BORN: 1893, Bagdadi, Georgia
DIED: 1930, Moscow, Russia
GENRE: Poetry, drama
A Cloud in Trousers (1915)
War and the World (1917)
Revolution: A Poet's Chronicle (1917)
Vladimir Ilyich Lenin (1925)
Vladimir Mayakovsky is considered the central figure of the Russian Futurist movement and the premier artistic voice of the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. The Russian Futurists saw their work as the leading mode of aesthetic expression for their time—a period distinguished by violent social upheaval and the subsequent downfall of Russia's established government. Mayakovsky is generally thought of as one of the most innovative poets in twentieth-century literature.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Childhood in Bagdadi Vladimir Mayakovsky was born the youngest of three children on July 7, 1893, in the western Georgian village of Bagdadi to Russian parents—Vladimir Konstantinovich Mayakovsky and Aleksandra Alekseevna Maiakovskaia. His father was a forest ranger, an official of the Russian government whose work took him to the Caucasus Mountains. Young Mayakovsky would occasionally accompany him on these trips. He spent the rest of his childhood playing in and around Bagdadi, where he picked up Georgian, the only foreign language he ever mastered.
The Social Democratic Worker's Party and Prison After the death of his father in 1906, Mayakovsky's mother moved the family to Moscow. There he attended public secondary school. He was an intellectually precocious child who developed an early appreciation for literature, but he demonstrated little interest in schoolwork. In 1908 he joined the Social Democratic Worker's Party, a subversive, anti-czarist organization. At this time, Russia was under the control of Nicholas II, the last czar in the country's history. During his reign, peaceful protesters who aimed to present a petition to Nicholas II, were gunned down by the secret police in an event that ultimately undermined the power of the czarist regime, Bloody Sunday. Between the ages of fifteen and sixteen, Mayakovsky was arrested three times by under-cover police who had amassed evidence linking him with such criminal activities as running an illegal printing press, bank robbery, and organizing a jailbreak of political prisoners. He was imprisoned for six months after his third arrest in connection with the jailbreak charge, and proved such an agitating presence among other inmates that he was frequently moved and eventually placed in solitary confinement.
Release from Prison and Performing Poetry Upon his release from prison, he entered the Moscow Institute of Art, hoping to become a painter. There he met the Russian Cubist painter David Burlyuk, who introduced him to the innovative trends in the visual arts and poetry known as avant-garde. Dressed in outrageous garb, such as the yellow tunic that became his trademark, the tall and ruggedly handsome Mayakovsky soon became the dominant and most popular poet-performer of the group, frequently captivating audiences with his loud, dramatic recitations.
First Drama Written and Performed In 1913, he wrote and performed in his first drama, the “tragedy” Vladimir Mayakovsky, which played to full houses of curious and sometimes heckling spectators. Two years later Mayakovsky met Osip and Lilya Brik, beginning a relationship that greatly affected his personal and professional life: Osip Brik, a wealthy lawyer with strong literary interests, became Mayakovsky's publisher, and Lilya—Osip's wife—became Mayakovsky's mistress and the inspiration for most of his impassioned love poetry, including The Backbone Flute (1916) and About That (1923).
Poet of the Revolution The outbreak of the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, which overthrew the czarist regime and gave power to the Soviets, provided Maya-kovsky with an opportunity to combine his political commitment and artistic talents, and he plunged headlong into the cause of promoting the new regime. Victor Shklovsky, a leading Russian critic, wrote in his memoirs, “Mayakovsky entered the revolution as he would enter his own home.” Soon considered the official poet of the Revolution, he applied his poetic skill toward writing songs, slogans, and jingles expounding Bolshevik ideology, and also used his abilities as a painter and illustrator to produce a voluminous number of propaganda posters and cartoons. He was proud of his ability to create utilitarian literature without compromising himself as a poet, and critics also marvel at his achievement, often citing his three-thousand-line poem Vladimir Ilyich Lenin—written on the leader's death in 1924—as one of his finest works, a communist equivalent of a religious epic.
Soviet Representative In the mid- to late 1920s, he traveled in Europe, Mexico, and the United States as an official representative of the Soviet government. On these trips abroad he kept a grueling schedule of public appearances and recorded his impressions of the capitalist societies he visited. He expressed his admiration of American technology and architecture in his America cycle (1925), which includes one of his most famous poems, “Brooklyn Bridge,” a eulogy to American engineering and the universal plight of the common laborer.
