6 October 2015

Enough of this Mayakovskery?

Though I am more interested in prose than poetry, I seem to spend a lot of time writing about modern Russian and East European poetry (Pasternak, Milosz and Brodsky are relatively recent examples), so maybe it's no surprise that my latest review for the NYRB, "The Bad Boy of Russian Poetry" (see Essays page for details) is about a new biography of the neglected Futurist poet, Vladimir Mayakovsky.

Mayakovsky doesn't figure prominently in the popular pantheon of Soviet poets any more. The "big three" - Osip Mandelstam, Anna Akhmatova, and Boris Pasternak - were all his contemporaries and friends, and all were influenced by Mayakovsky's revolutionary example at one time or another (Pasternak was a Futurist and Mayakovsky acolyte for a while), but their reputations have fared much better than his, and their names are household words among readers. It's tempting to attribute this neglect to politics. Mayakovsky was the only one of the four to wholeheartedly embrace the Bolshevik Revolution and place his talent and career in the service of the revolutionary regime, a process that lasted until his premature death at the age of 36 from suicide. Almost perversely, it seems, Stalin decided to appoint Mayakovsky posthumously to the post of poet laureate of the Soviet regime, so that the poet's more orthodox works, in the words of Pasternak, "began to be introduced forcibly, like potatoes under Catherine the Great." It was these that got him such a bad name and obliterated memories of Mayakovsky's originality before and during the early years of the Revolution. By the time World War II was over and the Cold War ensued, Mayakovsky's name was mud among members of the Russian emigration and in the academy, and most of my own professors, for example, would speak of him only with disgust. It was partly for this reason that I perversely wrote my undergraduate thesis on Mayakovsky (which impressed the late Roman Jakobson later) and have never lost my admiration for the great taboo-breaker.

Bengt Jangfeldt, the Swedish professor and author, is another fan apparently, and in his pathbreaking new biography successfully dispels most of the myths propping up this oversimplified view of the poet. Mayakovsky was not the gullible bard of the Revolution he has been made out to be. His attitude and his poetry were much more complex than that, closely tied to a cosmic rebellion against God and the universe and dedicated to an intellectual utopian revolution inspired more by his personal vision than the reality around him. True, he betrayed himself on multiple occasions by composing would-be proletarian doggerel, but Lenin, for one, saw through it. He dismissed one of Mayakovsky's long loyalist poems about the Revolution as "pretentious nonsense," not only because he couldn't understand it, but also because he sensed the disconnect between Mayakovsky's true beliefs and his will to subdue them (Pravda's headline after Lenin's statement was "Enough of this Mayakovskery"). In one of his last and most moving poems Mayakovsky finally confessed that "propaganda sticks in my throat too" and lamented the fact that instead of writing love poems he had "stomped on the throat of my own song," an admission that was closely followed by his suicide.

Jangfeldt (or his translator), however, fails to resolve another important reason for Mayakovsky's unpopularity in the west, or rather, in English-speaking countries, and that is the problem of translation. Mayakovsky's work was always "difficult," not in terms of his abstruseness (Mandelstam was much better at that), but in his revolutionary use of street talk, outlandish rhymes and wordplay, and unorthodox sonic meters. Mayakovsky's methods would have been instantly recognizable to the Beat poets and more recently to practitioners of Rap, but didn't lend themselves to the academic and literal approaches that, faute de mieux, show up in conventional anthologies and in the Jangfeldt book. The only antidote I have seen is some versions by Mayakovsky's near equivalent in contemporary American letters, Jack Hirschman, done in collaboration with the late Slavic scholar, Victor Erlich. Together they produced the closest thing there is in English to some faithful (in the true sense of the word) facsimiles of some of Mayakovsky's early poems. Maybe there are more than I've seen, but I doubt it, and Hirschman is no longer young, but if he has any plans at all to continue translating poetry, I hope he will consider Mayakovsky again.