Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2443
Mayakovsky passed through a number of literary movements and styles in his brief life. He was first associated with Futurism. The movement exalted the machine and rejected symbolism and the “cult of beauty,” along with most traditional poetic styles. Its origins were in Fascism in Italy. Mayakovsky had difficulties throughout his later career because of his previous connection with the very uncommunist Futurism. The dominant art movement in the Soviet Union was Socialist Realism. To be a Futurist was to be condemned to obscurity, or worse.
Some of Mayakovsky’s most enduring and important influences were British and American. A number of his poems are direct echoes of the poetry of Walt Whitman. Whitman’s declaration of the poet’s selfhood was very much like Mayakovsky’s solipsistic focus on the “I” in his poems. Another influence was the British poet George Gordon, Lord Byron. Byron’s exaltation of the self and of the heroic stance can also be found in many poems of Mayakovsky. A Cloud in Pants has a dramatized self that comes directly out of the tradition of Whitman and Byron.
Mayakovsky’s two main subjects are love and revolution. Often they are yoked together in strange ways. Both were seen by Mayakovsky as essential for the fullest life, and both are principles of transformation. Sometimes a social transformation is only mentioned at the end of the poem, and although it claims to resolve conflicts it is not a strong presence in the poem. Mayakovsky consistently rejects religion, especially Christianity. Saviors do appear in his poems but they are social ones, or the poet himself appears as a Christ figure. Traditional religion was, to Mayakovsky, a tool of reactionary interests and a power that rejected any experimental art.
In 1924, he published an elegiac poem on the death of Lenin, Vladimir Ilich Lenin, translated into English in 1939. This effort was highly praised by the authorities, in contrast to their reaction against so many other poems of Mayakovsky. Mayakovsky, however, did use the poem to protest against creating a cult of personality around the dead Lenin. He believed that there should be no statues or mausoleum but that the deeds of Lenin—and the poet—should live in the people. Joseph Stalin would soon create a cult of personality about Lenin that exceeded Mayakovsky’s worst fears.
In addition to the poem on Lenin, Mayakovsky wrote a number of directly political, or agitprop, poems. One example is 150,000,000, a poem whose rhythm is supplied by “bullets,” and of which “no one is the author.” The poem arises from the people; for once, Mayakovsky eliminates his ego from the poem.
Mayakovsky often wrote against the philistines of his own society. The philistines were those who rejected art or the artist, or those who found a safe niche in the bureaucracy of the Soviet Union. They are the enemies the heroic poet is fighting against in poems such as Vo ves’ golos (1930; At the Top of My Voice, 1940). He was not able to defeat them.
One other important subject in the poems is suicide. Mayakovsky dramatized his suicide beginning with some of his earliest poems. It was as if he were rehearsing it in verse until it finally came true. This pattern is another side of the egotistic romantic poet. Mayakovsky liked to portray himself as being on the verge of self-destruction. One reason was that he believed he did not receive the recognition he deserved as a poet. Whether it was the rejection by leaders such as Stalin and Lenin or the opposition of philistine bureaucrats, he believed that the Soviet Union’s artistic environment was not fruitful for him. Yet his art was in large part about the Soviet Union that the revolution had brought into being. The Russian language was his tool and the Russian people his subject.
Mayakovsky’s idiomatic style is hard to appreciate in English translations, but some aspects of it do come through. He ignored traditional Russian metrics and broke his lines into smaller units, often arbitrarily. He preserved rhyme, although often his rhymes are used for comic or satiric effect. Also notable is his use of common or vulgar words. To use a word such as “pants,” let alone to include it in the title of the poem, was startling at the time. Mayakovsky often invented words or neologisms and used them as rhymes or to comic effect in poems.
Mayakovsky’s poetic structures are loose and rambling, although they do have a clear thematic organization. In About That, for example, the need of rescuing a man on a bridge brings a focus to the various actions that the speaker performs in the poem. He searches—and fails to find—someone in all of Moscow to save him. A Cloud in Pants is organized around four cries against ideals that have failed: love, art, revolution, and religion. Each section is very loose and rambling, but there is an overall plan.
