July 19: The avant-garde poet and playwright Vladimir Mayakovsky was born on this day in 1893. In 1917 Mayakovsky and a handful of other Futurists published a “Slap in the Face of Public Taste,” daring Russians to “Throw Pushkin, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, etc., etc. overboard from the Ship of Modernity,” and to cleanse themselves of “the filthy stigmas of your ‘common sense.’” But by the 1920s Mayakovsky was describing himself as a “Communist Futurist,” and contributing graphics and text to propaganda posters and postcards promoting the October Revolution. His suicide in 1930, at age thirty-six, is at least partly explained by his depression over what he saw as the collapse of revolutionary ideals after Lenin’s death in 1924. The following is from “Conversation with Comrade Lenin” (1929), a one-way lament with the photograph of his deceased hero hanging on the wall of his room:
have got out of hand,
all the sparring
does one in.
here in plenty
hounding our land,
outside the borders
As one of Russia’s leading poets and propagandists, Mayakovsky was allowed to visit Mexico and America in 1925. Greeted by the New York Times as the “generalissimo of the army of revolutionary minstrels,” his book My Discovery of America sent a mixed message home to his comrades. Amid the criticism for unbounded capitalism is great praise for the country’s exuberance and technology, captured here in an excerpt from his poem “Brooklyn Bridge”:
If the end of the world comes
and chaos smash our planet to bits,
and what remains will be this
bridge, rearing above the dust of destruction;
then, as huge ancient lizards are rebuilt
from bones finer than needles, to tower in museums,
so, from this bridge, a geologist of the centuries
will succeed in recreating our contemporary world.
He will say—that paw of steel
once joined the seas and the prairies;
from this spot, Europe rushed to the West,
scattering to the wind Indian feathers.
Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.