Маяковский в 1913 году
Я тебя в твоей не знала славе,
Помню только бурный твой рассвет,
Но, быть может, я сегодня вправе
Вспомнить день тех отдаленных лет.
Как в стихах твоих крепчали звуки,
Новые роились голоса…
Не ленились молодые руки,
Грозные ты возводил леса.
Всё, чего касался ты, казалось
Не таким, как было до тех пор,
То, что разрушал ты, — разрушалось,
В каждом слове бился приговор.
Одинок и часто недоволен,
С нетерпеньем торопил судьбу,
Знал, что скоро выйдешь весел, волен
На свою великую борьбу.
И уже отзывный гул прилива
Слышался, когда ты нам читал,
Дождь косил свои глаза гневливо,
С городом ты в буйный спор вступал.
И еще не слышанное имя
Молнией влетело в душный зал,
Чтобы ныне, всей страной хранимо,
Зазвучать, как боевой сигнал.
–Анна Ахматова, 1940
Mayakovsky in 1913
I didn’t know you when you were in your full glory,
I only saw your fiery ascent,
But, maybe, today I have the right
To remember that day from years ago.
How sounds braced the lines of your poetry
With voices like we’d never heard…
Your young hands didn’t rest,
And the scaffold you built was terrifying.
Everything you touched
Whatever you wanted to destroy—collapsed,
A life or death sentence in every word.
Alone and never satisfied,
You tried to rush fate along.
You had already freely and willingly accepted
That soon you’d have to go out and join the great struggle.
I can still hear the answering roar
When you read to us,
The rain slanted its angry eyes,
You started a wild fight with the city.
And your still-unknown name,
Flew into the stuffy lecture hall like lightning,
So that today, cherished everywhere in this country,
It could ring out like a battle cry.
translated by Jenny Wade
Listen to this poem, as read by Anna Akhmatova
The “Fiery Ascent”
In 1913, at the age of 19, Vladimir Mayakovsky hit the Russian art scene like a tornado. Within a year, he published his first poems and lithographs; went on a 17-city lecture tour; published articles on Russian theater; wrote, produced and starred in his first play; and, along with his gang of friends, launched a new art movement—Futurism. Tremendously energetic and productive, he turned from one art form to another seamlessly for 20 years. He drew pictures. He exhibited paintings. He wrote, directed and acted in his own plays. He was a film star.1 He created hundreds of agitprop posters. He wrote advertisements for cigars, cooking oil, pacifiers and sausages. He edited the avant-garde art journal LEF. He gave countless readings in clubs, theaters and, after the 1917 revolution, in factories, workers’ clubs and Komsomol meetings. In the course of his career he collaborated with Eisenstein, Shostakovich, Meyerhold and Rodchenko.
And he wrote poetry—love poetry, death poetry, odes to the revolution; poems dedicated to the army, to Lenin, to the Brooklyn Bridge, to the Communist Party, to skyscrapers, to the Atlantic Ocean, to the tax collector, and to his own “Beloved Self.” He invites the sun over for tea, he takes Napoleon for a walk on a leash. He’s a horse collapsing from exhaustion, a weepy and frightened violin, a lovesick bear floating down the river on a block of ice. He grows claws, fangs, and a tail. Elephants, giraffes, gorillas, ostriches, baby whales, camels, prostitutes, pimps, criminals and Eskimos all make appearances. He heaps insults upon the petite bourgeoisie, upon his fellow poets, and upon God Almighty (“why don’t you just run along back to heaven where you belong?”).
At the age of 36, at the retrospective exhibition of his life’s work, he turned to a friend and asked, “Did I do enough?”
An agitator for the Bolsheviks since late adolescence, Mayakovsky was arrested at sixteen for sedition in 1909 and sent to tsarist prison for the third time. Reckless, big and loud, and always willing to create a scene, before long he was placed in solitary confinement. Five months of isolation put M in an introspective frame of mind, and in reviewing his life, he realized that an art education would make him a more effective tool of the revolution. Alone in cell #103 at Butyrki prison, he immersed himself in literature and painting,2 and made his first attempts at writing poetry. Upon his release, he gave up his activities in the political underground, let his membership in the Party lapse, and became an artist.
