Thursday, February 3, 2011

Aimless Reading: The M's, Part 24.1 (Vladimir Mayakovsky)

Mayakovsky, Vladimir
Almereyda, Michael, ed.
Night Wraps The Sky:
Writings by and about

Purchased online.

I just finished reading this last night. I wish more books were put together like this. It's a great primer for an important poet, featuring a generous selection of translations and adaptations of Mayakovsky's poems, memoirs, essays, various translators.

The "about" part of the title is what makes it really interesting. In addition to writings by Mayakovsky, it contains historical notes written by various present day writers, fragments from biographies, memoirs, and other miscellanea by the poet's contemporaries, and a smattering of photos and other images, including a few samples of the poet's graphic design work.

A third thing that makes this books interesting is that it gives subtle attention to the fact that certain poets of the New York School, namely Frank O'Hara, Kenneth Koch, John Ashbery, Rob Padgett and others have played a huge role in the transmission of Mayakovsky's poetry in the United States. The book opens with Padgett's incredible adaptation of Mayakovsky's poem, "At The Top of My Voice," which he titles, "Screaming My Head Off." One of the last poems in the book is O'Hara's "A True Account of Talking to the Sun at Fire Island," which I discussed yesterday.

The advantage of a book constructed in this way is that it allows for a lot of different information to come into one's reading of the poems without insisting on an autobiographical reading of every line. It understand the poems as responses to a real present that nonetheless resonant through the writing sof others into the future, so why not include that, too?

It also helps get across some of the manic energy in Mayakovsky's poems that might otherwise get lost in translation. We might not get some of the rhyme or the wordplay from the Russian, but we do get an interplay of different voices and interpretations of the work alongside critical, biographical, autobiographical and various other fragments relating to the poem or the life of the poet.

The biography feeds into the energy of the poems without impinging upon the pleasure of reading them. This is an especially useful way to present a poet in translation because the format helps fill in the gaps otherwise left by the difficult fact of trying to carry meaning over from one culture to the other.

I'd love to see a book like this for, say, Paul Celan. I'd be curious to hear if anyone reading this can cite other examples of books that mix the poems, prose, correspondence, etc. with critical and biographical information. I'd be interested in hearing about historically minded works like this one, but also works by contemporary poets that simply put different elements of their writing in conversation with one another.

In addition to today's excerpt, check out the Mayakovsky page at Penn Sound:

from Night Wraps The Sky

Past One O'Clock

Past one o'clock. You must have gone to bed.
The Milky Way streams silver through the night.
I'm in no hurry; with lightning telegrams
I have no cause to wake or trouble you.
And, as they say, the incident is closed.
Love's boat has smashed against the daily grind.
Now you and I are quits. Why bother them
To balance mutual sorrows, pains, hurts.
Behold what quiet settles on the world.
Night wraps the sky in tribute from the stars.
In hours like this, one rises to address
The ages, history, and all creation.

Tr. George Reavey

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