x ‘Vladimir Mayakovsky’ and Other Poems what I consider his best screenplay, How’s It Going?, a work that indicates the extent to which his poetic thought spread outside the bounds of ‘pure’ poetry. The only complete film that remains is the silent The Lady and the Hooligan (1918).2 Mayakovsky, the eponymous hooligan, starts the film as the antagonist of the eponymous lady (Aleksandra Rebikhova), and then changes his stance once he realises that Rebikhova’s desire to educate the working class is a positive thing. He fights with the other mature students, who arrange to meet him after class and punish him. It is an unfair fight. Mayakovsky is stabbed. On his deathbed, he pushes aside the priest who comes to read him his last rites and calls instead for the lady, who kisses him, then watches as he dies – at length, and always aware of where he needs to roll his dying body in order to appear in the centre of the shot. This combination of an egoistic central role in the drama, the denial of traditional (religious) consolation, the belief in the redemptive power of love, and a commitment to the values of socialist labour, together with the desire for a hero’s death, gives us a series of useful handholds by which we, as innocent outsiders, might get to grips with Mayakovsky.
Those are two ways in. But a brief factual biography may also be useful. Vladimir Vladimirovich Mayakovsky was born in 1893 in Baghdati, Georgia. He grew up speaking both Russian and Georgian. He was politically active from an early age and a participant in socialist demonstrations by age fourteen. Mayakovsky’s father, a forester, died young: blood poisoning from pricking a finger on a rusty pin while filing papers in 1906 (hence Mayakovsky’s almost pathological cleanliness in later life). The family – Mayakovsky, his mother, and two sisters – sold up and moved to Moscow the same year. There Mayakovsky went to school, got involved in socialist activism, was expelled for his inability to pay, and eventually sentenced to eleven months in prison for socialist activities. It was during his imprisonment that Mayakovsky began to write poetry. When he was released in 1911, aged eighteen, he entered the Moscow Arts School. There he met the future Futurist poet David Burliuk, who told him to keep on writing poetry. By now Mayakovsky had found his vocation: his first published poems appeared in 1912, and in the same year he was