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...
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