Elizabeth Dacquisto is a graduate from the class of 2013 at the University of Maryland, College Park. She received her Bachelor of Arts in Russian Language and Literature with a minor in Rhetoric. She is currently serving as a corps member at City Year in Washington D.C. and plans to pursue graduate studies in Russian to English translation, focusing on literary translation.
This paper was published as part of Vestnik: The Journal of Russian and Asian Studies.
The Paradoxes of Vladimir Mayakovsky
By Elizabeth Dacquisto
Can a poet influence his own legacy after his death? Consider the power of an individual’s era, homeland, contemporaries, and critical reception as additional deciding factors toward establishing a legacy. With several sources of interpretation, it is inevitable for multiple legacies of a person to emerge in the wake of a singular event; it can be considered the creation of life after death, as these sources rewrite and reconsider an individual's past actions.
The collective legacy of the Soviet poet Vladimir Mayakovsky has been influenced by fact and fiction from various sources, including the historical realities of his era, the political agenda of his homeland, his reception by fellow modernists, and the poet himself. Mayakovsky’s language also helps create duality in how he is perceived, for example through his usage of dualistic pronouns: the lyrical first-person singular я (I) versus the political first-person plural мы (we). All these influences can be seen in Mayakovsky’s complex modern legacy, especially in western literary culture.
Mayakovsky was born in 1893 in Baghdati, which is now a city in modern-day Georgia. Mayakovsky's early life was turbulent; he frequented prison due to his political affiliations and activities as a pro-Bolshevik supporter. His family moved to Moscow after his father's death in his early teenage years, living in immense poverty during this time. He engrained himself within Russian political culture after settling into Moscow, until he was ableto attend college to study art before dropping out. While enrolled as an art student at the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture (Московское училище живописи, ваяния и зодчества), Mayakovsky met David Burlyuk; the two quickly became friends due to their shared interests in art and political activism. Burlyuk was the first to hear Mayakovsky's poetry and actively encouraged him to continue writing, ultimately leading to Mayakovsky's career as a poet. In April of 1930, Mayakovsky committed suicide at the age of 36 (Woroszylski 20).
The majority of Mayakovsky's most famous works in modern-day Russian culture embody a spirit of the Russian Revolution, the idealizations of Communism, and the glorification of the Soviet agenda. Mayakovsky was a pro-Bolshevik supporter, so one can understand this association within the Revolution. In contrast, the majority of Mayakovsky's critics in the West emphasize thelyrical nature of certain poems rather than the ones with overt political messages. Studying this dual-representation can provoke many questions about the true Mayakovsky. This “paradox” of Mayakovsky is created by a multiplicity of agendas, motivations, and purposes: is he the Soviet revolutionary fighter or a Western lyrical imposter with a political agenda? More so, how was this shift created, and how can we benefit from analyzing it?
We can begin to explain these interpretations by trying to understand the “authentic” Mayakovsky. Svetlana Boym, Professor of Slavic and Comparative Literatures at Harvard University, describes this concept in her book Death in Quotation Marks, explaining the multiple perceptions as “theoretical fables” which emerged from Mayakovsky’s suicide, evoking “...figurative and actual deaths linked to one another...of literary criticism converging with autobiography; of the transgression of genres in art and life; of the poet’s gunshot, both enticing and resisting allegorization” (189). This paper will support how legacy is constructed through perception, so all ideas of an individual's legacy are self-contained, individualized, and further catalyzed through major life events of a figure, including death. We will analyze these factors to construct our own “Mayakovsky”, containing this paradox of dualistic existence: lyrical and political. First, we will analyze these shifts in perspective through Mayakovsky’s physical presence and appearance, the societal reception of his death, and multiple interpretations of his legacy from multiple sources. In an attempt to shed clarity upon the lyrical embodiments of his work, we will analyze key verses by Mayakovsky. We will see how this side of his persona will be contrasted with the imposing, constructed legacy of Mayakovsky as a sort-of political martyr for revolutionary Russia—the Mayakovsky that can still be seen as a bronze statue, both literally and figuratively, in the streets of Moscow.
