At our Classics And Poetry Now workshop on November 2nd a second Soviet Russian classical reception is presented by Hanna Paulouskaya. Hanna is a Belarusian classicist and cultural historian based in University of Warsaw’s Faculty of “Artes Liberales”. Her paper on 2 November will focus on the Russian poet Vladimir Mayakovsky and his connections to the Roman poet Horace.
Paulouskaya summarises her paper thus:
“Mayakovsky’s poetry and poetical programme aimed to break all connections with “oldish dead literature”, especially with Russian classical authors and contemporary classicizing poets. “Throw Pushkin, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, etc., etc. overboard from the ship of modernity” became one of the slogans of Russian vanguard.
But what was Mayakovsky’s attitude to classical Latin and Greek authors? In his biographies he emphasizes that he was kicked out from gymnasium at the 5th grade. He stresses that he has no interest in writing erudite poetry for intellectuals. He wants to address the proletarian reader. He did, however, study at the classical gymnasium, in Kutaisi, Georgia, and then later in Moscow.
At sixteen he spent a year in prison repeating Latin, and reading Caesar alongside Marxists writers. Most of his metropolitan listeners were also educated in a similar way—for they were mainly students and young poets.
Mayakovsky fought for the word—modern, sharp, electrified. He struggled to find a new poetic rhythm, the rhythm of the street and the big city. He took to writing propaganda verses as a proud citizen of a new society. He was a popular performer of his poems. He made a revolution in Russian poetry, revealed his secrets in his own Ars Poetica and, right at the beginning of his career, even declared himself a king of the word.
Mayakovsy’s programme, his poetic ambition, corresponds in many ways to those of Latin authors, especially to that of Horace. Though, most likely, Mayakovsky never imitated his Roman colleague, he lived in a similar historical epoch and appears to have experienced similar moods. As Alexandre Blok famously heard the rhythm of revolutionary St Petersburg in Catullus’ 63 poem, Vladimir Mayakovsky echoes Horace on the streets of Moscow.”
Here’s one of the Mayakovsky poems Paulouskaya discusses in her paper –just to whet your appetite!
BUT BE THAT AS IT MAY
The street has caved in like the nose of a syphilitic.
The river is pure lechery leaked out in drool.
Having stripped off their skivvies, to the last little leaflet,
the gardens indecently sprawl across June.
I step out on the square,
placing a burnt-out
city block on my head like a red wig.
The people are frightened—dangling from my mouth,
a shout, partly chewed, is still wagging its legs.
But I won’t be berated, but I won’t be condemned—
like a prophet’s, my path will be strewn with flowers.
All these people, the ones with the caved-in noses, know:
I am your poet.
Your Judgment Day scares me about as much as a tavern!
Prostitutes will carry me forth like a sacred relic,
carry me alone through the burning buildings
and show me to God in their own justification.
And God will break down in tears over my little book!
No words—just convulsions stuck together in a wad;
he’ll run around the sky with my poems tucked in his armpit,
and, panting for breath, read them to his acquaintances.
Vladimir Maykovsky. Selected poems, trans. by James H. McGavran III. Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 2013.