Mayakovski poetry (and utility in Russian learning)

2023-12-18 @Literature

If you don’t speak Russian, you may, with small likelihood, have heard of the Russian/Soviet avant-garde poet Vladimir Vladimirovich Mayakovski (1893-1930, Georgia born). If you do speak it, you may have, with greater, though still far from certain likelihood, have heard of one and the same Владимир Владимирович Маяковский.

“Mayakovski!? Who hadn’t heard of Mayakovski!?” If that even subtly communicates your ironic inner voice, don’t take offence. The supposition targets more the ignoramuses such as myself. Until a few years ago I hadn’t read or heard of any Russian silver-age poet, nor the term silver age.

For I don’t much read or explore about culture. It tends to evade my field of cognition until engaged by the very horns. I think that’s a fairly accurate statement …

Mayakovski, fitted among the futurists, or in particular, the cubofuturists: however little I’d read a few years back I found grossly indigestible.

Futurism, part of the Soviet avant-garde group, like the avant-garde of any language, usually takes effort to develop taste. I need first explore the earlier traditions before gradually approaching the somewhat acidic texture.

This year I thus reengaged Mayakovski with greater fervor. Several dozen poems later, I thought: epic.

Somewhere along my more impressionable journal entries I even spotted the occurrence of ‘genius’, though I should take heed of such nomenclature. In any case, ‘genius’ communicates very little of practical utility save for fanciful headlines. I probably need not explain myself on either of those points.

Since I’m hardly acquainted with the biographical but for the very superficial, let’s rather focus on the technical.

Mayakovski composed poems in compact (often one-word) lines of carefully emphasized inflection. These may initially seem unnatural.

Whether the earlier, pre-1923 period, that stanzas still traditionally lined up:

Ешь ананасы, рябчиков жуй,
день твой последний приходит, буржуй.

or post-1923, the verse acquiring the famously indented character:

Дело земли —
Литься —
                  дело вод.
         молодых гвардейцев —

the poems are all about cadence and sonority, mimicking natural dialogue not devoid of theatrics. Whether recited audibly or otherwise, you can’t appreciate it without that in mind.

You could almost say that poetry and drama intermingle in a form of dramatic monologue: intonation ingrained in the verse from the start.

And though a natural language cadence, I find much bizarre syntax all the same, sometimes forced to accommodate a rhythmic pattern.

Accentuation, sometimes manipulated or subject to word-play, is indispensable to proper lyricism.

Themes: social, political, vulgar. Many, unconventional to verse until then. Heavy irony and satire.

Post 1917, the poetry becomes increasingly revolution oriented. Subsequently, not without Soviet coercion and influence. For me, this latter period is an acquired taste and not universally appreciated.

Mayakovski, similar to the avantguardist Daniel Harms, even wrote children’s literature/poetry for probably like motives: more demand, less resistance. Much of it probably contained innuendoes: I’ve scarcely explored this branch to further comment.

Ultimately, Mayakovski saw a tragic end, similar to entire legions of Soviet silver-age writers-poets who didn’t emigrate.

That element notwithstanding, the poetry spawned a whole legacy, and is plain fun to recite: constrained only by your theatrical inclination.

If anything like me, you may opt to even develop language through poetry (as I have French through the symbolists). Mayakovski makes for the ideal specimen as far as I’m concerned. Therein you’ll find, all-in-one:

  1. Fairly modern pronunciation
  2. Rhythm
  3. Inflection
  4. Character
  5. Orthographic ambiguity (common across Russian, French and even English)

You’ll find all the above in abundant, contained, compact exhibit. You’ll find the best, the worst, and all the while very practical Russian.

A select list of Mayakovski verse you might entertain for starters:

Questions, comments? Connect.