STOCKHOLM — Joseph Brodsky, whose poems about the ravages of time reflect his term in a Soviet labor camp, won the Nobel Prize in literature today, 15 years after he was forced out of the Soviet Union and settled in the United States.
The Swedish Academy called Brodsky's work "rich and intensely vital."
Brodsky, 47, is one of the youngest writers ever awarded the world's most prestigious literature prize. He writes in both Russian and English and is now a U.S. citizen living in New York.
The poet was eating lunch in a Chinese restaurant in London today with British writer John le Carre when a friend burst in to tell him the news. He raised a toast with a glass of whiskey and said he hoped more people would read Russian poetry.
Brodsky joked that the prize was "a big step for me and small for mankind." Asked what he will do with the prize's $340,000 stipend, he answered with a laugh, "To spend."
Never a political dissident, Brodsky was forced to leave the Soviet Union in 1972 after authorities accused him of being a social parasite and not holding a steady job.
W. H. Auden, Brodsky's informal sponsor when the Russian arrived in the West 15 years ago, called him a "poet of the first order" and "a traditionalist . . . interested in what lyric poets of all ages have been interested in . . . encounters with nature . . . , reflections upon the human condition, death and the meaning of existence."
Born to Jewish parents in Leningrad on May 24, 1940, Brodsky attended school until age 15, then held a variety of manual jobs in factories and at sea. Soviet authorities noted at his 1964 trial that between 1956 and 1964 he had changed jobs 13 times.
During the trial, Brodsky told the judge that he was a poet.
"Who included you among the ranks of the poets?" the judge demanded. "No one," Brodsky defiantly replied, "and who included me among the ranks of the human race?"
As a young man, Brodsky studied philosophy and history of religion on his own, making contacts with literary circles in Leningrad.
He began to write poetry in 1958, and his work was read at clandestine literary meetings and published in underground publications.
In 1964, Brodsky was sentenced to five years of hard labor on a remote state farm in the Arctic, where he chopped wood, hauled manure and broke stones. While there, his first poems were published in the West, leading to pressure on Moscow for his release. He was freed after 18 months.