On July 19 1893 (July 7 on the Old Style Julian calendar) Vladimir Vladimirovich Mayakovsky, the great Russian poet, was born. Here’s Mayakovsky reading “An Extraordinary Adventure Which Happened To Me, Vladimir Mayakovsky, One Summer In The Country” (the English translation, along with several other Mayakovsky translations, may be found here). And here’s a shorter piece (in English translation: “And Could You?”). A recording of Mayakovsky’s great poem “At The Top of My Voice”, originally attributed to him, but now thought not to be him, is available here (Allen particularly admired this poem. As he declared in a NAROPA class on Mayakovsky and Russian “expansive” poetry, in July of 1981: “That piece that begins: “My verse will reach/ over the peaks of eras/ far over the heads/ of poets and governments”..that’s really one of the most powerful, heroic statements in the 20th century as prophecy – “My verse will reach…”
”So the title is “At The Top of My Voice”. So you’ve got to also dig it as, not merely wanting to address posterity (as (Percy Bysshe) Shelley did – “scatter my words, ashes and sparks among mankind” [from the closing lines of “Ode To The West Wind” – actually, “Scatter, as from an unextinguish’d hearth/Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind”], but, also, he’s got to speak over the heads of the political critics and over the ring of iron that was beginning to slowly close around (him)”.
“I thought the reason for this course is (was) heroic, expansive poetry, and the touchstone poems, or highlight poems, that I had in mind were (Guillaume) Apollinaire’s “Zone”, (Federico Garcia) Lorca’s “Ode To Walt Whitman”… (Ezra) Pound’s “Usura Canto” (Canto XLV), which I think we went over, and this poem, which is both tragic and heroic at the same time.”
Ginsberg’s class (available as an audio document here) was taught in collaboration with Russian Futurist (and Beats) scholar, Ann Charters (her book, written in collaboration with her husband, Sam, I Love – The Story of Vladimir Mayakovsky and Lili Brik had been published just two years earlier – Brik’s readings of two of her lover’s poems, “From Street To Street” and “The Fop’s Blouse”, (giving their titles their English translations), can be heard here and here
Allen again: “We think about Mayakovsky and the perspective in which we hold him of course is the perspective of (Anna) Akhmatova, basically, which is after the realization of the Gulags – (Aleksandr) Solzhenitsyn’s account of the forced labor camp system which sent 20,000,000 people to their deaths. We’re trying to get our minds back, however, to remember Mayakovsky was writing his poems in, for example, 1920, 1922, before all of this, while (Vladimir Ilyich) Lenin was still alive. And he didn’t have the sense of failure in the revolution, to the extent that Akhmatova did, obviously because historical events had not yet moved on.”
“But, yes, remember the two voices speaking for the Russian people – Mayakovsky’s first, and then Akhmatova.”
“Mayakovsky’s elegy on the suicide of Esenin – “In this life it’s not difficult to die. To/ make life is more difficult by far”. So he reverses Esenin’s couplet – “In this life to die is nothing new. But of course to live is nothing newer”. I don’t know which was smarter. Actually, Esenin’s in a way..”
Allen’s translations of Mayakovsky – he freely drew from what was current and available. Since 1981, scholarship and translation has developed and improved. One useful source is Michael Almereyda’s 2008 Night Wraps The Sky: Writings By & About Mayakovsky (which includes Matvei Yankelevich’s new translation of Mayakovsky’s classic “A Cloud In Trousers” (rendered here as “A Cloud In Pants”) and Ron Padgett’s “adaptation” of “At The Top of My Voice” – (“Screaming My Head Off”). Literary critic Marjorie Perloff reviews it here.
Allen confesses that Frank O’Hara was his conduit to Mayakovsky: “I had never read any Mayakovsky but Frank (O’Hara) turned me on to him and I’m always indebted to him because that opened my interest in Russian poetry. You see, Mayakovsky wasn’t printed in America, as (Pablo) Neruda wasn’t printed in those days, for being “Commies!”.
A special treat – for Mayakovsky’s birthday – here’s “an excerpt from a larger documentary by Copernicus Films and the director, Michael Craig, about Mayakovsky, (and part of a series of six flms about the Russian avant-garde and Futurism)”.