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In a day this week, the 14th April 1930, Leningrad’s Krasnaya Gazeta (The Red Gazette), organ of the central, provincial, & city committees of the All-Union Communist Party of Bolsheviks and the Petrograd/Leningrad Soviet – just prior to the information clampdown that was about to come into force – reported that Soviet “poet-tribune” Vladimir (Volodya) Mayakovsky, had committed suicide by shooting himself through the heart at 10:17 a.m. Moscow, USSR.

 

2 weeks before he died, Mayakovsky wrote the poem:

Past One O’Clock …

Past one o’clock. You must have gone to bed.

The Milky Way streams silver through the night.

I’m in no hurry; with lightning telegrams

I have no cause to wake or trouble you.

And, as they say, the incident is closed.

Love’s boat has smashed against the daily grind.

Now you and I are quits. Why bother then

To balance mutual sorrows, pains, and hurts.

Behold what quiet settles on the world.

Night wraps the sky in tribute from the stars.

In hours like these, one rises to address

The ages, history, and all creation.

 

The poem was found among Mayakovsky’s papers after his suicide on April 14. He had used the middle section, with slight changes, as an epilogue to his suicide note.

 

Born on July 7, 1893, in Bagdadi (renamed Mayakovsky from 1940 until 1991), a small mountain village in Georgia (at that time part of the Russian Empire since 1801) with no more than a thousand inhabitants. He had two siblings, a sister Lyudmila, who was nine years older than himself, and Olga, who was three years older, (a brother, Konstantin, had died of scarlet fever at the age of three.) “The family came from the minor aristocracy but were wholly dependent for their living on the father’s salary, which provided a reasonable living without any luxuries.” (B. Jangfeldt) Mayakovsky evidently found little to sustain him in the world of his childhood. “By his own account he was a lonely, restless, and troublemaking child”. (Patricia Blake)

 

It was in 1905 (the year protesting workers in St. Petersburg were shot down by the Tsar’s troops protecting the Winter Palace, Bloody Sunday, January 9),  at the age of 12 that “he first discovered a remedy for boredom: revolution.”

Vladimir Mayakovsky (I, Myself):

1905: Revolution: Meetings and demonstrations began. I went too. It was good. I saw it in terms of painting anarchists in black, Socialist-Revolutionaries in red, Social-Democrats in dark-blue and the federalists in other colours.

He began by stealing his father’s sawed-off shotguns and delivering them to the local Social Democratic committee. In the winter of 1906, while the first State Duma was opened and the 1906 Russian Constitution enacted: his father died of blood poisoning at the age of forty-nine and, facing poverty, he moved to Moscow with his mother and sister that year. At fifteen, following the turmoil of his move to Moscow, he joined the Bolshevik faction of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party and carried out underground propaganda among bakers, shoemakers, and printers until his arrest in 1908.

 

Vladimir Mayakovsky (I, Myself):

29 March 1908, blundered into an ambush in Gruziny. Our illegal press. Ate a notepad. With addresses and in a cover. Presnya Police Station. Security. Sushchovskaya Police Station.

As it turned out, after a number of arrests, the eleven months he eventually served in prison (Butyrki, Solitary Cell No. 103) were immensely valuable; he spent them reading, or, as he put it, “disposing of” contemporary authors and “plunging” into Shakespeare, Byron, and Tolstoy. “Greatly agitated by his reading, he was determined to drop politics in favor of the arts.”

Vladimir Mayakovsky (I, Myself):

11 BUTYRSKY MONTHS:

A most important time for me. After three years of theory and practice, I plunged into belles-lettres.

Read all the latest. The symbolists, Bely and Balmont. The formal novel intrigued me. But it was alien. Themes and images not from my own life. I tried writing as well as they, but about something else. It turned out that it was impossible to write about something else too. It came out stilted and maudlin.

In purple and gold the forests were dressed

The church domes were bright in the sun ‘s dancing rays.

I waited: in months were the days being lost,

Hundreds of wearisome days.

I filled the whole notebook with this sort of stuff. My thanks

to the supervisors-they took it off me when I left. And to think

that I might have published it!

I swooped on the classics. Byron, Shakespeare, Tolstoy…

A SO-CALLED DILEMMA

The authors I had read were the so-called great ones, but how easy to write better than they! I had already acquired a correct attitude toward the world. I needed only experience in art. Where would I find it? I was half-baked . . . . It was all right for others to be in the Party. They had a university behind them . . . . What could I set up against the aesthetics of the past that had avalanched on me?”

 

Following this period of reflection Mayakovsky abandoned direct participation in the revolutionary movement, as he stated himself, “I gave up Party work and sat down to my studies“, yet he always retained his ideological sympathies.

 

That same year, 1909, was the year the Italian, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, proclaimed Futurism, a movement announcing a general revolt against the cultural heritage in literature as well as art and music (“Erect on the summit of the world, once again we hurl defiance to the stars!”). Futurism had an enormous impact in Russia, particularly in the field of literature. Though Mayakovski took to Futurism as ‘a duck takes to water’, “Marinetti and Mayakovsky, apparently, met only once and hated each other’s guts.” (Dave Widgery)

 

Vladimir Mayakovsky (I, Myself):

If I stayed in the Party, I would have to go underground. Underground, it seemed to me, I wouldn’t learn anything. I would be faced with the prospect of writing leaflets all my life, of expounding ideas taken from the correct books, but not thought up by me. If they shook out of me what I had read, what would be left? The Marxist method. But hadn’t that weapon fallen into the hands of a child? It was easy to use it if you only had to do with the ideas of your own people. But what about clashes with enemies? I couldn’t, after all, write better than Bely. He was cheerful about what mattered to him-“I flung a pineapple into the sky” -and I was whining about what mattered to me-“Hundreds of wearisome days”. It was all right for the other Party members. They had been to university too. (As for higher school-I did not yet know what that was-I respected it at that time!) What could I put up in opposition to the old world aesthetics that had descended on me? Didn’t the revolution demand serious schooling? I looked in on Medvedev, at that time still my Party comrade, and said I wanted to produce a Socialist art. Seryozha laughed for a long time .

I nevertheless thought that he had underestimated my guts. I gave up Party work and sat down to my studies.

 

On his release he attended the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture (as an ex-prisoner …the only place where you were accepted without a testimonial of reliability.”) where he was to meet David Burlyuk. Burlyuk encouraged his writing of poetry, introducing him all over town as “my friend, the genius, the famous poet, Mayakovsky.” (“DAVID BURLYUK –  Burlyuk appeared in the school. Brazen look. Lorgnette. Frock coat. Sang as he walked. I started teasing him. We nearly came to blows.“) It was Moscow, 1911, the city was “seized with the frenzy of modernism” and Mayakovsky was about to find his place in the midst of the turmoil. Disillusioned by the revolution, in 1922 Burlyuk would emigrate to the United States, becoming a U.S. citizen eight years later.

Vladimir Mayakovsky (I, Myself):

David had the wrath of the master overtaking his contemporaries, I had the message of the socialist who knew that the collapse of the old world was inevitable. Russian futurism was born…

 

December 1912: Mayakovsky, Burlyuk, Khlebnikov, and Kruchenykh published a Russian Futurist (“…their favorite entertainment was shocking the bourgeois…”) manifesto entitled: Poshchochina obshchestvennomu vkusu (A Slap in the Face of Public Taste):

A Slap in the Face of Public Taste

To the readers of our New First Unexpected.

We alone was the face of our Time. Through us the horn of time blows in the art of the world.

The past is too tight. The Academy and Pushkin are less intelligible than hieroglyphics.

Throw Pushkin, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, etc., etc. overboard from the Ship of Modernity.

He who does not forget his first love will not recognize his last.

Who, trustingly, would turn his last love toward Balmont’s perfumed lechery? Is this the reflection of today’s virile soul?

Who, faint-heartedly, would fear tearing from warrior Bryusov’s black tuxedo the paper armor-plate? Or does the dawn of unknown beauties shine from it?

Wash your hands which have touched the filthy slime of the books written by the countless Leonid Andreyevs.

All those Maxim Gorkys, Krupins, Bloks, Sologubs, Remizovs, Averchenkos, Chornys, Kuzmins, Bunins, etc. need only a dacha on the river. Such is the reward fate gives tailors.

