Vladimir Vladimirovich Mayakovsky was probably one of the great poets of the century. He was born in Bagdadi, Kutais region, Georgia, and lived there until 1906, when the family moved to Moscow. Georgian was the only language other than Russian in which Mayakovsky claimed expertise. His family was Russian, and his father was a forest ranger, though of noble ancestry. Mayakovsky's involvement with the Revolution began when he was a young boy. Early in 1908 he joined the Bolshevik faction of the Russian Social Democratic party and was elected, at the age of fourteen, to its Moscow committee. He was arrested for agitational work three times, and his third arrest in July 1909 resulted in imprisonment for six months, much of it in solitary confinement in Butyrki prison. After his release from prison Mayakovsky abandoned politics for a time and entered the Moscow Institute for the Study of Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture, where he planned to undertake a career as a painter. His meeting there with David Burlyuk, as he indicates in his autobiography I Myself (Ya sam), was decisive for his career. Burlyuk was already an established painter of the avant-garde and he has a place of modest importance in the history of modern European art. He was an influential organizer of art exhibitions which included the works of Larionov, Goncharova, Ekster, and others. He had also organized a group of innovative painters and poets under the name buderlyryle, a russification of the term "futurist." He was involved in the publication of the first futurist collection, provocatively entitled A Trap for Judges (Sadok sudei, 1910), in which Kruchonykh and Khlebnikov participated. The strength of Burlyuk's influence is borne out by Mayakovsky himself who in his autobiography calls Burlyuk "my real teacher."
The collection of poetry and prose published in 1912 under the title A Slap in the Face of Public Taste contained Mayakovsky's first two published poems, entitled "Night" and "Morning" (Noch' and Utro). The title of the collection as a whole was also that of the famous futurist manifesto, signed by Mayakovsky, Burlyuk, Kruchonykh and Khlebnikov, which consigned all past art (with a few exceptions) and nearly all contemporaries (except the futurists) to be thrown overboard from "the steamship of modernity." In 1913 the futurist group, Mayakovsky, Burlyuk, Kamensky, Khlebnikov, Livshits, and (for a time) Severyanin, undertook, for publicity purposes, a tour of the provinces which was a triumph of ¦ patage and had some success in calling attention to the new departures of the European avant-garde in painting and poetry.
Mayakovsky's work published between 1912 and 1914 belonged to the futurist movement. A series of original and sometimes strangely moving lyrics, most of them devoted to city themes, appeared in futurist collections of verse and graphics during those years. His first book of poems appeared in 1913 under the title Me (Ya). A thin, lithographed volume, it contained four lyrics devoted to aspects of the poet's life in a kind of urban inferno, and featured the poet himself as a modern parody of Christ the Savior. His verse drama entitled Vladimir Mayakovsky, a Tragedy (1913) was produced as part of a futurist enterprise, alternating on the stage with Kruchonykh's Victory over the Sun (Pobeda nad solntsem). In both productions futurist poets and avant-garde painters were in close collaboration. The Tragedy sums up Mayakovsky's early concerns as a lyric poet. The play deals with the mutilation and enslavement of city dwellers and presents the poet (Mayakovsky, played by Mayakovsky) as a Christ figure who suffers for them all.
Mayakovsky's four narrative poems of the prerevolutionary period are an astonishing accomplishment, and it is on them that his reputation as a poet largely rests. A Cloud in Pants (Oblako v shtanakh, 1915) touches upon revolution, religion, and art as apprehended by a desperate lover who has been cruelly rejected; The Backbone Flute (Fleita pozvonochnik, 1915) is, once again, a male lyric on the theme of love's madness and pain; War and the World (Voina i mir, 1916) deals in fantastic imagery and outr¦ language with the First World War, and ends with a utopian hope for a peaceful world when "Jesus Christ will play at checkers with Cain"; Man (Chelovek, 1917), regarded as the high point of Mayakovsky's prerevolutionary poetry, has its setting on our present earth, then in heaven, and at last in the far distant future, where nothing has changed and the greedy philistine still rules the planet.
