Expansive Poetics – (Mayakovsky – 4)

Vladimir Mayakovsky – Costume Art for the Seven Pairs of the Clean and the Seven Pairs of the Unclean from the production of his play, Mystery-Bouffe (1918/1921)

AG: Footnote…speaking of menage a troisHeartbeat..
Ann Charters: Yes
AG: … is playing  today and tomorrow at the cinema down on the Mall. I’ve never seen it so I’ll probably go But, in case any of you are curious how Hollywood’s handled it.

Ann Charters: The thing about Mayakovsky which is also important to stress is that there is (there are), of course, at least two Mayakovsky’s, the one who wrote these private poems and the one who had a public role and was writing about revolutions and about society  – the Futurist, in other words. Sometimes they were combined, but often they were separate. After the Revolution, they became more and more seperate.  The public Mayakovsky, the spokesman for Lenin and the private Mayakovsky, with his love affair, the times with the Briks ( Lili and Osip) and his search for love with other ladies. Important to say, that, in 1918, to celebrate the success of the first Bolshevik Revolution, the first year of the Revolution, Mayakovsky wrote probably one of his most famous political, the public Mayakovsky, creations, and it was a play, called Mystery Bouffe, and he wrote this play (he wrote a lot of plays, he was interested in the theatre, he acted in the theatre) As you hear, it was an oral tradition and it was a highly theatrical performance when they read – Esenin and  Mayakovsky, And the play Mystery Bouffe, in 1918 (it was re-worked in 1921)  is a wonderful play (you should give it at Naropa some time, it’s a good English translation and there’s a book of collected, complete plays in English – and, you want to talk about that (one) Allen?

AG: I’ll read that, if you explain it

Ann Charters: Yes, what he does is create a situation where the two sides – it’s an endless Marxist dialectic, there are two casts of characters, there is “the clean” and “the unclean”. The “clean” are the people who do not welcome the Revolution, (clean, meaning they’re white-collar workers, intellectuals who are not fellow-travelers), then there’s the “unclean” who are the proletariat.  A little confusing because we have moral feelings about “unclean” and “clean”, but..he uses “unclean” for the good guys and “clean” for the bad guys, if you can follow that..

Student: Sounds like (William) Blake?

Ann Charters:: It is,  in a sense, or I am reminded of..

Ann Charters: Anyway, he creates a character. while their squabbling, the “clean” and the “unclean””. I’m really simplifying the plot, but they go in an ark together, like Noah’s ark,  and there’s a flood and they’re the only ones saved from the flood, which is Revolution, and it destroys the past, and then its time to make the new, the new life. And the “unclean” are having troubles with the “clean”, who.. they throw overboard and they let them starve and drown. But the “unclean” when they arrive at the sort of Promised Land, they are milling about in great confusion. They don’t know anything, They don’t know how to live. The Revolution has occured and then the confusion is after their side has won. So Mayakovsky creates a character named “The Man of the Future”, (who he played himself, in the theater) ..and he created lines of poetry which are statememts to his belief as to the political program, in a sense, that the people needed to hear at this time. This is, in other words, supporting the Bolsheviks regime and it’s a statement to the workers who have succeeded in taking over the system and the question is “Now what?” -and here is Mayakovsky’s answer

AG: Well, before that, there are brief speeches by workers –  “Blacksmith: (God is an orange, cherries and apples…)” –  [Allen reads (enthusiastically! and at some length) from Mayakovsky’s play.….] .. “What prophecies did he succeed in creating?”..and so forth..

Ann Charters:   and so forth-  He  suceeded in creating   on earth, again a reference to the Christ figure who is no more Mayakovsky, the “Man of the Future”, is an ordinary man and also a reference to the Brotherhood of Communism, the eventual statelessness of all of us under utopian heroic Communism, you understand?   – this is before Russian Communism became the phenomena that it is today . This is still what you would call “Visionary Communism”, or, the term usually used by art historians is “Heroic Communism”,  and it existed for, well, two or three years after the Revolution. It was a kind of enormous cultural turmoil and wonderful production..

