In Rome, ‘A Tribute to Joseph Brodsky’ (RAAR’81) on Two Evenings, 17-18 March

Thirty years after Russian exile and Nobel Laureate poet Joseph Brodsky (1940-1996) was a Resident at the American Academy in Rome in 1981, the AAR presented A Tribute to Joseph Brodsky on Thursday and Friday 17-18 March 2011.

Six international writers—Roberto Calasso (Italy), Boris Khersonsky (Russia), Mary Jo Salter and AAR Trustee Mark Strand RAAR’83 (USA), 2011 AAR Resident Derek Walcott (St. Lucia) and Adam Zagajewski (Poland) gathered to read from their own work in honor of Brodsky and then to read from Brodsky’s work. They also conversed about Brodsky’s life and literary legacy and respond to questions from the audience, in a two-part program made possible by the generous support of AAR Trustee Nancy M. O’Boyle, the Embassy of the United States of America in Rome, and the Joseph Brodsky Memorial Fellowship Fund.

Involuntarily exiled from the Soviet Union in 1972, Brodsky settled in the United States but maintained close ties with Italy, particularly with Venice (a city chronicled in his beautiful memoir Watermark) and Rome (for after all, Peter the Great had founded his city to be the Third Rome).

Joseph Brodsky’s contribution to the 1995 Centennial Directory of the American Academy in Rome

Brodsky was, by circumstance and necessity, a citizen of the world; he famously said of himself, “I’m a Jew; a Russian poet; an American citizen.” His poem “A Part of Speech” begins, “I was born and grew up in the Baltic marshland/ by zinc-gray breakers that always marched on/ in twos. Hence all rhymes, hence that wan flat voice/ that ripples between them…”

And for Brodsky, as for his close friend and fellow Nobel Laureate poet Derek Walcott, poetry and its rhymes are felt as an expression of landscape itself, as an expression of a place sometimes loved and lost.

Joseph Brodsky RAAR’81 (left) and fellow Nobel Prize Laureate Derek Walcott in the park of Alfred Nobel’s home at Björkborn, Sweden, 1993. Photo: Bengt Jangfeldt /

On Thursday 17 March at 7 PM, an overflow crowd filled the Aula Magna Regina at John Cabot University in Trastevere for the first part of the AAR’s program A Tribute to Joseph Brodsky. The six international writers convened for the occasion had all known Brodsky, in different contexts, and they read from their own work in his honor, including work created specifically for this occasion.

Renowned fiction and nonfiction writer Roberto Calasso (Italy), Brodsky’s Italian publisher at Adelphi Edizione, read an essay about the Russian poet that appeared simultaneously in print in La Repubblica.

Poet Boris Khersonsky (Ukraine), a former Joseph Brodsky Memorial Fellowship Fund Fellow, read poems about Rome and Venice in which Brodsky figured. Mary Jo Salter (USA) , who knew Brodsky at Mt. Holyoke College, read her elegy for him entitled “Voice of America,” newly translated into Italian by Damiano Abeni and Moira Egan.

AAR Trustee Mark Strand (RAAR’83) read his own “In Memory of Joseph Brodsky” as well as four intriguing new short prose pieces, joking that the quotation attributed to Brodsky by Roberto Calasso—”poetry is like the aviation, prose is like the infantry”—meant that he had changed branches of the service.

Derek Walcott (St. Lucia), currently William B. Hart Poet in Residence at the AAR, read a section from his long poem “White Egrets,” about a visit by Brodsky to St. Lucia, as well as his poem “Forest of Europe,” in which both he and Brodsky find themselves exiles in the American heartland.

And Polish poet Adam Zagajewski travelled to Rome from Krakow in order to read four of his own poems meditating on culture and loss and the place of the individual in post-Communist Europe.

Friday 18 March began with outreach visits by Roberto Calasso to the Liceo Classico Luciano Manara in the AAR’s own Monteverde neighborhood and by Mark Strand and Adam Zagajewski to St. Stephen’s School (English-language international) on the Aventine.

Mr. Calasso spoke forcefully to a group of at least sixty Italian teenagers, providing a synopsis of Brodsky’s life and a challenge to the students to take reading, and literature, as seriously as Brodsky had done. Mr. Calasso observed pointedly that Brodsky had simply walked out of school at the age of fifteen and never gone back. His remarks were followed by questions from the students.

Adam Zagajewski provided a parallel English-language profile of Brodsky’s life to students at St. Stephen’s, and both he and Mark Strand spoke searchingly about their friend, Mr. Zagajewski describing him as a “metaphysical hooligan,” a dissident who did not ever think of himself as a dissident.

Mark Strand remarked, “Joseph Brodsky seemed to exist in a larger moral universe than we did,” and suggested that Brodsky enjoyed more freedom, with regard to his use of the English language– for example, more delight in puns and odd rhymes– because it was, for him, a foreign language.

The Tribute continued in the Sala Aurelia at the AAR on Friday evening, with stunning readings of Brodsky’s own poems in English, Italian and Russian by the participants.

Roberto Calasso began the program with Brodsky’s gorgeous extended lyric poem “The Butterfly” (in George Kline’s translation); Boris Khersonsky recited Brodsky’s “Letters to a Roman Friend” and sections from “Mexican Divertimento” in Russian, and entirely from memory. Mary Jo Salter read Brodsky poems both early (the ironic ballad “The Funeral of Bobo”) and late (a tender poem, “To My Daughter,” written by Brodsky in English). Mark Strand and Derek Walcott also read with great power, and Adam Zagajewski concluded the first part of the program with a reading of Brodsky poems including “Daedalus in Sicily,” in which the figure of the mythical inventor seems a stand-in for that of the poet.

During the intermission, Federica dal Falco’s light-box installation Escape from Byzantium in Fragments fascinated audience members with its collage of decorative pattern and image.

Federica dal Falco, Escape from Byzantium in Fragments, lightbox installation

Tribute participants then reconvened to participate in a conversation (with simultaneous translation provided) about the poet’s life and work, moderated by poet and Andrew Heiskell Arts Director Karl Kirchwey FAAR’95. The wide-ranging discussion among Tribute participants covered such topics as the relation between published biography and the life work of a poet, Brodsky’s Jewish, Russian, and American identities, Brodsky’s stature and influence in Italy, Russia, and the United States, and Brodsky’s dual identities as poet and writer of prose.

The program concluded with questions from the audience, including an eloquent defense of the younger generation of literary readers and writers by Joseph Brodsky’s daughter Anna.

A Tribute to Joseph Brodsky was presented by the AAR in collaboration with the Joseph Brodsky Memorial Fellowship Fund, John Cabot University, the Casa delle Letterature/Comune di Roma, and the University of Rome La Sapienza.

In addition, Tribute participants participated in outreach school visits on Friday 18 March to the Liceo Classico Luciano Manara, in Monteverde, and to Saint Stephen’s School, on the Aventine. Groups of students from both schools attended the Tribute on the evening of March 18.

Joseph Brodsky RAAR’81. Credit: Maria Sozzani


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