From the heights of skyscrapers we gaze at their insignificance!…

We order that the poets’ rights be revered:

  • To enlarge the scope of the poet’s vocabulary with arbitrary and derivative words (Word-novelty).
  • To feel an insurmountable hatred for the language existing before their time.
  • To push with horror off their proud brow the Wreath of cheap fame that You have made from bathhouse switches.
  • To stand on the rock of the word “we” amidst the sea of boos and outrage.

And if for the time being the filthy stigmas of your “common sense” and “good taste” are still present in our lines, these same lines for the first time already glimmer with the Summer Lightning of the New Coming Beauty of the Self-sufficient (self-centered) Word.

 

Mayakovsky’s first two published poems, Noch (‘Night) and Utro (‘Morning’) also appeared in December 1912, in the almanac “the Slap in the face to public taste“. Mayakovsky, poet and futurist and soon to be revolutionary artist and with no lack of confidence was gazing from the height of a skyscraper at the insignificance of the old order while his poetry was also developing “self-assertive and defiant in form and content”. His poetic monodrama ‘Vladimir Mayakovsky’ was performed in St. Petersburg on December 2, 1913; “an avant-garde verse drama, satirizing the urban life and, at the same time, hailing the up-and-coming revolution of the industrial power.” The work has had mixed reviews: ‘”Who’s more insane, the Futurists or the public?”, Peterburgskaya Gazeta enquired rhetorically. “We won’t recall another such case of a theatrical stage abuse,” maintained Peterburgsky Listok…” whereas “After 1917 the Soviet critics hailed the play as a “daring swipe at the bourgeois values,” admiring the way the author has “dethroned the old, decrepit God who’d lost all ability to do anything for people, to place a Poet protagonist upon the pedestal.” (Wikipedia) That same year the futurists, along with Mayakovsky, travelled around the country (“which took them to 17 cities, including Simferopol, Sevastopol, Kerch, Odessa and Kishinev”) giving readings where “its members would read poetry on street corners, throw tea at their audiences, and make their public appearances an annoyance for the art establishment…” Likewise “…it was a riotous affair. The audiences would go wild and often the police stopped the readings.” (Wikipedia)

 

1914: on the 28 July the First World War began and was to last until 11 November 1918. Over nine million combatants and seven million civilians were to die in these four long years.

Vladimir Mayakovsky (I, Myself):

AUGUST

The first battle. The horror of war in all its stature. War is disgusting. The rear is even more disgusting. To talk about war, one must see it. Went to sign on as a volunteer. They turned me down. No reliability.

 

Alexander Ushakov: (Foreword, Selected Verse, 1)     

“The First World War became a major testing ground for many literary and artistic trends and schools, revealing their general essence, exposing their true attitude towards the interests of the nation and the needs of the people. It opened Mayakovsky’s eyes on a great many things. He became particularly aware of the fact that the monarchy and the bourgeois system which plunged the people into the abyss of innumerable sufferings was completely rotten. The critical trend in his work gained power. This is well seen in such poems as “Mother and the Evening Killed by the Germans”, “I and Napoleon”, the pamphlet “You”, satirical “hymns”, and especially the big poem Cloud in Pants, which presents a major landmark in the development of the poet’s ideological self-awareness.”

 

Vladimir Mayakovsky

YOU! (1915)

You, wallowing through orgy after orgy,

owning a bathroom and warm, snug toilet!

How dare you read about awards of St. George

from newspaper columns with your blinkers oily?!

 

Do you realize, multitudinous nonentities

thinking how better to fill your gob,

that perhaps just now Petrov the lieutenant

had both his legs ripped off by a bomb?

 

Imagine if he, brought along for slaughter,

suddenly saw, with his blood out-draining,

you, with your mouths still dribbling soda-water

and vodka, lasciviously crooning Severyanin!

 

To give up my life for the likes of you,

lovers of woman-flesh, dinners and cars?

I’d rather go and serve pineapple juice

to the whores in Moscow’s bars.

 

Between 1914 and 1916 Mayakovsky (who now called himself “an agitator, brazen-mouthed ring-leader“) completed two major poems, ‘Oblako v shtanakh‘ (1915; ‘A Cloud in Trousers’) and ‘Fleyta pozvonochnik’ (written in 1915, published 1916, ‘The Backbone Flute‘).

‘A Cloud in Trousers‘ is “a tale of love and poetry in bold, novel, jarring images, using a “depoetisized” language of the streets.” In it, Mayakovsky scorns the lofty image of the poet; he refuses to be “sweet. Not a man, but a cloud in trousers.” Instead, the author says he is merely a human, “spit from the filthy night on the palm of a beggar.” Poetry does not come easy. Rather, writing poetry, coming from the “silly fish of imagination“, causes “blisters on the brain“.

 

Patricia Blake:

“Over six feet tall and built like a boxer, he lowered over everyone like a storm cloud. A scruffy shock of dark hair tumbled over his deeply lined forehead. His thick lower lip curved toward the left, insolently, in conversation. In manner, he appeared alternately morose and exuberant, taciturn and witty, cruel and supremely gentle. But whatever his posture, his genius was unmistakable – a goad to some and an insult to others.”

 

Also, now, in the summer of 1915, Mayakovsky met the great love of his life–Lilya Brik (October 30, 1891 – August 4, 1978) to whom he would dedicate a significant portion of his work and who would become his literary executor after his death and ultimately be responsible for his status as a soviet poet.

Vladimir Mayakovsky (I, Myself):

A MOST JOYFUL DATE – July 1915. Met L. Yu. and 0. M. Brik.

 

Vladimir Mayakovsky

LILY DEAR ! IN LIEU OF A LETTER (Petrograd, 26 May 1916)

The room’s a chapter of Kruchonykh’s Inferno.

Air

gnawed out by tobacco smoke.

Remember

at the window,

for the first time,

burning,

with tender frenzy your arms I’d stroke?

Now you’re sitting there,

heart in armour;

a day,

and perhaps,

I’ll be driven out,

To the bleary hall:

let’s dress: be calmer,

crazy heart, don’t hammer so loud!

I’ll rush out, raving,

hurl my body into the street,

slashed by despair from foot to brow.

Don’t,

don’t do it,

darling,

sweet!

Better say goodbye right now.

Anyway,

my love’s a crippling weight

to hang on you

wherever you flee.

Let me sob it out

in a last complaint,

the bitterness of my misery.

A bull tired out by a day of sweat

can plunge into water,

get cooled and rested.

For me

there’s no sea but your love,

and yet

from that even tears can’t wrest me a respite.

If a weary elephant wants some calm,

lordly, he’ll lounge on the sun-baked sand.

I’ve

only your love

for sun and balm,

yet I can’t even guess who’ll be fondling your hand.

If a poet were so tormented

he might

barter his love for cash and fame.

For me

the world holds no other delight

than the ring and glitter of your dear name.

No rope will be noosed,

no stairwell leapt in,

nor will bullet or poison take my life.

No power over me,

your glance excepting,

has the blade of any knife .

Tomorrow you’ll forget

it was I who crowned you,

I

who seared out a flowering soul.

The pages of my books will be vortexed

around you

by a vain existence’s carnival whirl.

Could my words,

dry leaves that they are but,

detain you

with throbbing heart?

Ah,

let the last of my tenderness carpet

your footfall as you depart!

 

By February 1917, the Russian army had suffered both heavy casualties and enormous military setbacks and much of the rank and file were in a state of mutiny. In Petrograd workers began several strikes and ongoing demonstrations took place demanding bread. When, on the 11  February the Tsar ordered the army to suppress the rioting by force, troops began to mutiny. The Tsar had lost control and revolution had broken out. Red sailors marched on the Winter Palace chanting one of Mayakovsky’s slogans:

Yesh ananasy, ryabchiki zhui

Dyeh tvoi posledni prikhodit, burzhui!

(“Eat pineapples, chew on quail

Your last day is coming, bourgeois!”)

Mayakovsky the futurist was now confronted, once again, with the question of revolution. There is the well known passage in ‘I Myself’ – in which he addressed this question: “To accept or not to accept? There was no such question for me … My Revolution.”

Vladimir Mayakovsky (I, Myself):

OCTOBER

To accept or not accept? There was no such question for me

(or for other Moscow futurists). My Revolution. Went to the

Smolny Institute. Worked. Everything that came my way. They

are beginning to hold sessions.