In 1911, after a year of working in commercial art studios, M passed the demanding entrance exam at the Moscow Institute for the Study of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture and became an art student. The Institute, against the best intentions of the administration, became an incubator for the avant-garde,3 and M quickly fell in with the ringleaders. He found a soulmate in David Burliuk, an older student who had already produced a dozen modern art exhibits, all of them provocative, some of them scandalous.4 Magnetic, cultured and possessing “the professional assuredness of a snake charmer,”5 Burliuk had pulled some serious artists into his orbit—among them, the painters Kazimir Malevich, Mikhail Larionov, and Natalia Goncharova; and the poets Vasily Kamensky, Velimir Khlebnikov and Aleksey Kruchenykj—and now he added Mayakovsky to the collection.
Burliuk’s coterie of artists saw themselves as agents of revolution. Sick of the realism of the previous century, sick of the mysticism of the Symbolists, sick of “byt,”6 Burliuk and company were determined to drag art by force into the machine age. Accordingly, they called themselves “The Futurists.” In 1912, they issued their manifesto, A Slap in the Face of Public Taste, and advised their readers to “throw Pushkin, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, etc., etc., overboard from the ship of modernity,” and to “wash their hands of the filthy slime of the books written by those innumerable Leonid Andreyevs.”7 They said it was their right to “look down at their nothingness from the height of skyscrapers,” to “infinitely despise all the language of the past,” and to bend words, grammar, and poetic structure to suit their will. Though the poems included in the publication by M are immature and lack puissance compared to his later work (he was still only 19 years old), they are a testament to the Futurist philosophy: the poems are surreal, seemingly disjointed and nonsensical, peppered with street language, the words split into pieces and staggered across the page. There is the promise of lexical and semantic breakthroughs to come. A Slap was the opening volley. A flurry of Futurist pamphlets, anthologies and booklets followed. In 1913, the Futurists took their show on the road.
The first public Futurist event took place in October of 1913 at Moscow’s “Hall of the Society of Art Lovers.” To promote it, Burliuk had announcements printed on toilet paper. He organized a publicity stunt: a Futurist promenade along Kuznetsky Bridge, one of Moscow’s main streets, the poets marching with dogs and airplanes painted on their faces, dressed in top hats, garish ties, and frockcoats trimmed with rags, reciting their poetry to the crowd. Mayakovsky, wearing a bright yellow shirt with a wooden spoon as a boutonnière, was a natural performer. Standing a head taller than most everyone around him, with a stentorian voice and the demeanor of a Sicilian Mafioso, M at turns cajoled, insulted and clowned. Some were amused and curious, others confused and outraged. Fights nearly broke out, police were called in: all in all, a tremendous public relations coup.
The event sold out immediately. At the performance, Mayakovsky traded insults with the crowd, recited poetry and discussed how the ancient Egyptians produced electricity by stroking cats.8 He explained how the world was merging into a single gigantic city, rendering nature outdated and unnecessary. Additional topics were “Folds of fat in arm-chairs,” “The colorful rags of our souls,” and “Orchestras of drain-pipes.”
While on their subsequent three-month lecture tour, M and his fellow poets would sometimes begin by sitting with each other on stage, drinking tea and casually conversing, as if the audience wasn’t there. Sometimes tea would spill into the orchestra pit, sometimes onto the audience. Sometimes they would perform with a grand piano suspended over their heads. They were heckled, booed and pelted with rotten fruit and bottles. M, whom Pasternak described as “a good-looking youth of gloomy aspect with the bass voice of a deacon and the fist of a pugilist; inexhaustible, deadly, witty,” overpowered every heckler. He once made the claim “I could, without even dirtying my shirtfront, nail them with my tongue to the cross of their suspenders . . . [and] roast this whole collection of insects on the sharp turnspit of my tongue.” Loud debates continued with the audience in the lobby and in the streets after shows. Theaters were surrounded by mounted police, and performances were often broken off in mid-sentence.
A few days after the Futurist debut at Art Lovers, M and some of his gang did a poetry reading at the Pink Lantern cabaret. He unveiled his poem, “Take that!” which begins: “In an hour, one by one, your flabby fat will ooze out into the alley.” And then, “Hey you there—you have some cabbage on your moustache, left over from your half-eaten soup,” and “You there—you’re so caked in makeup that you look like an oyster in a shell.” Again, fighting broke out and the police came to shut down the club.
