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He Saw the Future
From poet to propagandist in Bolshevik Russia

by Michael McDonald

Night Wraps the Sky
Writing by and about Mayakovsky
by Vladimir Mayakovsky
edited by Michael Almereyda
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux,
304 pp., $27

The Russian poet Vladimir Mayakovsky was born in 1893 in Baghdati, Georgia, and committed suicide in 1930 in Moscow. Tall and handsome, with the physical build of a boxer and a mesmerizing bass voice, his aggressive impatience with stale conventions and the complacent realities of everyday existence — what the Russians call byt — propelled him to embrace life unconditionally and fully charged. In the less than 37 years he lived — "tantrumed" was his own, better way, of describing it — he achieved lasting international notoriety, first as one of the leaders of the literary movement known as Russian Futurism, and then, in the words of the Russian historian Richard Stites, as the "irrepressible bard of the Russian Revolution."

Mayakovsky's rise to fame was due, in no small part, to his good fortune in living in a period and in a place that proved fully receptive to his furies and fulminations. Protest, revolt, and the violent overthrow of the "old world" of fixed and hallowed forms: these were the qualities that characterized the two intimately related spheres of Mayakovsky's life and poetry. They also happened to define the political passions tearing apart czarist Russia in the first two decades of the 20th century.

Were a man and his time ever more perfectly matched? And yet he chose to kill himself. There is an almost Dostoyevskian drama to Mayakovsky's life, which renders it endlessly fascinating and helps explain why it has escaped the narrow confines of graduate seminars to engage a much wider audience.

Edward J. Brown's Mayakovsky: A Poet in the Revolution (1973) was the first (and best) full-length English-language biography to appear in print. But many others have followed. Mayakovsky's extraordinary affair with Lili Brik, the woman Pablo Neruda called "the muse of the Russian Revolution," has spawned collections of their correspondence and separate editions of his great love poems to her:

Besides your love,
I have
no sun,
and I don't know where you are, or who you're with.
If you had tortured a poet like this,
he would
trade in his beloved for money and fame,
but for me
not a single sound brings me joy
but the ring of your lovely name.
I won't throw myself down a stairwell,
or drink poison,
or pull the trigger on the gun pressed to my temple.
Besides your sharpened gaze
the blade of any other knife is powerless.

"Lilichka!" (1916)

Then there are all those popular historians of the Revolution. As they look to explain what went wrong with the utopian project to create the new socialist man in the wake of Stalin's ascension to power in 1928, they invariably pause to linger over Mayakovsky's suicide two years later: "One of those rare acts of definition in history," as the Russian literary critic Patricia Blake wrote, "which strips clean a whole era, and mercilessly lays open the future."

Michael Almereyda is the most recent person to grapple with the Russian poet's legacy in Night Wraps the Sky, which Almereyda himself describes as a "patchwork" book. It consists of some carefully selected poems by Mayakovsky (about which more later) in lively new translations by young Russian-American poets, together with selections from Mayakovsky's 1922 autobiography I, Myself, memoirs and artistic appreciations from other poets and writers, as well as eyewitness accounts of Mayakovsky's life and times.

If you happen to have seen any of his movies — especially either of his two recent documentaries, one dealing with the production of a Sam Shepard play, the other examining the artistry of the photographer William Eggleston — you'll know that Almereyda is an intelligent and nuanced artist himself, with a well-developed literary sensibility. This comes through quite clearly in the various mini-essays he contributes to this book, particularly an affecting piece near the end in which he describes a visit he took in 2004 to the Mayakovsky Museum in Moscow. The museum is something of a hodge-podge of "hectic displays" made up of posters, papers, photographs, and other artifacts, all jostling for the visitor's attention. As Almereyda surveys the clutter he perceptively notes that

the dustbin of history is overflowing with Soviet-era aesthetic debris of this approximate sort, but among monuments to great writers, is there anything quite like the Mayakovsky Museum? Its ostentatious lack of sobriety, its atmosphere of aggressive self-congratulation, even its dinginess, are magnificent. If nothing else, the place provides a sort of clearinghouse for the poet's outsize contradictions, a chaotic stage set framing a drama whose central actor plays all the parts but who has, in room after room, fled the scene.

If it should seem odd that a contemporary American filmmaker would be attracted to an early 20th century Russian poet, perhaps it has something to do with Mayakovsky's own work in film both as an actor and as the author of more than 30 screenplays. Certainly, Almereyda seems captivated by the cinematic aspects of Mayakovsky's poetry: the rapid-fire transitions and jump cuts, the close-up focus on physical details, and the mobility of viewpoints.

