The Russian poet Vladimir Vladimirovich Mayakovsky (1893-1930) is best known for his colorful, declamatory style and his use of the language of the streets as poetic material. His artistic innovations strongly influenced the development of Soviet poetry.
Vladimir Mayakovsky was born on July 19, 1893, in Russian Georgia. When his father, a forester, died in 1906, the family moved to Moscow. This was to be Mayakovsky's city until his death. Between 1906 and 1911 Mayakovsky was arrested several times for his political activities. He joined the Bolshevik party in 1908. In 1909, during one of his terms in prison, he wrote his first verses.
Mayakovsky studied at the Moscow Institute of Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture from 1911 until he was expelled in 1914. During this period he published his first book of poetry, I! (1913), and became the leading figure in the avant-garde futurist movement in Russian poetry.
Russian futurism was as much a way of life as it was a poetic doctrine. It arose as a reaction to the extreme estheticism of Russian poetry at the turn of the century and to the prevailing mysticism in Russian intellectual life. Mayakovsky and his companions advocated the abandonment of the Russian tradition and the creation of a new art, one free of the past. They took their cause to the streets, declaiming their verses to chance audiences and going to any lengths to shock a tradition-bound public. Their shocking behavior and mode of dress gained them an instant reputation. Mayakovsky's poetry of these prerevolutionary years is polemical but not devoid of poetic content. It is an exceptionally personal poetry. Often it takes the form of a monologue addressed to the poet's mother and sister. The poet bares his self to the public in a style which is by turns ironic and sad. The title of his long verse drama is Vladimir Mayakovsky (1913), and it is subtitled "A Tragedy." In his most successful book, A Cloud in Trousers (1915), he acclaims the poet as the thirteenth apostle. Increasingly after 1915 Mayakovsky appears to have been trapped between his public role of apostle and his private suffering, the well-spring of his poetry.
Mayakovsky welcomed revolution in 1917 and put himself wholeheartedly at the service of the new Soviet state. He wrote popular verse, created propaganda posters, and lent his name to numerous public causes. In his own poetry, Mayakovsky continued his attack on the classical Russian tradition and proclaimed a poetry of the masses. He sought to write only for the masses, excluding any reference to the poetic self. Thus, his epic poem 150,000,000 (1921) was published anonymously. Mayakovsky described his postrevolutionary poetry as "tendentious realism," and there is no doubt that he achieved this realism at the expense of his true poetic talent.
Mayakovsky traveled widely in the 1920s. He went several times to western Europe and in 1925 to America. During a trip to Paris, he fell in love with a Russian émigré. Toward the end of the 1920s it became more and more difficult for Mayakovsky to get permission to travel abroad. He felt increasingly the burden of his public posture and the pain of having abandoned his private poetic self. This alienation from the woman he loved and from his very self led him to commit suicide on April 14, 1930, in Moscow. He could no longer maintain the dual role of public apostle and private poet.
Further Reading on Vladimir Vladimirovich Mayakovsky
A good selection of Mayakovsky's writings is available as The Bedbug and Selected Poetry (1964), which has a good introductory essay by the editor, Patricia Blake. A full-length biography of Mayakovsky is Wiktor Woroszylski, The Life of Mayakovsky (trans. 1971). The account of Mayakovsky's life in "Safe Conduct" in Boris Pasternak, Selected Writings (1949; new ed. 1958), is an interesting interpretive biography. The best treatment of Mayakovsky's artistic innovations and his role in the futurist movement is Cecil Maurice Bowra, The Creative Experiment (1949).
Additional Biography Sources
Terras, Victor, Vladimir Mayakovsky, Boston: Twayne, 1983.