This account from the memoirs of Ivan Bunin gives a good sense of what M’s performances were like. Here he describes meeting M at the opening of a Finnish art exhibition in Petrograd:
The “flower of the Russian intelligentsia” was there to a man: famous painters, actors, writers, ministers, deputies, and one high foreign diplomat, namely the French ambassador. I sat at supper with Gorky and the Finnish painter, Axel Gallen, and Mayakovsky began his performance by suddenly coming up to us, pushing a chair between ours and helping himself from our plates and drinking out of our glasses. Gallen stared at him spellbound, just as he would probably have stared if a horse had been led into the banquet hall . . . at that moment, Milyokov, our Foreign Minister at the time, rose for an official toast and Mayakovsky dashed towards him, to the centre of the table, jumped on a chair and shouted something so obscene that Milyukov was completely flabbergasted. After a moment, regaining his control, he tried to start his speech again, “Ladies and gentlemen . . . ” But Mayakovsky yelled louder than ever, and Milyukov shrugged his shoulders and sat down. Then the French ambassador rose to his feet. He was obviously convinced that the Russian hooligan would give in to him. What a hope! His voice was drowned by a deafening bellow from Mayakovksy. But this was not all. A wild and senseless pandemonium broke out. Mayakovsky supporters also began to yell, pounding their feet on the floor and their fists on the table. They screamed with laughter, whined, squeaked, snorted. But suddenly all this was quashed by a truly tragic wail of one of the Finns, a painter, who looked like a clean shaven sea-lion. Rather drunk, and pale as death, he had obviously been shaken to the core by this excess of misbehavior, and started to shout at the top of his voice, literally with tears in his eyes, one of the few Russian words he knew:
“Mnogo! Mno-go! Mno-go!” (“too much!”)9
And another account from one of M’s closest companions during his Futurist years, Benedikt Livshits:
At D’s apartment on the Moika . . . we met several colorless young men and well-gotten-up young ladies. The latter Mayakovsky treated, I don’t know by what right, like the members of his harem, though he had met them for the first time. At the table he peppered the hostess with cutting remarks, made fun of her husband, who was a quiet man and bore all of his insults without complaint…and when D., driving out of patience, dropped a remark about his filthy fingernails, he answered her with a frightful insult for which I thought we would all be asked to leave.10
Mayakovsky: A Tragedy
M ended the whirlwind year of 1913 by writing, producing and starring in his first dramatic work, Vladimir Mayakovsky: A Tragedy. Staged in St. Petersburg at the Luna Park Theater, M played the role of The Poet. All of the other characters (A Man without a Head, A Man with One Ear, A Man with One Eye and One Leg, The Man with Two Kisses, The Old Man with Old Dried-Out Black Cats, An Enormous Woman, A Woman with a Tear, A Woman with a Great Big Tear, etc.) appear as cardboard puppets, and each takes their turn either to admire or criticize the Poet. In the second act, The Poet takes center stage, adorned in a toga, crowned with a laurel wreath. He listens to each character’s tale of woe, collects their tears of stone, and, Christ-like, ascends to heaven. M was, in his own words, “booed to shreds,” and had to dodge the rotten fruit hurled at him. The play sold out every night.
The play is typical of of M’s 1913 ouevre: brazen, absurd, egotistical to the extreme, adolescent in its intent to shock and antagonize. But it works—because of the startling images, because of his technical skill, because of the novel manner in which he expresses the harshness of city, street and machine, and because of the immediacy and vitality of his language. M captivates with his readiness, at any point, to throw himself headlong over a cliff. He holds nothing back—everything is exposed and open to ridicule. Underneath this lies an impressive core of courage, self-conviction and inner strength—a wholehearted, almost unthinking determination to stand his ground against any onslaught.
The first poem is read by Mayakovsky himself, the latter two by his longtime lover Lili Brik, who inspired his greatest love poems (“Backbone Flute,” “About That,” Lilichka! Instead of a Letter,” etc.). She also served as a muse for Rodchenko, who used her as a model for book covers and advertisements. Along with her husband, Osip Brik, Lili was a major aid in managing, editing, and publishing M’s work.
In my translations, I have made no attempt to match the Russian rhyme or meter. Instead I tried to bring out the tone and meaning while staying as literal as possible. The background information above should help put the poems into context.
Listen to “And Could You?” read by Vladimir Mayakovsky
А вы могли бы?
Я сразу смазал карту будня,
плеснувши краску из стакана;
я показал на блюде студня
косые скулы океана.
На чешуе жестяной рыбы
прочел я зовы новых губ.
на флейте водосточных труб?
And could you?
Just now I smeared the map of the daily grind,
splashing paint out of a glass;
I revealed the sharp cheek-bones of the ocean
on a platter of jellied meat.
