Reading Volodya, a selection of Vladimir Mayakovsky’s poetry and prose, is a way of sharing the incendiary longing for revolt that fuelled the October Revolution of 1917 and sustained its revolutionary fervour until life was squeezed out of it by Stalin’s repressive regime.
Mayakovsky writes with verve and oomph, not with sentimentality or facile emotions. At its best, the restless exuberance of his poetry is John Coltrane’s jazz put into verse form. This is not a book for those who prefer their poetry to float cosily above the rough and tumble of social conflict.
Mayakovsky was an activist who put his creativity to work on behalf of revolutionary change in all spheres of life.
In the storm-and-stress verse of “A cloud of trousers” (1915), his tub-thumping helps explains why Lenin called him a ‘hooligan communist’ but in the early 1920s he worked for a State department, drawing and captioning posters and drawings.
He captioned them with slogans and jingles – some examples are reproduced in Volodya – and writes a playful poem about his work. He berates the sun for unrelenting summer heat while he sweats at work but the sun engages him in conversation and defends the task he is charged with:
Do you think it’s easy, shining every day, just try it.
You move along
since move you must:
you move – and shine your eyes out.
He also writes love poems and confessional ones, reflecting aspects of his bohemian life and his relationship with Lilya Brik.
Everything comes together in his epic poem ‘Vladimir Ilyich Lenin’, and Volodya ‘s extract is the last part, written in 1924 after the death of the Bolshevik leader.
When he read it to a packed hall of Party activists, it was met with unanimous applause and declared the most powerful piece ever written about Lenin. It remains so today.
Mayakovsky hated statues and monuments dedicated to the dead, as did Lenin himself, and warned of the danger ‘lest Lenin be falsified by tinsel beauty’. The poet preferred to remember the man whose hobby was chess:
Yesterday’s dumb pawns
to a war of classes
until a human,
working-class dictatorship arose
to checkmate Capital
and crush its prison-castle
Truth is linked with hope by the philosopher Adorno when he writes how what resists the “world of exchange” – his term for neoliberalism – ‘is the resistance of the eye that does not want the world’s colours to vanish’.
Mayakovsky resisted for as long as he was able but in 1930 he committed suicide. He left a note, saying how “The boat of love run aground on the everyday” but his wicked sense of humour never left him and he added: “Blame no one for my death and please don’t gossip. The deceased really hate gossip.
“Volodya: Selected works”, Mayakovsky, edited by Rosy Carrick, is published by Enitharmon Press.