Literary Treasures: Joseph Brodsky Reads His Poetry at the Library of Congress, 1992

The following is a guest post by Joyce Hida, a summer intern in the Poetry and Literature Center. It is part of our monthly series, “Literary Treasures,” which highlights audio and video recordings drawn from the Library’s extensive online collections, including the Archive of Recorded Poetry and Literature. By showcasing the works and thoughts of some of the greatest poets and writers from the past 75 years, the series advances the Library’s mission to “further the progress of knowledge and creativity for the benefit of the American people.”

Joseph Brodsky, 1940-1996.

As an intern at the Poetry and Literature Center, I have been listening to poetry for eight hours a day. While the volume of this task may seem daunting, it is, without a doubt, directly proportional to its importance. While sifting through the Archive of Recorded Poetry and Literature, I have worked to timestamp each individual poem within long poetry readings. My hope, and the hope of the PLC, is that this will increase the accessibility of the audio archive so that anyone can spend time crawling through the site, as I have luckily had the chance to.

What I genuinely love about listening to the audio archive is how honest it is as an experience—hearing a poem in the poet’s own voice, with their inflections and distractions and explanations, textures the poem in a way unachievable through text alone. Contemporary events, new wisdom gained through age, the audience of that particular reading—all of these reflect on a poem being read aloud and build a separate culture for each reading. They timestamp the poem in ways I cannot.

Joseph Brodsky’s reading of his poems in the Montpelier Room at the Library of Congress in 1992 is particularly powerful as an exercise in reading versus recitation. Brodsky, a former citizen of the Soviet Union exiled after spending time in a labor camp on charges of “parasitism”, became Poet Laureate of the United States from 1991-1992. It’s under this title that he reads in the Montpelier Room in 1992. Bookending this particular reading of his own work with readings of “Away!” by Robert Frost (2:51), Brodsky sculpts the environment he wants his poems to live within. With stanzas like “Forget the myth. / There is no one I / Am put out with / Or put out by”, Frost’s “Away!” textures Brodsky’s own poems about exile and displacement. There is even a moment in the recording where—when the audience laughs at a second Frost poem that follows a similar theme, “Come in” (3:58)—Brodsky light-heartedly replies, “Funny that you should find that so amusing.” (4:49)

Brodsky continues to build the culture of this particular reading by reading poems that are not yet in any of his books, including one, “Fin de Siècle” (8:07), that he had never read aloud before. Thus, the listener is dependent on Brodsky. The inability to slow down, inability to take time to process and digest each intricate line adds to the experience. Brodsky’s poems are destined to be suspended in a song-like cacophony—and listeners must experience his poems at the same pace that Brodsky experienced the events that inspired them.

Dependency, however, is set as a theme for the reading even before any poems are introduced. Brodsky opens the reading with the admission, “I am not a very good reader in English.” Most of Brodsky’s poems are self-translations of his original Russian poems. This leaves the listening audience at a crossroads, facing both the assumed authenticity of Brodsky’s real-time reading as well as the lingering notion that they cannot know the full truth of what he reads. This is then exacerbated by the fact that, in his translations, Brodsky is known to emphasize the keeping of rhyme and verse form over meaning. When anyone listens to Brodsky in English, they enter into a compromise. The tradeoff made here is clarity of meaning for the sonic qualities of Russian poetry. Yet Brodsky does not let this compromise go unaddressed. When he reads “Star of Nativity” in both English (40:29) and the original Russian (41:26), he prefaces the reading by saying, “I will read this poem in both Russian and English. Well, you may think whatever you like about the English, but I think it’s good,” and is greeted by a relieved laugh from the audience.  It’s a particularly honest moment, highlighting that what Brodsky values is form, and thus the audience should also value that over all else. It asks the audience to trust Brodsky and not be wary of their dependency.

This is what pushes Brodsky’s reading beyond recitation. He takes the opportunity to address and defy his weaknesses, and progresses in confidence from admissions of “I am not a very good reader in English” to “I think it’s good.” This is part of the reason why, as he came to the States in the 1970s during the height of defiance against rhyme and formal verse in American poetry, Brodsky was able to exist and succeed. His strict adherence to form was viewed, by some, as a linguistic response to his cultural background. Formal verse did not constrain Brodsky’s words; it secured them into the very foundations of his work—no nation could exile them. Even when he reads a free verse poem, “A Footnote to Weather Forecasts” (42:50), Brodsky acknowledges that “this poem is in free verse in English and in Russian, so do not look for the rhymes here, they are practically nonexistent” (42:39). By specifically pointing out the instance where there is no rhyme scheme, Brodsky establishes it as an unusual exception and creates, in the culture of this reading, a shared knowledge of the usual importance of rhyme in his poetry.

Perhaps it is this very dependency on his voice and his translations that clear the path for Brodsky to build a culture for his poetry reading—a culture that transcends basic recitation and instead engages in a constant conversation with Brodsky’s background and literary choices.

Here is the full timestamped index of Brodsky’s recording:

  • “Away” by Robert Frost (2:51)
  • “Come In” by Robert Frost (3:58)
  • “Transatlantic” (5:14)
  • “A Song” (6:35)
  • “Fin de Siecle” (8:07)
  • “Lines for the Winter Recess” (15:48)
  • “Epitaph for a Centaur” (18:01)
  • “Song of Welcome” (19:27)
  • “New Life” (22:22)
  • “Letters from the Ming Dynasty” (in English) (29:04)
  • “Letters from the Ming Dynasty” (in Russian) (31:07)
  • “Advice to a Traveller” (34:29)
  • “Star of the Nativity” (in English) (40:29)
  • “Star of the Nativity” (in Russian) (41:26)
  • “A Footnote to Weather Forecasts” (42:50)
  • “Breeze Marine” (47:09)
  • “May 24, 1980” (in English) (49:37)
  • “May 24, 1980” (in Russian) (51:18)
  • “Away” by Robert Frost (53:10)

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