I read the summons of new lips
on the scales of a tin fish.
play a nocturne
on a drain-pipe flute?
Я сошью себе черные штаны
из бархата голоса моего.
Желтую кофту из трех аршин заката.
По Невскому мира, по лощеным полосам его,
профланирую шагом Дон-Жуана и фата.
Пусть земля кричит, в покое обабившись:
“Ты зеленые весны идешь насиловать!”
Я брошу солнцу, нагло осклабившись:
“На глади асфальта мне хорошо грассировать!”
Не потому ли, что небо голубо,
а земля мне любовница в этой праздничной чистке,
я дарю вам стихи, веселые, как би-ба-бо,
и острые и нужные, как зубочистки!
Женшины, любящие мое мясо, и эта
девушка, смотрящая на меня, как на брата,
закидайте улыбками меня, поэта,-
я цветами нашью их мне на кофту фата!
The Fop’s Smock
I’ll sew myself a pair of black trousers
from the velvet of my voice.
A yellow smock from three yards of sunset.
I’ll saunter along the Nevsky Prospect of the world,
along its polished strips,
with the step of Don Juan and a fop.
Let the earth, gone to seed from neglect, yell out:
“You’re going off to rape the green springs!”
I throw a taunt at the sun, grinning brazenly,
“It’s good to roll my r’s along
the smooth surface of asphalt!”
Isn’t it because the sky is blue
And the earth is my lover in this celebratory cleaning,
that I give you verses? Amusing ones, like bi-ba-bo,
and sharp and useful ones, like toothpicks.
Women, who love my flesh, and this
girl, looking at me like I’m her brother,
shower your smiles on me, the poet.
I’ll sew them onto my smock like flowers.
Listen to “The Fop’s Smock,” by V. Mayakovsky, read by Lili Brik
Из улицы в улицу
с окон бегущих домов
прыгнули первые кубы.
Лебеди шей колокольных,
гнитесь в силках проводов!
В небе жирафий рисунок готов
выпестрить ржавые чубы.
Пестр, как форель,
тянет из пасти трамвая,
скрыт циферблатами башни.
Лиф души расстегнули.
Тело жгут руки.
Кричи, не кричи:
«Я не хотела!» —
дымчатой шерсти клок.
From Street to Street
than years. O-
the first cubes leapt
from the windows of running houses.
Swans of bell necks
curve themselves in nooses of cables!
In the sky a cartoon giraffe is about
to show off motley rusty forelocks.
Dappled like a trout,
of unploughed fields.
hidden behind the clock tower faces,
is pulling rails
out of the streetcar’s mouth.
We’ve been conquered!
The bodice of the soul is undone.
Hands burn your body.
Go ahead and scream:
“I didn’t want to!”
The thorny wind
a clump of smoky wool
from a chimney.
A bald-headed street lamp
lasciviously pulls off
Listen to “From Street to Street,” by V. Mayakovsky, read by Lili Brik
2 Courtesy of his elder sister, Ludmila, who was able to bring him books and art supplies.
3 Alumni included: Kazimir Malevich, Natalia Goncharova, Vladimir Tatlin, Victor Palmov, Bakulina Lyudmila, Alexander Shevchenko, Konstantin Melnikov, Yelizaveta Zvantseva and Ilya Mashkov.
4 Among the groups Burliuk did shows with: Union of Youth, Jack of Diamonds, Hylaea and Blaue Reiter in Munich. Fellow exhibitors included Chagall, Klee, Picasso and Kandinsky. At one Jack of Diamonds exhibition, painters “decorated their own naked bodies and walked as works of art through Moscow’s streets.” Page 212, Natasha’s Dance, Orlando Figes.
5 Benedikt Livshits, The one and ½ eyed Archer, page 11.
6 The complacency and mendacity of daily life. M waged life long war against byt. In his last poem, composed shortly before he shot himself in the heart in 1930, he wrote: “the ship of our love is shattered on the rocky shores of the daily grind.”
7 A popular, talented and prolific writer of the Silver Age.
8 Mayakovsky had a lifelong fascination with electricity. In his short autobiography, I Myself, Mayakovsky wrote that after seeing a factory lit up at night, “. . . I lost all interest in nature. Not up to date enough.”
9 Memories and Portraits, John Lehmann, London 1951, Ivan Bunin.
10 Livshits, Polutoraglazyi strelets, page 124.
Buy issue #9, which includes this article, in PDF format here for just $5.95, or get the full-color print version via Amazon and select bookstores.