The 'Raging Bull' of Russian Poetry

Even today, after many articles and theories have surfaced regarding the circumstances surrounding the death of the poet of the Russian Revolution, there is no definitive answer as to whether Vladimir Mayakovsky committed suicide or was the victim of a political assassination.

Dakia Karpel
Dalia Karpel
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Dakia Karpel
Dalia Karpel

He was 37 years old when a bullet pierced his heart. According to the police, his lover, actress Veronika Polonskaya, found him breathing his last breath, and he died in her arms. Even today, after many articles and theories have surfaced regarding the circumstances surrounding the death of the poet of the Russian Revolution, there is no definitive answer as to whether Vladimir Mayakovsky committed suicide or was the victim of a political assassination.

Mayakovsky was among a series of geniuses of the Russian renaissance of the early 20th century - which included such prominent writers and poets as Boris Pasternak and Marina Tsvetaeva, Osip Mandelstam and Isaac Babel, Alexander Blok and Anna Akhmatova - who, at the orders of the Kremlin, were silenced or exiled, tortured and assassinated, or who put an end to their own lives.

It was said that Mayakovsky's "suicide" on April 14, 1930 was the result of disappointed love. They wrote that he had lost his poetic direction, that he had become disillusioned with his ideological path. Lili Brik, his married lover and muse (he dedicated the last line in his suicide note to her, "Lili, love me"), was convinced that he had committed suicide. "The idea of suicide was like a chronic disease inside him, and like any chronic disease it worsened under circumstances that, for him, were undesirable," she wrote in her memoirs.

Confirmation of her words was found in his poetry. At the age of 23 he wrote, in the poem "The Backbone Flute": "Once again I thought that it was probably better to place a bullet hole at my end." In recent years researchers have wondered why his ironic farewell note, bearing the request, "Please do not gossip. The deceased terribly dislike this sort of thing," was written two days before his death. Why were his close friends, Lili and Osip Brik, sent abroad hastily? Why didn't the bullet removed from his body match the model of his pistol, and why did his neighbors hear two shots?

The mystery has yet to be solved, and it apparently never will be, says Emanuel Gelman, an artist, translator, editor and member of the editorial staff of the periodical Carmel, who grew up and was educated in the Soviet Union. Gelman, 53, initiated the publication of the book "The Flute of the Gutters, the Early Mayakovsky: Poetry and Prose 1912-1918," which was published recently (by Aliyat Hagag Books and Yedioth Books). Alongside poems and prose passages by Mayakovsky, translated into Hebrew by Gelman (with consultant and editor Peter Kriksunov), the hardcover book offers a selection of six portraits written by members of the poet's generation. Gelman, who wrote the introduction and the epilogue, ended the book with an enlightening lexicon.

Gelman writes in the introduction that reading Mayakovsky's poetry was the most powerful poetic experience of his childhood. "His poems, the whips of Soviet ideology, scourged me as a child growing up in a country where both the proletariat and social justice ruled. The October Revolution had two mouthpieces, its two acclaimed Vladimirs: Vladimir Ilyich Lenin and Vladimir Vladimirovich Mayakovsky." Gelman writes that he absorbed "this poison" in the school system, and only when he reached high school did he hear for the first time that this "propagandist" and "writer of advertising jingles" was "an innovator in poetry, the wizard of rhyming, a revolutionary in his attitude toward poetry."

In high school Gelman was put in charge of organizing an event to mark the 40th anniversary of the poet's death, entitled "Vladimir Mayakovsky and the October Revolution," and to that end, went through all the volumes of his writings. Entire lines have become etched in Gelman's memory since then, such as "there isn't a single gray hair in my soul," or "I'm a poet. That's what makes me interesting," and the horrifying line, "I love to watch children dying," which, according to Gelman, refers metaphorically to the destruction of semen - in other words, to the waste of anything of value.

"Mayakovsky is the language I speak and my world of images," he says. "When an idea gets lost and there's nothing to be done, I say: 'I love to watch children dying.' When I'm asked what I do, I say that I'm a poet, although I don't write poetry. 'I'm a poet' is a citation, and it's a way of saying that I'm an artist."

'Whipped dog'

Vladimir (Volodya) Mayakovsky was born in 1893 in Georgia, in the village of Bagdadi near Kutais. "My father was a Cossack, my mother Ukrainian. My mother tongue is Georgian. It could be said that I was born among three cultures," he wrote in his autobiography "I Myself." "I'm a poet. That's what makes me interesting. That is what I write about."