JANUARY

Went to Moscow. Made speeches. At night, in the Poets’ Cafe,

in Nastasinsky. The revolutionary grandmother of today’ s cafe-poetic

salons.

I write film scenarios. Play parts myself. Do posters for the

cinema. June. Petersburg again.

1918

The RSFSR has no time for art. But I have time for just

that. Dropped in on Kshesinskaya at Proletkult.

Why am I not in the Party? The communists worked at the

fronts. In art and education they are conciliators, for the time

being. They should send me to catch fish in Astrakhan.

 

Alexander Ushakov: (Foreword, Selected Verse, 1)     

“Mayakovsky’s pre-revolutionary poetry is full of sympathy and passionate, at times torturous love for man crippled by the savagery of the capitalist system. With the years it shows mounting confidence that life must change for the better, that justice must ultimately triumph in this world, that a time will come when such eternal attributes of human existence as greed, cruelty and violence will dissolve into limbo.”

 

Vladimir Mayakovsky (I, Myself):

I was impressed for the rest of my life by the socialists’ ability to disentangle facts and systematize the world.”

 

Vladimir Mayakovsky

Our March

Beat the squares with the tramp of rebels!

Higher, rangers of haughty heads!

We’ll wash the world with a second deluge,

Now’s the hour whose coming it dreads.

 

Too slow, the wagon of years,

The oxen of days — too glum.

Our god is the god of speed,

Our heart — our battle drum.

 

Is there a gold diviner than ours/

What wasp of a bullet us can sting?

Songs are our weapons, our power of powers,

Our gold — our voices — just hear us sing!

 

Meadow, lie green on the earth!

With silk our days for us line!

Rainbow, give color and girth

To the fleet-foot steeds of time.

 

The heavens grudge us their starry glamour.

Bah! Without it our songs can thrive.

Hey there, Ursus Major, clamour

For us to be taken to heaven alive!

 

Sing, of delight drink deep,

Drain spring by cups, not by thimbles.

Heart step up your beat!

Our breasts be the brass of cymbals.

 

From 1919 to 1921, immersed in the Revolution, Mayakovsky now works in the Russian Telegraph Agency as a painter of posters and cartoons, to which he adds rhymes and slogans. “An important part in strengthening Mayakovsky’s ties with social reality, in improving the poet’s style, was played by his work in ROSTA-the Russian Telegraph Agency. In the course of almost a year and a half he actively participated in the production of agit-posters on vital topics of the day, both as cartoonist and author of poetic captions to drawings. These posters, known as “Windows of ROSTA”, were manufactured by hand and hung up in the streets for everyone to see and read. This work, as Mayakovsky himself recalled later, helped him acquire on-the-spot precision in the assessment of various facts of reality, to sift verbal superfluities from his poetic language.”

 

Vladimir Mayakovsky

LEFT MARCH (1918)

(FOR SAILORS)

March, march out to the fore!

Away with speech-making lousy!

Quieter, orators!

You

have the floor,

Comrade Mauser!

Too long we’ve lived by the laws

Adam and Eve left.

Run down old History’s horse!

Left!

Left!

Left!

Ahoy, blue blouses!

Steer forth

over the roaring ocean.

Steam away, dreadnoughts!

Or

have your keels gone blunt without motion?

Let the British lion brandish

his crown,

and roar till he’s dumb and deaf.

The Commune will never be vanquished.

Left!

Left!

Left!

There

beyond mountains of woe,

a land of sunshine spreads wide.

Past famine,

past martyrdom -go

crashing, million-strong stride!

Let hirelings by war-lords sent

surround us for murder and theft.

Russian fall under the Entente?

Left!

Left!

Left!

Eagle eyes to be blurred?

Us to gaze back at the past?

Round the throat of the world

proletarian fingers, clinch fast!

Chest for’ard ! Show ‘em your might!

Let the sky by banners be cleft!

Who starts to march with the right?

Left!

Left!

Left!

 

1921: Mayakovsky (now both Futurist performance poet as well as Communist agitator) produces the epic propaganda-art poem ‘150,000,000’, an allegory of the decisive battle between 150,000,000 Soviet workers and the evil forces of capitalism, led by Woodrow Wilson.

We will smash the old world

    wildly

    we will thunder

    a new myth over the world.

    We will trample the fence

    of time beneath our feet.

    We will make a musical scale

    of the rainbow.

 

    Roses and dreams

    Debased by poets

    will unfold

    in a new light

    for the delight of our eyes

    the eyes of big children.

    We will invent new roses

    roses of capitals with petals of squares

“In style, the poem parodies the Russian bylina, or folk epic.” This work however, did not go down well. Lenin himself wrote a memo to Lunacharsky, Soviet People’s Commissar of Education, criticising the publication of ‘150,000,000’ and calling the poem, “stupid, monstrously stupid, and pretentious.” He also suggested that Lunacharsky be “whipped for futurism.”

  1. I. Lenin (to A. V. Lunacharsky, May 6, 1921):

“Aren’t you ashamed to vote for printing 5,000 copies of Mayakovsky’s ‘150,000,000’?

It is nonsense, stupidity, double-dyed stupidity and affectation.

I believe such things should be published one in ten, and not more than 1,500 copies, for libraries and cranks.

As for Lunacharsky, he should be flogged for his futurism.

6/V.

Lenin”

 

Roman Jakobson (‘On a generation that squandered its poets’):

“In the rough draft of the poem “150,000,000” we find the following definitions: To be a bourgeois does not mean to own capital or squander gold. It means to be the heel of a corpse on the throat of the young. It means a mouth stopped up with fat. To be a proletarian doesn’t mean to have a dirty face and work in a factory: it means to be in love with the future that’s going to explode the filth of the cellars — believe me….The basic fusion of Mayakovsky’s poetry with the theme of the revolution has often been pointed out. But another indissoluble combination of motifs in the poet’s work has not so far been noticed: revolution and the destruction of the poet.”

 

Dave Widgery (‘Mayakovsky and Revolutionary Art’):

“But Lenin seemed to warm to Mayakovsky, who he had called on first meeting “a hooligan communist”. In a 1922 speech to the Communist Faction of the Metal Workers Union, he mentioned a Mayakovsky poem “Conferences” which satirized Bolshevik obsession with meetings. Lenin said, ‘I don’t know about the poetry, but as for the politics, I can vouch for it that he is absolutely right.’ In some of Lenin’s more lyrical phrases, “Socialism equals Soviets plus electrification” and “Revolution is the festival of the oppressed” one can almost sense Mayakovsky’s presence.”

I meet the dawn with a dream of bliss:

Oh, for just one more decisive conference,

concerning

the abolishment of all conferences!”

 

Energised by the ongoing march of the revolution and the work of constructing the new society…

Proletarians

                 arrive at communism

                                                   from below  – 

by the low way of mines,

                                       sickles,

                                                    and pitchforks  – 

But I,

       from poetry’s skies,

                                       plunge into communism,

because

            without it

                            I feel no love. (Back Home, 1925)

…Mayakovsky now begins to travel widely. May 1922 to Riga, Latvia. He was scheduled to give a public lecture, but the local police chief, aware of Mayakovsky’s political views, refused to grant permission. “Mayakovsky responded with some vicious verse satire, ridiculing all aspects of life in the tiny republic.” Later in 1922 he visited Berlin and Paris, where he met with Jean Cocteau, Picasso, Braque, and Leger and attended the funeral of Marcel Proust. From these travels Mayakovsky produced ‘The West‘ a ten-poem-cycle written between 1922-1924 and including other visits he made to Italy and the United Kingdom. Upon his return to Moscow, Mayakovsky set about establishing the avant-garde journal Left Front, or more simply, Lef. The first issue appeared in March 1923 and the last (the seventh) in June 1925. It featured works by Pasternak, Kamensky, Aseev, Kruchonykh, Khlebnikov, Babel, Shklovsky, Osip Brik, Meyerhold, Vertov, Eisenstein and Rodchenko. The first issue of the journal also contained Mayakovsky’s own ‘Pro Eto’ (‘About That’), “an allegoric outpouring of love and suffering, filled with surrealist visions” (“…that was arguably my best poem in terms of the editorial work done upon it,” he would say later). The long poem ends:

Let love

make its universal music.

