Mayakovsky, Vladimir Vladimirovich
Born July 7(19), 1893, in the village of Bagdadi, present-day settlement of Maiakovskii, Georgian SSR; died Apr. 14, 1930, in Moscow. Soviet Russian poet.
Mayakovsky was the son of a forest ranger. After his father’s death, his family moved to Moscow (1906). Mayakovsky studied at a Moscow Gymnasium. He associated with Bolshevik university students, joined the party, and in 1908 was coopted into the Moscow committee of the RSDLP(B). He was arrested on three occasions, and in 1909 he was placed in solitary confinement in Butyrka Prison in Moscow.
Upon leaving prison, where he had begun to write verse, Mayakovsky decided to “make socialist art”: “I’ve interrupted party work. I’ve sat down to study” (Poln sobr. soch., vol. 1, 1955, p. 18). In 1911, Mayakovsky entered the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture. The year 1912 saw his first poetical experiments connected with the theory and practice of the cubo-futurists, a group that attracted him by its protest against the foundations of bourgeois society. But while the antiaestheticism of the futurists manifested itself chiefly in the area of “pure form,” Mayakovsky interpreted it in his own way, as an approach to the solution to the problem of creating a new democratic language of poetry. He would speak of this in his long revolutionary poem, A Cloud in Pants (1915): “the tongueless street writhes for lack of a means of conversing and shouting” (ibid, vol. 1, p. 181).
Owing to its concern with social issues, Mayakovsky’s poetry did not fit into the framework of futurism; this became especially clear in his tragedy Vladimir Mayakovsky (staged 1913). The tragedy is an emotion-filled protest against the conventions of bourgeois society and the power of “soulless things.” Ultimately, the tragedy reflects the mood of the masses, who are filled with indignation at the injustice of the world but are not yet conscious of their own strength. The forceful rejection of bourgeois life can also be felt in the poet’s early verse, such as “The City Inferno” and “Here You Are!” (both published in 1913).
In 1914, Mayakovsky was expelled from school for taking part in the public readings given by the futurists. The beginning of World War I was reflected in his work in different ways. In his article “Civilian Shrapnel” (November 1914), he wrote: “today we need hymns” (ibid, vol. 1, p. 303). But the poems “War Has Been Declared” (July 1914) and “Mama and the Evening That Was Murdered by the Germans” (November 1914) reveal his revulsion to war and its bloody senselessness. In poems printed in the journal Novyi satirikon (New Satyricon), namely, “Hymn to the Judge,” “Hymn to the Scholar,” and “Hymn to the Bribe” (all published in 1915), Mayakovsky sarcastically praises the vileness of life, where honest labor, a clear conscience, and high art become objects of derision.
The long poem A Cloud in Pants represented a new stage in Mayakovsky’s poetry. “’Down with your love,’ ’down with your art,’ ’down with your social order,’ and ’down with your religion’: those are the four cries of the four sectors”—that was the way the poet himself characterized the basic social and aesthetic orientation of A Cloud (Preface, 2nd ed., 1918, ibid. vol. 12, 1959, p. 7). The poem reflected the growing strength of the millions, spontaneously rising up against capitalism and conscious of their path in the struggle. The basic spirit of Mayakovsky’s pre-October poems, The Spinal Flute (1916), War and Universe (separate edition, 1917), and Man (1916-17, published 1918), was a protest against bourgeois relationships that had crippled the true nature of man. These works attracted the attention of M. Gorky, who singled Mayakovsky out from the milieu of the futurists and drafted him to work on the journal Letopis’ (The Chronicle).
