The Spike or Victoria University College Review 1943
Mayakovsky—The poet who hated "poetic diction"; who wrote for the needs of the moment, and whose work will endure for all time; the man who brought the most vital poetry of his age to the mass of his people and who has been referred to as "lacking in art."
Towering above other poets of his time, Mayakovsky dominates in his greatness revolutionary soviet poetry. Yet he did not consider himself a born poet. Primarily a revolutionary he considered how best he could serve the cause of the advancement of mankind. Born at the end of the Russian Czar. By the time he had reached his teens he had not only met the grind of poverty but also as a student worked in the revolutionary movement of the workers which had affected the Universities. Eleven months in a Tsarist prison gave him time for thought and study on emerging he wanted to create a new socialist art, and, with work, discussion, and encouragement the ground-plans were laid for Russian futurism.
Again and again he was baulked by his inability to satisfy his high standards in both thought and language. There was his early personal magnificence in "A Cloud in Trousers" (1913).
"I shake the world with the might of my voice
Twenty-two years old."
But this in itself was not enough and his development over the next few years was as startling as it was brilliant. He had early forsaken the strict metres of the old order, rather he aimed at something more living, vital, something nearer to the spoken language, and where the versemakers plodded through jerking iambics and footweary anapaests, Mayakovsky learnt to write poetry in the language of his people, in speech rhythms often nearing rhetoric.1
With the coming of the Revolution of 1917 he saw active political service. The Red Fleet in the Baltic asked him to read some poetry to them, feeling his work unworthy of their proud greatness he wrote "Left March" for them.
In the years that followed the revolution Mayakovsky lived an incredibly active life, he wrote three film scripts and acted in the leading roles, made about a thousand posters and wrote thousands more captions. Then the wiseacres remarked to one another, these wise literary yes-men of reaction." He is prostituting his art! He has written verses on hygiene, for war relief and for Red Army volunteers! This man will stoop to anything! He is no poet." Theirs was wishful thinking. While Mayakovsky was turning out epigrammatic instructions "not to drink unboiled water" in verse for the un educated, he was at the same time building up his greatest achievements.
He saw poetry in the things in the world which he considered great. One poem "Paris" subtitled " A chat with the Eiffel tower" is where he entreats it to come to Moscow
You're more needed
We'll meet you
Will have you in their street!"
Yet he comes from the whimsical treatment of his theme to the folly of
"Paris of dandies and dudes
Paris of yap yawning bouldevards."
At this time too he wrote a poem" My Soviet Passport" which is a chuckle against the French gendarmerie who examining it
like a bomb
take—like a hedgehog."
Lenin himself at some conference referred to Mayakovsky's satire on the intolerable number of conferences held where after searching for someone who is always in conference
"Into that conference
I burst like lava.....
And see: People sitting there in halves.....
Then I hear the calmest of the clerks point out
They're at two conferences at the same time."
On those early days boiled water meant people's lives and in the development of administration and institutions criticism was necessary, and in this Mayakovsky played his part.
"I don't want to be
a wayside flower
Plucked after work*
in an idle hour
I want Gosplan 2
to sweat in debate
Assigning my output
as part of the state
I want the pen
to equal the gun
to be listed with iron
And the Polit Bureau 3 agenda: Item I
To be Stalin's report on
'The Output of Poetry.'"
Mayakovsky's greatest work, at any rate of that available to English readers in his epic poem "Lenin" part of which has been translated into our language by Herbert Marshall and dedicated to the newly bereaved Communist Party of the Soviet Union. It is not merely the personal story of a great man, in the grief of the Soviet peoples in mourning, Lenin's gift to mankind can be recognized. He is dead but
the most live of all living
Guiding genius of Russia's people through reaction to revolution, Lenin left a poetry of knowledge, a grieving people and work well done
brings a genuine anguish
hearts break frozen
the most earthly
who have lived
on this earth of men.
In this epic Mayakovsky writes the story of the ages of man's exploitation of man, from the cry of the early slaves to the years in the memory of when the communards of Paris died for liberty, up to the persent day
Hear the thunderous rumble
of the oncoming years
the accumulating anger
of human evolution
a storm of rebellion
whose lightning sears
and flames of revolt
flare to red revolution,"
Moving in its simplicity, stark in its feeling, even in translation it cannot fail to open new fields and indeed a new conception of literature to English readers.
He wrote for this audience—a people working and consciously striving up the road of mankind's advancement. His was the radiant energy of an inspired genious, throwing aside conventional expressions and sweeping all before him with his vitality. Twenty-four the October Revolution came, thirty-seven when he died, yet Mayakovsky made a contribution to human progress to be measured not merely in words and books. His work can be seen not only in the poetry but in the spirit of the Soviet Union to-day.
Once at the reading of his work he had said
"With Lenin in our heads
And a gun in our hands..."
but a Red Armyman finished it for him
"And your poetry in our hearts, Comrade Mayakovsky."
1 The parallel best-known in English literature is where Coleridge in Christabel breaks away from the conventional regularity of the unaccented syllables although he preserves the accents.
2 State planning commission of the U.S.S.R.
3 Political Bureau of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (Bolshevik).