The Revolution of October 1917 found in Mayakovsky a willing celebrant. He was active in the journal published by the Commissariat of Education, Iskusstvo Kommuny, and later he and his futurist and formalist associates formed the Left Front of Art (LEF), the purpose of which was to make the formal achievements of the avant-garde available to the revolutionary state. Much of his energy during the twenties was given to the writing and recitation of agitational and advertising verse, an ephemeral product which nevertheless reveals the verbal resources of a genuine poet. His agitational verse was ostensibly addressed to "the broad masses," but its formal sophistication and verbal complexity made it difficult for the newly literate, and it is doubtful that Mayakovsky ever had a mass following. Some of his works as an acknowledged propagandist are powerful poetic statements. 150,000,000 (1919) tells in a style which parodies the Bylina (folk epic), the tale of a bogatyr-like Ivan in combat with Wilson, the champion of world capitalism; Mystery-Bouffe (Misteriya-Buff, 1918) mixes mystery-play motifs with vulgar comedy in a dramatic spectacle showing the conquest of the "Clean"-the bourgeois--by the "Unclean"--the proletariat; Vladimir Ilyich Lenin (1924) develops the story of Lenin's life as an archetypal myth of the savior sent by "History" just when he was needed; Very good! (Khorosho! 1927), written to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the October Revolution, presents itself as a "factographic" account of those years, but actually develops a political myth of the struggle against oppression, interspersed with tender and moving passages of a private nature. As a propagandist Mayakovsky produced graphic art as well as poetry, for instance Windows of the Russian Telegraph Agency (Okna ROSTA), more than 600 cartoonlike drawings accompanied by brief versified captions of great skill and versatility. Later (1923-25) he produced illustrated advertising jingles for the state stores, which was certainly the most literate advertising copy ever written.
During the 1920s political verse in various forms and on a great variety of topics alternated with lyric poetry: the poems "I love" (Lyublyu, 1922), About That (Pro eto, 1923), "Letter to Tatiana Yakovleva" (Pis'mo Tat'yane Yakovlevoi, 1928), "Letter to Comrade Kostrov on the Essence of Love" (Pis'mo tovarishchu Kostrovu o sushchnosti lyubvi, 1928), and his final poem, At the Top of My Voice (Vo ves' goles, 1930), are on a level with his best work.
In addition to his poetry and his graphic art, Mayakovsky produced thirteen film scenarios and two plays. Only a few of the scenarios were actually produced and shown, and only fragments of those are preserved. His two plays, The Bedbug (Klop, 1928) and The Bathhouse (Banya, 1930), both directed by Vsevolod Meyerhold, are satirical treatments of Soviet philistinism and the Soviet bureaucratic state.
Mayakovsky's verse may strike a reader as free of the conventional restraints of meter and rhyme, yet close analysis of his lines reveals a carefully structured and complex poetic artifice concealed but not destroyed by the breakup of the line into conversational phrase patterns. His earliest verse is actually faithful in form to the classical syllabotonic system; its impression of novelty is produced by unconventional syntax and diction, and by striking rhymes. In the cycle of poems entitled Me (1912) he introduced his characteristic verse line in which the organizing factor is the heavily accented syllable usually occurring three or four times per line, while the number of unaccented syllables between the accents may vary from-none to six, offering rich possibilities for poetic emphasis. Rhyme is also essential to the structure of Mayakovsky's verse. Line and stanza boundaries are marked by rhymes, and the sense of a poem is often carried by its pattern of original and offbeat rhymes. His rhymes may be slant, heterosyllabic, consonantal, or paronomastic (punning), and always involve a radical rejection of canonical rhyming practice. Extravagant metaphors are a hallmark of his verse, frequently "realized" in the sense that the vehicle is taken literally and treated at length, as when his heart "on fire" with love becomes a burning building with firemen crawling all over it. Normal syntactic structures are characteristically deformed for the sake of metrical or rhyming emphasis, and the tender diction of lyric poetry alternates with the coarse vocabulary of the street. His verse as a whole, including even the so-called agitational component, is a notably original poetic invention.
