The death of a poet leaves a space like an unfinished poem. Joseph Brodsky’s death in 1996, a time when poetry was regaining its place in the cultural landscape of America, was tragic. Poetry’s reemergence in the United States, in many ways, is owed to him.
Brodsky was an American Nobel laureate in poetry, a designation which signals a great deal of information regarding both the United States and our attitude towards poetry. Like our two other Nobel poets, Derek Walcott and Czeslaw Milosz, Brodsky was not born here. He came to the U.S. from Russia, a self-educated poet who left school at 15, labored in mills and morgues and ships, studied poetry with Anna Akhmatova, and finally was exiled from the Soviet Union after 18 months in a labor camp.
What is it about this country that makes us such a draw for great poets? We’re a haven—the freedom of expression guaranteed by our First Amendment is literally a poetic license. But at the same time, we have rarely granted our own poets much of a voice, or poetry itself much of a place, in our culture at large. We have preferred our poets buried, thank you, and their books, too, hidden along the top shelves of the Dust Museums.
Brodsky himself was astonished at the lack of penetration the art had made in our society. When he became Poet Laureate in 1991, he kicked up some controversy by suggesting a wider distribution system for poetry. His ideas ranged from books of verse at supermarket checkout counters—for some reason, he seemed especially confident that Emily Dickinson would feel comfortable next to the National Enquirer and The Star—to having books of poetry placed in hotel rooms. In their pages, travelers might find some respite and companionship, falling into a poem as it weaved into meaning these shards of consciousness called words. The Bible, Brodsky was quick to reassure, could handle the competition.
His program sounded perfect to me, but it also angered me. I was reminded of Will Rogers’ response to a reporter’s question on how he would deal with the Nazi U-boats: “Boil the ocean.” “But how would you do that?” the reporter continued. Without a beat Rogers replied, “I’m just the idea man here. Get someone else to work out the details.” I had been engaged as a poetry activist in the trenches for years—couldn’t our Poet Laureate do something, not just speak it?
The next thing I knew, I was reading about Andy Carroll, a young Washingtonian, who was so inspired by Brodsky’s vision that he began to boil the ocean. He created, with Brodsky’s support, the American Poetry & Literacy Project, which has since distributed thousands of donated copies of poetry anthologies in motels across the country, handed out Edgar Allan Poe to schools at Halloween, and even placed poems as nutritious “filler” in some Yellow Pages!
Now there are poems on busses and in the subways, readings are proliferating, poetry slams are on the Internet, and spoken word stores are selling nothing but. In The United States of Poetry, Joseph Brodsky looks out a rainy window and reads a deceptively playful poem called “A Song,” which concludes:
I wish you were here, dear,
in this hemisphere,
as I sit on the porch
sipping a beer.
It’s evening; the sun is setting,
boys shout and gulls are crying.
What’s the point of forgetting
if it’s followed by dying?
The poet is gone, the poems live on. We’re glad you are here, dear.