Joyously greeting the October Revolution of 1917, Mayakovsky defined his position thus: “This is my revolution. I went to Smol’nyi. Worked. Doing any kind of work” (ibid, vol. 1, p. 25). The poet strove to give an aesthetic interpretation of the “staggering facts” of the new socialist reality. Until October, Mayakovsky had had no clear social outlook. Certain dogmas of the futurist group left their imprint on his idiosyncratic verse forms and on his social and aesthetic views. After October, Mayakovsky’s social and aesthetic ideas changed, determined by his struggle for the ideals of communism (on a positive and as well as a satirical level). This could already be felt in the play Mystery-Bouffe (1918; second version, 1921)—“a heroic, epic, and satirical representation of our epoch” (ibid. vol. 2, 1956, p. 167)—the first Soviet play on a contemporary subject. While asserting the greatness and heroism of the common people, Mayakovsky exposed the creative impotence of the bourgeoisie. Only the “unclean,” with their moral purity and class solidarity, were equal to the task of building the “ark” of the new world. In “Left March” (1918), a unique hymn to proletariat strength and determination, the poet called for a struggle against the enemies of the Revolution. But Mayakovsky’s aesthetic palette was many-colored; his poem “A Good Attitude Toward Horses” (1918) speaks out in favor of the wealth of emotions in the new man, who should be capable of sympathy for everything living and everything defenseless.
The humanistic orientation of Mayakovsky’s poetry acquired a new social quality. The poem 150,000,000 (1919-20; 1st ed., anonymous, 1921) affirmed the leading role of the Russian people as the prophet of the socialist revolution. V. I. Lenin reacted negatively to the poem, seeing in it the influence of futurism, of which he disapproved. During those years, Mayakovsky was beginning to carve out a path to a genuinely democratic art that reflected the mood of the masses. After moving to Moscow in 1919 he worked for Okna ROSTA (Windows of the Russian Telegraph Agency), drawing posters with rhyming captions of an agitational nature; in three years he created about 1,100 “windows.” These posters and Mayakovsky’s industrial and book graphics of the 1920’s revealed with especial vividness his talent and experience and his vivid, laconic style. (Mayakovsky had turned to graphic art during this period; many of his portrait drawings, sketches for popular prints, and theatrical designs have been preserved.) This activity as a “poet-worker” who lends his pen and brush to the needs of the Revolution was highly essential for Mayakovsky; it corresponded to his aesthetic concept of art’s invasion into everyday life.
In his poetry of the 1920’s, Mayakovsky created a new type of lyric hero; this hero, who makes his appearance in “I Love” (1922), “About This” (1923), and “Letter to Tatiana lakovleva” (1928), does not separate his own personal world from the great world of social turmoil and does not think of the personal apart from the social.
Mayakovsky’s visits to the capitalist countries (the USA, Germany, France, and Cuba) resulted in the poetry cycles Paris (1924-25) and Lines About America (1925-26). Mayakovsky spoke as a plenipotentiary of the young socialist state, hurling a challenge at the bourgeois order.
The passion for anonymity (“I Sing of Millions”) in the poet’s work gave way to a more harmonious conception of the individual. Like Gorky, Mayakovsky stands at the source of Soviet Leniniana. In the poem Vladimir Il’ich Lenin (1924), the life and work of the leader of the proletarian revolution are artistically recreated against a broad historical background. Mayakovsky recognized the enormous importance of Lenin’s personality, “the most human human being” and “organizer of the victory” of the proletariat. The poem was a hymn to the “attacking class” —the proletariat and its party. Feeling himself “a soldier in a rank a billion strong” (ibid., vol. 7, 1958, p. 166), Mayakovsky viewed an orientation toward a communist future as the criterion for all creative work, including poetry. “The great feeling that goes by the name of’class’ “(ibid., vol. 6, 1957, p. 304) was the main driving force in Mayakovsky’s work during the Soviet era. A. V. Lunacharskii called the poem “It’s Good!” (1927) “the October Revolution cast in bronze.” In it, Mayakovsky sang of “the springtime of humanity”—his socialist fatherland. Together with Gorky, Mayakovsky became a founder of socialist realism in Soviet literature.
During these years, Mayakovsky wrote such lyrical masterpieces as “To Comrade Nette, the Steamship and the Man” (1926), “To Sergei Esenin” (1926), and “Lines About a Soviet Passport” (1929).
Mayakovsky’s lyricism is all-embracing; it expresses the unprecedented spiritual growth of man in the new society. Mayakovsky was a lyricist, poet-orator, and a satirist, a poet with a huge, “all-enveloping heart.” His verse combines faith in the triumph of communist ideals with an irreconcilable hostility toward everything that hinders “rushing forward into tomorrow.”
