Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2185
Vladimir Mayakovsky’s poetry can be divided into three general categories. In the first group are the poems with political themes, often written on ephemeral occasions as everyday political exigencies demanded. These poems represent the weakest and indeed some of the silliest verses in his opus and are, for the most part, forgotten. The second group contains his serious revolutionary poems, in which he expressed his loyalty to the Revolution as a way of life and as “the holy washerwoman [who] will wash away all filth from the face of the earth with her soap.” There are some excellent poems in this group, for they reflect Mayakovsky’s undying faith in, and need for, an absolute that would give him strength to live and create, an absolute that he found in communism. Undoubtedly the best poems from the aesthetic point of view, however, are those from the third group, in which Mayakovsky writes about himself and his innermost feelings. These poems, which are more revealing of his true personality than all the loudly proclaimed utterances that made him famous, are the most likely to endure.
Mayakovsky’s development as a poet parallels closely his life experiences. As he was growing into a fiery young revolutionary, his early poetry reflected his ebullience and combative spirit. His first poems, contained in Futurist publications, revealed his intoxication with the enormous power of words, a spirit that informs his entire oeuvre. The Futurist movement offered Mayakovsky a suitable platform from which to shout his messages. Indeed, it is difficult to say whether he joined Futurism for its tenets or Futurism embraced his volcanic energy, both as a poet and an activist, for its own purposes. The Futurists conceived of art as a social force and of the artist as a spokesperson for his age. To this end, new avenues of expression had to be found in the form of a “trans-sense” language in which words are based not so much on their meaning as on sounds and form.
Ya and A Cloud in Pants
Much of Futurist dogma found in Mayakovsky an eager practitioner and an articulate spokesperson. His first serious work, a collection of four poems under the title Ya, already shows his intentions of “thrusting the dagger of desperate words/ into the swollen pulp of the sky.” His most important prerevolutionary work, the long poem A Cloud in Pants, begins as a lamentation about an unanswered love but later turns into a treatise on social ills, punctuated forcefully with slogans such as “Down with your love!” “Down with your art!” “Down with your social order!” “Down with your religion!” Such pugnacity corresponds closely to the irreverent rejection of the status quo in the Futurist manifesto “A Slap in the Face of the Public Taste”:The past is stifling. The Academy and Pushkin are incomprehensible hieroglyphs. We must throw Pushkin, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, etc. from the boat of modernity.
The title of the poem reveals Mayakovsky’s predilection for a striking metaphor: The cloud symbolizes the poet flying high above everything, while the trousers bring him down to Earth.
The poems Mayakovsky wrote during the Revolution bear more or less the same trademarks. The most characteristic of them, 150,000,000, was inspired by the American intervention in the Russian Civil War on the side of anti-Bolsheviks. It was published anonymously (the ruse did not work, though), as if 150 million Soviet citizens had written it. The central theme, the struggle between the East and the West, is depicted in a typically Mayakovskian fashion. The East is personified by Ivan (the most common Russian name), who has 150 million heads and whose arms are as long as the Neva River. The West is represented by President Woodrow Wilson, who wears a hat in the form of the Eiffel Tower. Undoubtedly the poet believed that the more grotesque the expression, the more effective the message. He sets the tone at the very beginning:
150,000,000 are the makers of this poem.Its rhythm is a bullet.Its rhyme is fire sweeping from building to building.150,000,000 speak with my lips.This edition is printedwith human stepson the paper of city squares.
The protagonist of the poem is in reality the masses, as in another work of this time, the play Mystery-bouffe, and in many other works by Mayakovsky. This tendency of the poet to lose himself behind the anonymity of collectivism runs alongside an equally strong tendency to place himself in the center of the universe and to have an inflated opinion of himself, as shown in “An Extraordinary Adventure,” where he invites the sun to a tea as an equally important partner in the process of creativity.
Supporting the Revolution
After the Revolution, Mayakovsky continued to help the regime establish itself, to contribute to the new literature in his country, and to feud with other literary groups. With the introduction of the New Economic Policy (NEP), however, which allowed a return to a modified, small-scale capitalism, Mayakovsky was among many supporters of the Revolution who felt that the ideals for which so much had been sacrificed were being betrayed. His opposition was somewhat muted; instead of attacking directly, he found a surrogate in the ever-growing bureaucracy. He also detected a resurgence of bourgeois and philistine habits, even among the party members and supporters of the regime, who, “callousing their behinds from five-year sittings,/ shiny-hard as washbasin toilets,” worried more about their raises and ball attire than about society’s welfare. In the poem “In Re Conferences,” he lashes out at the new malaise in the Russian society—incessant conferences, actually an excuse to evade work. At the same time, in “Order No. 2 to the Army of the Arts,” he exhorts artists to “give us a new form of art.” When Vladimir Ilich Lenin died in 1924, Mayakovsky wrote a long poem eulogizing the great leader, using this opportunity to reaffirm his loyalty to pure communism as personified by Lenin.
During this period, along with poetry on political themes, Mayakovsky wrote poems of an excruciatingly personal nature. The best illustration of this dichotomy in his personality, and one of the most dramatic and disturbing love poems in world literature, About That, reveals the poet’s unhappiness in his love affair with Lili Brik. More important, however, it lays bare his “agony of isolation, a spiritual isolation,” in the words of Helen Muchnic. Belaboring the nature of love, which he does on numerous occasions, the poet is forced to conclude that he is destined to suffer defeat after defeat in love, for reasons he cannot understand. He calls for help, he considers suicide, and he feels abandoned by all, even by those who are closest to him. In retrospect, one can see in these expressions of loneliness and despair signs of what was to come several years later.
