After Saint Mayakovsky

Vladimir Mayakovsky – Vladimir Mayakovsky & Other Poems (trans., James Womack, Carcanet/Fyfield)

This new volume presents a very sharp set of translations for a fundamentally incisive poet, with a clear and unromanticised introduction. The selections give us a very open reading of Mayakovsky, the Mayakovsky that is relevant to all times, without ever losing his utterly iron circumstances in history. The footnotes explain the arcana of Soviet terminology where needed, but the whole seems much more light than other collections, an aggregate of what is universally useful in Mayakovsky.

Mayakovsky’s influence on poetry and art is huge. The Beats would be lost without his R&D. Kenneth Rexroth’s poem Thou Shalt Not Kill reaches a ridiculous crescendo in its recited version, in 1957. Here, Rexroth melodramatically roll calls the names of the dead, Dylan Thomas, Mayakovsky, with a cello sawing darkly, under braying trumpet:

‘You killed him! In your gawd damn Brookes Brothers suit, you son-of-a-bitch!’

However much we might want to claim it, neither Mayakovsky nor Dylan Thomas were killed by a city slicker in a suit. In some ways, their deaths were polar opposites.

Dylan Thomas died of ennui, anomie, the lack of a name for himself and the thing his whole being did, the thing he escaped, through the clear door at the bottom of his glass, just once too often and too far…

Mayakovsky, on the opposite side of the globe, ideologically speaking, died because he cared too much. Like many of the avant garde, his revolution turned to clay in his lifetime.

To be clear, we don’t really know why Mayakovsky committed suicide, the introduction here is admirably unpretentious on such points, scholarly and engaging at the same time. But what is certain is that Mayakovsky loved and lived for the revolution and saw it splintering apart in himself. The translator and editor of this new volume James Womack cites Mayakovsky putting ‘his foot on the throat of his own song.’

Womack makes interesting points regarding the dating of the poems. One was later re-dated to place it a year before the revolution, when its real date of writing in 1917 meant that Mayakovsky was being critical of both the Bolsheviks and the opposition. These little ‘alterations’ were made in post-Stalin editions of Mayakovsky. Boris Pasternak apparently named Stalin’s enthusiastic championing of Mayakovsky’s poetry as his ‘second death’. Mayakovsky was unfortunate enough to have emerged from Stalin’s treasured Georgia.

I have one of these Mayakovsky-The-Saint volumes, Volume 2, the longer poems. The long piece here is the ‘play’ called ‘Vladimir Mayakovsky’. This gives the lie to the view of Russians as somehow egoless drones of the revolution, in fact Mayakovsky gives the lie to the default view of Russian Constructivism as all angular lines and squares. Here are Schwitters scraps at beer tables, cigarettes, dirt, grease, sweat. But the four-square rhyming is of cubism and tallies with the formal aesthetics of the time, Futurism, Vorticism.

But despite these organic scraps of everyday life, Mayakovsky was not a personal, existential, individualist writer either. He valued sound and pulsebeat over meaning itself. He looked outwards to the world, often with a kind of third person ‘Vladimir Mayakovsky’ that was in no way proto-postmodern ironic or romantic: ‘They say my themes are too i-n-d-i-v-i-d-u-a-l-i-s-t-i-c’ he wrote, returning even the rebuttal of the charges to formalism.

Mayakovsky often became a cipher in the world observing that world, to then be filtered through rectilinear formal aesthetics and the music of modernity. Mayakovsky’s beat is in no way straightforward though, and more often than not he is closer to surrealism than any other movement. Rexroth became an anarchist, seeing through the Bolshevik myth of the Russian Revolution when the Kronstadt uprising was crushed by Lenin in 1921. Mayakovsky killed himself in 1930, he was going down badly with his public. ‘How many are hopeless alcoholics?’ Rexroth asked of the poets and revolutionaries of his time.

Perhaps Mayakovsky ‘pulled back the curtain in Oz, proved that the Man Upstairs is a scam.’ Perhaps he simply sensed what was coming with all of the precognition of the poet and decided to leave.

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