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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2037

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.

Early...

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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.

Early Life

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.

Life’s Work

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 epic styles to celebrate the sweep of history. The use of cosmic imagery, the archetypal pattern of death and resurrection, the visions of futuristic worlds, and the interweaving of hard-hitting polemics with intricate poetry won for Mayakovsky national fame as an epic poet.

Mayakovsky soon became the artistic ambassador for the Soviet Union. In this capacity, he traveled throughout Germany, France, Eastern Europe, and the United States promoting Communism, speaking out for his brand of Soviet art, and writing travelogues and poems. He also established several journals and organizations to promote his own artistic programs. In his journal Lef, he proclaimed the need to slough off the decadent bourgeois culture and to create a proletarian art. His line “Time Forward March!” became the battle cry for the revolutionary art that would lead humanity into a new age of technology. When Lef went out of circulation, Mayakovsky created New Lef to restate his position. Again, he called for an art that was utilitarian but still avant-garde, attacking Maxim Gorky and other noted Soviet authors for their return to heroic and realistic depictions of Soviet life.

Mayakovsky also tried to move theater away from psychological realism. By 1927, however, the tide of Soviet politics was changing. Soviet society was searching for stability, and revolutionary art was giving way to Socialist Realism. Critics attacked Mayakovsky’s art as bombastic and bohemian and accused him of lacking sincerity and concern for individual human problems. He met his critics head on with the production of Klop (1929; The Bedbug, 1931), a play in which the enemies of socialism are depicted as grotesque caricatures. In the character Oleg Bayan, Mayakovsky lampooned Vladimir Sidorov and other reactionary poets of his time, who not only saw their doubles on stage but also demanded an apology. He also satirized the Soviet program of modified capitalism (the so-called New Economic Policy) in his depiction of a beauty parlor and in his caricatures of hawking merchants peddling everything from lampshades to sausage balloons. In The Bedbug, Mayakovsky emphasized overt theatricalism over realism. In the Meyerhold production, actors marched through the audience hawking bras while the set consisted of everything from kitsch art to multimedia scenery. Mayakovsky had created a theater of public spectacle that included everything from temperance propaganda to clown acts. Banya (1930; The Bathhouse, 1963), Mayakovsky’s last play produced within his lifetime, was his most vicious attack on his contemporaries, especially those in the Soviet bureaucracy. Everywhere in the play there were official bureaus with lengthy acronyms, but nothing ever got done. In the third act, he used the play-within-a play device to satirize the realistic school of the Moscow Art Theater as well as the poetic style of the Russian ballet theater. Mayakovsky reduced the objects of his satire to grotesque types, broke with fourth-wall realism, and tried to jar his audience into the action. Again Mayakovsky tried to create a theater of spectacle that would magnify, not mirror reality. The play angered many in the literary establishment and closed after three performances.

In his last great poem, Vo ves golos (1930; At the Top of My Voice, 1940), Mayakovsky depicted himself as he had always depicted himself: as a poet of the future, a poet of the people, and a poet of the Communist Party, loyal to the cause. Having been refused an exit visa, despondent over the boycott of a retrospective exhibition of his work, and disillusioned over the failure of The Bathhouse, Mayakovsky shot himself on April 14, 1930. In his suicide note, he wrote that he did not want to list his grievances; instead, he proclaimed: “Night has imposed a starry tribute on the sky/ It is in such hours that one rises and speaks to/ the ages, history, and the universe.” To the end, Mayakovsky was a poet with a revolutionary vision.

Summary

Vladimir Mayakovsky was indeed the poet of the Revolution. As a member of the Futurist movement, he broke with the heroic literature of the past and the sentimentality of bourgeois realism to fight for a democratic art that would allow the free word of the creative personality to be “written on the walls, fences, and streets of the cities.” He wanted a new form of poetry that would cry out to the people, abandon traditional imagery, praise the urban landscape, and hail the coming of the utopian commune. To accomplish this artistic revolution, Mayakovsky created a literature that eschewed the notion of absolute value and eternal beauty and spoke directly to the masses—a literature that produced poetic devices that were based more on their ability to propagandize than on their ability to create aesthetic embellishments.

As a dramatist, Mayakovsky, with the aid of the director Vsevolod Meyerhold, revolutionized modern theater. He brought the action of the drama into the audience, breaking the bonds of keyhole realism. He also replaced realistic characters with grotesque figures—slapstick clowns bouncing across constructivist three-dimensional sets composed of ropes, grids, and platforms. In essence, he created a theater of spectacle.

Upon his death, Mayakovsky was accorded a state funeral; he was widely mourned. In 1938, Joseph Stalin proclaimed him one of the most important socialist poets. In the Soviet Union, both a town and a square were named for him. Today, he is one of the most highly acclaimed Soviet poets, and his influence has reached beyond the Soviet Union.

Bibliography

Brown, Edward J. Mayakovsky: A Poet in the Revolution. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1973. The first major critical biography of Mayakovsky in English. The book shows a close connection between Mayakovsky’s life and his works. It provides close readings of Mayakovsky’s major and minor works and even focuses on his didactic verse. Most important, it examines Mayakovsky’s work in context with the social, political, and artistic revolutions that helped to structure his artistic vision. Contains an annotated bibliography of works by and on Mayakovsky.

Shklovsky, Viktor. Mayakovsky and His Circle. Edited and translated by Lily Feiler. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1972. A tribute to Mayakovsky by a close associate and intimate friend. The book not only covers the relationship between Shklovsky and Mayakovsky but also focuses on the other figures in the Futurist movement in Russia. Although it promotes Shklovsky’s Formalist bias, it is a good firsthand account of Mayakovsky’s development as a poet as well as a history of the artistic revolutions in Russia from 1910 to 1930.

Stapanian, Juliette R. Mayakovsky’s Cubo-Futurist Vision. Houston: Rice University Press, 1986. An analysis of Mayakovsky’s poetry in the light of developments in the fine arts during the early part of the twentieth century. Stapanian shows a correlation between Mayakovsky’s poetic techniques and the artistic styles of the cubist and the Futurist painters. She demonstrates how the images in his poems mirror the fractured and multidimensional images in Cubo-Futurist art.

Terras, Victor. Vladimir Mayakovsky. Boston: Twayne, 1983. An excellent critical introduction to Mayakovsky. The book provides a clear, well-organized biographical sketch of Mayakovsky’s life followed by a close analysis of his major works. Terras defines critical terms, traces the history of artistic movements, and provides a clear critical assessment of Mayakovsky’s works. The book also contains a comprehensive checklist of Mayakovsky’s work and an annotated bibliography of secondary sources.

Woroszylski, Wiktor. The Life of Mayakovsky. Translated by Boleslaw Taborski. New York: Orion Press, 1970. A translation of a 1966 work by a Polish poet. The book is an encyclopedic compendium of documentary sources on Mayakovsky’s life and work, including police reports, personal letters, impressions of close associates, and interviews with intimate friends—all interspersed with samples of Mayakovsky’s poetry. It is a good reference work for someone looking for primary source material, but it does not present a clear perspective for the reader who is unfamiliar with Mayakovsky’s work.

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