Mayakovsky, the "raging bull" of Russian poetry during its Silver Age (which began during the last decade of the 19th century and ended with the October 1917 revolution), is also the "whipped dog," in pain and tormented, as lost and as revealing as his poems, which he carried inside him "like a dog carries to its kennel a paw that a train ran over."

Gelman claims in the introduction to the book that Mayakovsky's true biography is, first of all, his poetry and only afterward the man himself - an arrogant bohemian, who surrounded himself with legends that gave him the reputation of a skirt chaser. "He was not such a Casanova as he seemed outwardly," Gelman explains. "He was hysterical, pathetic, and a constant bundle of nerves. Vulnerable and fatherless, he remained with a stupid mother and two worthless sisters."

When he was 13 his father died. "He punctured his finger (while attaching papers with a clip). Blood poisoning. Since then I can't stand clips. The good life ended," he wrote in "I Myself." That year his mother moved to Moscow with her two daughters and her son. Very soon Mayakovsky was thrown out of the school system, taken into the underground Bolshevik party and given the nickname "Comrade Konstantin." He distributed propaganda leaflets, possessed a pistol without a license, and after his third arrest, for his involvement in smuggling female political prisoners out of prison, he was sent to the Butyrki prison in Moscow. There, in solitary confinement, at the age of 16, he discovered the treasures of literature and poetry, and abandoned his party loyalty. Even when, years later, he was considered the mouthpiece of the communist revolution and the poet of the Stalinist establishment, he did not return to the ranks of the party.

After his release from prison Mayakovsky began to study art in Moscow, and in February 1912, at the School for Painting, Sculpture and Architecture, he met David Burliuk, the father of Russian Futurism, who recognized his talent. "Burliuk turned me into a poet," wrote Mayakovsky in "I Myself." "He read the French and the Germans to me. He pressed books on me. He would come and talk endlessly. He didn't let me get away. He gave me 50 kopeks every day. So I would write and wouldn't go hungry."

"The Flute of the Gutters" has a lovely text by Tsvetaeva, which sketches the portraits of Mayakovsky and Pasternak. Poetry, she wrote, was the only outlet in Mayakovsky's feverish life: "This is the source of the amazing physiology of his poems, their overpowering muscularity, their striking physicality. Mayakovsky the fighter was forced to crowd all of himself into the lines of his poetry. That is the reason for their torn rhythm. Because of the dimensions of the poet the song bursts apart, explodes along its seams, nearby and all over."

The first play he wrote, a tragedy called "Vladimir Mayakovsky," was performed twice in 1913 in a theater in St. Petersburg, with direction by the playwright. On a background of meager scenery and accompanied by grating music, the actors declaimed their lines from the depths of the stage; the audience reacted by tossing out invective and rotten eggs. "The poet Vladimir Mayakovsky appeared with his head high in the sky and asked them to mend his soul," wrote one of the newspapers. "The audience that completely filled the theater burst into loud laughter."

Mayakovsky was described as completely lacking in talent, and writing "empty words of a malaria sufferer"; some people recommended that he be hospitalized immediately. The play appears in Hebrew translation in "The Flute of the Gutters," and its cast of characters, which is headed by Mayakovsky, includes such characters as an old man with dry black cats, a headless man, a man with a distorted face, a man with two kisses and a woman with a huge tear.

In the years 1913-1914 the young Mayakovsky was a prominent figure among the Futurists, whose performances differed from the poetry evenings common at the time. One scandal followed another. The audience would go wild and often the police stopped their readings. In early 1914 the Futurists, with Mayakovsky among them, embarked on an information campaign all over Russia. During their performances they read poems and disseminated the Futurist manifesto ("Throw Pushkin, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, etc., etc., overboard"), demonstrating the "courage of lunatics." The halls were filled to the brim and everyone wanted to see the antics of the poets, who often dressed outlandishly, sometimes donned women's clothing and even applied makeup in order "to annoy and to find favor."

