Mayakovsky, Vladimir Vladimirovich..
Born 19 July (7 July, Old Style) 1893 in Bagdadi, Georgia
(which was later named Mayakovsky in his honor). His father, Vladimir Konstantinovich, though of noble ancestry, was a
forest ranger. The young Vladimir had two older sisters--Olga and Lyudmila. He began school in Kutais in 1902, but took
little interest in studies. By the time he was in third grade, Mayakovsky found himself thrilled by the excitement of
mass meetings, demonstrations, and revolutionary songs.
Lyudmila, now a student in Moscow, would bring home legal and illegal political pamphlets. |
In 1906 the elder Mayakovsky died of blood poisoning. Mayakovsky's mother, Aleksandra Alekseevna, decided to move the family to Moscow to stay close to Lyudmila. To help support the family, Olga and the young Vladimir learned to fire and color wooden objects, such as boxes, caskets and Easter eggs, which Lyudimila would sell to stores.
Mayakovsky plunged himself into politics almost as soon as he arrived in Moscow. By the time he was 14, he was a full-fledged member of the Moscow Bolshevik Party, serving as a messenger, distributor of leaflets, and lookout. On 1 March 1908, Mayakovsky was expelled from school for non-payment of fees. And on 29 March 1908 he was caught with a stack of revolutionary proclamations and arrested. Mayakovsky was released on probation, and on 30 August 1908 he was admitted to the Stroganov School of Industrial Arts.
Mayakovsky was arrested again on 21 January 1909--this time by mistake. He was seen in the company of some Social Revolutionaries who were accused of exproriations (bank robberies). Mayakovsky's innocence was apparent, and was released.
However, by summer of 1909 Mayakovsky was back in the slammer, this time because he walked into a stakeout aimed at a Georgian revolutionary involved in expropriations and the organization of a successful prison break. Mayakovsky was an uncooperative prisoner. A warder's report in August 1909 states:
Vladimir Vladimirovich Mayakovsky...by his behavior incites other prisoners to disobedience toward prison officers, persistently demands free access to all cells, purporting to be the prisoners' "spokesman"; whenever let out of his cell to go to the toilet or washroom, he stays out of his cell for half an hour, parading up and down the corridor.Mayakovsky was moved from prison to prison and eventually wound up in solitary confinement in cell 103 of Butyrki Prison. It was here that he wrote his first poem.
Mayakovsky was tried in September 1909 and found guilty. However, being a minor, he again got off with probation.
In December 1912, Mayakovsky, Burliuk, Khlebnikov, and Kruchenykh published a Futurist manifesto entitled , A Slap in the Face of Public Taste. In it, they demanded that Pushkin, Tolstoy, etc., be thrown overboard. After all, "The Academy and Pushkin are less intelligible than hieroglyphics.". Blok, Gorky, Kuprin, Remizov, Bunin and others also come in for scorn, being labeled as "insignificant". The manifesto "orders" respect for the poets' rights:
Mayakovsky's first two published poems, Noch ("Night") and Utro ("Morning") also appeared in 1912.
To advertise their "happenings", the Futurists engaged in various stunts: Mayakovsky appearing in a yellow jacket, and Burliuk with a tree branch and bird painted on his cheek. These stunts got to the two expelled from the Institute.
In 1913, Mayakovsky, Burliuk, Khlebnikov, and other Futurists undertook a tour of the provinces to call attention to their new style. Mayakovsky was the star of these shows, not only because of his booming bass voice and exciting style of reading, but also because of his natural talent as a debater and ability to engage in witty repartee.
