Joseph Brodsky, the exiled Russian poet whose graceful, often haunting work won him a Nobel Prize and the admiration of political dissenters worldwide, died of heart failure Sunday in New York, at the age of 55.
“He was the only Russian poet who enjoyed the right to be called a ‘great’ in his lifetime,” said Yevgeny Kiselyov, the host of Itogi, a weekly news program in Moscow.
Brodsky, who ranked with such greats of 20th century Russian poetry as Osip Mandelstam and Anna Akhmatova, rose to prominence in 1964 when, at the age of 23, he was sentenced to five years’ hard labor in the Arctic Circle for writing poetry without academic qualifications.
Interrogated at the trial about where his poetry had come from, he answered: “I thought that it came from God.”
Brodsky’s publisher, Roger Straus, said the Nobel laureate died at his New York home, where he had lived in exile for more than 20 years. Brodsky’s wife and child were at his side and his mother was flying to New York from Russia, Strauss said.
His works, which challenged the bleakness of Soviet life with linguistic brilliance and a mastery of sound and rhythm, circulated widely underground and finally prompted Soviet authorities to expel him, putting him on a plane to Vienna in 1972.
He settled in the United States, where he was befriended by poet W.H. Auden, and became an American citizen in 1980.
Seven years later, at age 47, he won the Nobel Prize for Literature, the second youngest writer to receive the honor. Albert Camus won the prize at 44.
“A big step for me, and a small step for mankind,” the chain-smoking Brodsky joked after learning he had won the prestigious prize.
He was named poet laureate of the United States of 1991.
Brodsky wrote both in his native Russian and in English, and added plays, essays and criticism to his poetic work.
He taught himself English and Polish so he could translate the poems of John Donne and Milosz.
He once said American poetry had helped him survive years of persecution in the Soviet Union and “made me an American long before I arrived on these shores … American poetry to me is a sort of relentless, nonstop sermon on human autonomy.”
Born on May 24, 1940, Brodsky’s youth exposed him to alienation long before he lived in exile.
His father lost a ranking post in the Russian navy because he was Jewish. Quitting school at 15, Brodsky began his own educational odyssey and worked at a variety of jobs - among them, sailor, photographer, coroner’s assistant and geologist.
He also began writing poetry - his work distinguished by its depth, irony and wit, and pervaded by the haunting themes of exile and loss.
“‘Keep your tears for more grave occasions,’ my mother would tell me when I was small,” Brodsky wrote. “And I am afraid I’ve succeeded more than she wanted me too.”