Thursday, May 26, 2016

Here is a man in ecstasy - Mayakovsky's fish of the imagination

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,
                         jotting verse
in my notebook.
                  along the street
without knocking me down.
They understand,
                                the smart fellows:
here is a man
                         in ecstasy.
The assembly of visions
                                            and ideas
is brimmed
                     to the lid.
         even bears
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.


  1. I'm reading some poems by Bulgarian communist poet Nikola Vaptsarov, and he's been compared to Mayakovsky. I can see why, from these examples. Vaptsarov also died young, but the bullets in his chest were put there by a Bulgarian firing squad during WWII.

  2. The facing-page Russian text looks exactly like the English. How it sounds, someone else will have to tell me.

    Ah, the poor dead poets.

  3. Ah, Mayakovsky - one of my major poetic obsessions - I love him to bits. Spans the range from the personal to political quite brilliantly!


  4. It is likely for the best that this question put a hard limit on the political side.

  5. Herbert had a slightly different take on poetic facility considered as moving fish, and/or stichorrhea:

    There are those who grow
    gardens in their heads
    paths lead from their hair
    to sunny and white cities

    it’s easy for them to write
    they close their eyes
    immediately schools of images
    stream down from their foreheads

    my imagination
    is a piece of board
    my sole instrument
    is a wooden stick

    I strike the board
    it answers me

  6. I just read a Bernd Heinrich essay about drumming woodpeckers, which I cannot separate from Zbignew's poem.

    Google says your neologism is original.

  7. Herbert would have appreciated the comparison. And, as usual, you're right: stichorrhea is a compound of two greek terms: stichos (line of verse) and rhein (flow). Looking forward to your comments on They, Wireless and Mrs. Bathurst.

    Ah, Mrs. Bathurst, who could see her faithless lover hiding in the dark from inside a moving picture and who,
    With that same cruel-lustful hand and eye,
    Those nails and wedges, that one hammer and lead,
    And the very gerb of long-stored lightnings loosed
    Yesterday against some King.

  8. I successfully dismantled the word - knew more Greek than I realized, I guess.

    I just read "Wireless." What a shocker.

  9. I'm not much for Mayakovsky, but "At the Top of My Voice" is an incredible poem.
    in my teeth too,
    and I'd rather
    romances for you--
    more profit in it
    and more charm
    But I
    setting my heel
    on the throat
    of my own song."

    "My verse by labour will break the mountain chain of years,
    and will present itself
    as an aqueduct,
    by slaves of Rome
    enters into our days."

    "inexplicably became Stalin’s favorite poet" is...ignoring his own choice to write all that propaganda, his support of the government dating back before Stalin came to power. It wasn't an accident.

  10. Not ignoring but considering or maybe even considering. Lots of people wrote propaganda and supported the Soviet state who did not become Stalin's favorite anything.

    "At the Top of My Voice" is a marvel, but also evidence of unreliability.