Strained Relations During the last few years of his life, Mayakovsky experienced a succession of personal disappointments and critical attacks from Soviet officials, all of which eroded his confidence and stamina. He had been growing increasingly disillusioned by the expanding party bureaucracy and the infiltration of bourgeois values into the new order. At the same time, conservative Bolshevik leaders charged that Mayakovsky's writing was too individualistic. Joseph Stalin's Five Year Plan advocated collectivization of agriculture and art alike; and the Bolshevik leaders claimed that Mayakovsky's prerevolutionary Futurist beliefs were incompatible with their ideology. Under extreme political pressure, he was forced to abandon his editorship of New LEF, a revival of the Futurist magazine LEF, and joined the Russian Association of Proletarian Writers (RAPP), a conservative, state-controlled literary organization.
Depression, Despair, and Suicide The growing despair and ambivalence he felt toward his own life and the future of his nation is clearly reflected in his satires on the philistine Soviet bureaucrats—The Bedbug (1929) and The Bathhouse (1930)—written and performed in the last two years of his life. Considered outrageous offenses to the state, the plays received scathing reviews and were banned in the Soviet Union until 1955. Although in the last months of his life Mayakovsky maintained his usual hectic public schedule, he was emotionally devastated, taking the critical rejection of his work as a personal attack. Torn between the flamboyant originality of his art and a desire to “stamp on the throat” of his talent in service to the party, he played Russian roulette, a pastime he favored when despondent, and died by his own hand on April 14, 1930.
Works in Literary Context
Influences on Voice and Revolutionary Themes Mayakovsky was strongly influenced by his love affair with Lilya Brik, his extensive travels, and by war and revolution. His lyrical verses are often about love. Yet, his political poems, which show other influences, cover a great range: He wrote a long, high-styled tribute to Lenin, funny political satire, and political pamphlets. He wrote children's poems with political subtexts, occasional poems for events such as the building of a canal, and political poems meant to influence—not commemorate—political decisions. His love poems and even his advertisements showed political concern. About That (1923) is as much about politics as it is about love; one advertisement for rubber galoshes shows a hammer and sickle on the tread of a galosh.
Voicing Historical Misfortunes and Controversies As the so-called Poet of the Revolution, Mayakovsky voiced the misfortunes and controversies of twentieth-century Russian history. With his poems reading as exciting displays of verbal mastery, he strove to invent a voice that was truly revolutionary. Most notable is this voice of the poet persona, or speaker, he developed to issue forth his themes. In his politically oriented verse one role the persona takes on is that of a self-sacrificing savior who lays down his life for the Revolution. Another role the speaker frequently takes is that of a social critic and prophet of the Revolution. In A Cloud in Trousers (1915), for instance, this poet persona severely chastises the bourgeoisie (capitalist class) for their complacency regarding the impending destruction of their world. This speaker democratically equates himself with the “street thousands—students, prostitutes, contractors” in a manner reminiscent of Walt Whitman, whose poetry Mayakovsky had read in translation.
The Futurist Style The Futurist poets aimed to destroy traditional poetic modes. They did this through disregard for convention, use of bizarre imagery and invented vocabulary, and techniques borrowed from avant-garde painting, including irregular typefaces, offbeat illustrations, and the author's handwriting. Mayakovsky virtually abandoned metric structure in his poetry. On the page his verse is arranged in irregular lines—often in a step formation such as that found in the work of the modern American poet William Carlos Williams—and is generally held together by strong, but unpredictable, internal rhyme schemes. Much of his originality as a poet is attributed to his use of hyperbolic (exaggerated) imagery, often blasphemous or violent.
Individually he had no Russian poet followers to speak of, and his particular poetic style was never further developed. In Lithuania, however, Mayakovsky as a Futurist poet was considered to inform the formation of The Four Winds movement—which took its first influences from his Futurism.
Works in Critical Context
Whether Mayakovsky intended it or not, there were a few critical misconceptions about his work. To this day discussions about him still degenerate quickly to old proand anti-Communist positions that dominated the critical approaches to him and his work during the Cold War. Yet it is notable that a new image of the poet has begun to emerge, especially in scholarship published after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Mayakovsky's famous contemporaries include:
Igor Stravinsky (1882–1971): Russian composer famous for his orchestral work for ballets, most notably Rite of Spring and The Firebird.
David Burlyuk (1882–1967): Ukrainian artist closely associated with Russian Futurism who was an acquaintance of and early influence on Mayakovsky.
Boris Pasternak (1890–1960): Nobel Prize–winning Russian novelist famous for his epic Doctor Zhivago.
Joseph Stalin (1878–1953): Communist leader of the Soviet Union from 1922 until 1953, Stalin was infamous for his dictatorial rule and his ordered executions of perhaps millions of dissenters.
