Mayakovsky in America

Meeting chaired by Peter Rex Valentine

Neil Cornwell

University of Bristol

17 May 2005

The following text is adapted from the ‘Introduction’ to the edition of Mayakovsky’s My Discovery of America (edited and translated by the speaker), published by Hesperus Press, in their ‘New Voices’ series (July 2005).

Mayakovsky and the ‘Futurist’ background

Vladimir Mayakovsky (born in 1893) was, along with Velimir Khlebnikov, the leading Futurist poet in Russia over the last half-dozen years before the Revolution; subsequently he became Soviet Russia’s outstanding poetic advocate – up until his sudden suicide, at the age of thirty-six, in April 1930.

As a Futurist, Mayakovsky had been fundamentally drawn to the new, rather than the old – the future, rather than the past. This disposition presupposed a commitment to the iconoclastic avant-garde in artistic forms, to scientific and technological advance, and to a new ideological and political system. Mayakovsky found all of these, and vigorously promoted them, over the first up-beat years of the post-October Bolshevik Soviet State. The artistic, and especially the technological, elements had long been associated with America – the land of dynamic development and untrammelled capitalism. In 1925, he was to observe for himself in America ‘the futurism of naked technology’.

An early brief article by Mayakovsky, in which he claimed that life had now (by 1914) legitimised the antics of the Futurists, was entitled ‘Now to the Americas’. America, or the United States specifically, had featured in several of his poetic works – in particular the lengthy agitational epic of 1919-20, 150,000,000 (the figure denoting the population at that time of the USSR). This work of attempted myth creation pits an ordinary Russian ‘Ivan’ against the head of world capitalism, Woodrow Wilson, who is located in that centre of advanced technology, Chicago (lines from this poem are quoted later in My Discovery of America). Mayakovsky, along with others in the Soviet Union, envisaged miracles of production in the communist future, but saw the United States (albeit the main ideological opponent) as the obvious and necessary technological model for Soviet development.

Mayakovsky, in the 1920s, became an indefatigable traveller: from pure curiosity and a desire for renewed artistic inspiration, from personal restlessness, boredom and frustration with the complex manoeuvrings of Soviet cultural politics – and amorous crises. These last were liable to arise out of difficulties in the apparently civilised ménage à trois, shared with his long-standing mistress Lili and her husband, the critic and editor Osip Brik, or, later, from complications in a new love relationship. One such crisis with Lili Brik was immortalised in the remarkable narrative poem About This (or About That), published in 1923 in LEF (with its memorable cover image of Lili), the journal of the artistic movement Mayakovsky had founded together with his friend Osip.

Mayakovsky visited Riga, Berlin and Paris in 1922, and again in 1924; just Berlin was visited in 1923. He made journeys to two or three dozen Soviet towns in 1926-27, as well as Prague, Berlin, Paris and Warsaw; his last trips to Paris in 1928 and 1929 led to a final, and apparently disastrous, love affair. However, in the summer of 1925 he undertook his famed voyage to the Americas – as the start of what might have been (but in the event was not) a round the world trip.

To the Americas…

Making his way overland to an Atlantic port, Mayakovsky got off to a poor start when all his money was stolen in Paris – by a ‘highly talented thief’. Severe financial constraints resulted, necessitating constant borrowing. This probably caused him to abort his trip round the world and it required him to travel third class on the return voyage, having managed a first-class ticket outward bound – the contrast being well marked up in his travelogue. He made little or no money from his lectures and readings, organised by left-wing Russian and Jewish elements in the United States, backed by the American communist and immigrant press.

Mayakovsky had considerable difficulty, for obvious political reasons, over a visa to enter the United States. This was facilitated by his old friend, the Futurist painter and poet David Burliuk, who had been resident in the USA since the early 1920s. Not mentioned in My Discovery of America, Burliuk does make an appearance in How I Made Her Laugh, the short companion piece printed in the Hesperus volume (referring on to Mayakovsky’s Soviet homecoming). Mayakovsky was initially to be admitted to the United States as a ‘commercial artist’ (which indeed, among other things, he was – as the author of state-backed illustrated advertising jingles). The visa situation made a circuitous route to New York advisable. Mayakovsky therefore took a boat bound for Mexico (Vera Cruz), with a stop in Havana. The Mexican episode proved a rewarding one, resulting in some of the most colourful pages in his memoir. He finally entered the United States at the border crossing point of Laredo, Texas, on 27 July 1925 – arriving in New York by train on 30 July.

From New York, the ‘plenipotentiary of Soviet poetry’, as Mayakovsky liked to style himself, visited Rockaway Beach, Cleveland, Detroit, Chicago, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. He turned down an invitation to lecture in San Francisco and hurried back to New York, catching a French steamer back to Europe on 28 October. He had used up just three months of his six-month permit. Money apart, he cited, as his reasons for this, boredom and solitude, nostalgia for the homeland, and, in particular, his absence from Lili.

Mayakovsky seems not to have sent letters from America. He did, however, send a number of telegrams to Lili Brik, protesting loneliness and his love. There have been personal reminiscences relating to his American visit, and newspaper reports. One account speaks of a rather wild party, organised by the communist journal New Masses, with vigorous dancing and (presumably illegal) gin swilling, during which Mayakovsky admitted: ‘Yes, I am a bohemian. That is my great problem: to burn out all my bohemian past, to rise to the heights of the Revolution’. There were, however, some stages of his American sojourn unaccounted for. Mayakovsky’s ‘Bohemianism’ stretched in fact to a two-month love affair, from which an ‘American daughter’ was the result. Although rumours and coy references had been rife for two thirds of a century, the seriousness of this relationship, and the identities of mother and daughter, remained almost a total secret until the early 1990s. In 1993, marking the Mayakovsky centennial, the daughter herself (who even remembers her father from meeting him in Nice, at the age of two!) brought out a book. Patricia J. Thompson [aka Yelena Mayakovskaya]’s volume Mayakovsky in Manhattan: A Love Story, with Excerpts from the Memoir of Elly Jones [her mother] was published in a limited edition (by West End Productions, New York).