AG:  (Anatoly) Lunacharsky..?

Student:(Was it popular?)

Ann Charters:  This is a positive.. Well, there you go again, is it a popular play? – not as popular as Mayakovsky wanted it to be and part of the problem he said (and Lily was involved in the production) was that there was no support, there was of course confusion. There was no good theateres and do forth.  The actors when they were given these roles to play, the traditional conventional actors said they couldn’t understand, that this was bohemian avant-garde stuff and there was a difficulty getting it produced the way Lunacharsky and Mayakovsky wanted it to be.

Image from www.maly.ru

Anatoly Lunacharsky (1875-1933)

AG: Who’s Lunacharsky?

Ann Charters: Okay, After the Revolution, a man who was in charge called the Commissariat of Education and who was the co-ordinator, the administrator really, in the Arts, was a remarkable man called Andrei? or Alexander? (Anatoly) Lunacharsky – and he was an administrator but also he had tremendous sympathy for the avant-garde in Russia at the time, and so, although government people were askance at what he did, he let wild guy poets like Mayakovsky and unknown Jewish intellectuals like the Briks, have space in theaters to produce their plays and publish their poetry, and this was one reason why that period of Heroic Communism was as outstanding as it was, because the avant-garde was, for a brief time, able to consider themselves spokesmen for the masses. But your question is a good one –  were they?  You know, did the common man come to the “Mystery Bouffe”  and laugh and think that it was the greatest thing he’d ever seen, or would he rather see Charlie Chaplin?

AG: Well, I think that’s answered by our next poetic trip which would be the.. “The 150 Million”

Ann Charters: Mayakovsky, you see, really believed that he could do it, that he could, almost single-handedly, with his poetry, raise the consciousness of the masses. And he decided that he would write a poem, in 1920 (this is the same time that he dashed off the poem to the sun which you have in your red book – This is now 1920.  He’s making his living Mayakovsky writing slogans, advertizing slogans, which.. and political slogans for the telegraph company, (not advertising, at this point, that came later, at this time he’s working for the telegraph, the Russian telegraph company) (because) they didn’t have newspapers, and in Moscow, they had big posters in the windows of all the storefronts which had no food, no goods..civil war.. completely impoverished, you know, the country – the Reds and the Whites fighting each other. So, in order to get the news about campaigns to exhort citizens to wok even harder on the next quota. Mayakovsky and lot of other people drew these cartoons, a lot of people were illiterate also so that things had to be very simple texts and pictures… there are some wonderful cartoons. He was drawing as well as writing the poetry.

AG: Anti-capitalist cartoons.


Ann Charters: And he worked for RSTA for almost two years and he worked for about eighteen hours a day. He was a very strong man and he worked, he really worked. There was no heat, there was no material (the poorest quality), art..

AG: Actually, we have some sample of his slogan posters , some stuff (well, from 1922 this is)


Ann Charters: This is committed poetry. This is how he served the revolution.

[Allen begins reading –  “Peasants, Look at these pictures here, /You’ll understand why pears are more dear”.. “Transport was ruined by foreign intervention/Now it’s partly put right by Soviet invention/And everybody who wants to may/Travel by night and travel by day.”…. – Allen reads right down to the details -“Poster issued by.. Chief Political Education Committee, number 250, 1922..” etc]

Ann Charters: Yes, yes, and these posters were duplicated, they were stenciled and then duplicated off and sent to all the hamlets in the Soviet Union, and his work reached..  He was the most-read poet, certainly, on that level.

