Expansive Poetics – (Mayakovsky and Mandelstam)

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Vladimir Ilych Lenin (1870-1924)

transcription from Allen Ginsberg’s “Expansive Poetics” Naropa Class continues from here

Ann Charters:  So okay. And with this poem of “Lenin”,  Mayakovsky (this is first read on October 18th, 1924) pledges his loyalty to the Bolsheviks with this poem eulogizing a great man – and Lenin was a great man. I mean, the camps hadn’t yet begun, and so forth. And he decided, or he said to the world in this poem,”Lenin”, that he was turning away from personal lyricism – you remember that line in “ At the Top of My Voice”..

AG: Yeah

Ann Charters: ”Putting your foot on your own throat” – (“But I/ subdued/ myself/ setting my heel/ on the throat/ of my own song”) (his) turning away, and his role as a poet was to infuse – I’m quoting now – “ I  want to infuse/New glitter/ Into the most glorious word,/ “Party”” – whoops!  There’s a problem there. And he dedicated the poem..

AG: That’s two years after (Anna) Akhmatova’s husband (or ex-husband) (Nikoly) Gumilev, 1923, had been shot already.

Ann Charters: Sure, yeah, Mayakovsky

AG: Nineteen twenty-three!

Ann Charters: …Mayakovsky was, as I said,  very slow to learn in that sense, yeah.   Anyway, he dedicates the poem to the Russian Communist Party and he uses a lot of Lenin’s speeches when he makes up the poem, which is another reason why it became so popular – because, just as poets echoing other poets are a tradition in poetry, so in political poetry you try to echo the words of the politicians that you are eulogizing. And so seventy-five printed pages of this poem – it’s a long, long, long…

Student: Wow!

Ann Charters:  ..poem. You brought a lunch, kind of, if you wanted to hear it. Seventy-five printed pages later, it ends: “Long live the Revolution, joyful and fast./This is the only great war of all that history has known.” Yeah. Okay
So, you say, how can he reconcile his feelings as a poet  or his feelings as a private person with his public role? His argument would run, I think, that at the time these finer points about freedom, the word having power over, you know, humankind or whatever are futile. What we have to do is all get together in one concerted group and we will, you know, have.. get ahead. He says, for example…

AG: These are from the poems, then?

Ann Charters: Yeah, this is from “Lenin”

AG: How long is the whole thing?

Ann Charters: Seventy-five printed pages. I don’t know how many lines. Thousands, you know.

AG: And he read it aloud as a performance piece?

Ann Charters: As a performance. Yeah. “Could in such a time, the word “democrat” ever enter a stupid head” (in his troubled times). “If one should hit then hit so that the sidewalk gets wet”. “The clue to victory is in iron dictatorship” – It’s words like this that made people like (Aleksandr) Solzhenitsyn(who) quote(s) him in The Gulag Archipelago, despise Mayakovsky. Remember, this is 1924, and the Gulag hadn’t… but it was beginning. He just wasn’t too swift. Yeah.

Okay, Mayakovsky justified everything that he’d done in the seven years since 1917 – all of the wars, all of the suffering, the beginnings of persecution – by his vision of the new society that was being created. Despite his own difficulties, he should have known about (Nikolay) Gumilev, because he himself had been under attack by Party officials for not towing the line. He himself had been individual, but he asserts in the “Lenin” poem that the individual is of no importance to the future. And he says, “An individual, Who needs him?!/ The voice of an individual is thinner than a chirp./ Who’ll hear it? – the wife perhaps!/ And only if she’s around, and not out shopping.” Various..various contemptual (sic) dismissals of the private person in the poem are very difficult to understand, because Mayakovsky himself is an individualist, as we shall soon see.

A year after this poem, he starts one of his private poems again. There is this spirit in him, you know. He says something in one poem and he’s.. well, like what’s that lady’s name Sandy O’Connor, who’s now the woman.. first woman Chief Justice. And when she’s doing her legal work in Arizona she’s for abortion, and when she has a little talk with (President Ronald) Reagan, “Would you like to be on the Supreme Court?”, and she says, “Absolutely. Abortion is abhorrent to me”.