Mayakovsky uses a number of repeated image patterns or clusters in his poems. The poems are filled, for example, with images of animals. Mayakovsky often portrays himself comically as an animal such as a bear. Another image pattern is the city. He was one of the earliest poets to focus on the city as a subject for poetry. He includes lists of streets and specific addresses in Moscow in his poems, even the phone number of Lili Brik.
A Cloud in Pants
First published: Oblako v shtanakh, 1915 (English translation, 1945)
Type of work: Poem
The poet cries out against the failure of love, poetry, revolution, and religion as ideals.
A Cloud in Pants was Mayakovsky’s first important poem, and it was immediately recognized by critics, especially Maxim Gorky, as a new direction in Russian poetry. The speaker, style, and structure were very different from traditional Russian poetry.
The poem begins with a prologue that announces the theme and presents the hero—the speaker of the poem—who is a “handsome,/ twenty-two year old.” The celebration of self in that description comes directly out of Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself.” The speaker has a divided nature; he shifts and changes throughout the poem. He can be “furious” or “extraordinarily gentle.” He is not a man but rather a cloud in pants.
Part 1 of the poem deals with the speaker’s unrequited love for Maria, whom he met “in Odessa.” He stresses the “fact” of that meeting; the relationship is not poetic fantasy. She was to meet him at four but failed to come and so he is thrown into despair. In an unusual metaphor, his “nerve” dances so madly that the ceiling crashes down. Maria enters only to announce that she is getting married. The marriage is one of convenience, not love; she has been bought or stolen. He then compares himself to a volcano. Like a volcano, he is most dangerous when he is “absolutely calm.” In a last exaggerated metaphor, his heart is a building that is on fire; firefighters are called to extinguish the blaze but have little effect. At the end of the section, he utters: “My last cry/ you, at least,/ shriek through the ages that I’m ablaze.”
In part 2 of the poem, he defines his poetry as rooted in the street; he rejects the romantic language and pose of the usual poet. The nail in his boot has more meaning to him than all the books in the world. He then portrays his own history as a Futurist who was rejected by the people. He becomes a crucified Jesus. If poetry has failed him, he will “tear out my soul for you,/ to make it big/ stamp on it!/ and hand it to you, bloodstained as a banner.” The banner is the banner of revolution, which Mayakovsky predicted would come in 1916. He later cut this only slightly incorrect forecast out of the poem.
Part 3 of the poem deals with that revolution. First, he rejects love and the poetry that celebrates it and, for a moment, is in harmony with the universe. The world is soon disrupted, however, by repressive murderers, such as Galliffet, who killed the supporters of the Paris Commune. A revolutionary future will follow these and other deaths, and the poet’s verses will become sacred symbols that will be used to christen children.
The last part of the poem returns to Maria; the speaker fruitlessly asks her for love and refuge. If she cannot love him, is God love? No, he is “only an illiterate puny little godlet.” His challenge to God is met only with silence. “The universe sleeps/ resting on its paws,/ with ticks of stars, an enormous ear.” The metaphor deflates the infinite to a mangy and flea-bitten dog that can neither frighten nor help anyone.
First published: Pro eto, 1923 (English translation, 1965)
Type of work: Poem
Love for a specific person grows into universal love and brotherhood.
The prologue suggests the theme of the poem—love. Mayakovsky insisted on writing on what was an unpopular theme in Russia in 1923. He describes the theme as a universal one; it will “erupt in a fury—having dared to repress it.” He never uses the word “love,” however, to identify the theme; it remains an ellipsis that the reader has to fill in.