I. Conflicts between “Inner” and “Outer” Mayakovsky
One of Mayakovsky’s earliest and strongest pieces of publicly-circulated writing is A Slap In The Face of Public Taste, a manifesto co-written in 1913 with David Burlyuk, Alexander Kruchenykh, and Victor Khlebnikov. These writers were members of the Moscow-based literary group Gileya (Гилея), which was founded in 1910 by Burlyuk; others, including Kamensky, Khlebnikov, Kruchenykh, and Mayakovsky, joined in 1911. This manifesto is an explicit and emotive statement in favor of the ideas that would shape the early forms of Russian Futurism.The most famous lines from this manifesto describe the Futurists' opposition to their literary predecessors: “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” (Night Wraps the Sky 57-58). Even though this manifesto was published fairly early in Mayakovsky’s writing career, it is still useful in illustrating the differences between Mayakovsky’s revolutionary ideas and his emotive sense of persuasion and expression. The ideas of the manifesto, as well as its authors, are passengers on the Ship of Modernity. This was an allegorical representation of what the Futurists had believed to be the necessary path from an obstructed, misleading past of outdated ideas. The political agenda of this manifesto can be seen in references to the ideas of a bright Communist future in Soviet Russia, such as in the lines “From the heights of skyscrapers we gaze at their insignificance!” (Night Wraps the Sky 57-58). During this time, modernization, especially in the form of construction, was emphasized as a crucial detail of transformation into a modern-day country. It is interesting to consider how this manifesto used allegory and detailed symbolism, cornerstones of lyrical expression, to support a Revolutionary-fueled agenda. The usefulness of analyzing this manifesto is especially important because it was written when Mayakovsky first began associating with the Futurists, this occurred after he was released from prison for the first time due to his political activities. Although this manifesto does not describe Mayakovsky himself, it helps explain his entire ideology, which will be discussed later.
Mayakovsky’s portrayal by memoirists, his own contemporaries, and even his close friends seem to characterize multiple versions of the same man rather than a cohesive whole, thereby supporting this idea of individualized, constructed legacy. Ann Charters of the University of Connecticut describes this multi-faceted effect in her book I Love: The Story of Vladimir Mayakovsky and Lili Brik, stating “There seemed to be two opposite sides to Mayakovsky’s character...He exaggerated the public Mayakovsky, the flamboyant, arrogant dandy, because he was afraid of his double, wary of the softness of his private feelings, which often threatened to overwhelm him” (33). The filmmaker Christopher Edgar further supports this struggle within Mayakovsky in his article published in the anthology Night Wraps the Sky, edited by Michael Almereyda. In his article, Edgar stated that he [Mayakovsky] was a man of contradictions and extremes: “...a performer who could charm the most skeptical audience with his deep bass voice and sharp tongue, he could often be found, moments later, sitting gloomily in a corner...these contrary sides of his personality often coexisted in a delicate balance” (212-213).
After considering the “inner” Mayakovsky, we can also discuss the “outer” Mayakovsky – especially the physical attributes of this writer that had a major impact upon his friends, family, and followersHe was an exceptionally tall man with a loud, intimidating voice. He chain smoked and almost never smiled, mostly due to the poor condition of his teeth. In his younger days, Mayakovsky’s usual outfit consisted of a green overcoat, a top hat, and his infamous yellow blouse—a loose shirt in a peasant style that his mother and sisters had sewn for him (Charters 29). He describes this iconic yellow blouse in his autobiography: “The Yellow Blouse: I never had any suits. Had two blouses—hideous things. There’s a tried-and-true method to sprucing up any outfit—a tie. No money” (Night Wraps the Sky 61). He would later reference this blouse in his writing at multiple points, a contradiction emerging from something that he was given and also disliked as forming a cornerstone of his “image” with others.
