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...
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