Whatever the reasons, he clearly feels an affinity with the poet — "For this reader," Almereyda writes, "Mayakovsky remains extraordinarily human, and his best poetry has stayed fascinating and urgent" — and this book succeeds brilliantly and better than any other work on Mayakovsky that I know in bringing him to life. For this reason, it is safe to predict that Almereyda's book will wind up on college and university reading lists as part of the standard introduction to Mayakovsky in courses dealing with modern Russian poetry.

Whether this would be an unalloyed good is, however, debatable. I say this, notwithstanding my admiration of Almereyda's achievement, for two reasons. The first has to do with Almereyda's editorial decision — about which he is quite candid — to "veer away from" reproducing any of Mayakovsky's agitprop poems, which comprise a large part of his poetic production.

The second has to do with Almereyda's rather benign view of Mayakovsky's life and politics. Almereyda writes that just as "hindsight grants a blood-soaked historical view of the Revolution's final costs … Mayakovsky's bluntest propaganda now feel starkly hollow, unconvincing, and coarse." That is true, but there was no need of hindsight to understand the Revolution's costs in lives lost or the vacuity of the verse Mayakovsky churned out in celebration of its destructiveness. Contemporary witnesses abounded.

To say that Mayakovsky was a born malcontent and troublemaker may be a bit of an overstatement, but just barely. At the time of the 1905 revolution, while he was still in his early teens, he was leading his classmates in revolutionary demonstrations. Less than two years later, after being expelled from school, he was in Moscow, having joined an underground revolutionary group. By the time he was 15 he had been arrested three times and spent seven months in prison. It was during the time he spent in prison, much of it in solitary confinement, that he developed a taste for reading and formed, however vaguely, the idea of becoming an artist.

Released from prison, Mayakovsky drifted away from direct socialist agitation and, in 1911, into circles affiliated with the Moscow Art School. It was here that he first realized his artistic aspirations by joining with a painter and two other poets to write "A Slap in the Face of Public Taste" (1912), the founding document of the Russian Futurist movement.

Russian Futurism had more than a few things in common with Italian Futurism, launched by F.T. Marinetti in 1909: an adolescent need to provoke and outrage bourgeois values, a rejection of tradition, an infatuation with new technology (machines, speed) and — of course, given that "slap" — a love of violence. Indeed, assertive crudeness was such a hallmark of Russian Futurism that Marinetti, who visited Russia in 1914, called it "not Futurism, but Savage-ism."

My poems do not powder the ears or nibble
The earlobes
of some pretty young girl.
Shit no! My poems
jump out
like mad gladiators.
"Kill!"
they cry.
Hand to hand
and head to head!
And the words fly out
like bullets
exploding
In your brain.
You see!
I'm giving it all away,
everything to you,
Workers of the world.
Any friend of yours
is a friend of mine,
too bad for the rest!

These lines of verse, nicely translated from the Russian by Ron Padgett, appear in a poem entitled "Screaming My Head Off" that Mayakovsky wrote in 1930. But they perfectly convey what he was all about from the very start of his career to the bitter end. He took liberties in graphic layout, brought the coarse language of the streets to Russian poetry through crude and angular rhythms, and gave voice to his passions and frustrations in loud, extravagant, and hectoring hyperbole.

Mayakovsky threw himself with undisguised delight into the Futurist project to mock the past and to reinvent poetic language so as to transform perception and thereby create a new social environment. He traveled widely throughout Russia, declaiming his verse. And he was never so happy as when the bourgeois public that went to see him "hissed holes," as he would later proudly recount, in his performances.

In 1915 Mayakovsky wrote his most famous Futurist poem, "A Cloud in Pants," an agitated view of love and revolution. As rendered into English by Matvei Yankelevich, its opening lines go like this:

I'll tease your thought
on the blood-soaked shred of a heart
as it daydreams on a brain beaten to softness
like a blown-out intern on a grease-stained sofa.
Cocky and caustic, I'll mock you till I've had enough.

Not a single strand of gray streaks the hair of my soul,
there's no old-fogy tenderness in me!
The might of my voice shakes up the world
as I walk, a beautiful
twenty-two-year old.

Mayakovsky, pace Auden, believed not only that poetry "makes things happen" but that it possesses the power to "hurry time forward." It is difficult not to admire his early faith and zeal. But in time the battle against byt turned progressively nasty, doctrinaire, and intolerant. To be sure, fanaticism in the attempt to force feed Futurist poetry to an unwilling public is nothing to become worried about. But fanaticism when genuine political revolution and social upheaval are at hand is something altogether different.

The contempt for bourgeois values and liberal democracy that European avant-garde movements expressed was as thick in the air as oxygen in the run-up to the First World War. In its wake, the Italian Futurists would enthusiastically embrace Mussolini and Fascism, while in Russia Futurists like Mayakovsky would opt for their home-grown totalitarian products: Lenin and Bolshevism.

