Crime or Punishment: Russian Narratives of Incarceration

"The Writer in Prison"

"The Writer in Prison"
Joseph Brodsky
Norenskaya in the Archangelsk region, 350 miles from Leningrad

PLOT SUMMARY: “The Writer in Prison” begins with Brodsky stating that prison represents a shortage of space made up for a surplus of time. This allows him to discuss one of his two main points, which is that incarceration is an integral metaphor of Christian metaphysics. Brodsky claims that prison is a translation of our metaphysics, and the solitariness of prison is particularly effective for such revelations. The second central point he includes in this article is that incarceration is central to literature. Brodsky discusses the role that prison literature has played in Russia, before addressing the role it is playing in other contexts as well. Brodsky then transitions to talking about the form that prison writings take. He argues that prisoners’ writing favors prose.

     Brodsky additionally discusses the power that prison has on our society, generally. He reveals that prison is an extension of society. Brodsky argues that prison writers wake up society to the reality of the conditions they find themselves in. In addition to that, Brodsky also exposes the public to the condition of prison, which society tries to desperately ignore. Ultimately, he argues that as prison writings are about suffering and endurance, they resonate with the public greatly.

ANALYSIS: In “The Writer in Prison,” Brodsky spends the majority of the article discussing the form that prison writings take. Brodsky argues that while prison might be best suited for the creation of poetry, as memorable, essentially plotless lyrics are more easily remembered than prose, a poem about prison is far harder to come by than a memoir or even a novel. Brodsky also states that while poetry is best for cases of solitude, in shared cells, prose writing is preferable, as “prose is an art rooted in social intercourse” (1996). In “Twentieth Century Poetry of Witness,” Carolyn Forché discusses poetry of witness and defines it as existing in a space that exists beyond the political and personal — the social. This social space is characterized as existing between the state and the supposedly safe havens of the personal, reclaiming the social from the political.

     These two authors provide varied accounts in terms of what poetry can and cannot represent. While Brodsky claims that poetry is “the least mimetic of the arts,” stating that it “refuses to get mesmerized by human suffering” (1996), Forché provides a different perspective. Forché claims that the argument between poetry and politics is too narrowly defined. Through this notion of the social, as established by Forché, we are able to view Brodsky’s musings on poetry and prison writing through a different lens. “The Writer in Prison” discusses how poetry can be a form of therapy for writers in prison, and he also states that prison writings in general can provide hope for those who are not incarcerated as well. However, he does not take the next step to claim that prison poetry can also be a form of therapy for readers. It appears as though Brodsky ultimately holds a narrow view of poetry, at least when compared to Forché, as he has not considered the social in relation to poetry, at least in this piece.


“Prison is essentially a shortage of space made up for by a surplus of time; to an inmate, both are palpable.” (para. 1)

“A prison or a concentration camp is that society’s extension, not foreign territory, although your diet there alone may suggest that much.” (para. 10)

“In any case, prison writing shows you that hell is both man-made and manned by man.” (para. 17)

BIOGRAPHY: Joseph Brodsky (Russian name Iosif Aleksandrovich Brodsky) was born on May 24, 1940, in Leningrad, Russia, U.S.S.R. (current-day St. Petersburg, Russia). After leaving school at age 15, he began writing poetry as he worked odd jobs here and there. As a young man, he took up studying foreign languages as well, studying English and Polish. He was charged with “social parasitism” — not holding a regular job — by the Soviet authorities in 1964, and was sentenced to five years of hard labor. However, his sentence was commuted following protest from prominent Soviet literary figures in 1965, making his sentence “only” eighteen months. In 1972, Brodsky was exiled from the Soviet Union, and then moved to the United States, where he would become a naturalized U.S. citizen and finish the rest of his days. He was quoted as saying, “You return to your native land. Well, then what. Look around, who needs you anymore…” (quoted in Yefimov). He worked at a variety of academic institutions in the U.S., and eventually received such accolades as the Nobel Prize for Literature, a MacArthur Foundation fellowship grant, and recognition as  poet laureate of the United States. Brodsky died on January 28, 1996, in Brooklyn, New York, at the age of 55, from a heart attack.

     While Brodsky was born a Russian, it was in America where he would find his greatest fame, and it was the West, not Soviet Russia, that would laud him as one of Russia’s finest poets. He did however have many admirers at home, and particularly after the fall of the USSR, he is very celebrated in Russia. Brodsky’s poetry addresses themes such as life, death, and the meaning of existence. Despite what his exile might lead us to believe, Brodsky’s work was not overtly political, and was more so threatening to the Soviet state because of its praise of individual freedom and antimaterialism. Victor Erlich described his poetry as “not so much apolitical as antipolitical” (quoted in “Iosif Alexandrovich Brodsky”).  His major works include A Part of Speech (1980), History of the Twentieth Century (1986), Less Than One (1986), and To Urania (1988). He has also had a number of notable posthumous publications, including So Forth (1996), Discovery (1999), and Nativity Poems (2001).


Eitinguina, Maria. "Joseph Brodsky." Encyclopedia of Russian History, edited by James R. Millar, Macmillan Reference USA, 2004. Gale In Context: Biography, Accessed 19 Feb. 2021.

"Iosif Alexandrovich Brodsky." Gale Literature: Contemporary Authors, Gale, 2002. Gale In Context: Biography, Accessed 19 Feb. 2021.

"Joseph Brodsky." Authors and Artists for Young Adults, vol. 71, Gale, 2006. Gale In Context: Biography, Accessed 19 Feb. 2021.

The Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica. “Joseph Brodsky.” Encyclopedia Britannica, 24 Jan. 2021,

Yefimov, Igor. "One step out of line: Joseph Brodsky in Leningrad, 1965." World Literature Today, vol. 79, no. 3-4, 2005, p. 41+. Gale In Context: Biography, Accessed 19 Feb. 2021.


Roram, Ned. “Highly Illogical: Letter.” New York Times Book Review, 1996.
In this New York Times article originally published in November 1996, Ned Rorem critiques Joseph Brodsky’s “The Writer in Prison.” He argues that Brodsky’s conception of prisons (and metaphysics) is flawed, as Roram believes that life is not a shortage of space with a surplus of time, as Brodsky argues, but the opposite.

Hansen, Julie, and Andrei Rogachevskii. Introduction. Punishment as a Crime?: Perspectives on Prison Experience in Russian Culture. Acta Universitatis Upsaliensis, 2014. 9-14.
Here, Hansen and Rogachevskii recount Brodsky’s idea that prison is an extension of society, reflecting on how prison both mirrors the outside world and also leaves traces in the surrounding society. They additionally address Brodsky’s insights on the surplus of prison texts that exist, citing examples of both texts and films that support Brodsky’s claim.

Gaucher, Bob. “Insiders Looking Out: Writers in Prison.” Journal of Prisoners on Prison, vol. 10, no. 1, 1999.
In this article, Gaucher remarks upon the identity of the prison-writer, or writer-prisoner, that Brodsky is also calling upon in “The Writer in Prison.” While this text does not explicitly reference Brodsky’s text, it engages with many of the same ideas, reflecting upon the position prison has had in the general literary canon and our shared imaginations. Gaucher provides some historical context on how prison writings have functioned in society at large as well as a solid current perspective at the time of Brodsky was writing, as this is also a piece from the 1990s.

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