Give us this day

grown old with grief

a reprieve from Christ’s

sanctimoniousness.

Let the whole planet

turn

with one cry:

– Comrade! –

Not sacrificing our lives

in domestic holes and corners.

The Universe be

Our Father

in Our Family

from now on

And the Earth, come what may,

Our Mother.

 

Of Lef, Trotsky was to say in 1930:

“Ready to serve the “epoch” in the dirty work of every day life, Mayakovsky could not help being repelled by the pseudo-revolutionary officialdom, even though he was not able to understand it theoretically and therefore could not find the way to overcome it. The poet rightfully speaks of himself as “one who is not for hire.” For a long time he furiously opposed entering Averbach’s administrative collective of so-called proletarian literature. From this came his repeated attempts to create, under the banner of LEF [Left Front of the Arts], an order of frenzied crusaders for proletarian revolution who would serve it out of conscience rather than fear. But LEF was of course unable to impose its rhythms upon “the one hundred and fifty million.” The dynamics of the ebbing and flowing currents of the revolution is far too profound and weighty for that…”

At this time he also wrote the long poem, ‘I Love’ which, like ‘Pro Eto‘, was dedicated to Lilya Brik, the wife of the writer Osip Maksimovich Brik. Mayakovsky’s love for her and his friendship with her husband would have a strong influence on his poetry for the course of his life.

 

Vladimir Mayakovsky (I, Myself):

1923

We are organizing LEF.  LEF covers a big social theme with all the tools of futurism. This definition does not, of course, exhaust the problem- I am referring those interested to our numbers. Closely welded together-Brik, Aseyev, Kushner, Arvatov, Tretyakov, Rodchenko and Lavinsky. Have written It. On personal motives about life in general. Have been mulling over a poem, Lenin. One of the slogans, one of the big gains of LEF has been constructivism, the de-aestheticization of the production arts. Poetic application: the agitka and the administrative agitka, or advertisement. In spite of poetic catcalls, I regard “Nowhere except in Mosselprom” as poetry of the very highest quality.

 

At this time Anatoly Lunacharsky, (1 November 1875 – 26 December 1933, Russian Marxist revolutionary and the first Soviet People’s Commissar of Education, also an essayist,  journalist and literary critic) is reported to have heard Mayakovsky’s recital of the poem ‘It‘, winter 1923, where he remarked:

“I knew it before but today I have become finally convinced: Volodya is a lyric poet, a most subtle lyric poet, although even he himself doesn’t always understand it. A tribune, agitator and at the same time a lyric poet.”

 

Still, despite all revolutionary momentum and artistic optimism, there are clouds on the horizon… In 1922 Lenin’s health declined and he composed the document now known as ‘Lenin’s Testament’, a document written by Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov in the last weeks of 1922 and early in 1923. In it, along with criticism of other Central Committee members, he suggested that Joseph Stalin be removed from his position as General Secretary of the Russian Communist Party’s Central Committee. In March 1923 he suffered a third stroke. After months appearing to recover, Lenin died at his Gorki home on 21 January 1924. On 22 January Mayakovsky was at the meeting of the XI All-Russian Congress of Soviets “where Mikhail Kalinin informed the delegates of Lenin’s death on 21 January, at 18:30.” On 27 January he attended Lenin’s funeral at Red Square. Mayakovsky’s elder sister Lyudmila remembered: “Volodya took Lenin’s death very personally. For him it was like the loss of a dear, close person. He believed in him. He loved him from those early days of working in the revolutionary underground. So shaken was he by this death that for some time couldn’t find it in him to express his feelings [in writing]… [Mayakovsky] has been coming back to Lenin’s memory and ideas throughout his life. Because it was Lenin’s struggle for the shining ideals of Communism, that Vladimir considered his own life’s meaning.” (Wikipedia) Mayakovsky then composed a 3,000-line elegy on the death of  comrade Vladimir Ilyich Lenin:

 

Vladimir Mayakovsky:

To the Russian

Communist Party

I dedicate this poem

 

The time has come.

I begin

the story of Lenin.

Not because the grief

is on the wane,

but because

the shock of the first moment

has become a clear-cut,

weighed and fathomed pain.

Time,

speed on,

spread Lenin’s slogans in your whirl!

Not for us

to drown in tears,

whatever happens.

There’s no one

more alive

than Lenin in the world,

our strength,

our wisdom,

surest of our weapon.

People

are boats,

although on land.

While life

is being roughed

all species

of trash

from the rocks and sand

stick

to the sides of our craft.

But then,

having broken

through the storm’s mad froth,

one sits

in the sun

for a time

and cleans off

the tousled seaweed growth

and oozy

jellyfish slime.

I

go to Lenin

to clean off mine

to sail on

with the revolution.

I fear

these eulogies

line upon line

like a boy

fears falsehood and delusion.

They’ll rig up an aura

round any head:

the very ideal

abhor it,

that such a halo

should hide

poetry-bred

Lenin’s real,

huge,

human forehead.

I’m anxious lest rituals,

mausoleums

the honeyed incense

and processions,

of homage and publicity

should

obscure

Lenin’s essential

simplicity.

I shudder

as I would

for the apple of my eye

lest Lenin be falsified

by tinsel beauty…

 

After 1925 he travels in Europe, the United States, Mexico, and Cuba, recording his impressions in poems and in a booklet of sketches (1926, ‘My Discovery of America‘). He takes two more trips to Paris, in October 1924 and May 1925. On the latter journey, he attended the opening of the Soviet pavilion at the Exhibition of Industrial Arts, where his own advertising posters received the Silver Medal. He then sailed across the Atlantic. He landed first in Cuba, where U.S. domination led him to write ‘Black And White’, in support of the struggle against racism. He then moved on to Mexico where he met fellow modernist and communist Diego Rivera. Then, in July 1925, after spending eight hours behind bars in Texas, Mayakovsky finally enters the United States. He visits New York, Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Cleveland, giving readings and lectures and joining in the workers’ struggle, once “spending a whole day on the picket line with New York garment workers”. The result of the trip was Mayakovsky’s cycle ‘Stikhi ob Ameriki’ (‘Poems of America’), including ‘Bruklinski Most’ (‘The Brooklyn Bridge’), as well as “a rather caustic prose travelogue, ‘Moyo Otkrytiye Ameriki’ (‘My Discovery of America’, 1926).

 

Vladimir Mayakovsky (from ‘My Discovery of America’, 1925–26):

The division of labour is destructive of human means of livelihood. The capitalist, having separated out and allocated a percentage of workers of material value to himself (certain specialists, tame union bosses, etc.), treats the remaining work masses like inexhaustible goods.

If we want to, we sell; if we want to, we buy. If you don’t agree to work, we sit it out; if you go on strike, we take on others. We look after the subordinate and the capable; and for the insubordinate, it’s the batons of the official police, and the Mausers and the Colts of the private dicks.

The cunning splitting of the working class – into the run-of-the-mill and the privileged; the ignorance of workers sucked dry by labour, who, after a thoroughly systematised working day, are not even left with sufficient energy needed to be able to think; the comparative prosperity of the worker able to hammer out a subsistence wage; the delusory hope of riches in the future, given added relish by insistent anecdotes of billionaires who started off as cleaners; the absolute military fortresses on many a street corner, and the menacing word ‘deportation’ – these push into the distance any significant hopes there may be of revolutionary outbursts in America.”

 

On the 28 of December, 1925 the lyric poet Sergei Alexandrovich Yesenin (3 October 1895 – 28 December 1925) committed suicide. Yesenin was found dead in a room in the Hotel Angleterre in St Petersburg. His last poem ‘Goodbye my Friend Goodbye‘ “according to Wolf Ehrlich was written by him the day before he died. Yesenin complained that there was no ink in the room, and he was forced to write with his blood”.

Farewell, my good friend, farewell.

In my heart, forever, you’ll stay.

May the fated parting foretell

That again we’ll meet up someday.

Let no words, no handshakes ensue,

No saddened brows in remorse, –

To die, in this life, is not new,

And living’s no newer, of course.

