May 24, 1980

Many poets have written about their birthday. The poet Joseph Brodsky also did this. He wrote the poem “May 24, 1980.” This poem was written for the day he turned forty.

Brodsky was born in Sint-Petersburg (then: Leningrad) on May 24, 1940. He was exiled several times to Siberia and decided there was no future for him in the former Soviet Union. In 1972, he migrated to the United States.

Because of his accomplishments in the world of literature and especially in poetry, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1987. This would probably have never happened if it wasn’t for the poem by W.H. Auden that he read during the sixties. These lines were of vital importance, although the sentences were later left out of the poem by Auden.

Time that is intolerant
Of the brave and innocent
And indifferent in a week
To a beautiful physique,Worships language and forgives
Every one by whom it lives;
Pardons cowardice, conceit,
Lays its honors at their feet.

From: W.H. Auden – ‘In memory of W.B. Yeats’

He had a long time to think about poetry when he was exiled. According to his beliefs, a poet should thrive on intuition and not writing on so-called rules. He also believed that poetry is all about structure. The whole is more important than the parts that form the poem.

May 24

May 24, 1940, seemed like any other day. Except it wasn’t. In Belgium, the German and Belgium troops were battling each other in the only real major battle between these two armies. This battle is known as the Battle of the Lys. This would be the second day that the troops were fighting.

May 24, 1940, would also be the first day of the life of Joseph Brodsky. He was named after the Russian leader Joseph Stalin. A leader that would be the cause of his many exiles. As a descent of a Jewish family, he grew up in poverty. These were hard times. His family and himself almost didn’t make it when the city they lived in was besieged by the German troops. Because of this siege, he would later suffer from health problems.

May 24, 1980, is the day that Brodsky turned forty. Because of this day, like many others do when they reach this age, they begin to think about their lives so far. His conclusion is simple: there are many difficult moments in your life, but it only gives gratitude. This gratitude consists of being glad that these difficult moments have passed. For Brodsky, they did. Eight years before he wrote this poem, he fled to the United States.

May 24,1980

May 24, 1980

I have braved, for want of wild beasts, steel cages,
carved my term and nickname on bunks and rafters,
lived by the sea, flashed aces in an oasis,
dined with the-devil-knows-whom, in tails, on truffles.
From the height of a glacier I beheld half a world, the earthly
width. Twice have drowned, thrice let knives rake my nitty-gritty.
Quit the country that bore and nursed me.
Those who forgot me would make a city.
I have waded the steppes that saw yelling Huns in saddles,
worn the clothes nowadays back in fashion in every quarter,
planted rye, tarred the roofs of pigsties and stables,
guzzled everything save dry water.
I’ve admitted the sentries’ third eye into my wet and foul
dreams. Munched the bread of exile; it’s stale and warty.
Granted my lungs all sounds except the howl;
switched to a whisper. Now I am forty.
What should I say about my life? That it’s long and abhors transparence.
Broken eggs make me grieve; the omelet, though, makes me vomit.
Yet until brown clay has been rammed down my larynx,
only gratitude will be gushing from it.

Joseph Brodsky

May 24, 1980
Article Name
May 24, 1980
A poet looks back when he turns forty.
Publisher Name
The Ministry of Poetic Affairs

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