Back in Moscow, Mayakovsky produced his first collection, entitled humbly enough, "I", and a play called: Vladimir Mayakovsky: A Tragedy. The play was staged in December 1913 with--you guessed it--Vladimir Mayakovsky in the title role. Basically, the play is a series of image-laden monologues concerning the poet and his perceptions. In it, the Poet is both idealized and debunked. Adoring women bring him their tears as gifts, begging him to accept them; and yet he sleeps on a bed of dung, waiting for the wheels of the train to come and slice off his head. In the Prologue, Mayakovsky declares:
I will reveal to you with words that are simple, like lowing, our new souls, glowing like the arcs of streetlights. I'll lightly touch your heads with my fingers, and you will grow lips for enormous kisses and a tongue, to all nations native. And I, hobbling on my mean soul, will depart for my throne with starry holes hung across the tattered vault. I'll lie down, bright, in my clothes of sloth, on a soft bed of bona fide dung, and quiet, kissing railroad-tie knees, the steam engine wheel will grab my neck and squeeze.Viktor Shklovsky described the play thusly:
The poet has spread himself out on the stage, holding himself in hand as a card player holds his cards. Here's Mayakovsky the deuce, the three, the jack, the king. The game is staked on love. The game is lost.The main reaction of the public to the play was derision.
World War I broke out in 1914, but as the only son of a widow, Mayakovsky was at first exempt from the draft. He was eventually drafted but never really performed any military duty.
His first major long poem, Oblako v Shanakh ("A Cloud in Trousers") appeared in 1915. It 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". He describes the poets' work:
Then after they clear the rhymesMayakovsky also brings revolution into the work:
Take your hands off the pockets pedestrians!In the summer of 1915, Mayakovsky met the great love of his life--Lilya Brik. Her husband, Osip, apparently did not object to the affair, and in fact soon became Mayakovsky's publisher and literary collaborator. The poem Fleytapozvonochik ("The Backbone Flute") (1916), was dedicated to Lilya. He finished out the pre-Revolutionary years with Voina i Mir ("War and the World"), a reaction to the horrors of war, and Chelovek ("Man"), touching on cosmic anguish caused by frustrated love. This latter work is set first on present-day earth, then in heaven, and then back on the earth of the future, where the greedy philistine still rules.
"Mayakovsky entered the Revolution as he would enter his own home," Shklovsky noted. He went to the Smolny in Petrograd and was an eyewitness to the Bolshevik coup. Red sailors marched on the Winter Palace chanting one of Mayakovsky's slogans:
Dyeh tvoi posledni prikhodit, burzhui!
("Eat pineapples, chew on quail
Your last day is coming, bourgeois!")
While Mayakovsky produced a voluminous amount of slogans, posters and placards on political and utilitarian topics for the Revolutionary government, he still insisted that the new times demanded new artistic forms. Hence, he had little use for Proletkult poets and their conventional style. He dismissed them as those "who put patches on Pushkin's faded dresscoat."
To honor the first anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution, legendary director Vsevolod Meyerhold presented Mayakovsky's next play, Mysteriya Buff ("Mystery Bouffe"), a portrayal of the triumph of the "Unclean" (proletarians) over the "Clean" (Bourgeoise). Mayakovsky himself played a major role in the production. Subsequent productions of the play in 1920 and 1921 were filled with acrobatics and circus tricks and used up to 350 actors and dancers. Mayakovsky also produced poems of a obviously political bent such as Oda Revolutsii ("Ode to the Revolution") (1918) and Levy Marsh ("Left March") (1919).
In 1918, Mayakovsky began a brief plunge into film. He wrote the scenario for and starred in Ne Dlya Deneg Rodivshisya ("Not For Money Born"), based on Jack London's novel Martin Eden. The film was popular with the Soviet public, as was his second film Baryshnya i Khuligan ("The Lady and the Hooligan"), although Mayakovsky later called it "sentimental nonsense". In his third film, Zakovannaya Filmoi ("Fettered by Film"), Mayakovsky played a painter with Lilya Brik as his leading lady. In all, Mayakovsky wrote thirteen film scenarios, most of which were never produced. And only bits and pieces of those films that were produced survive.