 

Affected by the manner of the death, Mayakovsky responded to Yesenin’s suicide as well as the note-poem and was, paradoxically enough, intent on “making Esenin’s end seem uninspiring. He wanted to put forward another kind of beauty in place of the easy beauty of death. Mayakovsky had never been a big fan of Esenin and his more conventional style, but he did recognize Esenin as ‘a journeyman of the Russian word.'” Esenin had concluded his suicide poem with the lines: “To die, in this life, is not new / And living’s no newer, of course.” In response, Mayakovsky ended his poem Sergeiu Eseninu (‘To Sergei Esenin’) (“You’ve departed, / as they say, / to another world.) with this variation:

In this life, to die is not so difficult,

to make life is considerably more difficult.

 

Vladimir Mayakovsky (I, Myself):

1926

In my work, I am consciously changing myself into a newspaperman. Feuilleton, slogan. Poets burble away, yet they can’t do newspaper stuff themselves, but are published more in the irresponsible supplements. I find their lyrical rubbish funny to look at, since it’s easy to do this sort of thing, but it’s of no interest to anyone except to one’s spouse. I write for Izvestia, Trud, Rabochaya Moskva, Zarya vostoka, Bakinsky rabochy and others. Second job-I am continuing the interrupted tradition of the troubadours and minstrels. I tour the cities and recite: Novocherkassk, Vinnitsa, Kharkov, Paris, Rostov, Tiflis, Berlin, Kazan, Sverdlovsk, Tula, Prague, Leningrad, Moscow, Voronezh, Yalta, Eupatoria, Vyatka, Ufa etc, etc, etc…

 

Then in January 1927, Mayakovsky revived Lef, this time under the name Novy Lef (“New Lef”). In the first issue, he entered into a public dispute with Maxim Gorky, who was living abroad in Italy at the time. It came in the form of an open letter-poem to Gorky, calling on him to return to the Soviet Union. Mayakovsky also took the opportunity to insult another writer and protégé of Gorky, Fyodor Gladkov, author of the popular novel ‘Cement’. Mayakovsky saw the realism of Gladkov and others like him as the mere “adaptability” and “fawning” of lickspittles.

“It comes as no surprise, then, that Mayakovsky fell into disfavor with certain writers, especially those of the Pereval and RAPP groups. They attacked Mayakovsky as a bombastic hack writer, lacking in discipline and class consciousness and burdened with a “harmful, muddled ideology”.

 

After 24 issues, Mayakovsky abandoned Novy Lef in 1928 (“In summer 1928, disillusioned with LEF, he left both the organization and its magazine…”) and in 1929 he tried to establish a new organization, Ref (“Revolutionary Front”), intended as a school for the study of the technology of writing, that would cooperate with RAPP. But Ref never really got off the ground, and in February 1930 Mayakovsky announced his intention of applying for membership in RAPP. The literary establishment in RAPP was ready to accept Mayakovsky, but not exactly with open arms. Aleksandr Fadeev noted:

“Mayakovsky is suitable material for RAPP. As for his political views, he has demonstrated his affinity with the proletariat. This does not mean, though, that Mayakovsky is being admitted with all his theoretical background. He will be admitted according to the extent in which he rids himself of that background. We shall help him in this”

 

The Bedbug (‘Klop’), performed in 1929, made fun of the emerging bureaucrat that was coming to dominate in the workers’ state, and the drama ‘The Bathhouse’ (‘Banya’) performed in Leningrad on January 30, 1930 was “a satire of bureaucratic stupidity and opportunism under Joseph Stalin”. Mayakovsky worked with Vsevolod Meyerhold the theatre director on the production of ‘The Bedbug’.  (Meyerhold  would be arrested in Leningrad on 20 June 1939, tortured and forced to confess that he worked for Japanese and British intelligence agencies and executed on the 2nd February 1940. He would later be cleared of all charges in 1955, during the first wave of de-Stalinisation.) Music for the production was provided by Dmitri Shostakovich and the sets were by Rodchenko. “The play was actually a reworking of a Mayakovsky screenplay, which had been rejected by the film studio Sovkino. It tells the story of a NEP-era philistine who abandons his worker-girlfriend for the daughter of the owner of a successful beauty parlor. As a result of a brawl at his wedding party, he accidentally gets frozen. He is then revived fifty years later in 1979. The moderns at first mistake him for an honest worker, but then correctly identify him as a bourgeoisus vulgaris, a blood-sucking insect similar to, but more dangerous than, the bedbug. He is put on display in a cage equipped with special filters to trap all the dirty words.”

Dave Widgery (‘Mayakovsky and Revolutionary Art’):

“His plays, The Bedbug and The Bathhouse satirized the arse-licking and pomposity of the NEP men and Red bureaucrats. “From the philistinism of living comes the Philistinism of politics” he wrote. He hated the dishonest obituaries, writing after the death of a friend “Stop once and for all these reverential centenary jubilees, the worship by posthumous publication. Let’s have articles for the living! Bread for the living! Paper for the living!”

 

Roman Jakobson: (‘On a generation that squandered its poets’)

“Mayakovsky says “yes” to the rationalization of production, technology, and the planned economy if as a result of all this “the partially opened eye of the future sparkles with real earthly love.” But he rejects it all if it means only a selfish clutching at the present. If that’s the case then grandiose technology becomes only a “highly perfected apparatus of parochialism and gossip on the worldwide scale” (from an essay “My Discovery of America”). Just such a planetary narrowness and parochialism permeates life in the year 1970, as shown in Mayakovsky’s play about the future, The Bedbug (Klop) where we see a rational organization without emotion, with no superfluous expenditure of energy, without dreams. A worldwide social revolution has been achieved, but the revolution of the spirit is still in the future. The play is a quiet protest against the spiritual inheritors of those languid judges who, in his early satirical poem “without knowing just why or wherefore, attacked Peru.” Some of the characters in The Bedbug have a close affinity with the world of Zamiatin’s We, although Mayakovsky bitterly ridicules not only the rational Utopian community but the rebellion against it in the name of alcohol, the irrational and unregulated individual happiness. Zamiatin, however, idealizes that rebellion.”

 

Following the death of Lenin, Joseph Stalin began to assume total control in the Soviet Union, isolating other central committee members such as Leon Trotsky, Grigory Zinoviev and Kamenev. Trotsky was exiled to Turkey in February 1929, accompanied by his wife Natalia Sedova and his eldest son Lev Sedov. Stalin pushed for “more rapid industrialization and central control of the economy, contravening Lenin’s New Economic Policy (NEP).” At the end of 1927, the collectivisation of agriculture and the seizure of grain hoards from kulak farmers began. The collectivization of the agricultural sector continued between 1928 and 1940 while Stalin consolidated his ascendancy. The first five-year plan was also the brain child of General Secretary Joseph Stalin and, based on his policy of Socialism in One Country, was implemented between 1928 and 1932. For writers, poets, artists as well as political activists and ordinary citizens, dark clouds were forming on the horizon.   “The best representatives of the proletarian youth who were summoned to assemble the basic elements of a new literature and culture have been placed under the command of people who convert their personal lack of culture into the measure of all things.” Trotsky was later to write. By  August 1934, the First All-Union Congress of Soviet Writers would impose the policy of Socialist Realism (“writers were wise not to use fancy language, artists and composers not to be too refined in their techniques”), which would  determine the fate of much communist art in the years following as well as the fate of many left-wing artists accused and often executed for the crime of “formalism”.  This policy, largely determined by Gorki, Stalin and Andrei Alexandrovich Zhdanov, dominated cultural policy from 1934 to 1956 and particularly the years between 1946 and the late 50’s, the period of the ‘Zhdanov Doctrine’. As the clouds now began to form on the horizon, Mayakovsky was refused permission to return to Paris in 1929 where he had hoped to marry Tatyana Yakovleva, “a leggy White Russian émigré in her early twenties, with a ‘perfect pitch’ for poetry”…

 

Vladimir Mayakovsky (I, Myself):

1928

I am writing a poem, Bad. A play and my literary biography.

Many have said, “Your autobiography is not very serious”.

True. I have not yet become academized and am not used to coddling

myself; and in any case my job only interests me if it’s fun.

The rise and fall of many literatures, the symbolists, realists etc.,

our struggle with them-all this, which is taking place before my

eyes, is part of our very serious history. It demands to be written

about. And I shall write.

