The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Listen!” is one of several short lyric poems of existential questioning by Vladimir Mayakovsky that appeared in the first issue of Pervyi zhurnal russkikh futuristov (First Journal of the Russian Futurists) in 1914. The poem combines youthful angst about the writer’s insignificance in the vast universe with a self-assured mastery of his idiom and technique. In the preceding year, Mayakovsky had published his first lyric collection and had produced and starred in an autobiographical play in verse, Vladimir Mayakovsky. In “Listen!” Mayakovsky entertains the possibility, somewhat perversely for a Futurist who rejected all of humankind’s past beliefs, that there is a God, arguing, from the ancient position, that God must have set the stars in the sky.

Mayakovsky makes an appeal to pure intuition for proof of the existence of God: He begins three lines of his thirty-line poem with “You know” (ved’ in Russian), a nervous, rhetorical colloquialism sometimes left untranslated and sometimes translated as “surely?” The appeal to intuition is continued in five more lines, all beginning with “That means,” another nervous colloquialism that urges causality, connection, or equivalence. Thus:

You know—if they light up the stars—That means—somebody needs them?It means—someone wants...

(The entire section is 533 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Listen!” is a short but complex work. Its level of technical control makes the categorization of free verse almost irrelevant, although the poem does not follow traditional rules of versification. It is divided into three parts: the introduction, the body, and the conclusion. The first and last parts mirror each other like the aba form of a classical sonata movement. The rhythmic structure consists of a mixture of feet and lines of varying lengths. Feet of three syllables tend to predominate, with the key word “Listen” being a dactyl in the original. However, Mayakovsky builds up tension with feet of four, then five, then six syllables, always with a stress on the final beat. He then delivers punchlines of a single word for further contrast. Trochees are also used to provide a cross-rhythm to the polysyllabic feet, as if working against them. While not perfectly regular, a structure clearly emerges from the alternation of lines of increasing length and lines of a single word.

The one-word lines acquire a lyrical, expressive prominence: “Listen,” “Sobs,” “Begs,” “Swears,” and “Yes.” Each of the exceedingly long lines gives prominence to its final word, which contains the long-awaited stress. Mayakovsky is able to create a rhyme scheme that utilizes much longer jumps from rhyme to rhyme than are found in traditional poetry. His rhymes are not perfect but tend toward assonance. The word “star” (zvezdá) rhymes boldly with “yes” (da) and again with itself across cosmic gaps in space. In his advice to aspiring proletarian poets in Kak delat’ stikhi? (1926; How Are Verses Made?, 1970), Mayakovsky observed: “Without rhyme (understanding the word in a wide sense) poetry falls to pieces.”

Parallel constructions are underlined by the very structure of Russian and have long been prominent in Russian style. They have a strong role to play in Mayakovsky’s work. With parallels at both the beginnings and the ends of lines, and with the end of the poem reflecting its beginning, this poem could scarcely be more highly structured despite its use of free verse. On the finer scale of sound, Mayakovsky’s use of alliteration provides the final organizing factor. In the Russian, the sound “z” shines forth, beginning with “star” itself and echoing in the repeated words “light up” and “that means.” Other alliterations deliberately restrict the poem’s palette of sound, focusing meaning with impassioned intensity.