Yale, £25, 333pp. £22.50 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

Joseph Brodsky: A Literary Life, By Lev Loseff, trans. Jane Ann Miller

Joseph Brodsky's observation that what he liked about life in the US was "being left alone to do what I can do" is faintly reminiscent of Philip Larkin's commendation of Hull as "a town that lets you write." In fact, the free-range Russian exile and the travel-shy Englishman share several affinities, including jazz. Lev Loseff records Brodsky's early poetic attempts at creating an effect of improvisation: "I'm a son of the outskirts, the outskirts, the outskirts,/ in a wire cradle, dank hallways, are my door and my address,/ streetcars clanking, rattle bang ring, stone sidewalks, soles,/ girls lined against painted wood fences,/ grassy banks, oil spot/ factory lights" ("Russian Gothic").

Brodsky (unlike Larkin) was cavalier about "the toad, work". He dropped out of school at 15, and hopped from menial job to job before being charged with "parasitism" and despatched to a labour camp near Archangelsk. His real crime, Loseff notes, was that he had broken the rigid rules of initiation into Soviet society. His sentence was commuted after international pressure, and an exit-visa to Israel provided (he changed course at Vienna).

His attachment to a vast range of European literature and his deep individualism seem inevitably to have pointed him west. His youthful poems were published not only in samizdat, but in tamizdat ("over there"). But what mattered to Brodsky far more than ethnicity or country was the Russian language: his only nation-state.

Among his first admirers, a now-elderly Anna Akhamtova addressed him as her equal. Loseff, too, was an early fan. Brodsky had attracted attention as a teenager who irritated Leningrad poetry circles by playing Great Russian Poet. But Loseff was so chastened by the younger man's genius that he temporarily abandoned his literary aspirations, and did not resume work on his own poetry until after Brodsky's emigration. Brodsky realised only when Lev reached the US in 1976 that this old friend, Lev Vladimirovich Lifshits, was none other than the distinguished poet, Lev Loseff.

Loseff, who died in 2009, went on to become professor of Russian at Dartmouth College. He annotated Brodsky's poems and produced several monographs about his work. Mercifully free of sensationalism, his biography is a balanced combination of brotherly understanding and scholarly objectivity. Although informative about the major events of his subject's life, Loseff focuses on Brodsky's poetics and philosophy. The English edition lacks even the numerous photos that brighten the Russian original. Jane Ann Miller's lucid, colloquial, un-rhymed English versions of the poems are an essential accompaniment to Loseff's thoughtful readings.

It was his 1980 volume, A Part of Speech, that brought Brodsky to the excited attention of UK readers. That voice was unique - authoritative, resonant, completely serious about "the stern art of poetry", yet appealingly self-mocking. Brodsky would memorably evoke a scene, then fly above realism with some startling rhetorical flourish: "I was born and grew up in the Baltic marshland by zinc-grey/ breakers that always marched in twos, hence all rhymes". His poetry seemed to modernise the Metaphysicals and add a charming, Audenesque discursiveness. There was a near-English flavour, but more intellectual drive than in most of the home-grown, or even Irish-grown, product. Brodsky at that stage involved American writers in his translation. When he took over the entire task, the results were less happy, as Loseff concedes. Determined to reproduce his original metres and rhymes, he would throw in new metaphors and comic, clunky chimes: "transparence/ larynx", "vomit/ from it", for example ("May 24, 1980").

Loseff suggests that Brodsky's English, for all its fluency, was not quite up to the nuances of poetry translation. I suspect he might still have been influenced by Auden, whose last poems also veer into awkward slanginess. Or perhaps it was simply a language-game: after all, the poems existed invulnerably in Russian. Brodsky's re-creations may have been the overflow of creative exuberance into reckless play.

The poet's English essays are superb, and "It is hard to resist the notion that a more genuine and true translation of Brodsky's poetic universe into English was his prose and not his poetry". Perhaps, but a poem is different from a poetic universe, and Brodsky is a singer before he is a speaker. His poetry needs a new generation of English-language translators. Meanwhile, the author of Brodsky: A Literary Life has accomplished the feat of discussing a poet's work persuasively in a language other than his own, and allowed us to glimpse the unique brilliance of the originals.

Carol Rumens's 'De Chirico's Threads' is published by Seren

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade

Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

Arts and Entertainment
Dangerous liaisons: Dominic West, Jake Richard Siciliano, Maura Tierney and Leya Catlett in ‘The Affair’ – a contradictory drama but one which is sure to reel the viewers in
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Herring, pictured performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival two years ago
Arts and Entertainment
Music freak: Max Runham in the funfair band
Arts and Entertainment
film 'I felt under-used by Hollywood'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
    Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

    Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

    Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
    Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

    Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

    Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
    Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

    Join the tequila gold rush

    The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
    12 best statement wallpapers

    12 best statement wallpapers

    Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
    Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

    Paul Scholes column

    Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?