AG: There’s a good..

Ann Charters:  You know, like which way is the wind blowing? People who are in public life and who are ambitious and so forth. And this is the same kind of situation, if you want to look at it that way…

AG: What’s his line about the individual there again?

Ann Charters: “An individual!, Who needs him?!/ The voice of an individual is thinner than a chirp./ Who’ll hear it? – the  wife perhaps!/  And only if she’s around, and not out shopping.”

AG: Okay, so in contrast with that is (Osip) Mandelstam, who was constantly shut up and persecuted, (and) directly persecuted by Stalin, keeping track of him, having police follow him around, and, whenever he moved, having a policeman go live next door, and even, policemen would come into his house and say, “Well, what are you writing these days?”. You “can’t tell the difference between a turkey and a provocateur” in that situation.

Ann Charters: There’s a..

AG:  In 1936, 1937, a quatrain by Mandelstam – “Hillocks of human heads into the horizon,/and I am diminished – they won’t notice me,/(but I’ll come back) resurrected in tender books and/children’s games, saying, “See? The sun is shining” – or, alternative translation – “Into the distance go the mounds of people’s heads./ I am growing smaller here – no one notices me any more” – (just as Mayakovsky said) –  “I am growing smaller here – no one notices me any more/but in caressing books and children’s games/I will rise from the dead to say the sun is shining.” – but that “Hillocks of human heads into the horizon”!

Ann Charters: Right. The hillocks and the image of the sun there, and then the image of the sun, which is poetry, (out)lasting wars, (out)lasting revolutions. In other words, he still felt that the word was the Central Committee – that’s Mandelstam.

Osip Mandelstam (1891-1938)

AG: A little bit more of Mandelstam on..

Ann Charters: Whatever you say.

AG: ..on this, right on this, to contrast it.

Student: Can I say something?

AG: Yeah.

Student: Yeah, I think the main problem (is the problem) we all have anyway, everywhere, is this sort of thing (which is) individual identity and the…

AG:Except that, in the case of both the Buddhists…the Christians, and the Communists (or the Bolsheviks), there is this tendency toward internalization of the attack on the individual ego… and so, in a misunderstanding… (at least amongst the Buddhists), very often a misunderstanding (or among the American Freudians or Marxists, as well as the upper-middle-class American problem of self-depreciation), a misunderstanding of the role of the individual, or the individual ego, and an attempt, after (Arthur) Rimbaud particularly, to take the ego and wring its neck, by violence, or force, or suicide, or submergence into the sea of mass culture, or submission to the Central Committee of the Communist Party diktat on what the actual accurate Party line on reality is, to submit to the central authority’s conception of what reality itself is.

Student: Well, I see what the problem is.

AG: Everybody’s got that.

Student: I don’t see how we’re going to work it out. That’s..

Ann Charters: Well..

AG: But in this case, however, with Mayakovsky’s statement, it’s an outright statement that the individual has absolutely no..role, except a single chirp of a cricket to be heard by his wife, and is actually of no social importance. Whereas in Mandelstam, there’s a realization that the whisper of the individual’s voice is louder and more powerful than the hallucinatory publicist(‘s) voice of Mayakovsky and the entire television network of Russia or America roaring all at once in its Tower of Babel,  that the perception of the individual that the whole thing is a hallucinatory Tower of Babel, which will fall, is more accurate as an estimation of reality than all the trumpets of the brass bands of the Pentagon.

Student: Well, it depends on who’s doing the roaring, you know.

AG: Yeah, that’s the point. The roaring…. that’s what it’s saying. The roaring is being done by the Pentagon. The whisper is being done by the individual. And the individual’s voice, in the long run, lasts longer (Sappho‘s voice)

Student: No, it’s.

AG:  …and cadences last longer than the structure of the Pyramids and the entire city of Rome.

Student: Oh, I don’t think it’s the Pentagon versus the individual voice or anything.