When the Bolshevik Revolution broke out in 1917, Mayakovsky, the alienated rebel, finally felt at peace in the surrounding chaos. As his friend, the critic Viktor Shklovsky, memorably remarked: "Mayakovsky entered the Revolution as he would enter his own home." He willingly submerged, as best he could, his private, anarchic, and elitist proclivities to assume an engaged, ideological, and political stance of unremitting support for the goals of the Soviet state. Almereyda characterizes Mayakovsky's metamorphosis, in part, as a transition from "smart-ass cultural iconoclasm" to "a seething political conscience." But this characterization is overly generous.

Far from exhibiting "a seething political conscience" in the poetry he produced after 1917, most of which was political in nature, he simply did as he was told, writing propaganda poems on demand. In Mayakovsky's own words: I feel I am / a Soviet factory / producing happiness — "happiness," that is, as defined by the party. He worked for the Russian State Telegraph Agency, creating agitprop posters and slogans that urged Soviet citizens to drink boiled water, buy state-sponsored cigarettes, and patronize the Moscow state-run department store Mosselprom.

A year after the Bolshevik seizure of power, Mayakovsky also wrote a play to celebrate the coup, entitled Mystery-Bouffe. The hisses he had long cherished now turned into loud cheers, which he cherished even more. He had become a popular idol. During the first terrible years of the Revolution, as many distinguished Russian intellectuals and writers fled abroad to escape the political repercussions of their failure to align themselves with the Bolsheviks, and as ordinary Russians were suffering the agony of civil war, Mayakovsky, in the words of Patricia Blake, was "exultant."

The other major poets of the day — Pasternak, Mandelstam, Akhmatova, Esenin — were appalled at Mayakovsky's decision to turn from producing splendid lyrics to agitprop that was little better than doggerel. Victor Serge would later write:

He wasted his best talents in a wary quest for God knows what ideological line, demanded of him by petty pedants who made a living out of it. Having become the most-requested rhymester of hack journalism, he allowed his personality to be sacrificed to this daily drudgery.

But Mayakovsky, who soon began to enjoy the comforts of wealth and patronage that follow from cozying up to power, didn't mind. He would travel abroad in first class as the poster boy for the Revolution and have his suits custom-made in Paris.

Almereyda recognizes that Mayakovsky became "a Soviet mascot and a shill." He is far from idolizing Mayakovsky, as some leftist critics have done. He also has little patience for postmodernist critics who want to deconstruct Mayakovsky agitprop jingles and blatantly political poetry in such a way as to suggest that he was being ironic or he was subtly scoring points against the "capitalist errors" that were "deforming" the path to true socialism.

But the picture Almereyda paints of Mayakovsky is still deficient. The gallery of witnesses whom Almereyda quotes to testify to Mayakovsky's character is notably one-sided. The Nobel Prize winner Ivan Bunin is among the missing. Bunin spoke for many when he wrote that Mayakovsky reveled in luxury and fame while the Russian people fed on corpses.

Almereyda contends that things began to turn bad for Mayakovsky when Lenin died in 1924 — and that the poet's downfall accelerated after Trotsky was exiled in 1928 and Stalin took over. That is, a new orthodoxy became established in 1928 that put an end to experimentation and freedom of expression.

But this is wrongheaded for any number of reasons. First, censorship of artists was alive and well throughout the 1920s in Russia. (As Isaiah Berlin wrote, "The only period of freedom during which no censorship existed in modern Russia was from February to October 1917.") Second, the whole notion of a contrast between the "good" Lenin and the "bad" Stalin is suspect. As Robert Service noted near the end of his authoritative biography of Lenin:

Lenin's ideas on violence, dictatorship, terror, centralism, hierarchy and leadership were integral to Stalin's thinking. Furthermore, Lenin had bequeathed the terroristic instrumentalities to his successor: the Cheka, the forced labor-camps, the one-party state, the mono-ideological mass media, the legalized administrative arbitrariness, the prohibition of free and popular elections, the ban on internal party dissent.

Near the end of the 1920s Mayakovsky certainly became disillusioned with his life. Still, remorse may not account for his suicide, as Almereyda supposes. The explanation may instead be simpler. As the first lines quoted here reveal, he had thoughts of poetic martyrdom from the start.

Almereyda says that Mayakovsky will continue to speak to new readers, because his poetry points to a bridge between freedom and responsibility. But Mayakovsky's behavior itself was irresponsible. The illusion of a "radiant future" was as necessary as physical coercion to keep Lenin's party in power for 74 years — and Mayakovsky willingly abused his enormous talents to help supply the illusion. Almereyda narrates the episodes of Mayakovsky's life agreeably and well. But he never attempts to pose, let alone answer, the tough questions.

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