For the past 13 years, as the days of December have dwindled and I have prepared for the coming of a new January first, I have found myself turning to one of my favorite occasional poems. Published in the New York Review of Books at the beginning of 2000, Joseph Brodsky’s “1-Jan-65” has become, for me, an annual read. I have quite a few poems I revisit each year, but none have captured my attention as much as this one.
When I first read Brodsky’s New Year poem, I did so under the impression that it was, in fact, a New Year poem, written by a man living in exile. My mind simply would not read the opening line, “The kings will lose your old address,” any other way than as the words of a young man whose country had betrayed him.
I knew that in early 1964, Joseph Brodsky, then 23 years old, was tried and convicted for “social parasitism”—basically, for having no job other than the writing and translating of poetry. His sentence: five years of labor in Arkhangelsk, an area stretching across the border of the Arctic Circle in the northern part of European Russia. Happily, after many members of the Russian literary community protested, he was released 18 months into his sentence, but we know this only in retrospect. When writing the poem, Brodsky had no idea this would be the case, and one can only imagine the hell he had gone through up to that New Year’s Day. Not only did his trial result from his having been betrayed by a group of fellow writers, not only were his parents punished for their son’s transgressions by having their state pensions revoked (forcing them back to work at an advanced age), not only would he have to face interminably cold, single-digit-temperature days of winter with no hot water and only a wood-burning stove, but he would have to endure the emotional, spiritual, and physical impact of it all inside a country that had shunned him.
Brodsky didn’t hate his country; he wanted nothing to do with its politics, and this indifference was what threatened the Soviet system most. So how else was I meant to read that opening line?
In December 2001, I revisited the poem, quite by accident, when it was published in a collection of Brodsky’s titled Nativity Poems. To be honest, the first time I’d read “1-Jan-65,” I went through it casually, maybe three or four times, appreciated the ideas of it, delighted in its rhyme and meter, found the second stanza a bit clumsy, chalked it up to translation (Brodsky’s own), and moved on; I didn’t bother much with the bits I hadn’t fully grasped. In so doing, I managed to completely misread the poem. It was only during my second reading that its meaning began to unfold, as so many of Brodsky’s best poems do.
The use of the you pronoun in poetry has always proven a problem for me. It’s slippery at best, sentimental at worst; and for Brodsky, here, it’s both. When “1-Jan-65” came to me a year later, this time as a nativity poem, the meaning of your in the opening turned, only for a moment, into Jesus’s, then quickly back to, presumably, Brodsky’s. Thankfully, while one is reading a poem, sometimes a moment is all that is needed for the experience to deepen. And deepen it did.
A nativity poem written by Brodsky is fascinating for a number of reasons. First, at the time, under Communism, Soviets were not supposed to celebrate Christmas. (The act of giving gifts was moved to January 1, hence the new year’s connection.) And second, Brodsky was Jewish. As I learned, after the publication of his Nativity Poems, Brodsky wrote a nativity poem almost every year from 1962 through 1995. What this reveals about Brodsky is quite interesting, and it arises frequently when discussing his life and work.
Brodsky was not religious. If anything, he used God, or the belief in God, as a way of taking himself to the edge of the irrational, where, as he said to the Paris Review, the belief would abandon him and cause “a state of panic”—important since this is where “the revelations are dwelling.” For a man who shunned politics and religion as often as he did, he found himself tangled up with quite a bit of both. Now the poem had my attention.
It was the rhyme scheme I looked at next. Of the almost 200 poems we have of Brodsky’s in English, he uses this rhyme scheme one other time (and even then, not nearly as strictly). Why, I asked myself, would a poet who relies so regularly on rhyme use the aaab cccb ddde …structure so rarely? It dawned on me: Brodsky had written us a Christmas carol. The aaab scheme can be traced back to medieval times, when it was used to write carols, a secular form of song that became sacred only later. One must be careful to not overread a poet, but Brodsky, as he has proven poem after poem, is a poet one cannot read into enough. When he was young, he dropped out of school and became a fierce autodidact; the breadth of his knowledge is vast. More than likely, he was aware of the carol’s history. He believed in form, which, as the two opening lines of this poem show, may be why he adored Robert Lowell so much. Brodsky says that “[t]he poet has one more duty that explains his devotion to form: his debt to his predecessors, to those who created the poetic language he has inherited.”