Section 1 is titled “The Ballad of Reading Gaol.” The speaker of the poem is imprisoned in his apartment in Moscow as Oscar Wilde was in Reading Gaol. The first reference is not to imprisonment but to saving the man on the bridge over the Neva. The man is about to commit suicide. The poem then shifts to the speaker’s unsuccessful attempt to contact Lili Brik on the telephone. This unrequited love turns him into an animal, a polar bear who is howling. In his cold room, he becomes even more isolated; he is “Clambering on the ice-floe,/ a white polar-bear,/ on my ice-flow pillow I float by.” He returns to the man on the Neva. The man is clearly the poet himself, who is crying for help. The next section is called “Xmas Eve,” and it portrays the speaker wandering around Moscow and being insulted by passersby. A “Savior” appears in the form of a member of the Young Communist League, but he too is caught up with “the gypsy love song” and contemplates suicide, so he is of no help to the beleaguered poet.
The poem then shifts to the poet’s family; they welcome him, but they think his demand to rescue the man over the Neva is madness. Family can offer no help.
The last section of the poem, “A Petition Addressed To. . .,” redefines the Christian gospel. “Faith” deals with the afterlife; the speaker first thinks it an easy task to go from death “into the life ideal.” It is not God who will accomplish this, however, but a scientist who may or may not resurrect the speaker. The section ends in a plea for, rather than the achievement of, resurrection. “Hope” sounds close to despair: “My earthly life I never lived out to the end./ On earth,/ my love I never could fulfill.” The speaker is willing to accept a love that may not be fulfilled: “Let it be. . ./ you live and pain becomes dear.” “Love,” the last section, ends the poem on a more positive note. His love will be resurrected, and if only for his faithful love, he also will be resurrected and joined with his beloved. This love, however, expands into the world and will “flood the universe.” There will be no “victims” and “our father,/ at least, will be the world,/ the earth,/ at the very least—our mother.” Love for one person becomes a larger revolutionary social principle that makes the whole world a sustaining family.
At the Top of My Voice
First published: Vo ves’ golos, 1930 (English translation, 1940)
Type of work: Poem
The poem is a spirited defense of the poet’s life and work that lapses into despair at the end.
At the Top of My Voice is divided into two parts. In a subtitle, the poem is called a “First Prelude to a Poem on the Five Year Plan,” which suggests that the poem is about Stalin’s controversial economic plan. It might more accurately, however, be called a defense of the life and work of Vladimir Mayakovsky. Part 1 describes the survival of Mayakovsky’s work after the “petrified s——t” of the centuries has been removed. The speaker describes his poetic function as a “cesspool cleaner” who has been “mobilised and drafted/ by revolution.” His poetry has not been lyrical, but “my pages of fighters;/ pass in review.” He uses military metaphors rather than ones drawn from nature. His poetry is rooted in the triumph of the revolution. He learned “dialectics” not from Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel but from actual conflict.
As in the Lenin poem, he rejects any statues of himself, calling them “marble slime.” Instead, he is to have a “common monument” with all the “brothers and mates” who fought for the revolution. The first part of the poem ends with a demand to “step hard on the throttle” for the five year plan. The poet is content with “clean-laundered shirts,” no greater honors are necessary. In a defiant final declaration he offers a defense of his life: “I’ll lift up high,/ like a Bolshevik party-card,/ all the hundred volumes/ of my/ Com Party books.” Mayakovsky did not possess a Communist Party card; that honor was given to the bureaucrats who served Stalin. Mayakovsky’s works, however, will entitle him to a higher and truer honor.
Part 2 of the poem is unfinished, fragmentary, and very different in tone. It was as if Mayakovsky had given up the possibility of winning favor from such a corrupt government. He hopes only that “shameful common-sense” does not ever come to him. He will no longer badger his colleagues in the party with “express telegrams.” The struggle no longer has meaning, “The love-boat of life/ has crashed on philistine reefs./ You and I/ are quits.” In the last section, he declares his faith in the power of his poetry. “I know the power of words.” Words can make “coffins” burst from the earth and stride forth. The powerful may “reject” him and he may remain “unpublished, unprinted.” The power of his words, however, will live on in the centuries to come. The last line and sentence of the poem, however, were not completed. Mayakovsky had, apparently, given up his belief in the power of words to alter his situation in the Stalinist Soviet Union. He would soon commit suicide.
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