Mayakovsky: Model poet

Vladimir Mayakovsky “was and remains the best, most gifted poet of our Soviet epoch”, Joseph Stalin proclaimed in 1935, five years after the revolutionary poet’s shocking suicide. “Indifference to his works and memory”, the dictator continued ominously, “is a crime.” Thus began what Boris Pasternak called Mayakovsky’s “second death”. A suitably sanitized, Stalinized Mayakovsky would henceforth, he lamented, be “forcibly introduced” into Russian literary diets “like potatoes under Catherine the Great”. This force-feeding produced all sorts of consequences, intended or otherwise.

To begin with, “the various Mayakovskys” the poet himself had celebrated throughout his work had to be boiled down to one. “He was now no longer a living poet but a monument”, Bengt Jangfeldt notes near the end of his revisionary, passionately researched biography. Squares, streets, metro stations and entire towns were named for him. Statues were raised in his honour. (The poet himself, who railed against such ritual ossification, would have been appalled.) With his posthumous promotion to Model Poetry-Worker Number One, Jangfeldt comments, Mayakovsky took his place alongside the premier shock-worker, cotton-picker, tractor driver, aviator, theatre director, radio announcer, police dog, and clown the state was busily anointing at the same time.

Generations of Soviet citizens, laypeople and writers alike, had the official Mayakovsky crammed down their throats from childhood on. His hymns to Vladimir Lenin, his famed paean on his Soviet passport – “Read / and envy, I’m / a citizen / of the Soviet Union” (all verse translations are mine) – became mandatory fare in Russian classrooms, while a more complex and subversive writer was carefully screened from view. His play The Bathhouse (Banya, 1929), a satire on early Soviet bureaucracy, was vilified on publication and received its first production only after Stalin’s death. The same play, in Polish translation, likewise marked the end of high Stalinism and the beginning of the so-called Thaw in post-war People’s Poland. Clearly, Mayakovsky’s potential as both enforcer and liberator remained intact.

Soviet readers first rebuffed, then ignored their mandatory bard, while émigré aversion to the self-proclaimed Poet of the Revolution was pronounced from the start. I still remember being approached by a disgruntled Russian as I checked out a volume of Mayakovsky’s poetry from Harvard’s Widenor library a few decades back. “What are you reading him for?” he sputtered. “He sold his talent to the Soviets for kopecks!” Compulsory reverence, on the one hand, open contempt on the other: these two extremes combined to leave Mayakovsky’s legacy, as poet and man, radically underexplored.

His impact on international writing continued unabated. The list of experimental poets under his sway spans decades and nations: it includes everyone from Louis Aragon and André Breton to Władysław Broniewski, Pablo Neruda, Nicolas Guillen, Frank O’Hara, Kenneth Koch, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and beyond. A recent anthology, Night Wraps the Sky: Writings by and about Mayakovsky (2008), edited by the filmmaker Michael Almereyda, testifies to his ongoing influence on avant-gardists of every stripe. Post-communist neglect, or even outright hostility – Yury Karabchievsky attacked not just the cult of the poet, but the poet’s own “sado-masochistic” poetics in his influential Voskresenie Mayakovskogo (1985; Mayakovsky’s Resurrection) – have given way in recent years to a resurgence of interest among Russian scholars, spearheaded by Moscow’s Mayakovsky Museum, whose splendid offerings can be sampled on its website (http://mayakovsky.museum).

The life is another matter. Jangfeldt’s book is, he notes, the first “post-Soviet” biography. First published in his native Swedish in 2007, it effectively supplants the extant biographies in both Russian and English: this will become the standard source. The eminently readable Russian translation, produced by Asia Lavrusha and Jangfeldt himself, appeared in 2009. Harry D. Watson’s English version, based on the original Swedish, is less fluid, but it gets the job done. Curious readers may wish to consult other translations for the poems. The original title, in Swedish and Russian, is “The Stake is Life”, or perhaps, more idiomatically, “I’ll Stake My Life”. It highlights both the compulsive gambling (which included rounds of Russian roulette) and the suicidal strain that shaped Mayakovsky’s life and death.

The original subtitle is even more telling: “Mayakovsky and his circle”. Jangfeldt is an admirably modest biographer. But the Swedish scholar himself met many of the poet’s friends, lovers, colleagues and scholars – and tracked down others whose existence was suspected, if it all, only by a handful of specialists. As it turns out, the famously family-unfriendly poet – “I love to watch how children die”, he declares hyperbolically in an early lyric – actually left an heir behind in, of all places, New York, where one romance, with the married émigrée Elly Jones, produced an illegitimate child to be raised in the United States. (Mayakovsky’s daughter, Patricia Thompson, now teaches feminist studies at Lehman College in the Bronx.) The poet’s last love was not, as had long been thought, the beautiful Tatyana Yakovleva, whom he met in Paris and had at one point hoped to marry. His notorious love lyric-cum-suicide note – “Past one o’clock. You must be in bed . . . / I’ve got no call to wake and trouble you, / as they say, the incident is closed . . .” – was addressed in fact to yet another lover, the actress Veronika Polonskaya, who heard the fatal shot as she left the poet’s apartment for the last time.

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