Mayakovsky, "a regular scandal-maker," as he put it, used to appear in a sunset-yellow shirt. "I never had suits," he wrote in "I Myself." "I had two disgusting-looking shirts. A surefire method for improvement: to wear a tie. I had no money. I took a piece of yellow fabric from my sister. I tied it on myself. A scandal. That means that the most beautiful and prominent thing in a person is a tie. Clearly if I enlarge the tie I'll enlarge the scandal. Because the dimensions of a tie are limited, I decided to be a smart aleck: I made a tie-like shirt and a shirt-like tie."

In 1915 Mayakovsky wrote an article called "On All Kinds of Mayakovskys," in which he said of himself: "I am brazen ... I am cynical ... I'm a wagon driver ... I'm a propagandist who feverishly leafs through all the newspapers every day, in the hope of finding his name in them ... that is Vladimir Mayakovsky, a young man of 21. For all those who want to confirm the justice of my words even more, I ask them to make a thorough study of my photograph, which is enclosed with this article: A jerk, with a low and narrow forehead, somewhat decorated with a pair of faded eyes."

"Mayakovsky's face is etched on the altar of the century," wrote Boris Pasternak, the poet who became famous in the West thanks to his novel "Doctor Zhivago." Regarding their first meeting Pasternak wrote: "A handsome young man with a gloomy expression sat in front of me, overflowing with lethal and incessant cleverness. His voice was like that of a singer of Psalms and his fists like that of a wrestler. A kind of combination of a mythical hero and a Spanish toreador. One could guess immediately that if he was handsome, clever, talented and perhaps even very talented - all these were not the main thing. The main thing was that his inner inhibitions were as strong as iron ... [and he had] a sense of responsibility because of which he did not allow himself to be otherwise: less handsome, less clever, less talented."

Pasternak, his friend and admirer, was very fond of Mayakovsky's early lyricism: "Its heavy, gloomy, embittered seriousness was exceptional in light of the buffoonery of those days. It was poetry that was well sculpted by an artist, arrogant, demonic, and at the same time poetry whose fate had been sealed, infinitely lost, almost crying out for help."

In the poetry pantheon

Gelman writes that Mayakovsky boasted of the metaphoric ability of his poetry to leave "plate-sized grease stains for dessert" on the well-tailored suits of his listeners and readers. "He is a genius and he belongs to the pantheon of world poetry," says Gelman, explaining his decision to translate Mayakovsky into Hebrew. "Three years ago a linguistic study by a journalist was published, claiming that Mayakovsky was not understood; that he was not the poet of the Revolution, nor a conscripted poet, but rather the court jester, and as such he could permit himself the cleverness, the humor and the satire in the theater of the absurd that was taking place on the stage of the Soviet empire. When I was a child and read his satirical plays, I didn't understand what was pro-Soviet about them. In literature classes they said that he was the pure and genuine Bolshevik, but he was really a great satirist.

"Poetry was stronger than he. His soul could not contain the poetry that erupted from him, so that suicide or disintegration were to be expected. At the age of 16, when he was in prison, he understood that the social revolution was not for him, and he chose art and decided to bring about a revolution in art, in awareness and in activity. After the revolution, the 25-year-old Mayakovsky optimistically entered a new world, because one has to survive. And what he knew how to do was to create poems. It was part of him. He didn't sit down in the morning to write, the poetry flowed from him even when he faked his Bolshevik orgasms, and when he wrote about current events. He was a genuine poet. He couldn't live without it."

In the book, Gelman chose to present previous translations of Mayakovsky's poems, including those by Alexander Penn and Avraham Shlonsky, alongside his updated translations, in order to present Mayakovsky to readers as a modernist lyricist.

Is your Mayakovsky less political?

Gelman: "I'm convinced that the secret of the success of Alexander Penn's translations lies in the catharsis that originates in the communist ideology - the other existing translations do not expose the poet's guts, in my opinion. Whereas the basis for my translations lies in the catharsis originating in modernism, with the energy that fueled the poet between 1912 and 1918. The knowledge that I draw my creative powers and my inspiration, and not only in translation, from the same source as he did, gives me a feeling of total identification with him, as though I'm his Hebrew spokesman, his cosmic brother. Even the change in the name of the book I was forced to make - I changed 'I Love to Watch Children Dying' to 'The Flute of the Gutters' - filled me with a type of pleasure, because the name of Mayakovsky's first book was also censored and changed from 'The 13th Apostle' to 'A Cloud in Trousers.'"