 

Despite this affirmation, Mayakovsky’s world was about to unravel…Despite the publication of the 4 Volume Works of Mayakovsky in 1929, “behind this façade the poet’s relationship with the Soviet literary establishment was quickly deteriorating…”(Wikipedia) His “20 Years of Work” retrospective was largely ignored which seriously affected the writer and “…it was becoming evident that the experimental art was no longer welcomed by the regime, and the country’s most famous poet irritated a lot of people.” Mayakovsky’s plays also “evoked stormy criticism from the Russian Association of Proletarian Writers. In February 1930 Mayakovsky joined RAPP, only to find himself labeled poputchik, which from the days of Lenin amounted to a potentially deadly political accusation. The smear campaign was started in the Soviet press, sporting slogans like “Down with Mayakovshchina!” (Wikipedia) On 9 April 1930, Mayakovsky, reading his new poem ‘At the Top of My Voice’, was heckled by the students and left visibly shaken…

…My verse

has brought me

no rubles to spare:

no craftsmen have made

mahogany chairs for my house.

In all conscience,

I need nothing

except

a freshly laundered shirt.

When I appear

before the CCC

of the coming

bright years,

by way of my Bolshevik party card,

I’ll raise

above the heads

of a gang of self-seeking poets and rogues,

all the hundred volumes

of my

communist-committed books.

 

Bengt Jangfeldt

“If the silence surrounding 20 Years’ Work and the criticism of The Bathhouse had failed to convince Mayakovsky that he was regarded with deep suspicion by the party’s ideologists, a few words from Ivan Gronsky, editor in chief of Izvestiya, dropped during a nocturnal promenade in February, ought to have done so: ‘Vladimir Vladimirovich, your differences of opinion with the party over artistic questions, or, more accurately, ethical-philosophical questions, are deeper than you think.'”

 

Leon Trotsky:       

“Ready to serve the “epoch” in the dirty work of every day life, Mayakovsky could not help being repelled by the pseudo-revolutionary officialdom, even though he was not able to understand it theoretically and therefore could not find the way to overcome it. The poet rightfully speaks of himself as “one who is not for hire.” For a long time he furiously opposed entering Averbach’s administrative collective of so-called proletarian literature. From this came his repeated attempts to create, under the banner of LEF [Left Front of the Arts], an order of frenzied crusaders for proletarian revolution who would serve it out of conscience rather than fear. But LEF was of course unable to impose its rhythms upon “the one hundred and fifty million.” The dynamics of the ebbing and flowing currents of the revolution is far too profound and weighty for that.”

 

Emily Hill (‘The murder of Mayakovsky’s poetry’):

“On New Year’s Eve, 1929, Lilya Brik threw Mayakovsky what might well be the ghastliest party in the annals of world literature. The guest list is filled with political informants, the festivities are fuelled by 40 bottles of champagne, snow-chilled in the bath, and Mayakovsky spends most of the evening sitting alone in a corner. When his old friends, Pasternak and the critic Shklovsky, gatecrash in the early hours of the morning, Mayakovsky won’t even look at them. ‘He doesn’t understand’, Mayakovsky said, referring to Pasternak. ‘He’d better leave. He thinks it’s like a button that you rip off today and sew back on tomorrow… They rip people away from me so that my flesh comes away too.’”

 

On 4 April 1930, Mayakovsky bought a share in a housing cooperative. On 11 April, he missed a public appearance at Moscow University, because of illness. 12th and 13th of April were business as usually. He also had numerous appointments for personal appearances on 14 April and 15 April.

 

Alexander Ushakov (Foreword, Selected Verse, 1):

“A good deal has been written about Mayakovsky’s suicide by both Soviet and foreign critics. Not all explanations of the causes of his death appear feasible. Some authors, ignoring the actual facts of literary life in those years, stubbornly refuse to see that the cause of the poet’s tragic death was not his discord with reality or an inner creative crisis, but a whole number of circumstances combined. Among these we may mention the love-drama which Mayakovsky describes in his last letter, worsening relations with associates in LEF, complicated drastically by the poet’s entry into RAPP; his permanent persecution by esthetist critics, not lessening, but on the contrary, increasing with the years; the disease which tormented the poet for many months … Characteristically, for many contemporaries Mayakovsky’s personality was incompatible with the very notion of hysteria, pessimism, thoughts of death. This general feeling was well expressed at the funeral by Anatoly Lunacharsky: ‘Mayakovsky was first and foremost a great chunk of hot, tense life. All the more so when he became a spokesman for the greatest social movement in history, when in the name of the millions he spoke to the millions about the millions’ destinies. Mayakovsky, the herald of the Revolution, remains unvanquished. He stands before us in all his monumental integrity. Listen to the sound of his songs. Nowhere will you detect the least falsehood, the least doubt, the slightest vacillation. On the very eve of his death, “aloud and straight”, he reaffirmed his loyalty to the great cause to which he gave his entire life and enormous talent.'”

 

Bengt Jangfeldt’s biography records Mayakovsky’s last hours. The night before, he had invited friends to dinner – and none of them had turned up. He had sat drinking alone, had slept very little. In the morning, which was bright and sunny, he met with his new girlfriend, a young actress called Veronika Polonskaya. He asked her not to leave him for rehearsals of her latest play, and, when she did, he shot himself through the heart. “It was the first spring of the first five-year plan, the so called First Bolshevik Spring.”

 

Roman Jakobson: (‘On a generation that squandered its poets’)

“Mayakovsky himself related a few days before his death in a talk at a literary gathering: ‘So many dogs snipe at me and I’m accused of so many sins, both ones I have and ones I am innocent of, that at times it seems to me as if all I want to do is go away somewhere and sit still for a couple of years, if only to avoid listening to barking!'”

 

Exactly 87 years ago, on this day, the 14th April, at 10:15a.m., the first day of Easter week 1930, in his Moscow office in Lubyanka Passage, Mayakovsky is found  dead, a bullet in his heart. He was 37 years old.

 

Mayakovsky: (‘The Backbone-Flute’)

More often I think:

it might be far better

to punctuate my end with a bullet

 

The ambulance, which took only five minutes to get there found him already dead. He had left a suicide note, dated 12 April:

 

To everyone

Blame no one for my death, and please don’t gossip. The deceased

really hated gossip.

Mama, my sisters and comrades, forgive me-this is not a good

method (I don’t recommend any others) but 1 have no other way out.

Lili-Love me.

Comrade government, my family is Lili Brik, mama, my sisters

and Veronika Vitoldovna Polonskaya.

If you grant them a bearable life-thank you.

Give the unfinished poems to the Briks, they understand them.

As they say-

“the game is over “

love’s boat

has smashed against the reef of the everyday.

I’m quits with life

And there is no reason

To keep a record of pains

cares and quarrels.

Be happy,

Vladimir Mayakovsky

12/IV-30

Comrades in VAPP, don’t call me a faintheart

Seriously-there was nothing else to do

Greetings

Tell Yermilov I’m sorry I took the placard down, ought to have had

our quarrel out

VM

There are 2,000 rubles in the table drawer pay the tax with them.

Take the rest from Gosizdat

VM

 

Boris Pasternak (14 April 1930):

“Between eleven and twelve the ripples were still circling around the shot. The news rocked the telephones, blanketed faces with pallor. He lay on his side with his face to the wall, sullen and imposing, with a sheet up to his chin, his mouth half open as in sleep. Haughtily turning his back on all, even in this repose, even in this sleep, he was stubbornly straining to go away somewhere… death had arrested an attitude which it almost never succeeds in capturing. This was an expression with which one begins life but does not end it. He was sulking and indignant.”

 

Dave Widgery (‘Mayakovsky and Revolutionary Art’):

“While constructivists’ designs were halted on the drawing board, their new towns remained unbuilt and their journals were closed down, an ornate and pompous “Palace of the Soviets” was constructed to house a “Soviet” which no longer met. Dignitaries were now taken to the Bolshoi Ballet and the Grand Opera instead of Mayerhold’s theatre and the street exhibitions. Oil paints, smocks, easels and Professors of Fine Art found their way back to the studios. Stalin ruled. On 14th April 1930, Mayakovsky shot himself with a revolver. In his suicide poem he said simply enough:

the love-boat of life has crashed upon philistine reefs …”

 

From the following day onward Mayakovsky was to lie in state at the Writers’ Club, and the funeral was arranged for 17 April. The date had been chosen to give Lili and Osip Brik time to get back to Moscow from abroad. Mayakovsky’s body lay in state for three days and was viewed by 150,000 mourners. During these days, the coffin was guarded by an honour guard comprising both civilians and soldiers. He was cremated on 17 April 1930 in the  crematorium at the Don Monastery cemetery.  At the service the “Internationale,” which at the time was the national anthem of the Soviet Union, was played. He is buried in Moscow’s Novodevichy Cemetery, sharing this space with a large collection of authors, musicians, playwrights, and poets, as well as famous actors, political leaders, and scientists.