Mayakovsky was often boastful and could be seen as a narcissist based on several depictions of him by his contemporaries. In his youth, he would frequently pursue women and attempt to pique their interest in him with copies of his poetry. In particular, he would often share “A Cloud in Trousers,” which was originally written for his lover Lili Brik in 1915 (Night Wraps the Sky 79-106). On one occasion in 1918, he presented the actress Alexandra Rebikova with a copy of this poem while they were in a cab together after working on a film, and she said that she did not understand any of his verses. She laughed and was met with his grim smile: “You don’t understand anything,” he said, “I am the greatest modern poet, one day you’ll realize this” before taking the book out of her hands, tearing it to shreds, and throwing the bits of paper out of the cab window (Charters 123). There was a similar occurrence when Lili Brik read this poem for the first time: she had a less than ecstatic reaction, which prompted Mayakovsky to dramatically tear the poem to shreds and scatter it across the street in Moscow while muttering that she was incapable of understanding true art (Charters 72). These dramatic responses to unfavorable feedback were overinflated reactions to cover up the lyrical, sensitive, vulnerable Mayakovsky—the poet who could only be sustained by the praise and support of others. The physical act of ripping up his own verses and throwing them onto the street with both Lili Brik and Alexandra Rebikova can be contrasted with the “Ship of Modernity” from A Slap In The Face of Public Taste. Instead of throwing classic writers such as Pushkin and Dostoyevsky off of this ship, Mayakovsky insisted on purging his poetry when it was not understood by those he wanted to persuade. It could even be considered a lyrical reaction, over-the-top and expressive, but executed through a politically fueled vessel, the “Ship of Modernity,” which is constantly moving forward.
The duality in two people representing a singular event is easiest to see when Mayakovsky recited passages from “A Cloud in Trousers” while visiting Maxim Gorky at his dacha (a summer home in the outskirts of the city) in 1915; he was an avid admirer of Gorky and was greatly looking forward to finally making his acquaintance. Mayakovsky started to read the poem aloud with a strong and commanding presence, but he would later confess to Lili Brik that he found himself breaking down, “so overcome with emotion at his own words and was unable to finish the poem” (Charters 45). Later, Gorky wrote about this very meeting with Mayakovsky in a letter to a friend: “He behaved very nervously and was clearly deeply disturbed. It was clear that he was especially sensitive, very talented and very unhappy” (Woroszylski 152). Interestingly, Mayakovsky’s autobiography gives an entirely different recollection of this same event that differs from his confessions to Lili Brik as well as from the letter written by Gorky himself: “I read him [Gorky] fragments of ‘Cloud.’ Gorki, moved, wept all over my waistcoat. I moved him with my poems. This made me a little proud. Soon it transpired that Gorki weeps over every poetic waistcoat” (Woroszylski 152). Mayakovsky had created his own myth, perhaps more as a coping mechanism than anything else. Yet this creation is important regardless, because it reveals how meticulously he worked to maintain his intended image among others, even seeming to manufacture a “split:” two versions of a singular event with different representations of each individual.
After dropping out of art school in , Mayakovsky moved to Moscow with David Burlyuk and Vasily Kamensky, where they started “The Poets' Café,” a sort of literary house: “There was sawdust on the floor, wooden tables and chairs, and a small platform stage crowded at one end of the room...[it] was a Futurist night-club act. He [Mayakovsky] and his two friends dressed in costumes, and after songs or recitations by other performers who happened to be present, they began to recite” (Charters 109-110). This behavior was far from unusual for Mayakovsky; when he traveled through America in the early 1920s (and eventually published My Journey to America in 1925), he would frequently make jokes at the expense of various people in the audience, directly mocking them and provoking a response with his humor and gestures simply for his own amusement and pleasure (Night Wraps the Sky 10-16). This boisterous behavior can be contrasted with other public depictions of Mayakovsky, such as those at the end of his life. He held a large exhibition of his work three weeks before his death, which only young people attended, and few people seemed interested in the work he had recently produced. When the attendees insisted he recite from his famous poem “Getting Along with Horses”,written over 10 years earlier in 1918, rather than wanting to focus on his recent works, Mayakovsky shouted: “Why should I write on Mary’s love for Peter instead of considering myself part of that state organ which builds life? The basic goal of the exhibition is...to show that the poet is not one who, like a wooly lamb, bleats of lyric-erotic themes, but one who, in our acute class struggle, surrenders his pen to the arsenal of proletarian arms” (The Bedbug and Selected Poetry 33). Here, Mayakovsky represents himself as a Soviet poet and not as the canonized “bronze statue” for the state agenda, thereby affirming his lyricism and emotional expressiveness.
