Expansive Poetics – (Mayakovsky – 3)

Vladimir Mayakovsky (1893-1930)

AG: I think what I’d like to do is skip to the suicide poem (“At The Top of My Voice“), just to get the correalation between the universal (and the personal). “At The Top of My Voice – Unfinished Prologue To the Second Part of A Poem on the Five Year Plan”– one –  (this is Lily Brik, his girlfriend, having gone out of town to London – “She loves me. She loves me not”.. Who’s he referring to now? (Tatiana), the girl in Paris?

Ann Charters: Each girlfriend that I interviewed said the poem was to her. So.. you don’t know. There’s no name on the fragment. It’s just fragments, in his desk..

[Allen  resumes reading] – “She loves me  – loves me not/With my hands I pick/ and having broken with my fingers/ fling away..”… “the incident has petered out/the love-boat of life/ has crashed on philistine rocks…”.. “..Night tributes the sky/ with silver constellations/In such an hour as this,/ one rises and speaks/ to eras,/ history/ and world creation.. –  pssh!- and then he committed suicide

Ann Charters: No no no.

AG: Quite soon after.

Ann Charters: Soon after

AG: Actually, there’s another little piece involved it in another book..

Ann Charters: There are a lot of fragments, parts of  the poem, “At The Top of My Voice”, which I think you have..

AG: Yeah.

Ann Charters:  ..in your red book there.   He had the idea of writing part two (of this long poem, and in his desk were manuscript pages, fragments of lines, that he, perhaps, was going to work into part two of that poem.

AG:  An alternative translation – What I was reading was the (Herbert) Marshall translation, but the alternative to the last piece about the milky way  – “Past one o’clock, You must have gone to bed, the milky way streams silver through the night..”..”love’s boat has smashed against the daily grind..” …”Night wraps the sky in tribute from the stars/ In hours like these, one rises to address the ages, history and all creation..”

Ann Charters: You can see that Marshall’s translation has some.. He doesn’t have the ear, quite.

AG: I think Marshall had a better ear- “In such an hour as this, one rises and speaks to eras, history and…”

Ann Charters: Well, it’s one word .. “The incident has petered out..”

AG: “..on philistine”.. yeah.. “Love-boat 0f life” is crashed “on philistine reeds”?..

Ann Charters: It’s impossible to do a perfect job, because Russian and English are not equivalent languages. It’s just impossible. [Ann Charters addresses student]  Would you agree?

Student: Yes, I agree.. Russian translation is better in French than English

Ann Charters; Exactly, exactly,and this is the statement I also heard from Lili Brik. It’s even better in German, I feel, but somehow the English is…

Student: It is really a harsh sound in German, in..  it might work, but in sound and rhythm..

Ann Charters: Yes, well, French is the best. If you can read French, read Mayakovsky in French if you cannot read him in Russian. The last resort is reading him in English.

AG: Just one last footnote – Esenin’s suicide-note (1925) – “Goodbye, my friend, goodbye./ goodbye, you’re in my heart as evidence, our pre-ordained separation predicts reunion by- and by./ Goodbye No handshake to go through./ Let’s have no brows wrinkled with sadness./ Nothing new dying,/ though living is no newer” –
“There’s nothing new in dying now,/ though living is no newer” – Not a very good translation.

Ann Charters: That was written in blood. He didn’t have a pen.

AG: On the walls of the Hotel Metropole, in Leningrad?

Ann Charters: Yeah, in Leningrad (Saint Petersburg)….not Metropole,  (Hotel) Angleterre.. He hung himself and he had no pen – pretty incredible! – Mayakovsky comment on that (he had to, of course, say something official, after Esenin, his arch-rival, committed suicide) was that Esenin had never welcomed the glorious revolution (and therefore he was discouraged with life).  But it wasn’t at all the way Esenin had written in that last poem to Mayakovsky because what was hardest of all was to live, it was a coward’s way out to commit suicide – the easiest thing is to die (which was turning around Esenin’s last line).

AG: Well, we had his poem..

Ann Charters: One had a sense of a forced creation in the Mayakovsky answer, however
I should.. before we go too much further say, in addition to these problems of translation, that often the experience of living in a country is not translatable until you experience it living in another one – and this determined, (in) the suicide note, what Mayakovsky called the “everyday”, (or what was it “philistine”?)  reality (we have several different translations)..

AG: Oh you have a translation? – Great. Yours is done by your husband, Sam?