 

Mayakovsky’s suicide was made public in Pravda on 15 April:

Yesterday, on 14 April, at 10:15 a.m., the poet Vladimir Mayakovsky committed suicide in his study (3 Lubyanka Passage). According to what the head of the investigation, Comrade Syrtsov, has told our colleague, the early stages of the investigation show that the suicide was motivated by purely personal considerations, quite unconnected to the poet’s public and literary activities. The suicide was preceded by a long-term illness from which the poet never properly recovered.”

 

The farewell letter that Mayakovsky had left behind was read out to several of his friends on April 14th and the following day it was printed in Pravda and a few other newspapers.

 

Roman Jakobson: (‘On a generation that squandered its poets’)

“A simple résumé of Mayakovsky’s poetic autobiography would be the following: the poet nurtured in his heart the unparalleled anguish of the present generation. That is why his verse is charged with hatred for the strongholds of the established order, and in his own work he finds ‘the alphabet of coming ages.’ Mayakovsky’s earliest and most characteristic image is one in which he ‘goes out through the city leaving his soul on the spears of houses, shred by shred.’ The hopelessness of his lonely struggle with the daily routine became clearer to him at every turn. The brand of martyrdom is burned into him. There’s no way to win an early victory. The poet is the doomed ‘outcast of the present.'”

 

Bengt Jangfeldt:

” …the bullet that penetrated Vladimir Mayakovsky’s heart also shot to pieces the dream of Communism and signaled the beginning of the Communist nightmare of the 1930s…”

 

Patricia Blake:

“Nowadays the sense of Mayakovsky’s suicide has been muddled by crude interpretation….critics dismiss it as an outrageous, an improper, or, at best, an inexplicable accident. Abroad, the view is favored that he was driven to death by Party hacks who are said to have persecuted him in the late twenties. Romantics suggest that he killed himself over a woman, while realists maintain that he succumbed to a grave mental illness. The truth, however, lies not so much in the conditions of his death as in the circumstances of his life. Mayakovsky, the poet laureate of the Soviet state, was, in effect, the most alienated figure in Russian literature. Not even Gogol, not even Dostoevsky had known the singular desolation of Mayakovsky. At twenty-two, he had already found its definition: ‘But where can a man like me bury his head? / Where is there shelter for me? . . . The gold of all the Californias will never satisfy the rapacious horde of my lusts. … I shall go by, dragging my burden of love. ln what delirious and ailing night, was I sired by Goliaths- I, so large, so unwanted?”‘

 

Roman Jakobson, toward the end of his own life, summed up Mayakovsky’s fate in the following words: “What he wrote in his farewell letter-‘I have no other way out’ -was the truth. He would have perished in any case, whatever happened, wherever he had lived, in Russia, Sweden, or America. He was a person who was singularly ill equipped for this life.”

 

Bengt Jangfeldt:

“On the day that Mayakovsky shot himself, the literary scholar Ilya Gruzdyev wrote to Gorky in Sorrento that “the suicide cannot be explained away by personal reasons,” and according to agent Petrov several writers saw it as a purely political protest. The reactions were said to be identical in Moscow and in Leningrad. ‘One of the fundamental ideas behind these reactions is the claim that Mayakovsky’s death is a challenge to the Soviet authorities and a condemnation of their policies in the field of literature,’ the same agent wrote in another report. ‘Another thesis is: “If not even Mayakovsky could stand it any longer, that means that the situation in the literary world is really dreadful.”‘ According to the writer Anatoly Mariengof, Mayakovsky, during one of his last appearances, had let slip a comment about ‘how difficult it was to live and create in our hopeless time’. Another writer, Lev Gumilyovsky, said that he shared the widespread belief that ‘the main reasons for the poet’s death are sociopolitical’ and that writers felt pressured to write ‘about prescribed, topical subjects.’ ‘A very large number of people are convinced that this death has a political background, that it is not about some ‘love story’ but about disillusionment with Soviet society.’ The times, Gumilyovsky continued, are ‘very difficult for an honest writer’ and ‘very favorable to charlatans who regard themselves as writers only because RAPP has asked them to become members.’ Alexey Tolstoy, who had returned six years earlier from his self-imposed exile in Berlin, says that he is ‘ashamed of what he is writing,’ another writer states that he ‘forces himself to write stuff he doesn’t want to write.'”

 

Leon Trotsky refused to accept the official explanation that the suicide was “wholly unconnected to the poet’s public and literary activities”: “That’s like saying that Mayakovsky’s death had nothing to do with his revolutionary poetic works,” he commented from exile in Constantinople. “That is both untrue and unnecessary . . . and stupid! ‘[Love’s] boat has smashed against the reef of the everyday,’ is what Mayakovsky wrote about his private life. That means precisely that his ‘public and literary activities’ were no longer capable of elevating him sufficiently over everyday life  to save him from his painful inner urges.”

Leon Trotsky (‘Mayakovsky’s Suicide’, May 1930):

“It is not true that Mayakovsky was first of all a revolutionary and after that a poet, although he sincerely wished it were so. In fact Mayakovsky was first of all a poet, an artist, who rejected the old world without breaking with it. Only after the revolution did he seek to find support for himself in the revolution, and to a significant degree he succeeded in doing so; but he did not merge with it totally for he did not come to it during his years of inner formation, in his youth.

To view the question in its broadest dimensions, Mayakovsky was not only the “singer,” but also the victim, of the epoch of transformation, which while creating elements of the new culture with unparalleled force, still did so much more slowly and contradictorily than necessary for the harmonious development of an individual poet or a generation of poets devoted to the revolution.”

 

César Vallejo, in his short essay on Mayakovsky published in 1930, having earlier met the poet in Moscow, criticises him on, possibly, the  opposite grounds:

“Mayakovsky’s declarations express the truth about his work confirming the fact that it is an art steeped in formulas and not in a personal, deeply felt sincerity.

By holding to an artistic program taken from historical materialism, Mayakovsky made only verses lacking intimate warmth and feeling, stirred up by external mechanical forces, by artificial heating.

Mayakovsky was a representative spirit of his medium and his time, but he was not a poet. His life was, likewise, grand in its tragedy, but his art was declamatory and empty,  having betrayed the authentic, actual critical moments of his life.”

 

Bengt Jangfeldt:

“In reality Mayakovsky’s suicide was of course the result of a number of different factors: private, work related, literary-political-and purely political. During the last few years Mayakovsky had gradually come to realize that his services were no longer in demand, that he had no obvious place in the society which was taking shape and in which literature and literary politics were dominated to an ever greater degree by individuals whose qualifications were not primarily literary. And the last six months had been one long succession of setbacks and defeats: the enforced breakup of the romance with Tatyana, the boycott of 20 Years’ Work, the fiasco with The Bathhouse, the humiliating capitulation to RAPP, the break with his closest friends, his persistent illness and his mental exhaustion, Nora’s refusal to leave her husband when Mayakovsky demanded it.”

 

Marina Tsvetayeva, another poet in exile since 1921 and who would herself, in desperation,  commit suicide in August 1941 following her return to the Soviet Union “saw in Mayakovsky a poetic soul mate and that his suicide was a tragic but logical result of the destructive battle between the lyricist and the agitator within him.”

“For twelve years in a row Mayakovsky the human being tried to kill Mayakovsky the poet within himself; in the thirteenth year the poet stood up and killed the human being.”

 

After Mayakovsky’s death (and on Lilya Brik’s insistence) Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin, General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, declared the poet the “best and most talented poet of our Soviet epoch.” “Mayakovsky was and remains the best and the most talented poet of our Soviet epoch. Indifference to his memory and his work is a crime.” This has since been described as the ‘two deaths of Vladimir Mayakovsky”.