AG: These are… Those lines are sub-titles to two color posters

Ann Charters: Yes, yes.  And his poems were read by everybody for the news as well as for the political slogans that they contained, but he had a grander ambition, in 1920.. You have the sun poem, which is a personal poem about being visited in his country-house, but his public poem from that time, a very long poem, very complicated poem, called “150 Million”, that’s to speak for every one of the citizens of the Soviet Union (there were one-hundred-and-fifty-million people in that country). (It) was to be published anonymously, because Mayakovsky believed that a poet didn’t have any right to claim to speak for one-hundred-and-fifty-million,  but (that) somebody had to, and so he did it – It was published anonymously – Five thousand copies, which is, right there, a little ironic – five thousand copies for one-hundred-and-fifty-million people? . Well, (but) what was the literacy rate at that time? – it was really not very high, not very high..

AG: You’ve got to.

Ann Charters: Yeah, let me read you a little bit of it.

AG: So what’s interesting is this attempt to be heroic, expansionist popular poet and then ..and then afterwards there are the comments by Lenin and Trotsky on this text.

Ann Charters: Again, to answer your question, how was his work received..

Student: (Did other people read this aloud or hear him read it?)

Ann Charters: Oh yes, of and course and he went around factories and he went around youth groups and schools.. and reading. He was professionally involved reading all of his life, made most of his income from reading – [Ann Charters begins reading] – “150 Million is the name of the Creator of this poem…” – I mean, I can’t do justice. You can just hear him, shouting it out! –

AG: “150 Million!”

Ann Charters:  “..is the name of the Creator of this poem”. Why don’t you do it? – Just a little bit there.

AG: [Allen begins reading] – [ “150 Million is the name of the creator of this poem/ its rhythm, bullets…..  my poem no-one is the author!” ]

Ann Charters: Now this poem had a play that was within a poem. There was mock-heroic proportions in this poem. He had two characters – “Woodrow Wilson”, who was the American defender of world capitalism, but in the gigantic monolithical struggle with “Ivan”, the Russian champion of the oppressed proletariat, Wilson is ignobly defeated (this is a poem of world dimensions again, a cosmic battle). Now, we are presenting it almost as a comic poem, but scholars of Mayakovsky assure me that it is not meant to be funny, he’s deadly serious and it is one of his greatest poetic achievements. Now, there’s great divergence of opinion about Mayakovsky, and the within the Mayakovsky camp, (which people like what poems, you know, it’s very complicated), but people whose judgment, scholarly judgment, I respect say this is one of his greatest poems, and it has never been translated into English. All I can say is from the summary, I can’t understand why it would be called this, but I come from a very different place..
Student:  (…Is that (this particular poem) an example of what the Russian government likes?…)

Ann Charters: The Russian government likes most of Mayakovsky and his works are in print and countless.

AG: Let’s cover this answer to this question historically. So what’s the immediate reaction?

Ann Charters : The answer is, yes. Segments of it are known. It is not that positive in the Soviet Union because it is an intellectual’s poem again. Mayakovsky took the advice,  he was interested always in linguistic innovation, and that’s something, (that), without a knowledge of Russian, we can only get through scholarly documentation, but in his poems he endlessly made-up forms and made-up words. He was just terribly inventive with the language and he created this poem as a parody of the ancient folk epic called the bilyny and he tried to create two figures, as I have said, of mock-heroic proportions because this was the tradition of the folk epic that he was imitating. He got his knowledge of the folk epic, not because he was a student of Russian poetry, he got his knowledge from Osip Brikwho was a student of epic poetry, was the.. was, in fact, one of the founders of the Russian Formalist critical group, which if you’re involved in literary scholarship, you’ve heard of Formalism and Structuralism – it was all started in Russia after the war in the apartment where Mayakovsky was living with the Briks. So, is it a popular poem? no, because it’s kind of a fake poem, it’s modeled on an ancient style, and it’s very very long , it’s mock-heroic, it doesn’t seem to be as funny as it might have been once.

Student : (I don’t know but), it would seem to me that there would be some tremendous conflict on his part, after the Revolution, of him seeing it as a propagandist versus an idealist poem (which)..

