NAMING the Russian poet Joseph Brodsky as this year's Nobel laureate in literature surely represents a tweaking of the Soviet Union - as did the 1970 award to Alexander Solzhenitsyn. The Nobel prize is one of the most prestigious literary awards, and none comes with a fatter purse, but it is also one of the most politicized. American novelist Joyce Carol Oates had been considered a likely contender for this year's honor, in part because the Swedish Academy was being pressured to name a woman for the first time in 21 years. A writer's likelihood of winning has lately seemed to vary inversely with his obscurity. One wonders how it might be if anyone other than the neutral Swedes did the picking.
In the case of Brodsky, however, the academy has chosen a highly regarded poet. ``His is very much a refined poetic discourse,'' said Duffield White, professor of Russian at Wesleyan University, who ranks him with the great Russian modernists like Osip Mandelstam. Brodsky is also a great popular figure in the Soviet Union.
Brodsky does not, however, live there. After some years in a labor camp for, in effect, practicing poetry without a license, the 47-year-old Leningrad native was expelled by Soviet authorities in 1972. He now lives in New York, writing, reading, and blasting East-bloc censorship.