Ann Charters: By my husband Sam and a woman from Moscow called Rita Rait  R-A-I-T, (Rita Rait-Koveleva) who was a Russian lady, who was a translator of English and American Literature into Russian. We met her because she and Lili Brik, Mayakovsky’s love, had become friends in 1920. This over-eighty-year-old amazing woman Rita Rait (still alive today, makes her living as a translator, still) and is probably best known in the country for translating Mark Twain and Kurt Vonnegut (the translations of Kurt Vonnegut made her very famous in the Soviet Union and she’s come out here (to the US) a couple of times to visit Vonnegut. She also wrote a biography of Robert Burns (and had to leave Russia to do that), she’s an amazing..  came to stay with us in Stockholm and helped translate for us from Russian into English – her book that we wrote on Mayakovsky. But, it was impossible for even her, with all her skill and all her sixty years of experience translation of English into Russian, impossible for her to explain what this word was, that was central to understanding what Mayakovsky’s Revolution was about and that’s the word called B-Y-T, in Russian, byt

AG: Byt?

Ann Charters : Byt. And it means..ordinary reality, that’s all it means. I mean, that’s all it means, just.. the hardness of things, the grind, the mundane, the trivial, the commonplace. As he says, “love’s boat has crashed against it”

AG: Against Byt?

Ann Charters: Byt,  yes. That’s right, against everything that is commonplace, that we couldn’t.. our love was unable to rise above and (this is a very important word. I think it’s the word that Mayakovsky uses most of all. He found this existence incredibly boring and difficult and he really wanted to live on an elevated plane. He felt that the second revolution of 1917 was only the second of at least three and he was heartbroken that the third revolution had not happened. He thought that the Revolution in 1917, the second one, the successful one, the political revolution, had a… ..in government, to be fair, but he looked for the third revolution (he called it “the revolution of the spirit” and he kept waiting for it to happen and  felt that his job was to help to bring it about, and that this revolution was, in his own experience, forever defeated by byt – B-Y-T  “the experience of the mundane, commonplace, running a government, bureaucracy (amazing isn’t it?)

Student: Was he also a political revolutionary? a spiritual..
Ann Charters:  It’s beyond politics.
AG: Well, they’ve already had the Russian Revolution
Student: The first two revolutionary attempts are both political?
Ann Charters: Political, yeah – and the second one suceeded.
Student: And the second one suceeded, right, and the third one.. spiritual?
Ann Charters: ..is to come
AG: And that’ might be..  It might be good to bring up the… the Whitmanic
Ann Charters: Yes, let’s go there now.
AG: Because that leads on to  his conception of the Revolutionary Man, or Future Man, Whitmanic man.
Student: Let’s get on with it
AG: So.. Ann was.. when we were talking about what we had gone through before, with (Fernando Pessoa and  (Federico Garcia) Lorca, and so forth, and I said What if, or..and she suggested that Mayakovsky…. Oh, could you tell me about Mayakovsky’s relation to Chukovsky?

Korney Chukovsky (1882-1969)

Ann Charters: When Mayakovsky was hanging out with Burliuck and the others in Moscow, he was very poor, he didn’t have any money, he would stay with his mother, she gave him unlimited credit at the grocery store where she shopped, you know …and he was a very decent chap and didn’t eat too much and he walked for miles in the Moscow streets rather than spend the little money that he had on subways – I mean street-cars, trams, the buses Anyway, he stayed a summer. He was publishing, beginning to publish with Burliuck’s group and, of course, drawing great attention to himself (he was over six feet tall, almost like a basketball star, (and) a physically beautiful man, and quite a presence in Moscow). So he was invited to spend the summer at the home of a very fine man, a contemporary, named (and I’m going to find this in a minute) Korney Chukovsky  C-H-U-K-O-V-S-K-Y , in English Chukovsky – and, at this time, or around this time, Chukovsky who was many things, he  worked in magazines, he was a poet, he was also a translator, he wrote children’s books, and, at this particular time in Mayakovsky’s life, he was translating  the first extended translations of Walt Whitman (this is why I..