His contemporaries’ individual perceptions also influenced Mayakovsky’s canonization through myth creation. Nadezhda Mandelstam, the wife of the famous soviet writer Osip Mandelstam, wrote a first-person memoir called Hope Against Hope. In this book, she recounts observing a conversation between Boris Pasternak,the author of Doctor Zhivago, and Soviet poet Demyan Bedny after a meeting of the Union of Writers in Moscow in May of 1934, four years after Mayakovsky’s suicide which had previously been ascribed to his writing. She writes that, “In Demyan’s view, Mayakovsky had died because he had trespassed on territory to which he was a stranger—the same political territory in which Demyan was so much at home”, with “political territory” here referring specifically to Communist propaganda (27). She also describes how her husband Osip became friends with Mayakovsky in Saint Petersburg, but that the two separated due to the fact that “it was ‘not done’ for poets of rival schools to associate with each other” (240). This account explains Mrs. Mandelstam’s goal very well: it shows her husband Osip to be a poet who was lyrical, potentially above politics, but in a way that did not speak badly of Mayakovsky’s work. This is true: the poetry of Osip Mandelstram and Vladimir Mayakovsky is not similar in language or purpose, both poets being from “different schools.” Nadezhda Mandelstam’s memoir has been subjected to criticism for its dualistic portrayal of events that conflicts with other memoirs, but this duality in representation is similar to the way Mayakovsky worked to construct his own legacy and to the way all personal history is recorded and recollected: through individual perception.
II. The Multiple Deaths of a Poet
After his suicide in April of 1930, Mayakovsky was portrayed by the Soviet press as a supporter of the revolution who also made the active choice not to join the Communist Party, thereby decreasing his worth as a writer. Lili Brik sent a letter to Joseph Stalin in 1934 complaining about these public attacks in the newspapers. Stalin replied with these words that have become cliché: “Mayakovsky is still the best and the most talented poet of our Soviet epoch. Indifference to his cultural heritage is a crime” (Charters 35). Boris Pasternak, who was Mayakovsky’s close friend, coined this idea as Mayakovsky’s second “death:” a cultural loss occurring after the poet’s tangible death, or the end of the lyrical voice he once upheld. Pasternak said that this death was caused because “[Mayakovsky] began to be introduced forcibly to the standard school curriculums,” also adding that Mayakovsky “had no hand in it” (The Bedbug and Selected Poetry 50). ”This idea of a “second death” canonized the image of Mayakovsky as a political poet rather than an emotional one, which is an image government officials fought diligently to preserve. It is still present today.
In central Moscow, there is a statue of Mayakovsky on Triumfalnaya Square (about a kilometer north of Pushkin Square) that was erected in 1958. Upon the base are inscribed the poet’s verses from his poem “Good!” published in 1927: “And I/like the spring of mankind/born/in labor and battle/sing/my fatherland/my republic!” (Boym 136). Boym describes this representation in Death in Quotation Marks: “The urban iconography of the Soviet capital illustrates Soviet Russian literary history from critical realism to Socialist Realism with the impressive bronze figures of canonical geniuses,” also interpreting this statue of Mayakovsky as a portrayal of “...the true Socialist Realist with a romantic forelock wearing a bronze jacket and looking optimistically into the Communist future” (Boym 138). Similar to Pasternak’s comments about Mayakovsky being forced upon the people like “potatoes under Catherine the Great,” Boym also noted that Mayakovsky’s works were still required reading for high school students in Russia in the early 1990s, forming “...part of the common Soviet cultural text, together with Pushkin’s ‘I loved you,’ Lermontov’s ‘And Dull and Sad...,’ Marx’s Communist Manifesto, and numerous quotes from Lenin” (183). Ultimately, these factors contribute equally to the lyrical death and subsequent political birth of Mayakovsky’s legacy.
