Article abstract: Mayakovsky was the poet laureate of the Russian Revolution. Celebrating the modern technological age, he became the voice of the masses. Combining propaganda and innovative poetic techniques, he created sweeping epics, mass spectacles, and dramatic slogans that brought a vibrant literature to the people in the streets.
Vladimir Vladimirovich Mayakovsky, born in Bagdadi, Georgia, was an unpromising student who became involved in revolutionary activities early in his life. When his family moved to Moscow, the young Mayakovsky became fascinated with the spectacle of the 1905 Revolution. At the age of fourteen, he joined the Bolshevik Party and was arrested for revolutionary activities. In prison, he started to write poetry and to learn the power of literature. Mayakovsky eventually rechanneled his revolutionary zeal in the direction of creating socialist art and enrolled in the Moscow Institute of Painting, Sculpture, and Art, where he was introduced to modern art by David Burlyuk, an expressionist turned cubist. He also joined the Futurist movement, whose principles he was to embrace for the rest of his life. Mayakovsky supported the Futurists in their call for a dynamic art that would separate itself from the literature of the romantic past and celebrate the urban landscape. Dressed in conspicuous outfits, Mayakovsky went on tour reciting his poetry and giving lectures on art. These performances provided excellent training for his future role as an artistic ambassador for the Soviet Union. In his early poetry, he experimented with unmelodious sounds, distorted syntax, unusual words, bizarre figures of speech, and hyperbolic images. In 1913, he wrote, directed, and acted in his first drama, Vladimir Mayakovsky (1913; English translation, 1968). The play is a monodrama in which there is essentially only one character—Mayakovsky, the suffering poet; all the other characters are dreamlike reflections of various elements of his ego. A plotless series of long interior monologues written in fractured verse, this early drama introduced some of the themes and techniques that he would develop in his later works. It calls for the destruction of past cultures, concentrates on images of urban technology, presents a future-oriented vision, introduces the themes of martyrdom and suicide, and hints at a revolution to come.
In 1913, Mayakovsky also became associated with the literary theorist Osip Brik and fell in love with Osip’s wife Lili. The Briks aided him in his career as a Futurist poet, and his love for Lili inspired many of his poems. In fact, she inspired his first epic poem, Oblako v shtanakh (1915; A Cloud in Pants). In this poem, the poet starts with an incident of rejected love and builds to scenes of crucifixion and martyrdom. In “Chelovek” (“Man”), published in 1916, Mayakovsky explores cosmic themes in the form of a parody of the life of an orthodox saint. This poem paved the way for the cosmic sweep of his later poetry. Mayakovsky was already a poet with a mission, and the Russian Revolution gave him a platform from which to convey his message.
Mayakovsky was a poet of the Revolution. From propaganda slogans to epic poems, from poetry readings to mass spectacles, Mayakovsky was imbued with the ideas of the Revolution. He even called it “my Revolution.” During the Revolution, he joined in the Futurists’ program to take art into the streets and to bring it directly to the masses. Between 1918 and 1921, he created poster art with poetic captions.
In order to reach the people more effectively, he turned to theater. On November 7, 1918, in collabration with the avant-garde director Vsevolod Meyerhold, Mayakovsky commemorated the first anniversary of the Revolution with his second play Misteriya-buff (1918; Mystery-Bouffe, 1933). In this play, he parodies a medieval mystery cycle. In true propaganda style, Mayakovsky caricatures the enemies of Communism: the greedy capitalist, the compromising Mensheviks, the inactive intellectuals, and the Soviet merchants. Along with Meyerhold, Mayakovsky helped to transform the stage from a two-dimensional, photographic representation of reality into a constructivist circus.
During this period, Mayakovsky continued to create moving epic poetry. In 150,000,000 (1920; English translation, 1949), Mayakovsky pits the giant Ivan, a symbol for 150,000,000 cold, hungry, desperate Russians, against the grotesque capitalist warrior, Woodrow Wilson, who sinks to the bottom of the sea. In Pro eto (1923; About That, 1965), he transforms a story of rejected love into an agon on his martyrdom and his resurrection in a futuristic world. This love poem shows his ability to elevate personal tragedy to the level of the messianic. In his greatest epic, Vladimir Illich Lenin (1924; English translation, 1939), he mixes comic and...
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