More, now, in my series on hastily read Russian poets and their barely-understood poems. Today, Vladimir Mayakovsky, then Anna Akhmatova, and next week, I guess, Boris Pasternak.
What these three poets have in common, aside from chronology, is that for the hasty, English-only reader, their poetry is inseparable from their biographies. They all have such strong stories. As if their poetry is not muted enough by translation, their frightening, heartening, interesting personal histories practically swamp the poems. I mean, as I am reading them, in books with fifty pages of introduction and ninety pages of poetry.
I am having trouble focusing the microscope, so to speak.
Vladimir Mayakovsky was a wonderful nut, a true anarchist of the spirit, who inexplicably became Stalin’s favorite poet, a preference that was also a kind of curse. Mayakovsky’s suicide in 1930, at the age of thirty-six, is both a mystery and overdetermined.
Where Velimir Khlebnikov was closer to a pure language poet, Mayakovsky used the avant garde toolbox to write about himself, his love affairs and revolutionary activities and arguments and poetry. Mayakovsky, in the middle of a romance in Paris, has been asked to write political poetry, and responds with “Letter from Paris to Comrade Kostrov on the Nature of Love”:
Public squares begin to buzz;
carriages roll past;
I stroll about,
in my notebook.
along the street
without knocking me down.
the smart fellows:
here is a man
The assembly of visions
to the lid.
might grow wings. (“Letter from Paris to Comrade Kostrov on the Nature of Love,” 1929, 215-7)
Mayakovsky wrote plenty of propaganda poems, too, a third of his collected works, and drew propaganda posters, none of which is included in The Bedbug and Selected Poetry, tr. George Reavey and Max Hayward. This side of the poet remains a puzzle to me. He is so exuberant, as in the 1915 “The Cloud in Trousers”:
I never want
to read anything.
What are books?
Formerly I believed
books were made like this:
a poet came.
lightly opened his lips,
and the inspired fool burst into song –
if you please!
But it seems,
before they can launch a song,
poets must tramp for days with callused feet,
and the sluggish fish of the imagination
flounders softly in the sludge of the heart. (75)
The English poems display an inspiring variety of metaphors.
Most puzzling of all is the 1929 play The Bedbug, a satire of science, the Soviets, futurism (small-F), Communism, etc., just the sort of thing to get a writer in serious trouble. A worker, a Party member, Ivan Prisypkin, is marrying into a bourgeois family, where he will abandon his Soviet ideals and become Pierre Skripkin, even if now he is so vulgar that mistakes brassieres for bonnets. By accident, he is frozen and resurrected in the future – 1979 – where he is no longer recognized as human, only barely distinguishable from the bedbug that was frozen with him.
PRISYPKIN: What is all this? What did we fight for? Why did we shed our blood, if I can’t dance to my heart’s content – and I’m supposed to be a leader of the new society! (292)
But dancing has been replaced with calisthenics and propaganda:
ZOYA BERYOZKINA: Tomorrow I’ll take you to see a dance performed by twenty thousand male and female workers on the city square. It’s a gay rehearsal of a new work-system on the farms.
The Bedbug played in 1929 and 1930 and was a failure; it was revived in the 1950s, post-Stalin, and was a smash. It is something else, especially the screwball, Marx Brothers-like wedding scene.
In hours like these, one rises to address
The ages, history, and all creation. (“Past One o’Clock…,” 1930, 237)
I guess so. Then Mayakovsky spins the chamber of his revolver and points it at his chest.