Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1316

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Futurism was founded in 1910 by Viktor (Velemir) Khlebnikov, who was primarily interested in etymology. Under Khlebnikov’s leadership, the Futurists created a “trans-verse” language, one which separated words from their meanings and made their sound value all-important. The only kind of meaning a trans-verse poem might have would be a certain suggestive and admittedly very elusive quality. But perhaps more than an experiment with language, Futurism was the natural revolt from Symbolism.

The Symbolist movement had been strong from 1894 to 1910, during which time such poets as Bely and Blok had expounded a personal retreat from reality. They spoke of a rather closed mysticism and its aestheticist cult of pure beauty which had to be preceded by separation from, and unconcern for, all the events of daily life. The Futurists scorned the Symbolist ideals and followed the realities of modern life. But they went much further than simply presenting a new alternative to the Symbolist interpretation of life. Their aim was to shock the bourgeois at any cost. The Futurist Manifesto of 1912, signed by Khlebnikov, Kruchonykh, Mayakovsky, and Burlyuk, was entitled “A Slap in the Face of Public Taste.” It called the entire cultural tradition of the past stifling and insufferable. Pushkin, Dostoevski, and Tolstoy were to be thrown aside by the modern trends. The manifesto also called for hatred of the previously used language of literature and for an enrichment of the vocabulary by words arbitrarily chosen.

Although Russian Futurism was an offshoot of Italian Futurism founded by Marinelli, it had little in common with the Italian movement. Russian Futurists wanted to depict twentieth century life, but they deplored war and laid emphasis on technology. After the 1917 Revolution the Futurists, of all the writers and poets, gained the foremost position in Russian literary society, and their most outstanding representative was Vladimir Mayakovsky.

Although Mayakovsky had signed the 1912 Futurist Manifesto, he did not personally advocate Khlebnikov’s “trans-sense” language. The words Mayakovsky invented were not based purely on sound effect; they consisted, rather, of a free and imaginative use of prefixes and suffixes producing blends that were both new and readily comprehensible. In all his poems Mayakovsky used rhyme freely and deliberately created distorted echoes, often extending a single rhyme to four or more syllables involving several words. His poetry tends to have a constant number of stresses to the line but an irregular number of unstressed syllables. Above all, Mayakovsky’s poetry was meant to be read aloud, and in his own public readings he gave these meters the rhythm of a drum beat or a march cadence.

Mayakovsky wrote primarily in two genres: that of political patriotic poems and that of love lyrics. He had accepted the October Revolution wholeheartedly, and between 1918 and 1920 he wrote thousands of jingles for propaganda posters. In his more formal political poems he satirized the enemies of the Revolution. In “Our March” he passionately denounced the bureaucrats and philistines of the new order. In 150,000,000, Ivan, the essence of the Russian people, crosses the Atlantic to fight a hand-to-hand battle with Woodrow Wilson. Written during the American intervention in the Russian Civil War, the poem used Wilson as a symbol of the capitalist West. In “Paris” the poet tells the Eiffel Tower to instigate a revolution and then journey to Moscow where she will be given better care than in the West.

During the early 1920’s Mayakovsky continued to write short propaganda verses in support of socialist reform and government control. Although this was his main preoccupation, he did manage to produce some lyrical poems. One of Mayakovsky’s earliest love poems was “The Cloud in Trousers” in which the poet calls a fire brigade to extinguish his burning heart. “I Love” is a poem to Lily Brik, wife of Osip Brik, a critic and editor. In it Mayakovsky states that hearts are found in a person’s chest, but that anatomy made a mistake and he is a tingling heart from head to toe. In 1923, Lily left Mayakovsky for another man. “About That” is a desperate lament over her infidelity.

Mayakovsky was well aware of the poet’s conflict between devotion to personal themes and to Communism. In the poem “Letter from Paris to Comrade Kostrov on the Nature of Love,” the poet claims that such a man as Kostrov cannot understand or prevent a poet’s passion. He declares that to the last beat of his heart he will sing simple and human love. In 1925, Mayakovsky undertook a long trip to western Europe and America which resulted in a critical account of his life under capitalism, MY DISCOVERY OF AMERICA. Although he admired American technology, he felt it was not exclusively beneficial, and he criticized capitalism as breeding inequality and injustice. On returning to the Soviet Union, Mayakovsky wrote the long poem “All Right” which, without reservation, praised Soviet progress. “Black and White,” written during the same period, is a rather biting poem inspired during his Mexican tour. In it he asserts that the white man eats the ripe, juicy pineapples, the black man the weather-rotted fruit; that the white man gets the best jobs, the black man only back-breaking labor.

With his two satirical plays, THE BEDBUG and THE BATHHOUSE, written in the late 1920’s, Mayakovsky again directed his attention to political and social themes. But the picture of Soviet society that emerges in them is far from positive. In the first part of THE BEDBUG the main character, a vulgar and repulsive official, has power and a standard of living beyond his deserts simply because he owns a Party card. In the second part, set in 1978, sex, romance, vodka, and tobacco no longer exist, and the protagonist has become a zoological curiosity. In this dehumanized world of the future, this repulsive figure becomes a tragic hero searching for love in a loveless state. THE BATHHOUSE is a grotesque satire against bureaucracy in the Soviet state.

During the last years of his life Mayakovsky abandoned Bolshevism. He began to feel increasingly that in the new era love was a discarded fiction and his own efforts, a rejected martyrdom. In his last important poem, the unfinished “At the Top of My Voice,” Mayakovsky pointed up what he saw as his intentional self-sacrifice to the aspirations of the Revolution, saying that he had subdued himself, trampling on the throat of his song. What had been a craving for melodrama and anarchy turned to tragedy when, on April 14, 1930, Mayakovsky killed himself.

Four years earlier, in the poem “To Sergei Esenin,” on the occasion of that poet’s suicide, Mayakovsky had written that it is not hard to die; to shape life is more difficult. In 1927, Mayakovsky said he had written this poem not to glorify the beauty of death but to celebrate life and the joy to be found along the most difficult of all roads, the road leading toward Communism.

It has been said that Mayakovsky’s tragedy lay in his writing lyric poems in an unlyrical era. Whether this is true or not, Mayakovsky was, finally, overcome by depression and gloom. In his own suicide note he enjoined his comrades not to think him weak-spirited. There was nothing else he could do. Soviet critics denounced his suicide as a bourgeois act, but they have since changed their minds. Today Mayakovsky is considered the greatest poet of the Soviet Revolution, remembered not so much for his ideas as for the spirit of his verse. His ideas are often superficial or naive, and his propaganda poems after the Revolution are inferior to his other work. But in the intensity and spirit of his lyrical poems he does justify his occupation of the place history has accorded him. Of the utter loneliness of unrequited love he speaks with a moving blend of self-pity and tenderness. But he is at his best in those verses that are at once coarse, lyrical, and passionate.