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This review is taken from PN Review 231, Volume 43 Number 1, September - October 2016.

Cover of Volodya: Selected Works edited by Rosy Carrick
Ross CoganGolden-Tongued
Vladimir Mayakovsky
Volodya: Selected Works
edited by Rosy Carrick
Enitharmon, £14.99
POOR MAYAKOVSKY. A film-star poet during his life – literally, since his good looks earned him silent movie roles – he toured the USSR reading to packed halls. Posterity, however, has not been kind. How could it be to someone Josef Stalin labelled the ‘best and most talented poet of our Soviet epoch’, an honour Boris Pasternak wryly described as Mayakovsky’s ‘second death’?

These days, if we think of him at all, it’s as a dazzling Futurist wunderkind who never realised his potential, declining into a plodding party hack. As Marina Tsvetaeva dismissively put it, ‘his suicide lasted twelve years, […] on the thirteenth year the Poet rose up and killed the Man’.

Rosy Carrick wants us to reconsider. In her lucid introduction to this chunky collection she outlines her aim of presenting ‘as balanced an overview as possible of the remarkable diversity of Mayakovsky’s work’. This means printing numerous rarely-translated poems, along with lectures, essays and a generous selection of his visual art (though his plays are largely omitted). In particular, Carrick wants to place Mayakovsky in context as a Marxist poet by showcasing more of the explicitly political poems that Western editors have largely avoided. This has one immediately beneficial effect. Mayakovsky is often seen, says Carrick, as a ‘proto-punk’ whose ‘obsession with women is matched only by his longstanding and explicit hatred for domesticity’. In fact, as the introduction convincingly shows, it was old-fashioned bourgeois domesticity that he hated, and which he was intent on replacing with a new, more feminist family life. In this and other ways Carrick does much to rehabilitate her subject.

Mayakovsky is hard to translate, since he employs complex, innovative rhyme schemes, and makes extensive use of neologisms and street slang. Carrick responds by mixing more literal translations, like those of Herbert Marshall, with impressionistic versions, like the wonderful Lallans translations of Edwin Morgan. The latter’s ‘Mayakonferensky’s Anectidote’, a cautionary tale of bureaucracy that reads like Rab C Nesbitt gatecrashing Kafka’s Trial (‘Up I sclim till the nicht’s abune me, / tapmaist storey, tapmaist o seeven. / “Can I no see Comrade Ivan ‘vanich noo?”’), is a real highlight.

Another is George Hyde’s translation of ‘A Cloud in Trousers’ – an early modernist poem that, for most Westerners, will be Mayakovsky’s most recognisable work. This fizzes with life, taking the languages of politics, the church and the street to comprehend love, art, society and religion:

Most golden tongued
Whose every word
Resurrects your soul
Baptises your body
Say to you:
The tiniest speck of living life is
Worth more than all I can do or have done!

Mayakovsky was, then, a striking and innovative poet. But was he also, in Lytle Shaw’s phrase ‘an ideological dupe’? Carrick thinks not. However, in presenting us with his explicitly Communist work she inadvertently condemns him. The problem with poems like ‘Vladimir Ilyich Lenin’ – his three-thousand line paean to ‘the teacher of world labour’ – is that they’re not awfully good; though they are made worse by tin-eared versions like this from Dorian Rottenberg:

And then
             the readers
                              of Lenin’s behests,
as the yellowing pages
                               they peruse,
will feel a hot tide
                         well up in their breasts,
and in their eyes –
                         hot tears,
                                      long since out of use.

If, as these lines I perused, hot tears welled up in my eyes, I fear they weren’t tears of grief.

Carrick is a talented editor and has made great efforts to show us a Mayakovsky who is more rounded and contradictory than the myth. It perhaps shouldn’t surprise us that the man who emerges is both larger and smaller than his image. 

This review is taken from PN Review 231, Volume 43 Number 1, September - October 2016.

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