Understanding Mayakovsky, the dark and beautiful “cloud in trousers”
Vladimir Mayakovsky had just turned 13 when he read Marx for the first time. Soon he participated in secret meetings and handed out Bolshevik Party pamphlets. In 1909, he was arrested for the third time as a teenager and spent eleven months in Butyrka Prison. In the solitude of cell 103, Mayakovsky honed his writing and his art. Soon after imprisonment he would be known as an actor, playwright, journalist, cartoonist, draftsman, children’s book author, cultural agitator, and above all, a poet whose gaze was set on the future. “My verse will reach you/across the peaks of ages,/over the heads/of governments and poets.”
“I remember when my brother came out of prison we were all so excited. The first thing he did was go and wash his hands,” his sister had recalled. Those who knew him intimately recalled his obsession with cleanliness, and the fact that he carried his own soap.
Mayakovsky was born on July 7th, 1893, in Baghdati, a small town in Georgia where his father worked as a forest ranger. In the company of his father, among the mountains and the murmur of the river, he discovered the rhythm and music of the verses he would eventually write. But he was an especially sensitive and at times troubled child who was slow to read, according to his biographers. The tragic and sudden death of his father from sepsis – from a small prick with a rusty pin – caused Mayakovsky’s family great anguish. It also probably brought on his ritual cleanliness. The family moved to Moscow and lived hand to mouth.
After prison, he quit the communist party and enrolled in the Moscow Art School, where he met David Burliuk, his best friend, “his first master,” the first who believed in his poetry and who offered him 50 kopecks a day so he could write and not go hungry. With his friend Burliuk, he embarked on an adventure called the Futurist Movement, which rejected any artwork that smacked of the bourgeoisie. In 1912, they published “The Slap in the Face of Public Taste,” with texts by David Burliuk. Alexander Kruchenykh, Vladimir Mayakovsky and Velimir Khlebnikov. Vasily Kamensky soon joined the group. The Futurists would cause scenes in public and were not taken seriously by the Russian intelligentsia. Their poetry evenings were provocative. Sporting yellow shirts, top hats and canes, their faces painted, they read their poems to audiences that howled and booed them.