Two contradictory themes dominate Mayakovsky's work. The first of these, alienation from the comfortable bourgeois world of established forms and values, is the leitmotif of all his early work, and it appears also in certain lyrics of the thirties. The poet's unre quited love is the vehicle which carries and concretizes his estrangement from the world and from life itself. His abused and battered heart--"burning," beaten to a tatter, a bloody paw run over by a train--is a recurrent image in the long early poems, though it also appears there as a bloody banner for revolutionaries. The manners and mores of the bourgeois world shut out the poet, who appears in one scene in an attitude of huddled despair. Thoughts of suicide are recurrent in the early works, and occur also in some of the later ones. The female object of his manic passion, always part of the alien philistine world, is either getting married (The Cloud), married and with "music on her piano" (The Backbone Flute), or in bed with a legal husband (Man). The poet's despair reaches cosmic proportions in the poem Man, which presents both the mythical Christian heaven and the future of the planet as dominated by the "solid ones," known to Sartre as "les salauds," the meshchane (philistines). His second theme, an opposite and answering note of optimism about man and the human future, appears in War and the World, About That, the two plays The Bathhouse and The Bedbug, and his last poem At the Top of My Voice, though even in those works discordant notes darken the bright images. His propagandistic work of the twenties was, in one way of looking at it, a kind of "occupational therapy" designed as a cure for the loneliness and despair of the poet himself, or of his lyrical spokesman. Some lyric poems of the twenties give eloquent voice to this effort to overcome alienation and to interact with fellow creatures: "Being Good to Horses" (Khoroshee otnoshenie k loshadyam, 1918) and "The Sun" (Solntse, 1922) are perhaps the best examples. His two plays The Bedbug and The Bathhouse offer evidence that he found the revolutionary state increasingly dominated by his old enemy, the philistine. And in his love life, which is faithfully reflected in the poems, he formed hopeless attachments to unattainable women, his grief and frustration curiously mirroring the agonies of his earliest lyric hero. His suicide in 1930 could come as a shock only to those who had not studied his life and work.
before and after the Revolution Mayakovsky was the center of important
literary and artistic groups. The early futurists were a manifestation
in Russia of a new and vital movement in European art. After the Revolution
a number of innovatory artists, critics, and poets attached themselves
to Mayakovsky, working first on the staff of the journal Iskusstvo
Kommuny and later in the Left Front of Art (LEF). The
most important of these was Osip Brik, who "discovered" and published
Mayakovsky in 1915 and remained a close friend and collaborator until
the poet's death. Mayakovsky's early poems are dedicated to Brik's wife,
Lily. Osip Brik was a theoretician and critic of literature, and one of
the organizers of LEF. He wrote little, but his articles on poetic form,
particularly "Sound repetitions" (Zvukovye povtory) and
"Rhythm and Syntax" (Ritm i sintaksis) are brilliant formalist
analyses of poetic language. He served Mayakovsky, who read very little,
as a source of information and ideas, and he was probably the most articulate
exponent in LEF of the theories of "social demand" and "literature of
fact." A man of surpassing intelligence, he was apparently not strong
either in performance or in principle. His connections with the Cheka
are well documented. Nikolai Aseev was a poet and a prominent member of
LEF His verse on revolutionary and industrial themes during the twenties
and thirties was a skillfully made answer to the "social demand" promulgated
by LEF. His long poem, Incipit Mayakovsky (1940) which received
the Stalin prize in 1941, celebrates Mayakovsky as a revolutionary poet,
creating a number of striking verbal images of the poet at his life and
at his work. Vasily Kamensky was a poet, an early member of the cube-futurist
group and a participant in the tours and recitals of 1913. Probably his
most important work is an account of his adventures with Mayakovsky: Life
with Mayakovsky (Zhizn' s Mayakovskim, 1940). Sergei Trenakov
was an able writer and a proponent of radical innovation in all the arts.
He worked on film with Eisenstein and with Meyerhold in the latter's theater.
Among Mayakovsky's collaborators in LEF and New LEF should also be mentioned:
A. M. Rodchenko, a brilliant photographer, artist, and master of the montage
technique, the formalist critic Viktor Shklovsky, Boris Arvatov, an acute
literary theorist who tried to integrate the formalist and sociological
critical methods, and finally V. A. Katanyan, one of many less important
figures close to Mayakovsky, and the one who has contributed the most
complete record of his life: Mayakovskii: Literaturnaya khronika