What began to take shape for me was the multidimensionality of a poem that I had read so flatly at first. Once again, I had failed a poem; the poem had not failed me. This is a lesson, it seems, that I will need to learn many times as I continue to read and criticize poetry, but a lesson I will relearn happily, for when it occurs, I am reminded of poetry’s ability to expand inside such a compressed form.
As I read through it again, I noted the ironic dissonance of the verses. I found myself singing in a caroling tune “you’ll understand this thrift: it fits / your age,” holding the note of the a in age long enough to cause my dog to look at me askance. What at first felt like a poem written to cheer up its own author became, in its own way, a protest song meant to be caroled. But there was still that final line to deal with. Knowing myself to be overly sensitive to sentimentality, I decided years ago to always give the poet the benefit of the doubt, which means that whenever I come to an idea or an emotion in a line that my sensibilities feel is unearned, I pause and look closer. In many cases the line turns out to be dreck, as my intuition first felt, but in some poems, when I lean into a line, the line leans back into me. So I read it again: “you / yourself are a gift outright.” And again: “you / yourself are a gift outright.” Then once more: “you / yourself are a gift outright.” On that third reading those last two words clanged like a brass bell inside my skull: Frost! How could I have missed it before? But I had. When I realized it this time, the poem exploded.
The Robert Frost I appreciate today is not the same Robert Frost from my childhood. I am forever grateful to Randall Jarrell and his essays on Frost, which opened me up to a new world of poetry. Jarrell, though, was not the only one who did this for readers. Many discovered this reading of Frost’s work by way of Brodsky. Both Jarrell and Brodsky found in Frost a rarely remarked-upon darkness and depth. As Brodsky tells us in his essay On Grief and Reason:
All I can say in my defense is (a) that I do like [Frost] enormously and I am going to try to sell him to you as he is, and (b) that some of that darkness is not entirely mine: it is his lines’ sediment that has darkened my mind; in other words, I got it from him.
Some critics and biographers have said that Brodsky’s exile was the best year of his life (and best certainly doesn’t always mean easiest) because it gave him time to read and write. A few months before he went away, he began to read one of America’s greats: “In 1964 Robert Frost was a discovery for me. Tragedy, the confirmation of an accomplished fact, he opposed to fear, to existential horror: I was finished with the poetry of the continent.” Brodsky turned to the English language with gusto, relishing Eliot, Auden, and Frost.
“A poet’s attitude toward his predecessors is more than a question of genealogy,” Brodsky said. “We do not choose our parents: it is they who choose us by giving us life.… Whatever we may think of ourselves, we are they, and they must be able to understand us if we want to understand ourselves. The more they leave to us, the richer is our language, the freer we are in the choice of means, the finer is our ear—our method of cognition—and the more nearly perfect is the world we create by ear.” Brodsky wore his influences on his sleeve, much like at the end of “1-Jan-65,” where he situates the poem as a sort of response to Frost’s call in his “The Gift Outright.”
I started to understand that in these 24 lines of Brodsky’s I had found a model representing Brodsky’s entire poetical project: to inextricably link himself to all past poetry while injecting into it his own authenticity. How funny, then, that this would all start with an occasional poem, read rather casually one day in December, and end with a poem not written for any particular reason but one that, nonetheless, would be read at a famous American occasion.
On the ground, eight inches of fresh snow glittered in the bright sun. It was January, 1961, and for the past few days people had debated whether or not John F. Kennedy’s inauguration ceremony would take place at all due to the inclement weather. But the show went on, even if it didn’t go well. Everyone bundled up for the subzero temperatures, mostly in black wool of one cut or another (except Kennedy, who wore only a suit during his inaugural address).