As Pasternak described this “second death” of Mayakovsky, there is a counterargument to this idea. First, we must consider the concept of Mayakovsky’s personal motivation for committing suicide that is commonly accepted among literary scholars and Stalin himself: the poet’s disillusionment with his previous fixation on the future of Communism. This “political death” of Mayakovsky was eradicating the faith that he had in the future. As Boym cites in Death in Quotation Marks: “...when the revolution stopped being revolutionary, the revolutionary poet [Mayakovsky] had to commit suicide, to respond with silence to the purge of the paradisiacal poetic language...the figurative death of the poet leads inevitably to his actual suicide” (187). Other scholars have hypothesized additional motivations for Mayakovsky’s suicide, including the stress of a romantic relationship with a married woman, Lili Brik; the poet’s lifelong battle with mental illness, stemming from a turbulent childhood; and the unfavorable public reception of his works that were produced during the late 1920s.
If all the above the stories are true regarding Mayakovsky’s motivations to commit suicide, then it could be argued that the poet experiences a series of deaths and subsequent rebirths. The political struggle within Mayakovsky emphasizes his persona as a pro-Bolshevik poet, in favor of the revolution and Communism. Coexisting within this persona is a lyrical struggle: an emotionally vulnerable human being, represented by the yellow blouse instead of the bronze jacket, suppressed by his self-imposed limitations and insecurities as well as his political persona. If Mayakovsky’s suicide was motivated by politics, then his suicide could be considered a rebellious, public act. However, the embodiments of Mayakovsky’s lyrical verses reflect the personal investment that he had in the future of communism. Politics were personal for Mayakovsky, and yet this contrasts with his accepted image, which thereby resulted in his “second death” according to Pasternak. Mayakovsky’s suicide seems to be a personal statement of despair about politics, rather than a revolutionary or political statement of rebellion. Therefore, we are led to a paradoxical split in rebirth: how can a genuine legacy of Mayakovsky’s works exist when the same voice that caused his suicide is canonized as his most influential voice as a writer? A politically fueled poet cannot suffer from a lyrical death, because it would not be a death at all when his lyricism gave birth to a political agenda. It would seem as if this cycle of birth and death never concludes, or even more importantly, it never finds any real meaning beyond surface interpretations to fit a specific agenda.
Before we can better understand these layers of paradoxes within Mayakovsky, let us consider another poet from around this time whose death has been influenced by this same cycle of creation and destruction in myth through legacy: Aleksandr Blok. In The Archaeology of Anxiety, Galina Rylkova, a professor of Russian and Slavic Studies from the University of Florida, describes the scholarly interpretations of Blok’s death in 1921. Rylkova explains how memoirists interpreted his death as justification for whatever premise they supported, thereby “producing either Blok-the-mystic, or Blok-the-romantic, or Blok-the-realist, or Blok-the-revolutionary, et. cetera. [Each new myth] appears in response to the needs of a particular argument” (43). This begs the question: if memoirists interpreted Blok’s death for varied agendas, then what was the significance of his death? What was the context of the man and his verses before his death became a catch-all explanation? This idea of a split existence exemplifies the necessity for another lens to understand the reality beyond what has been constructed. For Mayakovsky, this additional lens that is required to support the meaning of his death is found within his lyrical verses. This lyrical nature can also further explain the shifting political voice that was misrepresented by Soviet authority in Mayakovsky’s legacy in Russia, despite the surface interpretations of his verses.
