Introduction xi included in the Futurist manifesto A Slap in the Face of Public Taste. He developed a style of complicatedly rhymed, oblique, almost surrealist poetry, presenting himself to the world as a mythological figure, uniquely condemned to suffer and to redeem the world. Mayakovsky set himself up, with certain provisos, as the poet of the Revolution, and his work from this period includes numerous propaganda posters and a series of agitprop poems and plays. Between 1922 and 1928 Mayakovsky was the pre-eminent Soviet poet, moderating his style to meet an encroaching public philistinism. Perhaps he did not manage to become philistine enough. The last year or so of his life was marked by antagonism between him and his public, and in mid-April of 1930 Mayakovsky killed himself. It is unclear whether this was motivated by unhappiness with the Soviet system, unhappiness with his personal life, or some subtler existential despair. 3
Mayakovsky’s suicide was an ambiguous – albeit final – act, but his reputation was immediately leapt upon by the Soviet state, which decided, following Stalin, to make Mayakovsky the Soviet martyr-poet. This appropriation pointed in several directions, but its major effect was to smooth Mayakovsky’s rough edges. For example, consider the poem ‘To Russia’: the 1950s edition of Mayakovsky’s Complete Works deliberately fudged the poem’s date, admitting that to date it to 1916, the editor’s preferred choice, was ‘hypothetical’. Bengt Jangfeldt shows that the poem has to date to 1917, which means that its criticisms are applicable to the early Soviet state as well as the tsarist society Mayakovsky’s Soviet editors would have it attack. Little things like that.
I hope that I have read enough around and about Mayakovsky to be able to try to see him without all this baggage. In any case, I need to say a little bit about my choice of poems. I wanted to give an idea, in the space allotted to me, of the extent and variety of Mayakovsky’s writing: I have included two longer poems, ‘A Cloud in Trousers’ and ‘I Love’; a film scenario, How’s It Going?; and a play, the modestly titled Vladimir Mayakovsky. There is agitprop, love poetry, public and private verse. The major missing element – if things that aren’t there are what you are looking for – is Mayakovsky’s extremely large-scale poetry: the forty-nine pages