Though he is not an English,
Vladimir Mayakovsky (1894 - 1930), one of Russia's most gifted
writers and a prominent member of the avant-garde, is one of the most
universally recognized characters in Russian history. Having taken his own life
at the age of 36, he left behind a wealth of ground-breaking poems, prose,
plays and art that continue to influence and inspire writers and artists to this
day. Mayakovsky embodies the spirit of the Russian avant-garde--a creative
individual who willingly sacrificed his means of self-expression to further the
cause of the socialist revolution, and to give shape to a completely new Soviet
Redefining the artist's role in society, Mayakovsky pointed to the artist's
ultimate responsibility to reshape and reconstruct the new socialist culture and
society. Poems influenced by Pushkin and other traditionalists were cast aside
and replaced with works employing revolutionary combinations of words and
images, dedicated to espousing industrialization and the new Soviet system.
Mayakovsky devoted himself to fulfilling the role of "worker-poet": Setting
quotas for himself and adhering to the same expectations set for factory
workers and other laborers, Mayakovsky pushed himself to produce, construct
and create. In the span of his career, Mayakovsky produced a wide range of
poetic works: early works which display the poet's hyper-sensitivity and
sentimentality, and offer some of the century's most ardent and emotional
lyrics of love and introspection; and works devoid of all personal expression,
written to inspire and applaud the Soviet masses.
Mayakovsky's career as a poet was born in 1912, as the result of a late-night
conversation with David Burliuk. Burliuk, a fellow student at the Moscow
Institute for the Study of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture, had recognized
the need for organization and unification in achieving a complete cultural
revolution, and established a group of literary Futurists under the name of
"Hylaea." Composed of individuals committed to creating new forms in art
and literature, Hylaea issued illustrated publications and manifestos which
inspired the gravitation of other Russian artists towards Futurism, and set the
tone for the awakening of the Russian avant-garde. Having introduced
Mayakovsky to his friends as "The famous poet Mayakovksy," (despite
Mayakovsky's never having written a line of verse), Burliuk provided him with
a role and a purpose which Mayakovsky would strive to fulfill forever.
The Russian Futurists, dismissing all writing which had come before them,
proclaimed their commitment to injecting a new spirit and enthusiasm into
Russian culture and literature. Spouting futurist verse from sidewalks and
street corners, and calling for the complete rejection of tradition, Mayakovsky,
Burliuk and the other Futurists would roam through Moscow, wearing capes,
costumes, wooden spoons poised ridiculously in their lapels, and images of
airplanes and animals painted on their faces.
On July 15, 1915, an event occurred which would ultimately inspire a great
deal of pain and passion into the poet's life: Mayakovsky was introduced to
Osip and Lili Brik. Having been invited to the Brik's apartment as a guest of
Lili's sister, Mayakovsky broke into an unrequested recitation of his poem,
"The Cloud in Trousers." Touched and stunned, Osip responded by offering to
pay for the poem's publication, and Lili, casting away a preconceived aversion
to the poet, fell in love. From that evening on, Lili and Mayakovsky enjoyed a
life-long affair--an affair condoned and encouraged by Osip, and characterized
by periods of great tragedy and turmoil. Osip published many of Mayakovsky's
poems thereafter, and worked together with Mayakovsky as co-editors of LEF
(Left Front for the Arts), the landmark literary and cultural journal of the
Russian avant-garde. Lili became the inspiration behind the bulk of
Mayakovsky's ensuing works, and it was to her that he dedicated nearly all of
his books and poems. Her wide-eyed visage graces the cover of Mayakovsky's
Pro eto. Ei i mne. (About this. To her and to me.), and her image appears
throughout the text in a series of Dada-esque photomontages created by
In the years that followed, Mayakovsky pledged himself to the service of the
revolution. Inspired by the new government's promises of better living
standards and equal rights for all Soviet citizens, and its commitment to
encouraging new forms and directions in art, Mayakovsky traded poems of
emotion and personal experience for socialist slogans and propaganda pieces.
Urging other artists and authors to do the same, he set an example by devoting
himself to designing propaganda posters for ROSTA (the Russian Telegraph
Agency). One of the few times he would create his own images, these projects
integrated words and pictures, offering grotesque caricatures of bankers and
the bourgeoisie, and urging support for the Red Army in the civil war against
the White Army.
Despite his wide-spread popularity, an assortment of misfortunes occurred
which pushed Mayakovsky into a deep depression; growing disfavor from the
government, the extended suppression of self-expression, and the eventual loss
of the love of Lili Brik are all factors attributed to the poet's decision to shoot
himself on the evening of April 14,1930.
In death, Mayakovsky is far from gone. Reversing a statement in which he
recently had denounced the poet, Stalin proclaimed Mayakovsky a national
hero. Today, monuments and statues of Mayakovsky stand tall in city squares
throughout the former Soviet Union, and schools, universities and metro
stations are named in his honor. His words live on in contemporary
publications of his poems, and in productions of his plays.
This profoundly charismatic and artistic persona still serves as a symbol of the
spirit of the Russian avant-garde, and the poet's remarkable presence continues
to shine through photographs and other images. These portraits by Rodchenko
and other avant-garde artists, so charged by the power of Mayakovsky's
passion and dynamism, offer an introduction and an invitation to further
indulge in the fascinating realm of the Russian avant-garde.
His Suicide note??
AT THE TOP OF MY VOICE
Unfinished Prelude to the Second Part of a Poem on the
Five Year Plan
She loves me-loves me not.
My hands I pick
and having broken my fingers
So the first daisy-heads
one happens to flick
scattered into May.
Let a cut and shave
reveal my grey hairs.
Let the silver of the years
ring out endlessly !
Shameful common sense -
I hope, I swear -
Will never come
It's already two.
No doubt, you've gone to sleep.
In the night
The Milky Way
with silver filigrees.
I don't hurry,
and there is no point in me
waking and disturbing you
with express telegrams.
The sea goes to weep.
The sea goes to sleep.
As they say,
the incident has petered out.
The love boat of life
has crashed on philistine reefs
You and I
No need to reiterate
In the world what a quiet sleeps.
Night tributes the sky
with silver constellations.
In such an hour as this,
one rises and speaks
and world creation.
I know the power of words, I know words' tocsin.
They're not the kind applauded by the boxes.
From words like these coffins burst from the earth
and on their own four oaken legs stride forth.
It happens they reject you, unpublished, unprinted.
But saddle-girths tightening words gallop ahead.
See how the centuries ring and trains crawl
to lick poetry's calloused hands.
I know the power of words. Seeming trifles that fall
like petals beneath the heel-taps of dance.
But man with his soul, his lips, his bones…
For Mayakovsky Links,