III. The Paradox of Mayakovsky in his Verses
As we have discussed, the split of Mayakovsky is evident within his outward appearance, personal inner struggle, and the varied interpretations of his death. However, above all else, it is embodied within his life’s work—his poetry. I will examine three poems in particular: one of Mayakovsky’s earlier poems without explicit political undertones; a political poem; and his suicide note, considered to be his final poem. This analysis will further support a split in the portrayal of Mayakovsky to fit the needs of an individual premise which can vary greatly among representations, including the ideas of cultural myths (of poet, of revolution), political myths, the formation of Soviet literature, lovers of lyric poetry, anti-Soviet information, and so on.
Mayakovsky’s iconic yellow shirt is the inspiration for his poem “Fop’s Blouse,” written in 1914. In this poem, he writes: “I will sew myself black trousers/from the velvet of my voice. / And from three yards of sunset, a yellow blouse.” The comparisons he makes between ideas in “Fop’s Blouse” are common in his earlier verses, similar to the way he wrote “A Cloud in Trousers” in 1915. “One of the most primitive ways of making an image is by comparison,” writes Mayakovsky in his short book How Are Verses Made?, while further elaborating: “My first things, ‘A Cloud in Trousers’ for example, were entirely based on similes—‘like, like and like’ all the time” (46). Svetlana Boym argues that Mayakovsky’s self-creation through the ideas of the yellow blouse are a larger metaphor for his agenda as a poet of his era: “From a seemingly insignificant article of everyday life, the yellow blouse turns into a ‘literary fact’ and then into a cultural emblem which starts affecting the poet’s daily existence” (140). She further elaborates that the color yellow “…becomes the color of Futurism, and Mayakovsky’s yellow blouse becomes its banner” (Boym 140). With Mayakovsky’s yellow blouse serving as the direction for the future of his work, we look toward the political canon of his legacy—Mayakovsky’s pro-Bolshevik, bright-eyed Communist idealizations. He favors hyperbole to emphasize the impact of the imagery in this poem, along with personification: “Let the earth, overripe and placid, cry out:/‘You would rape the green Spring!’/I’ll yell at the sun with an impudent grin” (Boym 140) The only pronouns he uses are the first and second person singular, with occasional references to third persons— specifically “women” who love his flesh, and “girl” looking at him “like a brother.” He is evocative, aware of the desire for a response: “toss your smiles to me, the poet / and I’ll sew them like flowers onto my fop’s blouse!” (Boym 140). This sort of coltish banter with playful language usage and motifs is typical for Mayakovsky’s earlier works, especially as he began affiliating himself with the Futurists in Moscow. Yet rather than relying on others for this expression, as in the manifesto A Slap In the Face of Public Taste, Mayakovsky is allowed to express his ideas and language through an individual voice that is only further personified and will become a cornerstone in his manner of expression.
Mayakovsky’s political poetry has similarities to his lyrical poetry, such as the use of hyperbole and simile, but these elements are not the only means for the poet to create greater meaning in his political verses. In a 1921 letter to Anatoly Lunacharsky, the first Soviet People’s Commissar of Enlightenment, Lenin stated that Mayakovsky’s poem 150,000,000, written in 1919, was “nonsensical, stupid, sheer stupidity and affectation” (Lenin). This poem, which was written during the American intervention in the Russian Civil War, is full of larger-than-life scenarios. The main character is Ivan, a colossal peasant with 150,000,000 heads, an arm as long as the Neva River, and heels as big as the Caspian steppes. He wades across the Atlantic Ocean to fight a hand-to-hand battle with Woodrow Wilson, wearing a top hat as high as the Eiffel Tower. Mayakovsky flirted with the idea of anonymity by originally publishing this poem anonymously. However, he directly stated in his autobiography: “I am publishing it without my last name…but almost everyone knew the last name” (Night Wraps the Sky 161). In this poem, Mayakovsky is part of the 150 million people who are collectively organizing. Originally publishing this poem without his last name further supports the relationship that he suggested between himself and anonymity, because others were still able to figure out that only Mayakovsky could have written a poem of that specific nature. Although he can be singled out by his literary style, he was attempting to further dissolve himself into the collective of Soviet people. He was not trying to become Mayakovsky in these verses, but rather he was trying to speak from a larger point-of-view. Regardless, his individuality continued to shine through the attempted anonymity of lyrical expression. Both of these ideas relate to his lyrical persona as a poet, as well as the constructed myth of a poet, which can be lyrical or revolutionary depending on how it is supported. Regardless, these premises support the duality of myth in a poet and his legacy. The poem was written in a mannered style and cast in a complicated form; Mayakovsky continued to deny classical heritage as he did in A Slap In the Face of Public Taste while supporting futurism as the only literary trend consonant with the times of the revolution.
