Monday, April 12, 2010

Long Live Mayakovsky

Mayakovsky committed suicide on 14 April 1930 at age 36. His death prefigured the end of creative freedom in Soviet Russia, and the beginning of a deadly new phase in Stalinist repressions against the peasantry. Mayakovsky was a force of nature, a poetic whirlwind that somehow encapsulated the frenzied, optimistic essence of the Soviet Revolution. When he wrote, he still believed that a new, unspoiled Soviet readership was in the process of emerging from centuries of tsarist oppression.

Mayakovsky was a poet, artist, activist, playwright, proto-punk performance artist, political criminal, revolutionary, and sex symbol. Poems don't always translate all that well, but Mayakovsky's poems are given legs by Michael Almereyda's new book, Writings by and about Mayakovsky. Almereyda has placed a few of Mayakovsky's greatest poems---filled with what became known as the "Mayakovsky I"--next to short commentaries by his friends and peers, including Vicktor Shklovsky and Boris Pasternak and Maxim Gorky. The poems are witty, disjointed, socialist, self-aggrandizing, fun, mocking, and always creative.

In one short sketch, a peer remembers how Mayakovsky delivered his prose, with masculine power and drama--his every word a challenge or comic insult to his audience. Mayakovsky's poetry was original and thoroughly modern, and the author remembers how Mayakovsky outwitted everybody in the audience who dared to challenge his claim to represent Russia's artistic future (he was, after all, a Futurist). Almereyda's book also highlights Mayakovsky's artistic powers (he created brilliant advertising campaigns for early Soviet goods) and imposing physical presence: the photos reveal a tall, handsome, swaggering, ever-changing, sensual personality.

The poetry is good, but Mayakovsky the man was pure fun and excitement. This Mayakovsky, brash lover of women, socialism, mechanical things, and modernity, is what the Soviet Revolution was all about, at first. Mayakovsky is dead! Alas, so too is the next generation of brilliant poet performance artist-revolutionaries, like Beatnik Alan Ginsburg.

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