In 1921, Mayakovsky produced 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. In style, the poem parodies the Russian bylina, or folk epic. This work, however, pleased neither the artistic community--Boris Pasternak in particular--nor the political reader. Lenin himself wrote a memo to Lunacharsky, criticizing the publication of 150,000,000. Lenin called the poem, "stupid, monstrously stupid, and pretentious." He also suggested that Lunacharsky be "whipped for futurism."
Mayakovsky took his first trip abroad in 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.
Upon his return to Moscow, Mayakovsky set about establishing the avant-garde jouranl Left Front, or more simply, Lef. The first issue appeared in March 1923 and the last (seventh) in June 1925. It featured works by Pasternak, Kamensky, Aseev, Kruchonykh, Khlebnikov, Babel, Shklovsky, Osip Brik, Meyerhold, Vertov, Eisenstein and Rodchenko. The premier issue of the journal contained Mayakovsky's own Pro Eto ("About That"), an allegoric outpouring of love and suffering, filled with surrealist visions.
As before, Mayakovsky continued to draw political posters and compose countless slogans and jingles for products or as public service messages, reminding people not to smoke or drink or spit on the floor and that they should wash and brush their teeth regularly.
Mayakovsky was profoundly moved when Lenin died on 21 January 1924. During that year, while reading and lecturing throughout the Soviet Union, Mayakovsky worked on his 3,000-line tribute Vladimir Ilych Lenin, in which he proclaimed that "Lenin, even now, is more alive than the living".
Mayakovsky took 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 for his own discovery of America. 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 moderninst and communist Diego Rivera. Then, in July 1925, after being put behind bars for eight hours by U.S. authorities in Texas, Mayakovsky finally entered the United States. He visited New York, Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Cleveland, giving readings and lectures and joining in the workers' struggle. (He once spent 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).
In 1925 Mayakovsky also made one of his few forays into the sphere of utopian science fiction with his poem Letaiushchi Proletarii ("The Flying Proletarian"). As described by Victor Tarras in his biography of Mayakovsky, The Flying Proletarian was:
...set in the year 2125 and features a giant air battle, with death rays and such, between the Soviet proletarian and the American bourgeois air forces. The latter prevails until an uprising of New York workers against their government turns the tide. Mayakovsky's communist future is all comfort and electric ease: electric razors, electric toothbrushes, everybody with his own private airplane (Moscow no longer has any streets, just airports). Labor is wholly mechanized, so that a worker merely operates a keyboard. Altogether, Mayakovsky's utopia is written from the viewpoint of a laborer who is tired of backbreaking, dirty work. . . . There are no kitchens, no housework. People eat in aerocafeterias and amuse themselves with cosmic cinemas, cosmic dances, and such--all nonalcoholic (alcohol is served by prescription only). The sport of the future is avio-polo--football has long since been abandoned as crude and boring.On a much more serious note, following the suicide of poet Sergei Esenin on 27 December 1925, Mayakovsky set himself the task of neutralizing the effect of Esenin's sucide note-poem and of 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: "In this life, dying is nothing new. But living, of course, isn't any newer." In response, Mayakovsky ended his poem Sergeiu Eseninu ("To Sergei Esenin") with this variation:
In this life, to die is not so difficult,As the Soviet Union prepared to mark its tenth anniversary in 1927, Mayakovsky was making his contribution with Khorosho! Oktyabrskaya Poema ("Good! A Poem of the October Revolution"). This work retells the history of the Soviet Union, beginning with a description of the unrest of early 1917 and a lampoon of the Kerensky government. It contains a triumphant account of the storming of the Winter Palace; episodes concerning the fight against counterrevolution, foreign intervention, cold and hunger; the assassination attempt on Lenin; and the final defeat of the Whites. The poem also contains a swipe at poet Aleksandr Blok, who is portrayed as warming himself over a fire and waiting for the arrival of Jesus Christ, a reference to the end of Blok's poem The Twelve.
