Something in the Caucasian Air: Vladimir Mayakovsky’s Poetry
From a cursory examination of Mayakovsky’s biography, it seems fitting to situate him in three spheres: futurist poetry and Russian modernism, Russian communist politics, and the Caucasus region. These were his artistic, political, and geographical sources of nourishment. While the first two are well-documented, it seems to go too often unremarked at how turbulent the early twentieth century was in the Caucasus region. A zone spanning Iran, the Ottoman Empire, and Russia, the three great empires of Western Eurasia at the time, it has proved remarkably impervious to my historical investigations. Home to the Baku oilfields teeming with Iranian guest workers, Armenia without a state, Stalin and, of course, Mayakovsky’s birthplace, it is a staging ground for some of the most consequential events of the early 1900s.
His poetry, even in English translation, is almost unbearably lucid. Like many of the great revolutionary writers of the time––Lenin and Stalin included––he uses straightforward language in an effort to corrode illusions and communicate with directness. His works brim with biting rhetorical questions, imperatives, and striking details. “You,” an early poem from 1915, is emblematic of his often accusatory tone:
You, wallowing through orgy after orgy,
owning a bathroom and warm, snug toilet!
How dare you read about awards of St. Georgi
from newspaper columns with your blinkers oily?
Do you realise, multitudinous nonentities
thinking how better to fill your gob,
that perhaps just now Petrov the lieutenant
had both his legs ripped off by a bomb?
Imagine if he, brought along for slaughter,
suddenly saw, with his blood out-draining,
you, with your mouths still dribbling soda-water
and vodka, lasciviously crooning Severyanin!
To give up my life for the likes of you,
lovers of woman-flesh, dinners and cars?
I’d rather go and serve pineapple juice
to the whores in Moscow’s bars.
Internalizing the revolutionary struggles of the time into his language, he produced some stirring calls to arms. Convinced of the crucial role of art in revolutionizing the new Soviet Republic, he expressed his frustration with the formalistic direction art had retreated towards in even its most radical manifestations:
foreheads dug over with furrows sublime,
futuristic, imagistic, acmeistic, stuck tight in your cobwebs of rhyme.
who abandoned smooth haircuts for matted,
slick shoes for bast clogs a-la-russki,
sewing your patches
on the faded frock-coat of Alexander Pushkin.
Excerpt from “Order No. 2 to the Army of Arts,” 1921.
While one could characterize modernism as a whole as a series of avant-gardes looking to surpass their forebears’ in formal invention and aesthetic ruptures, culminating in movements like minimalism in the 1950s and 60s, it rarely sank deep roots in political projects. And given that until the Chinese Cultural Revolution in the 1960s there was no more profound political revolution than the Russian, it makes sense that Mayakovsky’s poetry founded its advocacy for new forms on revolutionary enthusiasm. His militant overtures were not, because political, less relevant to the art to which he dedicated his life. On the contrary, his poetry posited a deep and indissoluble connection between the health of poetry and the health of the new society the people had inaugurated. It was not the common people, mired in the dirt and oil of the revolution, who lagged behind. It was the reclusive artists, “picturing the future as an opportune academic salary for every nitwit.” The arts was a revolutionary weapon, and like the country had to be purged of error in order to serve the people.
My only exposure to Mayakovsky before reading a collection of his poetry was in a Russian literature class that framed him as a propagandist for the party, a futurist who had sacrificed all of his integrity for the sake of political favour. Besides the fact that he satirized Soviet society rather ruthlessly––indeed, it got him into hot water with the state later on––this dismissive caricature of this man’s art does a disservice to the power of political art. If Mayakovsky was a propagandist, he was a masterfully artful one, someone who embraced rather than shirked the responsibility of the artist to the people. This is not to sanctify him; he would have sneered at hagiography. Rather, I merely find reading his poetry a liberating exercise, giving expression to some of my more boundless enthusiasms. He was just one of many great communist poets of the last century, a voice that somehow matched the rhythms of revolution echoing wherever the tyrannies of capitalist rule could be endured no longer.
I look forward to hopefully finding some copies of his satirical plays. Until then, stay red, my friends.