Mayakovsky (Allen Ginsberg’s 1975 Naropa class)

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Vladimir Mayakovsky (1893-1930) aged 17 – photographer unknown

AG: Shifting same time (19th/early 20th century) to Moscow. Or.. of the same time, the equivalent group in Russia were the Futurists, who were maybe the earliest relatives, the earliest people who broke up a sense of consciousness, or a sense of a solid consciousness that the 19th century had. It was broken up a good deal in Rimbaud with the Alchemy of the Word and the long reasoned derangement of the senses, but by the time of 1905, it had become already artistic practice, and not just a great eccentric genius like Rimbaud. It (had) got into the mainstream. Cezanne said his big ambition was to paint pictures like they hang in the museums. That was his big ideal.
Student: All the German poets, on the other hand, were really connected with music. Always.
AG: No I don’t know. Yeah I guess so, because the music was so strong in Germany.
[He begins, with no further announcement, to recite “An Extraordinary Adventure Which Befell Vladimir Mayakovsky In A Summer Cottage] “A hundred and forty suns in one sunset blared…/… I must sit here and draw these posters” – Because Mayakovsky began, 1905, as a Futurist, with a long poem, “A Cloud In Trousers” – This is post-Revolutionary practical realism, but still with some weird imagination going on – “I’ve got to sit and draw these posters”! [he continues] – “I yelled at the sun again;/”Wait now!..” … “drawing a breath, he spoke..”…”We warmed up/to each other”… “ hell with everything else!/ That is my motto – and the sun’s!” – It’s a funny application of that modern informality of spirit to a great classical subject. There’s a poem by Frank O’Hara, who taught me Mayakovsky actually, gave me my first book of Mayakovsky, “A True Account Of Talking To The Sun At Fire Island” [Allen begins] “The Sun woke me this morning loud/ and clear, saying Hey..” – So you see the shift of tone in 50 years. “Hey!” – there’s a kind of brusque, boisterous Russian familiarity in Mayakovsky, but then, fifty years later in New York City gossip, funniness, faggotry, camp,”Personism”, the same thing as Mayakovsky. I think O’Hara liked Mayakovsky because Mayakovsky realized that he was as good as the sun. The sun shone, Mayakovsky shone, both were natural objects, both had nothing to fear from their shining. Both shone equally on their own nature, or the poet and the sun both shine equally of their own nature. It ain’t against the law to mouth vowels any more than it is against the law for the wind to make wind in the trees – noises. But here the diction is different, it’s “Hey!” – “The sun woke me this morning loud/ and clear, saying Hey..” [Allen continues – “..I’ve been/ trying to wake you up for fifteen/ minutes…”.. and continues to the end of the poem, O’Hara’s poem, “Darkly he rose and then I slept”.] – It’s as good as the Mayakovsky, almost. Or, as he says, he’s “only the second poet that the sun has chosen to speak to personally”. It’s a great gimmick – the image set-up, the metaphor, whatever you call it. The dramatic situation set up shows how you can write a poem real easy. All you have to do is imagine something as funny as that. Go talk to a subway or talk to the floor! – “Floor, why are you so…
Student: Flat-
AG: …hard on my heels”. “I’m trying to support you as best I can” – Seeing light always shining out the sky? – “Well, I was , just tryin’ to keep the rain off ya”. Well, you could talk to a microphone if you want. It’ll answer back and you’ll hear it. So anybody can write a poem, anytime, anywhere. All they have to do is think of something funny. An image. It’s got to be an image, and it’s got to be real, and it’s got to be clear enough so that everybody can understand it on a child’s simple level. It’s the child’s simple level, which is actually what everybody really is in their secret ear or mind, that makes it so engaging. Because Frank is Frank, Frank is being frank, his own “bang-tail mind” (was (Jack) Kerouacs phrase, or (Neal) Cassady’s phrase) – “Oh, little bang-tail mind”. A poem iike that or Mayakovsky’s is like opening a door of the mind to all of the natural thoughts that we actually have, as children have them, and we have as old men. I think Anne (Waldman)’s class and others will probably get more O’Hara. I want to go back to Mayakovsky, because what I’m trying to do… What time now?
Student: 7.25

