Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Vladimir Mayakovsky: Poet, Hooligan, Bolshevik

Mayakovsky is closer to the dynamic quality of the Revolution and to its stern courage than to the mass character of its heroism, deeds and experiences. Just as the ancient Greek was an anthropomorphist and naively thought of the forces of nature as resembling himself, so our poet is a Mayako-morphist and fills the squares, the streets and fields of the Revolution with his own personality.

– Trotsky, Literature and Revolution

Vladimir Mayakovsky was a young man of the old guard. Born in Bagdadi, Georgia in 1893, he joined the Bolsheviks at age 15 and was sent to Butyrki prison at 16, after his third arrest for subversive political activity. He remained proudly and thoroughly Bolshevik until his suicide in 1930 (some say from a broken heart, some say from disappointment with the mutating political order, while some cry conspiracy). But his was very much the Bolshevism of the first generation of revolutionaries; the Bolshevism at the heart of the social, legislative and artistic innovations of the early 1920s. It seems highly unlikely that, had he lived, he would have had any place in the Stalinist society of the 1930s. The old trope rings true: had he not died in 1930, he would have had to die in 1937. But as it was he was never officially disavowed. In fact, he was subsequently canonised as a great Soviet poet and his work – severely edited – became required reading for every schoolchild. There are a lot of grown-ups in the former Soviet Union who cannot abide Mayakovsky for this very reason.

As Trotsky observed – and it takes one to know one – Mayakovsky was a big personality; he came to the Revolution because it suited his temperament, rather than the other way around. Political art often has the reputation of being rigid and artificial; but Mayakovsky’s poetry, even on political themes, is often impressionistic rather than didactic. It irritated Trotsky, who disliked unruly, sentimental art and would have preferred something more organised, but who was compelled to acknowledge Mayakovsky’s talent. This is why Mayakovsky is possibly the only author mentioned in Literature and Revolution to be treated with less than total scorn.

Trotsky’s understanding of Mayakovsky is limited, however; possibly by a lack of distance but more probably because his own immense ego got in the way. He is absolutely right about Mayakovsky’s self-dramatisation, but he only sees one Mayakovsky at the centre of the action. He misses out on the intense struggle between Mayakovsky the lyricist, who wrote from the heart and the gut, and Mayakovsky the arbiter, the strict Marxist who did not on any account want to write “useless” poetry. It was the latter Mayakovsky who wrote in 1930 (note: all translations from Mayakovsky are my own):

But I

calmed

myself,

by stepping

on the throat

of my own song.

All the tension between Mayakovsky and Mayakovsky can be felt in this one image: cold and deliberate, violent and full of pathos. It seems clear despite the poet’s protestations that the “problem” of Mayakovsky’s lyricism was never solved. Personally, I am glad it wasn’t; Mayakovsky is far more interesting to me when he’s being passionate or playful. Much as I like this kind of thing (warning: silly rhyming translation):

Eat your pineapples

Chew your quail’s eggs

Be warned, bourgeois,

You’re on your last legs.

And this kind of thing (non silly, non rhyming translation):

Will the eagle’s eye grow dim?

Will we start to stare into the past?

Tighten

the proletariat’s fingers

on the world’s throat!

Brave chest forward!

Paper the sky with flags!

Who’s marching there on the right?

Left!

Left!

Left!

I really, really like this kind of thing:

There will be a moon.

There already is

a little

and now the full moon hangs in the air.

It must be God,

with his divine

silver spoon

stirring the stew of the stars.

Or this:

Apart from your love

I have

no sun,

and I don’t know where you are and with whom.

Lili Brik, who inspired the last lines quoted here, was Mayakovsky’s great love and the focus for his outpourings. His love, expressed in letters and poems, has a childlike, dependent quality that oddly complements his exaggerated confidence in other walks of life, as if such a vast personality could only operate in extremes. When writing about Lili, or to Lili (during a period of separation he sent her several letters a day), Mayakovsky is obsessive, hyperbolic, visceral. He does not limit the expression of his feelings, nor does he apparently see any reason to do so. This is love in its wild state. I wonder if everyone would love like this, if it was allowed.