Ann Charters: No, no conflict at all. No, no, I mean, this is a man who believed in..

Student:  (But)  it wasn’t taking a direction, was it?, that.. that the idealist that he, apparently was…

Ann Charters: Well he, he thought, of course, that within the party, they didn’t understand him and let me read you, I’m glad you asked, because I have the response and..

AG: This is the gist. Now this gets interesting.

Ann Charters: This is why it’s impossible to say in a few words why he committed suicide, because, although he was a spokesman for the party, he was nevertheless not finding favor
right?  And that’s terrible. Who else is there to commend you? – Alright, Mayakovsy had a lot of trouble getting this poem published. It was published by the State Publishing House in, as I said, an edition of  five thousand copies, and this was very difficult to pull off in 1920.

AG: Lunacharsky’s work

Ann Charters: Lunacharsky made it happen. There was very few paper.. there’s no type, ink (all these physical things were really a problem) and they devoted enough (time) to do five thousand copies, and bound them, and so forth – the State Publishing House. His name was never on the copies, and he had, however, (Mayakovsky) insisted that three copies of this poem would have his name on it and would be given to the Briks, (one copy for Lily, one copy for Osip), the special dedications to the Briks, he felt that that would be his only payment, the three special copies. You can see right away this is a problem. You’re dealing with a bureaucracy. These copies were never delivered and he never forgot that and finally he made the State’s printers write an official apology. He was difficult, as far as payment was concerned. He sent copies of the poem to Lenin and other important people in the Comfut group,and this was one of the important organizations of  the time – The Committee of Futurist Communists ok & – Comfut – because, not only was he (Mayakovsky – and the Briks) not very close to Lenin and Trotsky but also other Futurist Communists in the group (they were a very splintered group). So this was also a problem. The important thing here was that Lenin’s response, and the response of the Party members in control, was immediately hostile. Lenin wrote a note to Lunarcharsky (who was in charge of the whole shenanigan) that unmistakably clarified his position toward Mayakovsky and the other Futurists. And this is Lenin now – [Ann Charters reads Lenin’s response] – “Lunacharsky, aren’t you ashamed of yourself? for bothering to print 150 Million in five thousand copies? It’s nonsense, stupidity, double-died stupidity and pretentiousness. In my opinion, only about one in ten of such things – (and he meant avant-garde (publications)) – should be published, and then in editions of not more than one-thousand-five-hundred copies – (I love that – Lenin is such a.. you know, particular, specific mind!) –

AG: It’s amazingly generous too

Ann Charters: It is generous to think…he speaks of art.. and presses here,  but , he wants these in editions of not more than “one-thousand-five-hundred copies, “for libraries and eccentrics” –  (that’s Lenin’s response to Mayakovsky and that poem) –
(Leon) Trotsky was more sophisticated. He understood at least that the poem was supposed to be a literary parody  but he thought it was brutally heavy-handed

AG: .. Parody of the the original folk song form

Ann Charters: Folk-song genre, yeah – a whole epic genre, actually. He thought it was a very heavy-handed and completely unsuccesful, unsuccessful parody, and he wrote in Literature  and Revolution (which is where I got it from), his book, (Trotsky, he wrote journalism) –  “How out of place and, particularly,  how friviolous do these primitive ballads and fairy tales sound when hurriedly adapted to Chicago mechanics and to the class struggle” – (he’s putting him down as if he were a theoretician primarily)..

AG:  And the other angle you were talking about – there were Writers Unions. So there was… so there were rival groups of writers too.. who were also competing for paper, print, attention and public notice, who were they?

Ann Charters: Well, this  was.. among others, of course, others, others in the Futurists group who had…

tape ends here

(Audio for the above may be heard here, starting at approximatelyseventy-one-and-three-quarter minutes in and ending at the end of the tape)
It may also be heard here)

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