Mayakovsky’s language is also consistent with his suicide note, which was written exactly two days before he killed himself on the morning of April 14, 1930 (Night Wraps the Sky 246). It is an eclectic document that consists of verses, solicitations of love, off-hand humor, and promises to pay taxes with money hidden in his apartment. The letter is addressed to his “comrade government,” speaking to this entity with the intimate and informal “you” in Russian ты, which is also used in prayers and other references to God. This form was used in favor of the formal вы, reserved for elders as well as strangers as a sign of respect. It also contains “...high poetic diction, contemporary Soviet speech, colloquialisms, and some expressions which seem to come from popular urban romances and sentimental melodramas, linking death with kitsch” (Boym 150). His language in the note is precise and his are intentions clear; he even adds humor: “Do not blame anyone for my death and please do not gossip. The deceased terribly dislike this sort of thing (Night Wraps the Sky 247).” Boym argues that this note reveals Mayakovsky’s intention to separate himself from his own death, or otherwise to fictionalize this act through the creation of myth, stating, “There was nothing else that I could do.” The verses in this note are considered his final poem, addressed to Lili Brik, and otherwise referred to as “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.
- Night Wraps The Sky, trans. George Reavey, pg. 247
Mayakovsky’s use of pronouns in these lines is interesting; he favors using the first and second person singular to distinguish himself from Lili Brik, who is portrayed as the second person singular “you,” or ты. The last sentence uses the third person singular explicitly in the English translation to impose an impersonal sense on the reader in these two lines because the Russian translation does not have a direct subject for these actions. It is not Mayakovsky himself who “rises to address / The ages, history, and all creation” in this poem, but rather an undisclosed third person, an outside observer—someone who is compelled to respond by observing the actions of the poem. Yet even when considering “the ages, history, and all creation” with the change to a third person singular pronoun, it seems to elicit a response from “one” that is politically founded, yet lyrically motivated.
Soviet writer Viktor Shklovsky describes Mayakovsky’s suicide and its relation to his suicide note in the book Mayakovsky and His Circle: “[Mayakovsky] died...having explained how the love boat crashes, how man perishes, not of unrequited love, but because he has ceased loving” (202-203). When considering the span of his lifetime, was Mayakovsky ultimately incapable of continuing his life because of his susceptibility to the struggles between myth and reality? As Mayakovsky says in these verses, he has “no cause to wake or trouble you,” but “quiet settles upon the world” as a sort of realization, or even acceptance, of the fate he has constructed for himself. Pasternak made similar remarks about Mayakovsky’s death in his autobiography Safe Conduct: “Mayakovsky shot himself out of pride because he had condemned something in himself...with which his self-respect could not be reconciled” (246). This “something” within Mayakovsky is arguably his lyrical persona that is stifled by a political agenda, both within himself and outside of his control. It could also be argued that Mayakovsky had “no other choice,” as he said directly in his suicide note. Patricia Blake explains this idea in Night Wraps the Sky: “He was too undisciplined, insubmissive, archaic. They [the Soviet government officials] would have killed him, as they completely disposed of some six hundred other writers...In a sense, you could say that he took his execution into his own hands” (251). Even if he was creating his own idea of reality with myth, there were also elements of his society that were out of his control. The only method of moving onward became the creation of myth, even if Mayakovsky interpreted this progress as the merit of his own suicide.
