The Magazine

He Saw the Future

From poet to propagandist in Bolshevik Russia.

Dec 1, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 11 • By MICHAEL MCDONALD
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Night Wraps the Sky

Writing by and about Mayakovsky

by Vladimir Mayakovsky

edited by Michael Almereyda

Farrar, Straus, and Giroux,

304 pp., $27

The Russian poet Vladimir Mayakovsky was born in 1893 in Baghdati, Georgia, and committed suicide in 1930 in Moscow. Tall and handsome, with the physical build of a boxer and a mesmerizing bass voice, he displayed an aggressive impatience with stale conventions and the complacent realities of everyday existence--what the Russians call byt--propelled him to embrace life unconditionally and fully charged. In the less than 37 years he lived--"tantrumed" was his own, better way, of describing it--he achieved lasting international notoriety, first as one of the leaders of the literary movement known as Russian Futurism, and then, in the words of the Russian historian Richard Stites, as the "irrepressible bard of the Russian Revolution."

Mayakovsky's rise to fame was due, in no small part, to his good fortune in living in a period and in a place that proved fully receptive to his furies and fulminations. Protest, revolt, and the violent overthrow of the "old world" of fixed and hallowed forms: these were the qualities that characterized the two intimately related spheres of Mayakovsky's life and poetry. They also happened to define the political passions tearing apart czarist Russia in the first two decades of the 20th century.

Were a man and his time ever more perfectly matched? And yet he chose to kill himself. There is an almost Dostoyevskian drama to Mayakovsky's life, which renders it endlessly fascinating and helps explain why it has escaped the narrow confines of graduate seminars to engage a much wider audience.

Edward J. Brown's Mayakovsky: A Poet in the Revolution (1973) was the first (and best) full-length English-language biography to appear in print. But many others have followed. Mayakovsky's extraordinary affair with Lili Brik, the woman Pablo Neruda called "the muse of the Russian Revolution," has spawned collections of their correspondence and separate editions of his great love poems to her:

Besides your love,

I have

no sun,

and I don't know where you are, or who you're with.

If you had tortured a poet like this,

he would

trade in his beloved for money and fame,

but for me

not a single sound brings me joy

but the ring of your lovely name.

I won't throw myself down a stairwell,

or drink poison,

or pull the trigger on the gun pressed to my temple.

Besides your sharpened gaze

the blade of any other knife is powerless.

"Lilichka!" (1916)

Then there are all those popular historians of the Revolution. As they look to explain what went wrong with the utopian project to create the new socialist man in the wake of Stalin's ascension to power in 1928, they invariably pause to linger over Mayakovsky's suicide two years later: "One of those rare acts of definition in history," as the Russian literary critic Patricia Blake wrote, "which strips clean a whole era, and mercilessly lays open the future."

Michael Almereyda is the most recent person to grapple with the Russian poet's legacy in Night Wraps the Sky, which Almereyda himself describes as a "patchwork" book. It consists of some carefully selected poems by Mayakovsky (about which more later) in lively new translations by young Russian-American poets, together with selections from Mayakovsky's 1922 autobiography I, Myself, memoirs and artistic appreciations from other poets and writers, as well as eyewitness accounts of Mayakovsky's life and times.

If you happen to have seen any of his movies--especially either of his two recent documentaries, one dealing with the production of a Sam Shepard play, the other examining the artistry of the photographer William Eggleston--you'll know that Almereyda is an intelligent and nuanced artist himself, with a well-developed literary sensibility. This comes through quite clearly in the various mini-essays he contributes to this book, particularly an affecting piece near the end in which he describes a visit he took in 2004 to the Mayakovsky Museum in Moscow. The museum is something of a hodge-podge of "hectic displays" made up of posters, papers, photographs, and other artifacts, all jostling for the visitor's attention. As Almereyda surveys the clutter he perceptively notes that