June 9 1981 – Allen Ginsberg’s Expansive Poetics class continues at Naropa Institute. On this day, Ann Charters, who, two years earlier, in collaboration with her husband Sam, had published I Love – The Story of Vladimir Mayakovsky and Lili Brik, is the class’s special guest. The emphasis therefore is on Mayakovsky and twentieth-century Russian literature.
This is the conclusion of the poem – [Allen reads from “Requiem”] – “Remembrance hour returns with the turning year./I see, I hear, I touch you drawing near:/the one we tried to help to the sentry’s booth,/and who no longer walks this precious earth,/ and that one who would toss her pretty mane/ and say, “It’s just like coming home again.”/ I want to name the names of all that host,/but they snatched up the list and now it’s lost./ I’ve woven them a garment that’s prepared/out of poor words, those that I overheard,/ and will hold fast to every word and glance/all of my days, even in new mischance,/ and if a gag should bind my tortured mouth,/through which a hundred million people shout/ then let them pray for me, as I do pray/for them, this even of my remembrance day./ And if my country ever should assent/ to casting in my name a monument,/ I should be proud to have my memory graced,/ but only if the monument be placed/ not near the sea on which my eyes first opened -/ my last link with the sea has long been broken -/ nor in the Tsar’s garden near the sacred stump,/ where a grieved shadow hants my body’s warmth,/ but here, where I endured three hundred hours/in line before the implacable iron bars./ Because even in blissful death I fear/ to lose the clangor of the Black Marias/ to lose the banging of that odious gate,/ and the old crone howling like a wounded beast./ And from my motionless bronze-lidded sockets/ may the melting snow, like teardrops, slowly trickle/and a prison dove coo somewhere, over and over,/as the ships sail softly down the flowing Neva”
– So, twenty years later, she is saying, “and if a gag should bind my tortured mouth,/through which a hundred million people shout”, which is really a colossal claim (even I never could claim I was speaking for a hundred million people all at once! – prophetic). (Vladimir) Mayakovsky said a hundred-and-fifty million (“150,000,000”) and I wonder if that’s a reference?
Ann Charters: It probably is. Although there are fifty million who supported the regime and two-thirds who did not.
This is a good point also to consider, that Akhmatova’s poem is written after the horrors of Stalin, and this is also after Mayakovsky’s suicide. We think about Mayakovsky, (and) the perspective in which we hold (him), of course, is the perspective of Akhmatova, basically, which is after the realization of the Gulags – (Aleksandr) Solzhenitsyn’s account of the forced labor-camp system which sent twenty million 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’s.
[Vladimir Mayakovsky (1893-1930) in 1928, aged 35 – photo by Alexander Rodchenko]
(Audio for the above may be heard here, starting at the beginning and continuing to approximately eight-and-a-half minutes in)
to be continued