Anything that could go wrong did. Frost stood and nodded to the new president, then made his way to the microphone. When JFK had asked the poet a month earlier to recite a poem at the inauguration, he had first requested that Frost write something new for the occasion. The poet demurred, and the president-elect asked for “The Gift Outright” instead. Frost agreed, but unbeknownst to anyone, he decided to honor JFK’s original request, writing an original poem—called “Dedication”—to read first, as a surprise. That day, he unfolded the pages on which he had written the new poem and began. Despite the freezing temperature, the sun was omnipresent; the light saturated the white of Frost’s paper, making it impossible for the 86-year-old to see the newly written words. He stuttered, stopped, started again, stuttered some more. Everyone cringed, and then Lyndon B. Johnson stood up, walked over, and attempted to use his top hat to create a shadow on the page. This worked not at all, and after a few uncomfortable moments, Frost surrendered. He would not read his new poem, but from memory he would recall his old one, the one he had been asked to read in the first place: “The Gift Outright.”
Why Brodsky would gravitate toward Frost’s poem is evident; the idea of being “[p]ossessed by what we now no more possessed” could not have been far from the mind of the exiled poet. There is no doubt that Brodsky was searching for strength. He wrote in “1-Jan-65”: “What is this? Sadness? Yes, perhaps.” And there’s something in that lack of conviction that reads to me almost like resignation to his melancholy, a melancholy that would only build over the coming months. (In her diary, Anna Akhmatova wrote on September 21, 1965: “Joseph has been released by decision of the Supreme Court. This is a great and wonderful joy. I saw him several hours before the news came. He was in a frightful state, seemed on the verge of suicide.”) It’s no wonder Brodsky found strength in Frost’s words—“it was ourselves / We were withholding from our land of living”—and agreed that it was our job to give “ourselves outright … to the land.” But the connection between the two poets and the two poems doesn’t end there. Whether or not Brodsky was aware of it, the irony rarely runs deeper.
Khrushchev, whose premiership would be directly responsible for Brodsky’s exile, was a huge fan of Frost. In September 1962, Frost visited Russia at the request of JFK in the hopes of sitting down with the premier and promoting “mutual understanding.” After spending time in Moscow and Leningrad, Frost was invited to meet with Khrushchev in Gagra, a resort town on the coast of the Black Sea. On the journey there, Frost fell ill. Khrushchev made arrangements for his doctors to administer to Frost and then visited the poet himself by his sickbed. The two men spoke for more than an hour and a half.
Frost was thrilled by their talk, but on his return to America he made an egregious error. After landing at New York’s Idlewild Airport, he held a press conference and declared that Khrushchev was “not a liberal saphead, but a ruffian, ready for a fight.… He’s our enemy, but he’s a great man.” He continued by saying, “Khrushchev feared for us modern liberals. He said we were too liberal to fight.” The timing of Frost’s statement couldn’t have been worse for Kennedy. The year before, the president had been charged with being “soft” due to his failure at the Bay of Pigs. Now Kennedy was aghast. And it only got worse. Only a few days later, Russia would ship nuclear weapons to Cuba, and the Cuban missile crisis would ensue.
For whatever reason, Frost then attempted to set the record straight, admitting that he had made up the line about liberals; Khrushchev had said no such thing. More than likely, Frost, declining in health and exhausted from his trip, had become confused. But the damage, at least in Kennedy’s eyes, seemed irreparable. The two men never spoke again. Frost passed away two months later.
As the realization of the Brodsky/Frost connection settled in my mind and, with it, the storied past of “The Gift Outright,” coupled with the Soviet/American events that took place between Frost’s reading of his poem and Brodsky’s writing of his, I began to experience that rare but very specific feeling I sometimes get while reading poetry: elation.
This year will be the 13th time I read “1-Jan-65” on New Year’s Day. Brodsky is so much better in so many ways in so many other poems than he is in this one; it is not a perfect poem. But I read it on this occasion each year because it reminds me of all the things I like to keep in mind while experiencing the coming 365 days. It reminds me to be humble. It reminds me to dig deeper. It reminds me why I do what I do.
I love poetry unabashedly. I love it for many reasons. I know that in the coming year, I will read many poems—in journals and magazines I subscribe to, in books I buy, in anthologies I take down from my shelves, on websites I regularly visit. And Brodsky’s poem will sit there, in the back of my mind, reminding me that it’s my job as a reader to look closer, to read further, to think and feel more. Who knows what poem I will come across this year that might later explode? More to the point, who knows what poem I’ve already read that will explode this year?