That he excelled at studies in literature as early as the age of nine is also generally overlooked by critics, as they tend to interpret him as a populist illiterate. Further contributing to this critical misconception of the poet is the fact that Mayakovsky intentionally wrote as if he could not write. He disregarded academic verse structure. The dominant elements in his verse reveal a tendency for what is oral and a preference for emphasis on the sound of poetry. As Russian critic D. S. Mirsky describes it, “Maya-kovsky's poetry is very loud, very unrefined, and stands absolutely outside the distinction between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ taste.” It is marked by powerful rhythm, often evocative of an invigorating march cadence, which came naturally to Mayakovsky, who would loudly declare his verses in his booming velvety voice—by all accounts beautiful to hear. This dominant oral element managed to fool critics of Mayakovsky into treating him as a genuine illiterate, even though memoirs of him are full with accounts of his lying in bed reading or eagerly talking about something he had recently read.
Responses to Literature
- Mayakovsky was the so-called Poet of the Revolution. Research the Russian Revolution of 1917. How did it affect Russian civilians? How is this impact reflected in the poet's work?
- Russian revolutionary Vladimir Ilyich Lenin had a profound influence on Mayakovsky, who even wrote a tribute song called a “paean” for his leader. Study a brief biography of Lenin. Then look up the definition and study the components of a paean. In group discussion, decide how important Lenin was to Mayakovsky. What in the paean Vladimir Ilyich Lenin suggests the poet's attitude and feelings?
- Those interested in the Russian Revolution should read Ten Days That Shook the World (1919), a firsthand account of the October Revolution of 1917 as experienced by American journalist John Reed. Lenin himself read the book and wrote a glowing introduction to the 1922 edition.
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Here are a few works by writers who have also focused on themes of unrequited love or revolution, or both:
The Case of Comrade Tulayev (2004), a novel by Victor Serge. This book about the Stalinist purge is also a mystery, a thriller, and a tale of great courage and nobility.
Darkness at Noon (1940), a novel by Arthur Koestler. In this story, the protagonist is a retired Bolshevik and revolutionary who is imprisoned, tortured, and tried for treason.
In the Casa Azul: A Novel of Revolution and Betrayal (2003), a novel by Meaghan Delahunt. In this historically based novel, the author explores both revolution and love in the worlds of Frida Kahlo and Leon Trotsky.
Man's Fate (1933), a novel by André Malraux. In this fictionalized account of the Chinese Revolution, the author explores the inner workings of the minds of such characters as Ch'en Ta Erh, a terrorist-assassin with a conscience.
Shklovsky, Viktor. Mayakovsky and His Circle. Ed. and trans. Lily Feiler. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1972.
Terras, Victor. Vladimir Mayakovsky. Boston: Twayne, 1983.
Erlich, Victor. “The Dead Hand of the Future: The Predicament of Vladimir Mayakovsky.” Slavic Review, 21 (1962): 432–40.
Urbaszewski, Laura Shear. “Canonizing the ‘Best, Most Talented’ Soviet Poet: Vladimir Mayakovsky and the Soviet Literary Celebration.” Modernism/Modernity, 9 (November 2002): 635–665.
Linux.org. Vladimir Mayakovsky's A Cloud in Trousers. Retrieved March 31, 2008, from http://vmlinux.org/ilse/lit/mayako.htm.
Loosavor. Meyerhold & Mayakovsky: Biomechanics & the Communist Utopia. Retrieved March 31, 2008, from http://loosavor.org/2006/08/biomechanics_social_engineerin.html. Last updated on August 5, 2006.
State Museum of V. V. Mayakovsky. Retrieved March 31, 2008, from http://www.museum.ru/Majakovskiy/Expos1e.htm.
Vladimir Vladimirovich Mayakovsky
Vladimir Vladimirovich Mayakovsky
The Russian poet Vladimir Vladimirovich Mayakovsky (1893-1930) is best known for his colorful, declamatory style and his use of the language of the streets as poetic material. His artistic innovations strongly influenced the development of Soviet poetry.
Vladimir Mayakovsky was born on July 19, 1893, in Russian Georgia. When his father, a forester, died in 1906, the family moved to Moscow. This was to be Mayakovsky's city until his death. Between 1906 and 1911 Mayakovsky was arrested several times for his political activities. He joined the Bolshevik party in 1908. In 1909, during one of his terms in prison, he wrote his first verses.
Mayakovsky studied at the Moscow Institute of Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture from 1911 until he was expelled in 1914. During this period he published his first book of poetry, I! (1913), and became the leading figure in the avant-garde futurist movement in Russian poetry.
Russian futurism was as much a way of life as it was a poetic doctrine. It arose as a reaction to the extreme estheticism of Russian poetry at the turn of the century and to the prevailing mysticism in Russian intellectual life. Mayakovsky and his companions advocated the abandonment of the Russian tradition and the creation of a new art, one free of the past. They took their cause to the streets, declaiming their verses to chance audiences and going to any lengths to shock a tradition-bound public. Their shocking behavior and mode of dress gained them an instant reputation. Mayakovsky's poetry of these prerevolutionary years is polemical but not devoid of poetic content. It is an exceptionally personal poetry. Often it takes the form of a monologue addressed to the poet's mother and sister. The poet bares his self to the public in a style which is by turns ironic and sad. The title of his long verse drama is Vladimir Mayakovsky (1913), and it is subtitled "A Tragedy." In his most successful book, A Cloud in Trousers (1915), he acclaims the poet as the thirteenth apostle. Increasingly after 1915 Mayakovsky appears to have been trapped between his public role of apostle and his private suffering, the well-spring of his poetry.