By this point you have probably gathered that Mayakovsky is a complex beast, and too massive a figure to cram into one blog post; rather like Pushkin, only louder. For this reason I will be coming back to Mayakovsky in a few weeks’ time to look more closely at his love poetry, and then later in the series to talk about his plays; I’ll also be playing with some of his verse in my role as a translator, over on Revisiting Russia. I hope that in this first piece, I have given you some idea of the central conflict in Mayakovsky’s poetry and the contradictions that make his work so compelling. It is also my quiet hope that – given the current mania for making every damn thing about Stalin and forcing works of art created well before 1929 to somehow account for the phenomena of twentieth century dictatorships – people who have not previously encountered Mayakovsky will be open to a Bolshevik poet who represents another, perhaps less familiar face of a familiar epoch. The Russian revolution was not a simple matter, and neither was it monolithic. And neither, for all his monumental stature, was Mayakovsky.

Kirsty’s Russian series runs every second Tuesday. The other posts in Kirsty’s Russian Series, including pieces on Pushkin, Tolstoy, Lermontov and Gorky, are listed under Kirsty’s Posts here. (Watch out for a certain post dated April 1st…)

9 comments on “Vladimir Mayakovsky: Poet, Hooligan, Bolshevik

  1. Jackie
    May 13, 2008

    Another great review of a complex writer. I’m looking forward to more about his love poetry. I like how you characterize his feelings as “love in its wild state”, that’s quite an erotic idea. The poem about God stirring the stars is so beautiful, almost psalm-like.

  2. Moira
    May 14, 2008

    That was superb, Kirsty.

    I think I’d have cordially loathed the man in the flesh … that sort of intensity always makes my teeth itch … but he’s absolutely fascinating from this distance.

  3. marygm
    May 14, 2008

    A great post, Kirsty. I love your way of bringing these Russian writers to life for us.

  4. Trilby
    May 14, 2008

    Thanks for that, Kirsty! I also love the image of the moon as God’s spoon. Shall have to check out more of Mayakovsky’s work now…

  5. Pingback: Workers and Soldiers, Dogs and Cats: Mayakovsky’s poetry for children « Vulpes Libris

  6. Illya Szilak
    July 9, 2008

    Hi Kirsty: You’re right about Mayakovsky’s struggle between the lyrical poet, radical individualist and the ideologue. I think you’ll be interested in the website for a new novel Reconstructing Mayakovsky. The site, http://www.reconstructingmayakovsky.com
    is fun, inventive and interactive. Like the novel, it combines elements of science fiction, poetry, the detective story and historical fiction to tell the story of Mayakovsky in a radically different way.
    If you enjoy it, I hope you’ll share it with your friends or on your blog. Thanks.

  7. luke
    September 8, 2008

    can someone please explain what is meant by the term “Mayako-morphist”. I’m sorry but i can’t quite grasp the term. It may be that i’m only young. Much to learn, much to learn.

  8. kirstyjane
    September 17, 2008

    If an anthropomorphist thinks everything around him has the characteristics of Man, a Mayakomorphist thinks everything has the characteristics of Mayakovsky. It’s one of Trotsky’s many enduring turns of phrase.;)

  9. Allen
    October 19, 2008

    I happened to be in Kiev and walked into a museum on Andreevsky Spusk (where Bulgakov spent his childhood) and in an exhibition on Anna Akhmatova there was an explanation of the rift between her and Mayakovsky. It was caused by his singing, of all things. When her husband, the poet Lev Gumilyov, was executed, she put her emotions to verse.
    Mayakovsky sang it to her to the tune of a bawdy folk song. Unsurprisingly, she never forgave him.

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This entry was posted on May 13, 2008 by in Entries by Kirsty, Poetry: 20th Century, Poetry: lyric, Russian Series and tagged , , , .

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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