The poem "A Cloud in Trousers" was dedicated to his lover Lili Brik ("To you, Lili"), and is considered a turning point in his work and one of the cornerstones of Futurist poetry. Gelman emphasizes in his book that "the work gave the poet a place of honor in the pantheon of Russian and world poetry." Mayakovsky wrote the poem in 1914, at the outbreak of World War I. As the only son of a widow, he was exempted from the draft and traveled to a resort in Finland, where "in the evenings I walk around the beach writing the 'Cloud.'"

About a month before the poet's death, he said that at first he had called the poem "The 13th Apostle," and the censor asked him if he was dreaming of doing forced labor. "So they erased six pages and the title ... They asked me how I was capable of combining lyricism and coarseness. I told them:

If you like, I'll be furious flesh elemental, Or changing to tones that the sunset arouses, If you like, I'll be extremely gentle, Not a man, but a cloud in trousers."

Osip Brik, a scholar, literary critic and film director of Jewish origin, who was the cuckolded husband of Lili, the love of the poet's life, was the first to publish the abridged poem. About three years later it was published in full by the author, who wrote in the foreword that he considered the poem "a canon of contemporary art: 'Out with your love,' 'Out with your art,' 'Out with your regime,' 'Out with your religion' - the four cries of the four parts."

Lili Brik, whom Gelman describes in the book as one of the more exciting women of the 20th century, was born in Moscow and educated in a Jewish home with a love of culture and art. At the age of 21 she married, and the home of the young couple in St. Petersburg became a cultural salon and a meeting place for young artists. Her younger sister, Elsa Triolet, who was Mayakovsky's lover, brought him to their home for the first time. The poet read his poem "A Cloud in Trousers" aloud, and at the end of the evening he approached the married Lili and asked: "Can I dedicate it to you?"

The Briks fell in love with his talent and his personality; he fell in love with the mistress of the house. The couple took the poet in and they enjoyed a menage a trois. In 1919, in the midst of the civil war, the three moved to a small and miserable apartment in Moscow, and Mayakovsky wrote of the cramped house that "Four live in it now: / Lili, Osia, I and also / the puppy Shechnik."

In his suicide note he asked "his comrade the party" to take care of his family and of Lili. She did, in fact, safely survive Stalin's period of purges. The establishment even recognized her as the legal widow of the poet, and gave her an allowance for the rest of her life and half of the copyrights of his work. Brik did everything possible to preserve her "husband's" legacy, and in a letter she wrote to Stalin, a move that could have endangered her, she asked that the enterprise of the "herald of the revolution" not be forgotten.

Gelman writes that as a result of her letter, Mayakovsky was "killed" a second time: Stalin declared that he "was and remains the best and most talented poet of our Soviet era," and thus placed the mark of Cain on one of the giants of modern poetry. The bohemian Lili Brik reached a ripe old age and had quite a few lovers, up until the very last moment. In 1978, after her body betrayed her, she committed suicide.

In Brik's memoirs, one chapter of which Gelman includes in his book, she wrote about the first evening in her apartment, when Mayakovsky read "A Cloud in Trousers." Her husband fell in love with the poet, "whereas Volodya did not merely fall in love with me; he attacked me, it was an assault. For two and a half years I didn't have a moment's peace. I understood right away that Volodya was a genius, but I didn't like him. I didn't like clamorous people ... I didn't like the fact that he was so tall and people in the street would stare at him; I was annoyed that he enjoyed listening to his own voice, I couldn't even stand the name Mayakovsky. Such a loud name, and similar to a pen name, and even worse, to a cheap pen name."

When she asked him how he was able to write a poem to a woman named Maria and to dedicate it to another woman, he explained that while he was writing it, he had affairs with several women. Maria of the fourth chapter was actually Sonka, and had no connection at all with Maria from the first chapter.

Mayakovsky wrote his political poetry after deciding to remain in the Soviet Union after the Revolution. He knew that the poet Tsvetaeva was going hungry in exile in Paris. He chose a lifestyle that gave him not only status, but financial well-being and the chance to be a crowd pleaser as well. He also traveled abroad frequently. In the summer of 1925 he traveled to New York, where he met an immigrant who was also a native of Georgia: Elizaveta Petrovna. The two fell in love but kept the affair a secret; after his return to the Soviet Union, a daughter was born to them.

