Wednesday, December 07, 2005

If there had been ink at the Angleterre

Vladimir Mayakovsky, self-proclaimed "drumbeat of the Revolution", was Esenin's great contemporary and rival, and a striking contrast to the bohemian, dissolute, nostalgic Esenin.

Mayakovsky had been imprisoned by the Tsarists while still in his teens, and after the 1917 revolution became its foremost poetic cheerleader. A role similar, I suppose, to that played eighty years later in the Blairite Revolution by D:Ream's Things can only get better. Mayakovsky, a formidable romantic as well as revolutionary poet, was a Futurist, given in his younger days to denouncing any work of art created by anyone before, well, the Futurists. Mayakovsky wasted much of his time after the Revolution creating Party doggerels and designing posters for the railway board. Something he was happy to admit in At the top of my voice:

Agitprop sticks in my teeth too
And I'd rather compose romances for you
More profit in it, and more charm
But I subdued myself, setting my heel
On the throat of my own song

Passionate, unsubtle, and buzzing with ideas, Mayakovsky's work has a force and an immediacy about it. By wearing his heart on his sleeve, Mayakovsky personality floods off the page.

His personality, though, can be a problem. "Nonsense, arrant stupidity, and pretentiousness" is how one critic, Lenin, described 150 000 000, one of Mayakovsky's most famous works. Stalin (by all accounts more of an appreciator of poetry than Lenin) was by contrast something of a fan, and after Mayakovsky's death, he became the official chief poet of the Revolution, forced down the throats of many an unwilling Soviet schoolchild. Being the favoured poet of a mass murderer is a bit of a PR negative, and Mayakovsky's reputation has suffered accordingly. Mayakovsky has as many haters as fans. I'm in the latter camp.

Anyway, Mayakovsky wasn't at all pleased with Esenin's final poem, and set about writing a reply, To Sergey Esenin. Perhaps not entirely a hatchet job, this is nonetheless a rare example of one literary great administering a kick to the cobblers of a recently departed colleague.

Mayakovsky is relatively restrained with his alcohol jibes,

You've gone, as they say, to some world or other...
No advances for you there, and no pubs

but makes two comments on Esenin's wrist slashing:

...having put (your suicide) off by just cutting your wrists

Maybe, if there had been ink at the Angleterre,
There would have been no reason for veins to be slit

The latter, referring to Esenin's unusual choice of writing fluid, could be seen as a little callous, if not brutal and contemptible. But it's a great line, and maybe Mayakovsky just couldn't resist putting it in. That happens sometimes.

After spending some lines praising Esenin and slagging off his (and Mayakovsky's) denigrators, Mayakovsky then puts the boot into Esenin's memorial concert, where the tenor Sobinov sang some of Esenin's poems put to music, a sentimental occasion which sickened Mayakovsky.

But it's the last two lines which cause most offence.

In this life, to die isn't hard
To make life, however, is much harder

Mayakovsky, outraged by the nihilism and defeatism of Esenin's final two lines, was attempting to dull their impact by rewriting them to give a message of Mayakovsky's choosing. I love Mayakovsky's work, but this bit is hard to stomach.

And it gets worse. Having denigrated Esenin for having the temerity to commit suicide, on 14 April 1930, five years after Esenin's death, Mayakovsky shot himself through the heart, leaving behind an unfinished, touching poem in his notebook.

Once we disregard the usual conspiracy theories that Mayakovsky's suicide was engineered by the NKVD, we're left with a problem of how to reconcile this poem with his own suicide. Presumably, if he'd known he would eventually shoot himself, Mayakovsky would have restrained his pen. But that's no excuse. Mayakovsky was human, and got this one horribly wrong.


Blogger Psychbloke said...

Been trying to find something erudite or witty to say in response to these two posts for days - in the end I just thought oh bugger it I'll just mention how much I enjoyed them........

9:44 pm  
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