The main records of Mayakovsky’s American visit – otherwise – are, of course, the artistic ones. These comprise the poetic cycle of Poems About America, subsequently published as a separate collection; and the journalistic travelogue – sketches that appeared in various Soviet outlets and were later collected and edited to form My Discovery of America. A number of the poems have their descriptive counterpart within the prose text.

The Poems About America were written mostly in America, and recited to audiences there, with the ‘framing’ poems penned on the outward voyage (‘The Atlantic Ocean’), and the return one (‘Homeward’), and some a little later. ‘The Atlantic Ocean’ is a meditation on the qualities of the ocean and revolution. Like much of Mayakovsky’s poetry of the 1920s, the twenty-two American poems are wide in range and uneven in quality, expressing the tensions (both arising within Mayakovsky’s muse and reflected in perceptions thereof) between the often irrepressible political-agitational urge and the powerful lyrical gift. The poem ‘Mexico’ may be seen as a successful combination of these elements. ‘Broadway’ is an innovative exercise in urban imagery and verbal play. However, ‘Brooklyn Bridge’, in which the remains of New York are examined by a ‘geologist’ of the future, is considered Mayakovsky’s supreme American poetic achievement.

Mayakovsky’s America

The prose travel notes, presented in full for the first time in English translation in the Hesperus edition, were written hurriedly and published piecemeal – in part to assist the recovery of their author’s badly hit finances. My Discovery of America would never have been recommended as a reliable travel guide to North America – nor, of course, was it ever intended to be. Mayakovsky was quite capable of confusing New York railway stations; of failing to distinguish between the Hudson and East rivers; and of re-construing a Vanderbilt Hotel (on Fifth Avenue, sold during his stay) as Miss Vanderbilt’s ‘palace’ (supposedly disposed of by her due to the proximity of despised small businesses). For that matter, his command of English (as of other foreign languages) ranged from the all but non-existent to the fairly minimal, allowing him seemingly to transpose the then widely used appellation of ‘Mac’ into the alleged American ‘greeting’ of ‘Make money?’ (Mek monei). Mayakovsky is strongly interested in political matters and union affairs; his reportage of America stems naturally from his own political outlook and depends largely on the limited sources on which he relied: the American (or mainly Russian immigrant) communist press and his Russian-American friends and contacts.

Nevertheless, Mayakovsky does provide an idiosyncratic and impressionistic, and perhaps a unique, depiction of mid-1920s pre-depression America, and (in the first third of the narrative) Mexico. Apart from aspects of his own psychological make-up, Mayakovsky puts into My Discovery of America something of the Constructivist approach to ‘production art’, the LEF-inspired precepts of ‘literature of fact’ and the ‘social commission’. These are qualities not always seen in a very positive light, especially as they developed, post-1932, into ‘socialist realism’. Here they are made much more palatable by Mayakovsky’s more personal, wide-eyed reactions to what he observed, often expressed through the ‘Formalist’ device of ‘making strange’ (ostranenie) – now more widely known as ‘defamiliarisation’. As an earlier commentator put it, Mayakovsky displayed a ‘predilection for hyperbole and for presenting the mundane in an out-of-the-ordinary light’ – and not just the mundane, one might add.

Written, of course (certainly primarily), for a Soviet Russian readership, My Discovery of America observes, and in the main celebrates, modernisation, industrialisation and especially electrification (Lenin – no lover of most of Mayakovsky’s work – might have been proud of him this time!). And this Soviet cultural agent is here advocating for the USSR a limited form of Americanisation. Mayakovsky has a vision: that the right assimilation of this ‘primitive futurism’ can mean ‘a second discovery of America – for the benefit of the USSR’. Much of Mayakovsky’s work was produced ‘at the top of his voice’ and the American travelogue too, which includes a number of ‘tales’ or anecdotes, often adopts a declamatory style (How I Made Her Laugh, indeed, reads almost as a stand-up monologue). For all the propagandistic slant and political point-scoring (not, however, without an infusion of acute social comment), much of this memoir of the Americas is delivered in an ironic tone and with characteristic Mayakovskian humour. This quality is particularly evident, perhaps, in the scenes in Havana and Mexico (especially the bull fight passage), in the self-deprecating cameo at Coney Island, and in the comments on American trains. Especially memorable, though, are the double-edged perorations on technology and the fascination with the phenomenon, and the spectacle, of illumination.

For the 21st century reader, interest may reside largely in the depiction, by an eloquent outsider, of America (or indeed, as Mayakovsky would prefer it, ‘the Americas’) at a particular point of historical and social development. What, even now, appears much the same, and what – the best part of a century later – has changed? Which of Mayakovsky’s hopes, fears or predictions have, to any real degree at all, been borne out? Mayakovsky’s American daughter, writing in 1993, emphasises that ‘Mayakovsky wrote his observations of the United States with brutal honesty – an honesty that rings true even today’.

My Discovery of America also preserves an inspirational, and for him exotic, interlude in Mayakovsky’s private, public and artistic development, before an encroaching tide of solitude – personal, aesthetic, intellectual, existential and political – led him to fulfil the prophecy foretold by the title of his first play, Vladimir Mayakovsky: A Tragedy.