Still a mystery

Three years ago, that daughter, Patricia Thompson, now 81, a professor of philosophy and women's studies at Lehman College in New York City, published her book "Mayakovsky in Manhattan," which tells the story of her parents' love affair.

In writing the book she relies on her mother's unpublished memoirs and on conversations with her mother prior to her death in 1985. Thompson traveled to Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union, looking for her roots, and was welcomed there with the appropriate respect. She met relatives for the first time and began to use her Russian name: Yelena Vladimirovna Mayakovskaya.

In a phone interview from New York last week, Thompson said that the circumstances of her father's death are still shrouded in mystery.

"As a scholar and a veteran academic I don't dare to determine facts regarding his death without real proof. I only know that he did not commit suicide, and I will add that if he did so, he didn't do it because of a woman. After all, that has been the popular version for so many years."

Thompson says that her mother was born in Bashkiria in southern Russia. "She was a translator into English, and in the context of her work she met George Jones, an Englishman who fell in love with her, and like pretty young women her age, she married him in order to receive a permit to leave Russia after the Revolution. They traveled to New York and after a while they separated.

"At a party in the home of a lawyer in the city, my mother met Mayakovsky and for three months they were inseparable. My parents decided to keep the relationship between them a secret and they weren't even photographed together in New York. They walked on the Brooklyn Bridge and in the Bronx Zoo, and anyone who knew about the affair kept it a secret. And then he had to return to Russia, and wasn't allowed to go to New York again. After all, he was under permanent surveillance.

"Those were dangerous times. My father confronted the process of the Revolution that he had favored so much. He really believed that the people of the Soviet Union would benefit from it, but he was increasingly disappointed, and that's what hastened his demise. After his return to Russia he sent telegrams and letters to my mother, and when she discovered that she was pregnant she was alarmed. In those days, to give birth to a child out of wedlock was a terrible thing. Luckily, Jones loved her so much that he married her, gave her his name and took care of everything. I met my father once in my life and that was in Nice, France, when I was three years old. I remember that he was extremely tall."

"During my visit to Russia I met Veronika Polonskaya, a stage and film actress who was a friend of my father, and she consoled me and told me that my father remembered me and that I was dear to his heart. When he met me and my mother in Nice, he begged Mother to move to Italy, because there it would be convenient for him to visit us, but my mother told him that she had to think about my financial security. Jones was a wonderful father. He hoped to win my mother's love, but it didn't work; they divorced and my mother remarried."

Why did you wait so many years before revealing who your father was?

Thompson: "Now I'm going to get angry. It's a matter of values and good taste. My mother was a lady and her parents gave her an excellent education. She preferred to maintain her privacy and to forgo the publicity. It was a matter of privacy - not shame, God forbid. Good taste won out here. She and my stepfather decided to keep the Mayakovsky affair a secret. My mother also insisted that I acquire status and achievements on my own merits and not as the daughter of a famous person. And, in fact, I was a full professor and wrote 13 books before revealing my father's identity.

"My mother was an intellectual who spoke Russian, French, German and English fluently. My father knew quite a few women, but my mother was the most intelligent and the most gifted of all the women who surrounded him. She read poetry in many languages and even translated French and German poetry for Mayakovsky. They had a strong intellectual connection and an equally strong physical attraction. She said that he was the most amazing and charming man she had ever met, and she was beautiful herself and knew quite a few men. My mother once said to me 'Never blame him. Things were beyond his control.' The actress Polonskaya told me the same thing."

Did Polonskaya tell you anything you didn't know?

"I asked her why he didn't mention us in the farewell letter and she said that he was trying to protect us. My father had a close friend, David Burliuk, who painted a beautiful portrait of my mother. He said that my father was presented with a pistol and a shoe box. Among the Russian aristocracy, such a thing meant death or humiliation: Either you commit suicide or you will lose your good name."

During her journey to Russia, Thompson discovered that the chapter called "Dotchka," which was about her, had been removed from her father's official biography, which was written by Semen Kemrad, and that the pages of his diary in which he had apparently mentioned her had disappeared. That was why she was so happy to hear from Polonskaya that her father not only spoke of her, but even kept a Parker pen that he had received from her during that meeting in Nice, and that he kept a picture of her as a baby.

Last week Thompson added Emanuel Gelman's book to one of the 30 cartons in which she is collecting materials about her father, which she intends to send to the Mayakovsky Museum in Moscow.



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