I confess with unconfidence to merely flirting with my greats: Shakespeare, Blake, Dickens; Evelyn Waugh, Kingsley Amis and Graham Greene. Others prove more seductive. J.G. Ballard, in his iridescent idiom, the seer of the city. Peter Ackroyd, medium for the dead. The antiquarian anthropology of Iain Sinclair’s perambulations. Alan Moore’s magic words. Desire at the threshold of love’s jealousy and intoxication. Addiction. A compulsion to read everything. Except poetry.
Poetry. Memories. Vile mid-school verse. Staid sixth form recollections. As a pupil at an all boys’ school, poetry belonged to the province of the pouf. Neither did I feast with panthers nor experience life’s way of taking the piss. Middle-class, relatively privileged, stable (ish) upbringing. No perception of poetry’s potency. Until I discovered Sinclair’s enigmatic and esoteric Lud Heat. Childhood resurrected.
An enchanting encounter. Then a gift: Andrey Kneller’s translation of Backbone Flute: Poetry of Vladimir Mayakovsky.
Lyricist and agitator, the chain-smoking, gambling and womanizing Vladimir Mayakovsky (1893-1930) was a Futurist poet and servant of the Soviet socialist (bureaucratic collectivist) state. He shot himself at the age of 36. Some say he was killed twice when five years after his death, Stalin beatified the “iron poet”.
A new love. And listen to this modernist meditation on the age-old question as to the meaning of existence. “Listen” was written in the late winter of 1913, published the following year.
When reading, a reaction provoked (perhaps) by the centenary of the First World War, I see the spirit of British foreign secretary Sir Edward Grey looking out from Whitehall to the sunset across St James’s Park; Sir Edward remarking to friend and journalist John Alfred Spender on 3 August 1914: “The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.” Listen:
if the stars are lit,
then someone must need them, of course?
then someone must want them to be there,
calling those droplets of spittle pearls?
in the blizzards of midday dust,
he rushes to God,
fearing he’s out of time
he kisses God’s sinewy hands,
tells Him that it’s important,
pleads to Him that the star must shine!
that he won’t survive this starless torment!
he wanders worried,
though seemingly calm and fit
and tells somebody:
“Finally, nothing can
if the stars are lit,
then someone must really need them?
that is essential
that at least one star
over the rooftops each night?!
- Anna Aslanyan, “Both Lyricist and Agitator: The Split Personality of Vladimir Mayakovsky”, Spectator, 21 February 2015 http://www.spectator.co.uk/2015/02/both-lyricist-and-agitator-the-split-personality-of-vladimir-mayakovsky/
- Edward James Brown, Mayakovsky: A Poet in the Revolution (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1973)
- Lorine M. Burden, “Mayakovsky’s Listen!”, The Explicator, 64, 2 (2006) http://dx.doi.org/10.3200/EXPL.64.2.102-104
- Andrey Kneller, Backbone Flute: Poetry of Vladimir Mayakovsky (Boston: Createspace, 2008)
- Jeremy Noel-Tod, “Authoritative and Sympathetic, Mayakovsky: A Biography by Bengt Jangfeldt, Daily Telegraph, 1 February 2015 http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/bookreviews/11376512/Mayakovsky-a-Biography-by-Bengt-Jangfeldt.html