'When I woke up Mayakovsky/ he was a lot more prompt,” complains the sun to the American poet Frank O’Hara in his poem “A True Account of Talking to the Sun on Fire Island”. The less-than-prompt O’Hara draws an ironic contrast between his own poetic persona – a Fifties New York aesthete who dashed out verse during his lunch breaks – and Mayakovsky, the whirlwind Russian who composed grandiose, sprawling poems about revolution, romantic love, the Soviet Union and himself.
The 1920 poem in which Mayakovsky “gossiped” with the sun is described by Bengt Jangfeldt, his Swedish biographer, as “a much-needed break from the poetic emergency service he had devoted himself to since the outbreak of the First World War”. Mayakovsky contained at least two poets. One was the intensely individual, avant-garde visionary who burst into genius with the early poem “A Cloud in Trousers”. The other was the patriotic, Left-wing agitator who willingly put his talent for rhyme and wordplay to the service of the rapidly collectivising Russian state.
In Jangfeldt’s pioneering account, the public story of Mayakovsky’s life is interwoven with the private stories of his poems, which multiply that life through metaphor, as in a house of mirrors. Mayakovsky was a great self-dramatiser in everything he did, whether falling in love, writing and starring in films, or giving histrionic readings that gripped his listeners with – in the words of one translator, the Scottish poet Edwin Morgan – his “scooping and pouncing mastery of pause and emphasis”.
He made his debut at 19 in a Futurist anthology called A Slap in the Face of Public Taste, and one of his earliest works was titled “Vladimir Mayakovsky: a Tragedy”. Jangfeldt suggests there is something Walt Whitman-like about the preening way in which Mayakovsky presents himself. But the Russian makes the American look demure in his self-mythologising, which is more likely to remind modern readers of the braggadocio of hip hop.
The amazing thing is that, by all accounts, he does seem to have warranted the acclaim. The impression he made on his first literary admirers was a rude, provincial youth with rotten teeth and a cigarette permanently rooted in the side of his mouth. But when he read his poems, he was quickly declared a genius.
The young man had, it seems, the essential poetic talent of digesting language voraciously (as a politically radical teenager, he had eaten a notebook to keep it from the police). Like many poets, he was also fascinated by games of chance, and became a compulsive gambler.
A group of brilliant bohemian Muscovites soon gathered around Mayakovsky, bringing him into their lives and homes. His biographer’s dry wit – and that of his English translator, Harry D Watson – asserts itself in sentences such as: “It was a pancake day with undreamed-of consequences for the development of Russian literary studies.”
The poet’s volatile personality pinballs tragicomically around the milieu where Jangfeldt deftly sets him down. The group included Lili Brik, a charismatic woman who became the “sole heroine” of Mayakovsky’s poems and the love of his life. Orbiting her circle were two men – Roman Jakobson and Victor Shklovsky – who are remembered for their influential critical writings, which radically emphasised the formal, linguistic nature of literary texts. There is a dark comedy to the scene where Shklovsky, hiding from the Bolshevik authorities, is advised by Jakobson to “pretend you’re a piece of paper and rustle” if they search the house.
It was a dangerous time to be an experimental poet but, after initially failing to impress Lenin with his epic work “150,000,000” (the population of the country at the time), Mayakovsky eventually emerged as a celebrated “poetic journalist”, seemingly in tune with Communist Russia. “Do not go into production until you are conscious of a clear social demand,” he advised apprentice poets in the essay “How Are Verses Made?” No one should fiddle about making “poetic cigarette lighters”.
The standard English translations used here don’t convey the gusto of Mayakovsky’s socialist satire as well as Edwin Morgan’s Scots versions: “Stick in, douce folk. – Pineaipple, feesant’s breist:/ stuff till ye boke, for thon is your last feast,” runs a rhyming squib “To the Bourgeoisie”. He was not able, however, simply to hack out “boy-meets-tractor” literature (as Theodor Adorno called it), and later came to feel that he had set his heel “on the throat/ of my own song”.
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