READING: Joseph Brodsky; University of London

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The Independent Culture
The Russian Nobel laureate Joseph Brodsky died exactly a year ago - of heart failure, at his apartment on Brooklyn Heights. A great spirit had gone from the world of poetry. What word would best summon up the spirit, if not the very breath, of that man? Michael Hofmann, one of the poets (others included Seamus Heaney, Paul Muldoon and Glyn Maxwell) who contributed to an evening in commemoration of Brodsky at the University of London this weekend, hit the nail on the head: pepper vodka.

An autodidact from St Petersburg (a city which at times he seemed almost to embody), and a man of titanic intellectual energies, Brodsky boozed and puffed and challenged and argued his way through a relatively short existence - 56 years.

The evening itself, in the plush surroundings of the University of London's Brunei Gallery, was a touching, searching, inspiring and somewhat pleasingly botched affair - just the sort of thing that Brodsky, that dumpling-scoffing flaneur, might have ordered for all three courses.

Various musical interludes interposed themselves when other things were supposed to be happening. Whole tracts of time seemed to pass by when nothing was happening at all.

At the very moment when Heaney was about to rise from his seat on the front row (which, according to the bit of paper that had been swept on to the floor, had been promised to Sir Isiah Berlin), a blast from a Haydn string quartet sent him scurrying back into his covert. On another occasion, he muttered in some vexation: "I have got this school teacher's urge to run the thing..."

For all that, it was Heaney, with those great, grey ruralist sideburns helping to conceal the rubber bands on the ends of his spectacles, who described most memorably what sort of phenomenon his friend Joseph had been. He had been a "pressure and a principle", a "renewed stamina in the world". And now that he was no longer with us, it was as if a heavenly body had been extinguished in the firmament of poetry. There was nothing literary or snobbish about any of this, he added. It was merely that Brodsky, with his quality of "undoubtingness", not only manifested a kind of angelic potential, but also awakened that potential in others. It was all excessive of course - he revved his English (that much beloved adoptive second language) like a car; Russian, his mother tongue, became his reserve tank during the second half of his life.

That second half, from 1972 onwards, was lived in the West, and Natasha Spender, Stephen Spender's widow, remembered how Wystan Auden had brought the young Russian poet, freshly exiled from his native land (he was never to return) to their house in Loudon Road for the first time in 1972. She was amazed by the amount of English poetry Brodsky knew by heart - including, somewhat improbably, great tracts of John Betjeman. Brodsky then moved on from England to America where he later professorised at Mount Holyoke College - or, as he once more memorably described it, "Wore out the patience of the ingenuous local youth".

It's hard to think of a man surviving such a life, as one of the poets put it.

Michael Glover

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