Also, in January 1927, Mayakovsky revived Lef, this time under the name Novy Lef ("New Lef"). In the premerie issue, Mayakovsky entered into a public dispute with Maksim 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 protege 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".
The first Five Year Plan began in 1928 and the push for collectivization in 1929. Mayakovsky rushed around visiting building sites and new factories and producing poems addressing specific issues of current public interest: the joy of a new apartment with hot and cold running water; the purchase of industrialization bonds; and the promise of automobile factories to produce affordable automobiles which will be available on the installment plan. But Mayakovsky didn't wait for these auto factories to get his own car. Rather, while in Paris in 1928, he purchased a new Renault.
During that same trip to Paris, Mayakovsky had been commissioned by Comrade Kostrov, the editor of Komsomolskaya Pravda and Molodaya Gvardia, to compose some political poems. However, Mayakovsky struck up an affair with a beautiful Russian emigree and instead composed his Pismo Tovarishchy Kostrovu iz Parizha o Sushchenosti Liubvi ("Letter to Comrade Kostrov from Paris Concerning the Nature of Love").
Upon his return to Moscow, Mayakovsky worked with Meyerhold again preparing the production of his play Klop ("The Bedbug"). Music for the production was provided by Dmitri Shastakovich 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.
In Februrary of 1929, Mayakovsky was again in Europe--Berlin, Prague, and Paris. On the trip he produced more anti-bourgeois poems, chosing as topics characters such as a one-legged prostitute and the attendant in the men's room of a Paris restaurant. Mayakovsky also visited a casino in Monte Carlo, which of course he denouced as a den of international racketeers and a cesspool of repulsive vice. After the trip, Mayakovsky penned one of his most popular poems Stikhi o Sovetskom Pasporte ("Poem of the Soviet Passport"). In this work, he expresses glee at the squeamishness and discomfort his Soviet passport caused various border officials, who thought the the passport was as explosive as a bomb, as prickly as a hedgehog, and as dangerous as a razor.
Mayakovsky had abandoned Novy Lef in 1928, and in 1929 he tried to establish a new organization, Ref ("Revolutionary Front"), intended as a workshop, 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 proletariate. 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.Mayakovsky's play Banya ("The Bathhouse")--a fierce attack on bureaucratic stupidity--had its premiere in Leningrad on 30 January 1930. It was a disaster. No laughs or no applause after the first two acts. The play opened in Moscow in Meyerhold's theatre on 16 March 1930, where it did somewhat better; but still, critical and public reaction was, in general, negative.
A better reception was given to a reprospective exhibition of Mayakovsky's work which was presented in Moscow and then Leningrad in February and March 1930. Most of the representatives of RAPP, however, did not attend. At the opening of the exhibition, Mayakovsky read Vo Ves Golos ("At The Top of My Voice"), a type of summing up of his career.
In his final days, Mayakovsky kept active as usual. He was busy preparing for the opening of his next play, Moskva Gorit ("Moscow on Fire"). Containing stylized scenes from the Revolution of 1905, it was Mayakovsky's most avant garde dramatic piece yet. Plot and historical veracity are abandoned; clowns crack jokes; the Emperor, worried about a pants shortage, changes his trousers every minute; a giant worker on stilts dwarfs the factory owners; bombs and fireworks explode, and Western leaders are lampooned.
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. 12 April and 13 April were business as usually. He had numerous appointments for personal appearances on 14 April and 15 April. But, at 10:15 A.M. on 14 April 1930, Mayakovsky shot and killed himself in his Moscow office. He left a suicide note, dated 12 April, which read in part:
As they say,Mayakovsky's body lay in state for three days and was viewed by 150,000 mourners. He was creamated on 17 April 1930.
Moscow on Fire premiered on 21 April 1930 as scheduled.
"Vladimir Mayakovsky" by Victor Terras. Twayne Publishers. Boston. 1983.
"A Slap in the Face of Public Taste" - A Futurist Manifesto