Mayakovsky’s criticism of bureaucracy and useless committee meetings in the poem “Lost in Conference” (1922) greatly pleased Lenin (see V. I. Lenin, Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 45, p. 13). Inspired by the approval of the leader of the Revolution, Mayakovsky subsequently fulminated against all sorts of “Pompadours,” people who latched onto the party and covered their egotistical petit bourgeois identity with a party card; his poems “Pompadour” (1928) and “A Conversation With Comrade Lenin” (1929) were written in this vein. Mayakovsky’s poetry of the late 1920’s and his plays The Bedbug (1928, staged 1929) and The Bathhouse (1929, staged 1930) presented a whole gallery of characters whose capacity for protective camouflage and vain demagoguery make them dangerous. Mayakovsky’s satirical plays, innovative in both content and form, played a large role in the development of Soviet drama.
Mayakovsky created an innovative poetical system which in many ways affected the development of both Soviet and world poetry. His influence was felt by Nazim Hikmet Ran, Louis Aragon, Pablo Neruda, and Johannes Becher. Proceeding from his own ideological and artistic dilemma, Mayakovsky substantially reformed Russian verse. His new type of lyric hero with a revolutionary attitude toward reality promoted the formation of a new poetics of maximum expressiveness: all of the poet’s artistic means are directed toward an extremely dramatized, speechlike expression of the lyric hero’s thoughts and feelings. The novelty of Mayakovsky’s poetry is also reflected in the way his poems are typeset; heightened expressiveness is conveyed by means of changes in traditional orthography and punctuation and new techniques of printing the text—the short column (stolbik)and from 1923 the staircase (lesenka), which reflects the placement of pauses. The drive toward maximum expressiveness in verse proceeds along the various lines of vocabulary and phraseology, rhythmics, intonation, and rhyme.
Mayakovsky headed the literary groups LEF (Left Front of the Arts) and later REF (Revolutionary Front of the Arts). He also edited the journals LEF (1923-25) and Novyi LEF (New LEF, 1927-28); but he came to the conclusion that closed groups hinder normal creative communication among Soviet writers, and in February 1930 he joined RAPP (Russian Association of Proletarian Writers), which he viewed as a mass literary organization.
The complex situation of the last years of his personal life and literary struggle led Mayakovsky to depression and suicide. The long poem At the Top of My Voice (1930) is taken as the poet’s literary testament; it is full of a profound faith in the victory of communism.
Mayakovsky’s works are widely studied both in the USSR and abroad; in the USSR, a whole series of important research monographs have been written. However, his poetry has been the object of subjectivist interpretation by so-called Sovietologists, who seek to distort Mayakovsky’s image as a poet and empty his poetry of revolutionary content. Mayakovsky’s works have been translated into all the principal languages of the peoples of the Soviet Union and the world.
In 1937 the Library-Museum of Mayakovsky was opened in Moscow (on former Gendrikov Lane, now Mayakovsky Lane). In January 1974 the State Museum of Mayakovsky was opened in Moscow (No. 3 Serov Passage). In 1941 a Mayakovsky Museum was opened in the settlement of Maiakovskii (formerly Bagdadi) in the Georgian SSR.
WORKSPoln. sobr. soch., vols. 1-12. Moscow, 1934-38.
Poln. sobr. soch., vols. 1-12. Moscow, 1939-49.
Poln. sobr. soch., vols. 1-13. Moscow, 1955-61.
Maiakovskii-khudozhnik. Album written and compiled by V. A. Katanian. Introductory article by B. Slutskii. Moscow, 1963.
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Papernyi, Z. O masterstve Maiakovskogo, 2nd enlarged ed. Moscow, 1957.
Papernyi, Z. Poeticheskii obraz u Maiakovskogo. Moscow, 1961.
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Katanian, V. Maiakovskii: Literaturnaia khronika, 4th enlarged ed. Moscow, 1961.
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Khardzhiev, N., and V. Trenin. Poeticheskaia kul’tura Maiakovskogo. Moscow, 1970.
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B. P. GONCHAROV