Dissident Poet Joseph Brodsky Gives Six Life Tips to College Grads (1988)


Image from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Michi­gan Year­book, via Wiki­me­dia Com­mons

Although Joseph Brod­sky was one of the most cel­e­brat­ed Sovi­et dis­si­dents of the 20th cen­tu­ry, the Nobel Prize-win­ning poet had been unerr­ing­ly hound­ed by the repres­sive Sovi­et gov­ern­ment, which had labeled his poet­ry as “porno­graph­ic and anti-Sovi­et.” Refus­ing to aban­don his writ­ing, Brod­sky was repeat­ed­ly brought to court, and once sen­tenced to 18 months of labor in the Arc­tic region of Arkhangel­sk. Dur­ing one of his court­room appear­ances, the young poet dis­played an admirable lev­el of tes­tic­u­lar for­ti­tude when the judge asked him, “Who has rec­og­nized you as a poet? Who has enrolled you in the ranks of poets?” Brod­sky, defi­ant, replied “No one. Who enrolled me in the ranks of the human race?”

In 1972, Brod­sky left the USSR for Amer­i­ca, where he was wide­ly sought as a lec­tur­er (his aca­d­e­m­ic bed­post includ­ed notch­es from Cam­bridge, Colum­bia, the Uni­ver­si­ty of Mass­a­chu­setts, and Mount Holyoke). On the heels of his win­ning the 1986 Nation­al Book Crit­ics’ award for crit­i­cism for Less Than One and receiv­ing the Nobel Prize for Lit­er­a­ture in 1987 (porno­graph­ic writ­ing, it seems, does quite well with the crit­ics), Brod­sky was invit­ed to give the 1988 com­mence­ment address at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Michi­gan.

Brod­sky’s remarks are far from the gal­va­niz­ing dose of inspi­ra­tion that many com­mence­ment address­es impart, and cer­tain­ly not what Michi­gan grad­u­ates were expect­ing. Rather than uplift, the poet­’s words sober­ly ground the audi­ence; instead of wrap­ping them in a warm self-assured­ness, the life tips are jar­ring, like an ice bath. Brod­sky’s address is a mix of wry humour, acknowl­edge­ment of our absur­dist exis­ten­tial dilem­ma, and bold, hon­est com­pas­sion. Read­ing Brodsky’s advice, one can’t help but feel that the poet val­ued his flawed human­i­ty even more than his art; like­ly, they were insep­a­ra­ble.

Here’s a boiled-down ver­sion of the poet’s remarks:

1) “Treat your vocab­u­lary the way you would your check­ing account.” Expres­sion often lags behind expe­ri­ence, and one should learn to artic­u­late what would oth­er­wise get pent up psy­cho­log­i­cal­ly. Learn to express your­self. Get a dic­tio­nary.

2) “Par­ents are too close a tar­get… The range is such that you can’t miss.” Be gen­er­ous with your fam­i­ly. Even if your con­vic­tions clash with theirs, don’t reject them—your skep­ti­cism of your infal­li­bil­i­ty can only ben­e­fit you. It will also save you a good deal of grief when they are gone.

3) “You ought to rely on your own home cook­ing.” Do not expect soci­ety to arrange itself to your benefit—there are too many peo­ple whose desires con­flict for that to hap­pen. Learn to rely on your­self, and help those who can­not.

4) “Try to not to stand out.” Do not cov­et mon­ey or fame for their own sake. It is best to be mod­est. There is com­fort join­ing the ranks of those who fol­low their own dis­creet paths.

5) “A par­a­lyzed will is no dain­ty for angels.” Do not indulge in vic­tim­hood. By blam­ing oth­ers, you under­mine your deter­mi­na­tion to change your cir­cum­stances. When life con­fronts you with hard­ships, remem­ber that they are no less an intrin­sic part of exis­tence. If you must strug­gle, do so with dig­ni­ty.

6) “To be social is to be for­giv­ing.” Do not let those who have hurt you live on in your com­plaints. For­get them.

The full text—irrevocably more pithy and eloquent—may be found here.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

‘This Is Water’: Com­plete Audio of David Fos­ter Wallace’s Keny­on Grad­u­a­tion Speech (2005)

George Saun­ders Extols the Virtues of Kind­ness in 2013 Speech to Syra­cuse Uni­ver­si­ty Grads

Neil Gaiman Gives Grad­u­ates 10 Essen­tial Tips for Work­ing in the Arts

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Comments (5)
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  • Arps says:

    You have used “irrev­o­ca­bly” incor­rect­ly and “tes­tic­u­lar for­ti­tude” is a frankly ridicu­lous for­mu­la­tion.

  • Michigan Alum says:

    The address was to stu­dents at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Michi­gan, not Mass­a­chu­setts.

  • sambacomet says:

    “unerr­ing­ly hound­ed” ?

  • sambacomet says:

    Draw­ing atten­tion to Brod­sky is worthwhile,and appre­ci­at­ed. The para­phras­es of his quotes seem unnec­es­sary- and sev­er­al appear to be inac­cu­rate.

  • mbrantley says:

    Thanks for men­tion­ing Brod­sky and his address. I was one of the U‑M grad­u­ates in the audi­ence that day and can’t help but recall how ini­tial­ly dis­ap­point­ed I was at the prospect of lis­ten­ing to a poet, rather than a U.S. pres­i­dent (that those grad­u­at­ing in May of ’89 would hear.) I was com­plete­ly wrong.
    I loved what he had to say at the time and often return to his words, some­times in dis­ap­point­ment, when I pon­der if I learned any­thing from his unas­sum­ing wis­dom, after all. Thanks again.

    Thanks again for men­tion­ing it.

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