Beyond the Soviet Union
For the time being, however, Mayakovsky found enough strength to continue his various activities and skirmishes with many enemies. A fateful decision was put off during his several trips abroad in the mid-1920’s. In poems resulting from these journeys, he was remarkably objective about the world outside the Soviet Union, although he never failed to mention his pride in being a Soviet citizen. In addition to predictable criticism of the evils of capitalist societies, he expressed his awe before the technical achievements of Western urban centers:
Herestood Mayakovsky,stoodcomposing verse, syllable by syllable.I stareas an Eskimo gapes at a train,I seize on itas a tick fastens to an ear.Brooklyn Bridge—yes . . .That’s quite a thing!
It was easy for Mayakovsky to voice such unrestrained praise for the “wonders” of the modern world, for he always believed that the urban life was the only way of life worth living.
The trips abroad, however, troubled Mayakovsky more than he acknowledged. In addition to another unhappy love affair, with the beautiful young Russian émigré Tatyana Yakovleva, he was disturbed by his firsthand experience of the West. After his return, he wrote several poems affirming his loyalty to the Soviet regime in a manner suggesting that he was trying to convince himself of his orthodoxy. It is difficult to ascertain, however, whether Mayakovsky was fully aware at this time of the depth of his obsequiousness and, if he was, why he wrote that way. Several years later, in At the Top of My Voice, which was written only three months before his suicide, he would admit the true nature of his submission: “But I/ subdued/ myself,/ setting my heel/ on the throat/ of my own song.”
Another long poem, Fine!, written to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the October Revolution, shows not only Mayakovsky’s compulsive optimism but also the signs that his poetic power was diminishing: “Life/ was really/ never/ so good!” he exclaims unabashedly.
In the cottages—farmer ladsBushy-beardscabbages.Dad’s restby the hearth.All of themcrafty.Plough the earth,makepoetry.
Such idyllic gushing may have reflected truthfully the poet’s feelings and observations in 1927, but it is remarkable that only a year or two later he would unleash in his plays a scathing criticism of the same land where “gladness gushes.” It is more likely that Mayakovsky wanted to believe what he had written or, more tragically, that he was writing in compliance with an order for a certain kind of poem.
Depression and suicide
Mayakovsky’s suicide in 1930 showed that everything was not all right, either in his personal life or in his country. Although the act surprised many people, even those professing to have been very close to him, keen observers had felt that Mayakovsky was riddled with morbid pessimism throughout his mature life, his loud rhetoric notwithstanding. Indeed, one could go as far back as 1913 to find, in his very first poem, words such as these: “I am so lonely as the only eye/ of a man on his way to the blind.” As early as 1916, in The Backbone Flute, he wondered whether he should end his life with a bullet. On another occasion at about that time, in “Chelovek” (“Man”), he stated bluntly:
The heart yearns for a bulletwhilethe throat raves of a razor. . . The soul shivers;she’s caught in ice,and there’s no escape for her.
In a poem discussed earlier, About That, he debates with himself whether he should follow the example of a member of the Communist Youth League who had committed suicide. In his last completed poem, At the Top of My Voice, he addresses his “most respected comrades of posterity” to explain what he had wanted to achieve in poetry, not trusting contemporary literary critics and historians to tell the truth. Among the incomplete poems found in his apartment after his death, there was a quatrain that may have been intended by Mayakovsky as a suicide note:
And, as they say, the incident is closed.Love’s boat has smashed against the daily grind.Now you and I are quits. Why bother thento balance mutual sorrows, pains, and hurts.
The word “love” in the second line was changed to “life” by Mayakovsky in a handwritten version of this stanza.
Whatever the reasons for his suicide, Mayakovsky’s death brought to an end a promising career that symbolized for a long time the birth of the new spirit in Russian literature. The eminent literary critic Roman Jakobson saw in his death the work of an entire generation that had squandered its poets. Boris Pasternak brought into focus a virtue of many Soviet writers, both well known and unsung, when he speculated that Mayakovsky “shot himself out of pride because he had condemned something in himself or around himself with which his self-respect could not be reconciled.” Placing the heavy hand of officialdom on the memory of the poet who had spent half of his life fighting insensitive officials, Joseph Stalin praised him belatedly: “Mayakovsky was and remains the best and most talented poet of our Soviet epoch. Indifference to his memory and his work is a crime.”
Versification and neologisms
The work of this great poet will survive both his human weaknesses and the vagaries of the time and place in which he had to create. Although Mayakovsky was not the first in Russian poetry to use free verse, he wrote it with a verve unequaled before or after him. He rhymes sparingly and unconventionally. He seldom divides verses into stanzas; instead, he breaks them into units according to their inner rhythm, producing a cascading effect.
Another strong feature of Mayakovsky’s verse is the abundant use of neologisms; there is an entire dictionary of expressions created by him. Mayakovsky also used slang with abandon, deeming any expression acceptable if it suited his purpose; he is credited with bringing the language of the street into Russian poetry. The sound of his verse is richly textured—indeed, his poems are better heard than read.
When this richness of style is added to his original approach to poetry and to his thought-provoking subject matter, the picture of Mayakovsky as one of the most important and exciting poets of the twentieth century is complete.
Unlock This Study Guide Now
Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.
- 30,000+ book summaries
- 20% study tools discount
- Ad-free content
- PDF downloads
- 300,000+ answers
- 5-star customer support