Emily Hill (‘The murder of Mayakovsky’s poetry’):

“…when the Soviet Union fell, Mayakovsky’s reputation collapsed with it. Today, he is not celebrated as the author of some of the most startlingly original verse in the Russian language, but as a versifier of totalitarianism. His name may still be emblazoned on street signs, a Moscow metro station and a nightclub in Omsk, but in post-Communist Russia, just as here in the West, his poetry is hardly read at all.”

 

Bengt Jangfeldt:

“When the Soviet Union fell, Mayakovsky fell with it-heavily, as monuments do in revolutions-despised by generations of Soviet readers who had been force fed his poems. Although he was in many ways himself a victim, he was seen by most Russians as a representative of a hated social system. That he had written not only tributes to Lenin and the Revolution but also some of the finest love poems in the Russian language was something that few people realized. When the literary hierarchy was remodeled after the fall of the Soviet Union, Mayakovsky disappeared from the school curriculum as well as from the bookshop shelves. It was his third death, and he was not to blame for that one either.”

 

Despite this, there is much to be learnt from the life and work of this communist poet and writer. The French poet, Louis Aragon once acknowledged that his acquaintance with Mayakovsky changed his whole life: “Vladimir Mayakovsky taught me one must appeal to the millions, to those who wish to remodel the world.” Johannes Becher, the German writer and communist said: “His works celebrated the birth of a new man. The universal significance of Mayakovsky lies in that in his works he showed himself so brilliantly as a freely developing socialist personality.” Trotsky himself, despite his critique of the poet, admitted: “… in the battles of the transitional epoch he was a most courageous fighter of the word and became an undoubted precursor of the literature of the new society.” Other, less positive comments have also been made but from the perspective of a Culture of Liberation, both the period and the people that Mayakovsky served as both representative and voice for, provide a picture of the energy and the momentum needed to undermine an architecture that guarantees that “no matter what changes – it will still be the same old thing” (“plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose“). Mayakovsky’s commitment to walking the bridge (or maybe the tightrope) from an ancient, unjust and corrupt world to the new one that had obviously not (and still has not) taken shape yet, is an example of how and where and why a culture of liberation could take shape and challenge a status quo that condemns so many to darkness and cultural production to commercial or personal banality.

 

Vladimir Mayakoksky:

To His Own Beloved Self the Author Dedicates These Lines (1916)

 

Four .

Ponderous. The chimes of a clock.

“Unto Caesar . . . Unto God . . . “

But where’s

someone like me to dock?

Where’ll I find a lair?

 

Were I

like the ocean of oceans little,

on the tiptoes of waves I’d rise;

a tide, I’d strain to caress the moon.

Where to find someone to love

of my size,

the sky too small for her to fit in?

 

Were I poor

as a multimillionaire,

it’d still be tough.

What’s money for the soul? thief

insatiable.

The gold

of all the Californias isn’t enough

for my desires’ riotous horde.

 

I wish I were tongue-tied,

like Dante or Petrarch,

able to fire a woman’s heart,

reduce it to ashes with verse-filled pages!

My words

and my love

form a triumphal arch:

through it, in all their splendour,

leaving no trace, will pass

the inamoratas of all the ages!

 

Were I

as quiet as thunder,

how I’d wail and whine!

One groan of mine

would start the world’s crumbling cloister shivering.

And if

I’d end up by roaring

with all of its power of lungs and more-

the comets, distressed, would wring their hands

and from the sky’s roof leap in a fever.

 

If I were dim as the sun,

night I’d drill

with the rays of my eyes,

and also

all by my lonesome,

radiant self

nourish the earth’s shriveled bosom.

 

On I’ll pass,

dragging my huge love behind me.

On what

feverish night, deliria-ridden,

by what Goliaths was I begot-

1, so big

and by no one needed?

REFERENCES, SOURCES & Links (thanks to)

 

Image:

1: Mayakovsky_and_Krasnoarmeitsy.jpg By Unknown Photograph (http://www.fplib.ru/id/gallery/majakovskij_photo/) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

2: Mayakovsky (& book), 1930

See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AMayakovsky_1930_a.jpg

 

Partial Bibliography

“In the thirteen volumes of his complete works, about one third consists of fulminations on patriotic and political themes. Another third is composed of serious ‘revolutionary’ poems which are quite original in their genre and which still today can evoke some of the fervor of the early years of the Bolshevik revolution. What remains are his satiric plays and his lyrics on the themes that were central to Mayakovsky’s life: a man’s longing for love and his suffering at the hands of the loveless; his passion for life and his desolation in a hostile and inhuman world; his yearning for the absolutes of human experience and his rage at his impotent self.” (Patricia Blake, 1960)

 

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vladimir_Mayakovsky

 

Sources & References:

Poems quoted are from:

Vladimir Mayakovsky, 1, Selected Verse, Raduga Publishers,  1985

Vladimir Mayakovsky, 2, Longer Poems, Raduga Publishers,  1986

Read:

Bengt Jangfeldt,  Mayakovsky : a biography, The University of Chicago Press, Ltd.,

2014 (Translation by Harry D. Watson)

Roman ]akobson, My Futurist Years, Marsilio Publishers, 1992

Leon Trotsky, ‘Mayakovsky’s Suicide’, May 1930:

https://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1930/05/mayakovsky.htm

Dave Widgery (1947-1992), ‘Mayakovsky and Revolutionary Art’, 1972

http://www.redwedgemagazine.com/classics/streets-palettes-mayakovsky

Lenin, Vladimir. Letter. ‘Lenin: 150. TO A. V. LUNACHARSKY.’ 6 May, 1921: https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1921/may/06.htm

Patricia Blake, The  Two Deaths of Vladimir Mayakovsky, PDF:

http://www.unz.org/Pub/Encounter-1960aug-00052

César Vallejo, The Mayakovsky Case, Art On the Line/Curbstone Press, 1982

Books:

Vladimir Mayakovsky,  The Bedbug and Selected Poetry, Edited with and Introduction by Patricia Blake Translated from the Russian by Max Hayward & George Reavey, Weidenfield & Nicholson, 1960

Vladimir Mayakovsky, 1, Selected Verse, Raduga Publishers,  1985

Vladimir Mayakovsky, 2, Longer Poems, Raduga Publishers,  1986

Vladimir Mayakovsky, Backbone Flute: Selected Poetry of Vladimir Mayakovsky, (Translated by Andrey Kneller), Boston, 2008

Vladimir Mayakovsky, PRO ETO (ПРО ЭТО/That’s What), Arc Publications, 2009

Vladimir Mayakovsky, Volodya – Selected Poems, edited by Rosy Carrick, Enitharmon Press, 2015

Talking With The Taxman About Poetry – Vladimir Mayakovsky (1926)

http://lyrics.mp3s.ru/perl/lyric.pl?hy4xUZ2Ymo3lo&5047

http://crimson-compass.tumblr.com/post/56866500409/conversation-with-a-tax-collector-about-poetry

References:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Patricia_Thompson_(writer)

The Founding and Manifesto of Futurism

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/LEF_(journal)

https://www.marxists.org/subject/art/literature/mayakovsky/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roman_Jakobson

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/About_That

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/150_000_000

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vladimir_Ilyich_Lenin_(poem)

https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1922/dec/testamnt/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lenin%27s_Testament

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sergei_Yesenin

http://www.spiked-online.com/review_of_books/article/the-murder-of-mayakovskys-poetry/16957

BIOGRAPHY:

http://russiapedia.rt.com/prominent-russians/literature/vladimir-mayakovsky/

http://www.sovlit.net/bios/mayakovsky.html

POSTERS:

http://dangerousminds.net/comments/socialist_artist_vladimir_mayakovskys_agitprop_posters_for_revolutionary_ru

http://spartacus-educational.com/RUSmayakovsky.htm

Photographs:

A tribute to Vladimir Mayakovsky

Voice:

The Russian Futurist poet reciting his verse.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EiZ4exdJr2M

Film:

Mayakovski, Script Writer, Actor

Vladimir Mayakovsky in ” Lady and the Hooligan”-1918-Yevgeny Slavinsky

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=An852TsSmV0

Poet Vladimir Mayakovsky. Short Archive Footage https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jWytqoP38L0 

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