Wednesday, 7 May 2014

Mayakovsky’s rhythmical roar

In the last section of his autobiographical work, Safe Conduct, written shortly after Vladimir Mayakovsky’s suicide in 1930, Boris Pasternak recalls the extraordinary power of the man and poet in his youth: “whenever Mayakovsky appeared it seemed miraculous . . . . He was gigantic”. The anarchic futurist genius was soon to be displaced by the “drummer of the Revolution”, a poet harnessing his gifts to the cause, and Pasternak began to turn away. But Mayakovsky’s revolution was not exactly the Bolshevik revolution, and he did not easily find a place in the congealing orthodoxy of Soviet culture. It was only after his death that Stalin proclaimed him the poet laureate of the regime, adding that “indifference to his memory and his works is a crime”. Canonized in this way, it is not surprising that with the end of Soviet power Mayakovsky too was toppled, replaced by poets who had been less committed to the Revolution, including Pasternak himself. By 1993, the newspaperLiteraturnaya Gazeta could ask a previously banned poet: “What is there in Mayakovsky’s writing that does not leave you indifferent?” The poet answers by aligning Mayakovsky with Beethoven and Michelangelo; he remains a powerful presence in spite of all the justified ideological debates about his legacy.

James H. McGavran III writes that his new collection of translations “is designed with the goal of moving past these debates and reintroducing Mayakovsky to the anglophone world, focusing instead on his gifts and achievements as a poet”. He is by no means the first in the field, but his volume contains a great deal of poetry, not all of it familiar. It begins with a lively translation of the abrupt autobiographical notes characteristically entitled “I Myself”, though it is a pity that room was not also found for the teasing manifesto “How Verses are Made”. There follows a quite extended selection of the earliest Futurist poems, a rather less full one of the agitprop poems of the Revolutionary years, and a short but representative group of poems from the period 1922–30, including the ode to Brooklyn Bridge and Mayakovsky’s last (and splendid) unfinished poem “At the Top of my Voice”. Most importantly, there are five of Mayakovsky’s long poems, not only the famously inventive pre-Revolutionary “A Cloud in Pants” and “The Backbone Flute”, but two of his most blatantly propagandistic works, “150,000,000” and “The Flying Proletarian”. These are large-scale comic-book epics of the victory of the new Soviet order over the villainies of Woodrow Wilson and American capitalism; the concentrated verbal power of the earlier works is diluted here, even in Russian, and while their presence is justified, they will not do much for Mayakovksy’s posthumous reputation.

As McGavran says, “translating Mayakovsky is a daunting task”, and anyone who has tried (including the present reviewer) will sympathize. Mayakovsky once wrote that the poet’s task is “the constant replenishing of the reservoirs, the barns of the skull, with necessary, expressive, rare, invented, renewed, manufactured and every other kind of words”. To translate demands a similar labour. It is perhaps not too difficult to convey some aspects of the mesmerizingly innovative language – the abrupt shifts of register, the hyperbolic metaphors, the play with sound. McGavran’s translation stays close to the meaning, and often the phrasing, of the original, which gives some striking formulations such as “Wind-drunk, / ice-shod, / the street slipped and slid” in “Being Good to Horses”.
The great stumbling block is prosody. Modern readers outside Russia are sometimes surprised to discover that the revolutionary Mayakovsky cast his poems in rhyming and rhythmically patterned shapes. In “How Verses are Made”, he speaks of the rhythmical roar (gul) that inhabits his poetry; he also repeatedly stresses the power of rhyme. To quote from McGavran’s version of “Conversation with a Taxman about Poetry”: “In our terms, / rhyme is a keg – / a powder keg. / Its fuse is the line. / The line burns down, / the line goes bang!” Rhyme is a clincher, especially if the poem is spoken aloud, and Mayakovsky’s conception of poetry is oral, often oratorical.

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