AG: Okay, what I’m trying to lay out now, fast (I’d better jump more then) is the heroic voices that took up, took off, after Rimbaud. That’s why I skipped Laforgue and I skipped Corbiere. Their voices were very “right”, very dictional, correct, dictionally correct. Their minds were smart, but that burst-of-sun language comes from Mayakovsky, as it came from Apollinaire, a burst of mellowness of language, a burst of humor which is 20th century. It really is an escape from the authority of the State , and the authority of Literature, and the authority of rightness and wrongness, and an escape and a refuge in the final authority of personal imagination. So it’s in a tradition of Whitman, it’s in a tradition of Thoreau, it’s in the tradition of Einstein, because Einstein says the eye altering alters all, or according to the measuring instrument, you space your universe. The space of the universe is determined by what instrument sees it, hears it, smells it, tastes it, touches it, or measures it with a light-year-telescope or rumor of mind… [tape ends here, second side begins in media res] – …at a very weird time when Stalinism had already begun to destroy Mayakovsky’s friends. The greatest Soviet poet of the century, I think, Sergei Esenin, had committed suicide, writing his name in blood on the wall of Hotel Angleterre in Leningrad, or (St.) Petersburg (it was Leningrad by then). I don’t have a text by Esenin yet. If anyone can get me one, I’d like to find “The Hooligan’s Confession” or “The Confessions of A Bum” (same poem, differently translated). I haven’t been able to get over to the school library and I haven’t found it in Brillig Works (the book-store) yet. Does anybody get over to the library? Here. Raise your hands if you get over to the U(niversity) of C(olorado) library. Could you check that out? – Esenin – Y-E-S-S-I-N-E-N (you might write that down, because I’m giving you the name of a great classic poem to turn you on) – or E-S-E-N-I-N, depending how it’s spelled. First name, Sergei – and it’s a poem called “Bum’s Confession” or “Hooligan’s Confession” or “Confessions of A Bum”. (Mayakovsky’s) “At The Top of My Voice” – So I think Esenin had already suicided, Mayakovsky defending himself against the party hacks, taking his poetry case to the public [Allen begins reading Mayakovsky’s “At The Top of My Voice”] – “Most respected/ comrades heirs and descendents…”…”there lived once a singer/ blood all a-boil/ who hated most cold water raw” – I’ll look up the footnote and find out what that’s all about.It’s some provincial Russian.. ah! “Mayakovsky has drawn health posters”. You see, he worked real hard for the Revolution and he got into poster art and public poetry.”Some posters urged people to drink boiled water against epidemics”, “A certain champion of boiled water, and an inveterate champion of raw water” – [Allen continues reading] – “Professor,/ take off those optical bicycles!..” [Allen reads through till the end of the poem] – “I’ll lift high,/ like a Bolshevik party card/ all the hundred books/ of my/ ComParty poems!” – 1930 – and then he committed suicide within several years. His suicide note – he was on love with a lady named Lili Brik (who’s still alive (1975), who was married to an essayist and living in London at the time, 1930. This year then, I guess, then. Lili Brik has a later interesting history as a great friend of the younger poets following Essenin and Mayakovsky’s vocal example – Andrei Voznesensky (and, somewhat, Yevgeny Yevtushenko, but more Voznesensky) and the wilder poets of the ‘50’s and ‘60’s in Russia, who did break through, and had to confront (Nikita) Khruschev in the mass party-hack assemblages of the government conventions. So Lili Brik was like the old Bohemian, tolerant, friendly, non-ideological survivor – by wit, by fame, by friendships (her sister married to a great Communistic poet, Louis Aragon). So it was like an international family, but still within Russia, still inside the Communist scene – still trying to transform that, in a sense, as the American poets have tried to transform the American scene. At that point, I think Brik was in London, he was alone. He didn’t really have anyone he could talk to, under attack by a bunch of “party hacks” (this is a phrase used in Russia for the subservient bureaucrats, the subservient officials, in the Writers Union, or the theatre, among the groups of theatre workers who were subservient to what is there called the “police bureaucracy”, which is a very apt phrase). Mostly party hacks and police bureaucracy out of the old tradition of Russian police state. They’ve evolved those terms, which are very useful because they are non-paranoiac terms and socially acutely descriptive. He had a play in rehearsal which was an attack on the party bureaucracy and I think it was cancelled and a note was put on the door that it was cancelled and he wasn’t told, and it was like the sign of doom for him that he no longer had power in the Writers Union, and could no longer defend himself and that what he thought was (a) great revolution had turned in on him and destroyed the poetics of his own time, beginning with all the Futurists who he was friends with, who got bricked out of the scene in 1920, ‘23, when there was a great theoretician, named (Anatoly) Lunacharsky, who ran the art scene in Moscow, and b(r)ought up all the Futurists, and got a really great poetry and painting scene going, and theatre and movies. By the time between 1935 and 1953, probably, the gossip in Moscow is that 20 million people were arrested, and 15 million never came back! – arrested and sent to Siberia! – 15 million didn’t come back. That was already closing in on Mayakovsky with the closing of his play. But his main concern was Lili Brink in London [Allen takes up the poem again] – “It’s past one o’clock/ you must have gone to bed”..”Look what stillness in the world/ Night has covered the sky with a starlit tribute/ At such hours you rise and speak/ to the ages, history, and the universe” – (And) then he shot himself. So there was this enormous surge that you get, a common- brotherhood surge that you’ll get again in (Federico Garcia) Lorca, particularly his “Ode to Walt Whitman”).

The audio for this class is available (starting approximately 26 minutes in) on

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