published Less Than One in 1986. This collection of essays showed just how versatile he was as a writer. The following year, Brodsky received the Nobel Prize in Literature. The Nobel Committee chose him for his "all-embracing authorship, imbued with clarity of thought and poetic intensity."

During his final years, Brodsky continued to produce new poems as well as essays. In 1992, he published Watermark, a collection of essays on Venice. The time he spent doing hard labor had left him with lifelong heart problems. Brodsky died of heart disease in New York City on January 28, 1996.

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