Having analyzed Mayakovsky’s suicide note, it is now possible to return to the initial ideas in this paper regarding the impact of analyzing death’s influence on the legacy of a poet. Legacy is a construction of perception, and arguably, the entire idea of legacy is based upon myth. The duality in multiple myths coexisting can create a paradox, with multiple ideas that do not neatly intersect or completely support each other, from which various interpretations can emerge regarding a singular event, idea or person. However, the word “legacy” itself implies a succession, meriting a progeny of sorts in due time. Michael Almereyda offers additional insight on this idea of a successor in Night Wraps The Sky: “...a crop of American poets coming of age three decades after his [Mayakovsky’s] death effectively fell in love with him, absorbing both a variety of technical stratagems—the broken long lines, the flexible use of ‘I’ (я) and ‘you’ (ты) —and the example of a restless conscience broadcasting itself in a voice mixing politics and personality, confession and reportage” (253). Some of these inheritors of “Mayakovskian energy and style” that Almereyda is referring to are the American poets Allen Ginsberg, Kenneth Koch, and Frank O’Hara, or more recently, poets such as Michael Dickman and Hedwig Gorski. Yet we must ask ourselves whether this is the most authentic and accurate interpretation of Mayakovsky’s death and the lyrical nature of his verses in the present, especially in the West. For if we lose the idea of the poet himself, we also lose the essence, purpose, and strength of his works. We can look to the prologue of one of his most famous poems, “A Cloud in Trousers,” to see how Mayakovsky felt about himself in his own writing:
If you want,
I’ll go meat-mad
– and, like the sky, its hues changing –
If you want,
I’ll be irreproachably tender,
not a man, but – a cloud in trousers!
- Night Wraps the Sky, trans. Matvei Yankelevich, pg. 79-106
He can be either meat-mad or “irreproachably tender” because he is “like the sky, its hues changing.” This can be seen most clearly in the representation of Mayakovsky today, most noticeably in the difference between his portrayals in the West and in Russia. Mayakovsky’s introduction to the West helped to alleviate the Soviet singular focus on his political voice, but the lyrical Mayakovsky has still been drastically undermined by scholars who analyze the scope of his work.
This canonized image of Mayakovsky is a complete contradiction when examining the lyrical nature that upholds the legacy in his verses, especially as his image in the West. As Boym argues, “The critics in the West tend to ignore the official Soviet hero in the bronze jacket, or simply do not pay it tribute” (184). Or maybe the question of legacy is not a matter of one myth versus another, as Viktor Shklovsky states in his book Mayakovsky and His Circle: “Mayakovsky was better known as a person, as an action, as an event” (62). Perhaps the answer is that the emotional “yellow blouse” of his lyrical verses is to be worn under the political “bronze jacket: ” provided by the Soviet state: a simultaneous coexistence as two parts of the same person.
Mayakovsky’s political musings were lyrically fueled, a lyrical reaction to a political action. How can a revolutionary be canonized when his ideas were innovative yet provoked? The ideas that allowed Mayakovsky to become known for his bronze jacket rather than his yellow blouse may have an affiliation with his status as a radical—the pro-Bolshevik revolutionary. Yet rather than ignoring his emotive and personal legacy, it is necessary for scholars to recognize and embrace all sides of his dynamic persona while interpreting his verses across the greater span of his era. We must understand the “meat-mad” political Mayakovsky and the “irreproachably tender” lyrical Mayakovsky, because they are the foundation for the entire paradox of Mayakovsky, giving us the “Cloud in Trousers,” which is neither one nor the other. His verses become nearly meaningless when one half is interpreted without the other: Mayakovsky is both, because only he is capable of being the illusive vapor cloud wearing tangible cloth trousers, or the revolutionary bronze statue with the lyrical yellow cotton blouse worn beneath it.
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