Mayakovsky welcomed revolution in 1917 and put himself wholeheartedly at the service of the new Soviet state. He wrote popular verse, created propaganda posters, and lent his name to numerous public causes. In his own poetry, Mayakovsky continued his attack on the classical Russian tradition and proclaimed a poetry of the masses. He sought to write only for the masses, excluding any reference to the poetic self. Thus, his epic poem 150,000,000 (1921) was published anonymously. Mayakovsky described his postrevolutionary poetry as "tendentious realism," and there is no doubt that he achieved this realism at the expense of his true poetic talent.
Mayakovsky traveled widely in the 1920s. He went several times to western Europe and in 1925 to America. During a trip to Paris, he fell in love with a Russian émigré. Toward the end of the 1920s it became more and more difficult for Mayakovsky to get permission to travel abroad. He felt increasingly the burden of his public posture and the pain of having abandoned his private poetic self. This alienation from the woman he loved and from his very self led him to commit suicide on April 14, 1930, in Moscow. He could no longer maintain the dual role of public apostle and private poet.
A good selection of Mayakovsky's writings is available as The Bedbug and Selected Poetry (1964), which has a good introductory essay by the editor, Patricia Blake. A full-length biography of Mayakovsky is Wiktor Woroszylski, The Life of Mayakovsky (trans. 1971). The account of Mayakovsky's life in "Safe Conduct" in Boris Pasternak, Selected Writings (1949; new ed. 1958), is an interesting interpretive biography. The best treatment of Mayakovsky's artistic innovations and his role in the futurist movement is Cecil Maurice Bowra, The Creative Experiment (1949).
Terras, Victor, Vladimir Mayakovsky, Boston: Twayne, 1983. □
Mayakovsky, Vladimir Vladimirovich
MAYAKOVSKY, VLADIMIR VLADIMIROVICH
(1893–1930), poet, playwright.
Vladimir Mayakovsky was born in Bagdadi, Georgia (later renamed Mayakovsky in his honor). His father's death of tetanus in 1906 devastated the family emotionally and financially, and the themes of death, abandonment, and infection recurred in many of Mayakovsky's poems. As a student, Mayakovsky became an ardent revolutionary; he was arrested and served eleven months for his Bolshevik activities in 1909. In 1911 he was accepted into the Moscow Institute of Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture, where he met David Burlyuk, who was beginning to gather the Hylaean group of artists and poets: Nikolai and Vladimir Burlyuk, Alexandra Exter, Viktor (Velemir) Khlebnikov, Alexei Kruchenykh, and Benedikt Livshits. In 1912 the group issued its first manifesto, "A Slap in the Face of Public Taste," the highly charged rhetoric that created a scandalous sensation announcing the arrival of Futurism in the artistic culture of Russia. The poets and artists of Hylaea, Mayakovsky in particular, were associated in the popular press with social disruption, hooliganism, and anarchist politics.
Mayakovsky was an enthusiastic supporter of the Bolshevik revolution; much of his artistic effort was devoted to propaganda for the state. He wrote agitational poems and, combining his considerable artistic skill with his ability to write short, didactic poems, constructed large posters that hung in the windows of the Russian Telegraph Agency (ROSTA). He also wrote and staged at the Moscow State Circus a satirical play, Mystery Bouffe, which skewered bourgeois culture and the church. His most political poems, "150,000,000" (1919) and "Vladimir Ilich Lenin" (1924), became required reading for every Soviet schoolchild and helped create the image of Mayakovsky as a mythic hero of the Soviet Union, a position that Mayakovsky found increasingly untenable in the later 1920s. Mayakovsky remained a relentless foe of bureaucratism and authoritarianism in Soviet society; this earned him official resentment and led to restrictions on travel and other privileges. On April 14, 1930, the combined pressures of Soviet control and a series of disastrous love affairs, most notably with Lili Brik, led to Mayakovsky's suicide in his apartment in Moscow.
See also: bolshevism; circus; futurism
Brown, Edward J. (1973). Mayakovsky: A Poet in the Revolution. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Jangfeldt, Bengt. (1976). Majakovskij and Futurism, 1917–1921. Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell.
Markov, Vladimir. (1969). Russian Futurism: A History. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Woroszylski, Wiktor. (1970). The Life of Mayakovsky. New York: Orion Press.