AG: Do you have the Khlebnikov poem?..
AC: So, he was living, Mayakovsky, in Chukovsky’s summer-house while Chukovsky has just finished his new Russian translation of Leaves of Grass, and Mayakovsky had read Whitman in fragments, he’d read no English, he read no French . Everything had to come to him through his friends. And he had loved the Whitman that he had heard from Burlieu – “Whitman impressed him (Mayakovsky) as being, like Mayakovsky, a fore-runner of world poetry as a destroyer of philistine literary tradition. When Mayakovsky heard Whitman’s poetry from 1855, he said “well, it’s already happened in America, this has happened, this ideal of the destruction of the past and the new spirit”.But Mayakovsky had been very critical of his friend’s translations, he thought they were too smooth and  polite. He wanted an impolite and a rougher Whitman in Russia. And his friend, who, as I said, was a very fair-minded and intelligent man, Chukovsky, felt that the young Futurists response, intuitive responses to the spirit of authority,were much closer to the original than his smooth translations. So, when Mayakovsky began to write a poem, after the “..Cloud..” called “A Man”, which was autobiographical, in 1916, 1917, there are, sometimes, echoes from specific Whitman passages, especially the cataloging, the device of, you know, cataloging, elements of your body or the world that Whitman uses to great effect. This is not Mayakovsky’s  innate distinctive response to speech rhythms in the poem. As I said, with “Cloud in Trousers”, he was going mostly with association and images and clusters of images and developing those. So, the passages in “A Man” which strike (me, at any rate, and my husband) as definitely influenced by Whitman (and there have been one or two scholars who felt  the same way) are just a few, in these catalog passages. However, you will notice that Mayakovsky is not just imitating Whitman, he has his own personal style, even as early as 1915-1916, and he has an undisguised swagger, which, well, is even beyond Whitman, the personal swagger.. It’s egotistical (Mayakovsky)

AG : The opening of “A Man (which is found in this Ardis House publication  – Russian Futurist Poetry) . Ann says..

AC: Why don’t you show them the pictures, it’s possible. There’s Mayakovsky in one of his Futurist outfits  –  he dressed  in this incredible flowing blouse, you know, with ties, sashes, he was just incredibly theatrical


AG: This publication is (the Ardis anthology of)  Russian Futurism  – Burliuk, Zamyatin Pasternak, Meyerhold Khlebnikov, Kruchenykh, Mayakovsky (and it’s got lots of Khlebnikov translations in it, also.. – and the first translation of this poem, “A Man”

Ann Charters: A very long poem. It’s the first complete translation
AG: Well..er..
Ann Charters: Actually he doesn’t say it but it could be that his sister sewed his blouse, made his costumes
AG: Oh.. costumes…
Student:(What page?)
AG:  It’s actually page 37 to page 62
Ann Charters: It’s a long one
AG [begins reading] – “The palm of the Minister of peace, remitter of all/ sins, the Sun’s palm is on my head.. The gown of the most precious nun, Night’s robes/ are on my back/I kiss the thousand-paged Gospel of  the days of my love” – is the first passage – [Allen continues with the poem] – … “It is I/ who has raised the heart like a flag./ Fantastic miracle of the twentieth-century!’

Ann Charters: This was written after he met Lili Brik, again, it was a poem to her. As I said the “Cloud  in Trousers” was (a) poem to the other loves, the earlier ones, the Marias in his life. Marie also was not the name of the girl but the poem in its attack had attacked religion, obviously to take Maria, the name of Christ’s mother, as the central sexual figure in the poem, that’s important, there are endless Christian parallels in  “A Cloud in Trousers”. In this one, in “Man”, the one with the Whitman influence, written specifically about his torment, the torment of his love for Lili Brik, there isn’t a sense of betrayal that the woman marries someone else but there’s a terrible sense that the woman cannot respond to love as much as the lover gives the love, a sense of betrayal, in other words, in that poem as well. I’d like to read some of that.

AG: Which is this?

Ann Charters: This is the one you’re doing now, Whitman-influenced, it’s arranged like “..Cloud in Trousers”, a long long poem, arranged in sections

AG: What section?

Ann Charters: I’m reading the very end of  it now.

AG:  Ok, Great

Ann Charters  (It’s) “Mayakovsky Through the Ages”.  And it’s celebrating, as Allen said, the “thousand page gospel of the days of my love” – still anti-religious, the gospel of a private love-affair – and “Mayakovsky’s Nativity” is the first section – “Mayakovsky’s Nativity” – “The Life of Mayakovsky” (section two) – “The Passions of Mayakovsky” (section three) – “The Ascension of Mayakovsky” (section four), “Mayakovsky in Heaven”, “Mayakovsky’s Return”, and “Mayakovsky Through The Ages” –  (those are all of) the sections of this poem

