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.
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):
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?
the proletariat’s fingers
on the world’s throat!
Brave chest forward!
Paper the sky with flags!
Who’s marching there on the right?
I really, really like this kind of thing:
There will be a moon.
There already is
and now the full moon hangs in the air.
It must be God,
with his divine
stirring the stew of the stars.
Apart from your love
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…)