Brodsky's "An Immodest Proposal:" Contents and Outcomes of an Extraordinary Project


  • Silvia Panicieri



This year falling the twentieth anniversary of the death of the Russian-born poet and essayist Joseph Brodsky, exile in the United States since 1972, it is worth to remind his project to foster literature – and poetry in particular - in his host country. On 10 May 1991, he was appointed “fifth Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress”. This second important achievement came after the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1987, and proved a final turning point for his work, since, from that moment on, he published almost exclusively in English. Presented during the inaugural evening at the Library of Congress, Brodsky’s “An Immodest Proposal” took its title from Swift’s provocative essay “A Modest Proposal” and consisted of providing free volumes of poetry in public places – airports, hotels, supermarkets, hospitals - where people congregate and "can kill time as time kills them." Besides analyzing the contents of the project, the paper aims at investigating its outcomes. Brodsky’s words are interesting not only for they give us the opportunity to understand his vision of American culture, but also because they are a further evidence of the deep bond he had with his adoptive country. Brodsky’s warning offers us thoughts for reflection on the risks a society runs when a sufficiently higher culture is not spread between the masses. Brodsky’s fears prove actual, unavoidably leading us to the tragic news reports of mass murdering by armed citizens in the USA: “What concerns me is that, unable to articulate, to express himself adequately, man reverts to action. Since the vocabulary of action is limited, as it were, to its body, he is bound to act violently, extending his vocabulary with a weapon where there should have been an adjective.”