AG: And the last, there’s an eight-line last section, too
Ann Charters: Ok – and what he describes at the end is his suicide, he was a suicidal person, had tried it several times before he suceeded. He played Russian Roulette with his one bullet. Yes.. He was a gambler
Student: (The last time was) when he came to America?)
Ann Charters: Who can say? He had tried it before. At any rate, it was the same pristol. He.. yeah?
Student: This is an important question, when you speak of .the 1930 successful (suicide attempt)  as a political response, how do you..
Ann Charters: Well, that’s just it, I can only say that it’s a complicated motivation behind it and it is taken by outsiders, who don’t know, for example, that he tried several times.
Student: Is it possible that suicide was related to the spiritual revolution?
Ann Charters: Of course, of course.
AG: You mean the spiritual revolution is suicide?
Ann Charters: No, he’s not equating that but he’s
AG: ..relating the failure, or some..
Ann Charters: ..failure . You didn’t think suicide was a spiritual revolution?
Student: I was just askinng the question.
Ann Charters: I didn’t understand the question
Student: The question is –  Is suicide a spiritual revolution?. Is death a spiritual revolution?
Ann Charters: Oh, I don’t think so. I think Mayakovsky had no feelings about..  death was death, period, it was the end of being.
Student: Maybe guilt?
Ann Charters: Oh, I don’t know, You’ll find out.. So much happens to him. You don’t have any idea of the context.
AG: Big deal, Yes it was guilt! [laughter].  You thought it was politics? – no, it was love! –   “Fill out a form”
Ann Charters:  …fascinating, fascinating, fascinating..
AG:  – “Can you commit suicide over Guilt? Failure in Politics? Love? – or..” you could write (on) the form (what) you like(d) – or you got a C minus in Expansive Poetry!

Ann Charters: Lets go on, let’s go on, ok? Lets go on here. This is a 1916, “Man”, the one with the Whitman catalogs, yeah? This is an account of a suicide attempt that is imaginary, ok, that failed, that doesn’t fail, it succeeds, but it’s imaginary. He pretends that he does it, ok?. and then he pretends that he comes back to  the apartment of his loved one (in this poem he commits suicide over the failure of Lily to love him as fully as he wants to be loved), that simple. Then he comes back to haunt her after he does it (and he’s a strong fellow), and he describes what her apartment was like on Zhukovsky Street – the street lights were set into the middle of the street  – the same way – (he comes back years later) – houses were similar.. (“The streetlights were again located/in the middle of the street./The houses were the same”) – (I went to that apartment house, it still exists, in Leningrad, and they really do have a horses head carving in a little recess – it was very elegant apartment house at one time) – He asked the passers-by “Is this Zhukovsky Street?” (that was the name of the street when they lived there) –  “He (the passer-by”) “looks at me/ the way a child looks at a skeleton/eyes this big,/ tries to get past,/ “Oh no, it’s been Mayakovsky Street for thousands of years./ He shot himself here at his beloved door” – So the poet goes up, you know, he ascends, to the height of the apartment (they live, I think, on the seventh floor) – “High, high,/ further upward I passed,/ floor after floor,/ she has put herself behind a curtain./ I look behind the silk,/ everything’s the same,/ the same bedroom,/ She’s passed through thousands of years and still looks young ..”…  “There’s a legend:/ she jumped to him/ from the window/.They were scattered about/on top of each other” – (So he imagines his shooting himself and when she imagines the death of his love, throws herself out the window!) – “Where to now?” –  he asks –  “Wherever the eyes look. To the fields?/Let it be to the fields!..”  And he says, after Lili sacrifices herself to love, it will be a reminder to mankind  that love is the supreme power remaining triumphal after all living things – and Mayakovsky ends the poem with this section – “Everything will perish,/ It will all come down to nothing/ And the one who moves life… “…”I stand/ entwined in fire/ on the inextinguishable bonfire/ of inconceivable love.”

AG: His (Herbert Marshall’s)  translation  “incomprehensible love”

Ann Charters: Beyond anything you can conceive of

AG: Or else,  so confused?

Ann Charters: Yes, yes. Well, this is another kind of poem..

AG: (It’s) 1914, 1916, 1915, just before the Revolution

Ann Charters: Right, this was just before the Revolution  and, of course, when you write a poem like this to your beloved, to you mistress (they weren’t lovers at this point, Lily Brik was married to a man and had been married to him for several years, the man she fell in love with when she was fourteen, another Jewish man (she was Jewish, Mayakovsky was not) – and he became lovers with Lili Brik, and her husband Osip Brik became his life-long friend, and they lived together. It was a menage a trois that, again, was as famous as the suicide, these three people. Osip was his publisher and his theoretician, shall we say, his best friend, and Lily was his lover.

Audio for the above may be heard here, starting at approximately  forty-five-and-a-half minutes in and ending at approximately seventy-one-and-three-quarter minutes in-)

also available – here)

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