AG: No, in this case, it was the Central Committee of the Commnist Party versus the individual voice.

Student: Well, it was..

AG: No, no, this is what he’s saying..

Student: Yeah

AG: .. that the Central Committee of the Communist Party is more important than the individual’s voice. And what Mandelstam is saying is that the individual voice is going to outlast and is more important. It’s just as simple as that. They’re talking about the Central Committee of The Communist Party, nothing else, nothing else, right at this point. Mandelstam’s further argument on that is, “I’m not dead, I’m not alone/ While I’m still happy with my beggar-girl delighting/ in these great plains/ in twilight-shadow, in hunger..” – (delighting in hunger!) – “and snowstorms./ I live alone in beautiful poverty, in sumptuous/misery – peaceful, consoled,/ blessed day, blessed nights/and sinless sweet-singing labor”/ Whoever’s frightened by barking and by his shadows, who’s mowed/ by the wind – he’s really unlucky, /Whoever’s half-alive and begging/alms from shadows – he’s really poor” – This is from Voronezh, January 1937, where he had been banished into exile by Stalin, from which he was then arrested. This is where the turnkey came in to sit down at his table and say, “What are you writing?”. He got visited every day, and that’s when he got taken away. And then he disappeared into the camps and wasn’t heard from. Presumably died by 1940.

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Osip Mandelstam – Photograph made by the NKVD in 1938, after his arrest

Ann Charters: Now you can ask how a poet as great as Mayakovsky was (I mean, he was a great poet, there’s no question about it) could serve the Party so faithfully? I mean, what would motivate him?
We talked before in the other class about Mayakovsky’s belief that the 1917 Revolution was not the final revolution – that he wanted another one to come, which he called the “revolution of the spirit” (from the 1922 fragment, “The Fourth Internationale” – “another revolution/Rising in the ages/That would shake heads in an explosion of ideas,/That would let loose the artillery of hearts/The third revolution of the spirit”). And he really felt, as a poet, that he could move the people by his verses closer and closer to this third Revolution. And he felt his role was to write political poems at the time and he took upon himself the writing of these poems as a duty – Yeah? – That’s what he said.

And here’s the poem..the section of “Lenin” that explains that. He says, “I’m anxious lest processions in mausoleums, the established statue of worship, should drown in oily unction Lenin’s simplicity” – “oily unction” should destroy Lenin’s simplicity – And he goes on – (this is) Mayakovsky – “I shudder for him as for the apple of my eye lest he be falsified by tinselled beauty./My heart votes. I am compelled to write by the mandate of duty”. “Duty” – (that’s what makes him write these poems, the duty to, as I’ve said, move the people along)

Lili Brik (1891-1978)

But, as you know, as all of you know, even (from) the basic study of Freud, when you are forced to do something (a sense of duty, not coming out of free will always), there are bound to be psychological repercussions. And always with Mayakovsky, when he wrote one of these great public poems, a month or so later he started writing (and, sometimes, simultaneously, he was writing almost as if with two different hands), a private poem, a poem about his loves. And this is true with the case with “Lenin” also. The parallel poem, (to compare the Mayakovsky poems, very often, to show this operating in his work), was a poem to Lili Brik, called “About This” – and what “this” was was his love for this lady, because, somewhere deep inside him, never really imagined.. Mayakovsky was aware that the way to the third Revolution was probably through individual relationships, and if they weren’t good, the third Revolution would never be good. In other words, if people couldn’t love each other on a one-to-one basis even, how could we all love each other?And the test, of course, is his love-affairs, and his love for women in his life. And Lili Brik was this main love of his life, and he wrote a poem about the difficulties of this love,  the difficulties, as he would put it, of starting a family. He said, “To make a revolution is easy”, He said.. (Mayakovsky wrote this to a friend) – He said, “To make a revolution is easy. What is difficult afterwards is to make a family”. And he never quite saw that happen either.

(Audio for the above can be heard here, starting at approximately twenty-four-and-a-half minutes in and concluding at approximately thirty-eight-and-a-quarter minutes in)

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