Brodsky’s Formula One


The poet and essayist Joseph Brodsky, who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1987, was born in St Petersburg in 1940, exiled from the Soviet Union in 1973, and lived in America till his death in 1996.

Below: first grey Baltic flag refers to his birth in St Petersburg and the Grand Prix machine to his classic Elegy for John Donne.


Joseph B, you put us on the spot

with your stubbornness and utter dedication,


your sheer determination to take pole position –

to be first off the grid and first all the way –


and never in less than full control –

from that first grey Baltic flag to the final line.


With your dazzle, swerve and fierce acceleration

at times you almost disappear from sight


in the smoking scorch of simile

and shimmering haze of metaphor-exhaust.


You shame us hangers-back and lazy drivers

who dither at the wheel and take our time


in all-too-frequent pit-stops to refuel,

emerging at far less than GT speed.


You signal to us to get up and shift

from low and slow gear into overdrive


taking the circuits at full throttle

like your own personal Formula One


when you raced your great Grand Prix machine John Donne

on high octane with a whine of tyres.


(In time there were few tracks you hadn’t covered

in your supercharged flamboyant style.)


Your stand of trophies is an exhortation

to drive words round the tightest of chicanes,


testing the firmness of their tread

and their power to burn.


And not to be afraid to show our colours.