MICHAEL ALMEREYDA

A CLOUD IN PANTS

VLADIMIR MAYAKOVSKY—RUSSIAN FUTURIST, COMPOSER OF 1920S ADVERTISING JINGLES, AND REQUIRED READING FOR GENERATIONS OF SOVIETS—SOUGHT, THROUGH HIS EMBRACE OF THE ABSURD, TO BRING ART CLOSER TO LIFE.

DISCUSSED: Aleksandr Rodchenko, The Russian Revolution, Self-Mockery, Proto-Punk Ferocity, Viktor Shklovsky, Good-Quality Shoes, El Lissitzky, Novinsky Prison, Theodore Dreiser, Lili Brik, Stalin’s Five Year Plan, Boris Pasternak, Ron Padgett, Les Carabiners (1963), Kenneth Koch

Mayakovsky was better known as a person, as an action, as an event.[1]

Even at this distance—more than seventy-five years after his death and nearly twenty years after the collapse of the government he fervently promoted—it remains difficult to account for the phenomenal nature, the sheer outlandishness, of Vladimir Mayakovsky. As unofficial poet laureate of the Russian Revolution—“my revolution,” he called it—Mayakovsky had unrivaled authority and glamour, taking on multiple responsibilities and roles—orator, playwright, magazine editor, stage and film actor, poster maker, jingle writer—with a singular mix of self-mockery and martyrdom.

Photographs of the poet—particularly the glowering, shaved-head portraits taken by Aleksandr Rodchenko in 1924, when Mayakovsky was thirty-one—display a kind of proto-punk ferocity, a still-burning aura of tough-guy tenderness, soulful defiance. The poems are virtually inseparable from this persona, as Mayakovsky made theatrical appearances in his verse and made a spectacle of his personal life. “He felt the need,” his friend Viktor Shklovsky wrote, “to transform life.” And so it followed that for Mayakovsky, poetry itself was transformative. He channeled experiences directly into his work while being convinced that the resulting poems could pace and project the ideals of a new social order.

*

He was calm, massive, and he stood with his feet slightly apart, in good quality shoes that had metal reinforcements and tips.

It may be bewildering, now, to imagine a poet expecting his words to translate into an active force for change, but this conviction was at the center of Mayakovsky’s life and work, and it was shared by a generation of artists coming of age in the revolution’s early, ecstatic wake. (Auden’s famous circumspect assertion that “poetry makes nothing happen” would have been greeted by Mayakovsky with a howl of derision. Rodchenko and his typographical counterpart, El Lissitzky, would have whipped up terrific corroborating posters.)

This essay excerpted from Night Wraps the Sky: Writings by and about Mayakovsky edited by Michael Almereyda, to be published in April by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, LLC. Copyright 2008 by Michael Almereyda. All rights reserved.

  1. All italicized quotes are from Viktor Shklovsky, Mayakovsky and His Circle, 1940; English edition translated and edited by Lily Feiler, New York: Dodd, Mead, and Company, 1972.

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Michael Almereyda’s films include Another Girl Another Planet, Nadja, Hamlet, and William Eggleston in the Real World.

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