Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Aimless Reading: The M's, Part 24 (Vladimir Mayakovsky)

Mayakovsky, Vladimir
The Bedbug and Selected Poetry

Purchased at Rust Belt Books.

(Correction: I just found a pink paper bookmark from East Village Books in the back cover, so I must have bought it there.)

Like most American poets of the last few decades, I first heard of Mayakovsky by way of Frank O'Hara's eponymous poem. I lived in New York, and was completely obsessed with O'Hara. I think the first time I read it I assumed, because of O'Hara's frequent poems for and about Rachmaninoff, that Mayakovsky was a Russian composer I'd never heard of. I don't know when I learned the truth, though it couldn't have taken too long, since I read all of O'Hara and bought this book by Mayakovsky within the same two year period.

When I finally got around to reading Mayakovsky, I was also pleasantly surprised to learn that one of my all-time favorite album titles, "Talking With the Taxman About Poetry," by Billy Bragg, lifted its title from one his poems.

I guess it's not too surprising, then, that after reading Kent Johnson's recent book about O'Hara, which discusses "A True Account of Talking to the Sun at Fire Island," and spends some time on the Mayakovsky poem that inspired it, that I took this off the shelf again to compare the two.

They're very different poems. In Mayakovsky's version, the poet is angry and frustrated because his day job as a poster designer for the Russian Telegraph Agency, Rosta, is making writing poems difficult. In his anger he begins to rage at the sun, demanding he crawl out of the hole into which he sets each night. Then he suddenly turns conciliatory and invites the sun to sit for tea. The sun obliges and the two kvetch about the difficulties of being a poet versus those of being the sun. They agree that shining and singing are one and the same, and they pledge to one another to shine and sing with all their might, regardless of external worries, for that is the nature of the the sun and also of the poet. They conclude as comrades in arms.

In the O'Hara version, the sun initiates contact with the poet. After some effort, he wakes the sleeping poet after a late night of talking and, presumably, drinking. The sun admonishes the him for not responding as promptly as Mayakovsky had and tells him they are the only two poets he's ever contacted. The poet is initially apologetic, then wryly skeptical of the sun's intentions.

The sun is quite a different sun than Mayakovsky's. Maykovsky's is a hearty, backslapping, masculine sun. O'Hara's, on the other hand, starts off as a bit of a nag, a scold. Once the remonstrances are out of the way, he begins to stroke the sensitive poet, telling him that despite what other people say, he's good poet. He tells O'Hara he's always watching, omniscient, and that he should appreciate nature more and not lock himself away in the city where it has a hard time finding him.

O'Hara's sun, masculine pronouns notwithstanding, is motherly, both castrating and tender. He is a feminine sun. They are not equals. The sun gives and the poet receives and is grateful. O'Hara thanks the sun profusely. The sun promises to watch him everywhere, and that he possibly will leave a poem, presumably this one, in his mind, as he sleeps that night.

Reading Mayakovsky again made me want to read more, so I bought the more recent compilation edited by filmmaker Michael Almereyda, "Night Wraps the Sky," which I'll talk about tomorrow.

An Extraordinary Adventure Which Befell Vladimir Mayakovksy In A Summer Cottage

A hundred and forty suns in one sunset blazed,
and summer rolled into July;
it was so hot,
the heat swam in a haze—
and this was in the country.
Pushkino, a hillock, had for hump
Akula, a large hill,
and at the hill’s foot
a village stood—
crooked with the crust of roofs.
Beyond the village
gaped a hole
and into that hole, most likely,
the sun sank down each time,
faithfully and slowly.
And next morning,
to flood the world
the sun would rise all scarlet.
Day after day
this very thing
to rouse in me
great anger.
And flying into such a rage one day
that all things paled with fear,
I yelled at the sun point-blank:
“Get down!
Stop crawling into that hellhole!”
At the sun I yelled:
“You shiftless lump!
You’re caressed by the clouds,
while here—winter and summer—
I must sit and draw these posters!”
I yelled at the sun again:
“Wait now!
Listen, goldbrow,
instead of going down,
why not come down to tea
with me!”
What have I done!
I’m finished!
Toward me, of his own good will,
spreading his beaming steps,
the sun strode across the field.
I tried to hide my fear,
and beat it backwards.
His eyes were in the garden now.
Then he passed through the garden.
His sun’s mass pressing
through the windows,
and crannies;
in he rolled;
drawing a breath,
he spoke deep bass:
“For the first time since creation,
I drive the fires back.
You called me?
Give me tea, poet,
spread out, spread out the jam!”
Tears gathered in my eyes—
the heat was maddening,
but pointing to the samovar
I said to him:
“Well, sit down then,
The devil had prompted my insolence
to shout at him,
I sat on the edge of a bench;
I was afraid of worse!
But, from the sun, a strange radiance
and forgetting
all formalities,
I sat chatting
with the luminary more freely.
Of this
and that I talked,
and of how I was swallowed up by Rosta,
but the sun, he says:
All right,
don’t worry,
look at things more simply!
And do you think
I find it easy
to shine?
Just try it, if you will!—
You move along,
since move you must;
you move—and shine your eyes out!”
We gossiped thus till dark—
Till former night, I mean.
For what darkness was there here?
We warmed up
to each other
and very soon,
openly displaying friendship,
I slapped him on the back.
The sun responded!
“You and I,
my comrade, are quite a pair!
Let’s go, my poet,
let’s dawn
and sing
in a gray tattered world.
I shall pour forth my sun,
and you—your own,
in verse.”
A wall of shadows,
a jail of nights
fell under the double-barreled suns.
A commotion of verse and light—
shine all your worth!
Drowsy and dull,
one tired,
wanting to stretch out
for the night.
shone in all my might,
and morning ran its round.
Always to shine,
to shine everywhere,
to the very deeps of the last days,
to shine—
and to hell with everything else!
That is my motto—
and the sun’s!

Tr. George Reavey


Anonymous said...

Don't know if it's relevant, but possibly: Mayakovsky is believed to have been bi-polar nowadays. What a wonderful skull he had! I mean from the photos.

It makes me want to write a poem to his skull.

Kent Johnson said...


A small coincidence(?), too, that both poems are supposedly written in July. A small thing, I realize, but conceivably, the dating of O'Hara's letter to Hal Fondren (in which a copy of "A True Account..." was supposedly enclosed) might have triggered the Mayakovsky relation for Kenneth Koch (who intimately knew the VM ur-text), if he did indeed produce the poem.