A major new biography of the great Russian poet Vladimir Mayakovsky (1893-1930), who served as such a powerful influence on Frank O’Hara, Kenneth Koch, and other poets of the New York School, has recently appeared. Written by Bengt Jangfeldt, a Swedish biographer, the book explores Mayakovsky’s short and stormy life and vibrant poetry, which played out against the dramatic backdrop of the Russian Revolution.
Mayakovsky was one of O’Hara’s favorite poets, and his distinctive voice and style profoundly influenced O’Hara’s own. As John Ashbery once noted, it was from Mayakovsky that O’Hara “picked up what James Schuyler has called ‘the intimate yell.'” O’Hara was so taken with the Russian poet’s dynamic energy and epic sweep that he dedicated “Second Avenue,” one of his most ambitious and experimental early poems, to Mayakovsky. Years later, he would write one of his most beloved (and recently controversial) poems, “A True Account of Talking to the Sun at Fire Island,” as an homage and response to one of Mayakovsky’s poems.
In “Notes on Second Avenue,” O’Hara explained his poem’s debt to both Mayakovsky and Willem de Kooning: “Where Mayakovsky and de Kooning come in, is that they both have done works as big as cities where the life in the work is autonomous (not about actual city life) and yet similar: Mayakovsky: ‘Lenin,’ ‘150,000,000,’ ‘Eiffel Tower,’ etc.; de Kooning: ‘Asheville, ‘Excavation,’ ‘Gansevoort Street,’ etc.”
In an insightful review in the Telegraph of the new biography, Jeremy Noel-Tod thankfully connects Mayakovsky to O’Hara, the poet who did so much to bring the Russian writer to the attention of readers of American poetry:
“When I woke up Mayakovsky/ he was a lot more prompt,” complains the sun to the American poet Frank O’Hara in his poem “A True Account of Talking to the Sun on Fire Island”. The less-than-prompt O’Hara draws an ironic contrast between his own poetic persona – a Fifties New York aesthete who dashed out verse during his lunch breaks – and Mayakovsky, the whirlwind Russian who composed grandiose, sprawling poems about revolution, romantic love, the Soviet Union and himself.
The 1920 poem in which Mayakovsky “gossiped” with the sun is described by Bengt Jangfeldt, his Swedish biographer, as “a much-needed break from the poetic emergency service he had devoted himself to since the outbreak of the First World War”. Mayakovsky contained at least two poets. One was the intensely individual, avant-garde visionary who burst into genius with the early poem “A Cloud in Trousers”. The other was the patriotic, Left-wing agitator who willingly put his talent for rhyme and wordplay to the service of the rapidly collectivising Russian state.
Noel-Tod praises “Jangfeldt’s pioneering account” of Mayakovsky’s life and works as “an authoritative volume” which “does much sympathetic justice to a catastrophic personality who fascinated Soviet Russia.” He concludes by discussing the poet’s tragic end:
Mayakovsky survived the purges and expulsions of the Twenties, and wrote his longest poem on the death of Lenin. But eventually his mercurial position overwhelmed him, and in 1930 he shot himself. Five years later, Stalin canonised the “iron poet”, resulting in what Boris Pasternak called his “second death”: monolithic assimilation by the state. It was this fate that Frank O’Hara alluded in his poem “Mayakovsky”, which speaks through the poet’s ghost: “Now I am quietly waiting for/ the catastrophe of my personality/ to seem beautiful again,/ and interesting, and modern.”
The O’Hara poem that Noel-Tod is referring to — exponentially more famous now that it was recently intoned by Don Draper on the television show Mad Men — may indeed contain an allusion to Mayakovsky’s assimilation by the Soviet state. However, the unusual story behind why O’Hara gave the title “Mayakovsky” to that poem is worth mentioning and may point to a slightly less direct connection to the Russian poet’s work: James Schuyler once explained that the poem only came about because Schuyler found two poems that O’Hara had forgotten about folded in a book, and suggested he splice them together with two other short poems to create a four-part work. Schuyler recalled that O’Hara “liked the result and said that since it was ‘my’ poem I had to think up a title — which I easily and instantly did — Frank had (again) been reading Mayakovsky and the book was on his desk.”
It was a canny move on Schuyler’s part, as O’Hara’s tormented poem of heartbreak and existential crisis wonderfully channels Mayakovsky’s “intimate yell” and merges it with his own inimitable sensibility. Here, then, is O’Hara’s 1954 poem “Mayakovsky“:
My heart’s aflutter!
I am standing in the bath tub
crying. Mother, mother
who am I? If he
will just come back once
and kiss me on the face
his coarse hair brush
my temple, it’s throbbing!
then I can put on my clothes
I guess, and walk the streets.
I love you. I love you,
but I’m turning to my verses
and my heart is closing
like a fist.
sick as I am sick, swoon,
roll back your eyes, a pool,
and I’ll stare down
at my wounded beauty
which at best is only a talent
Cannot please, cannot charm or win
what a poet!
and the clear water is thick
with bloody blows on its head.
I embrace a cloud,
but when I soared
That’s funny! there’s blood on my chest
oh yes, I’ve been carrying bricks
what a funny place to rupture!
and now it is raining on the ailanthus
as I step out onto the window ledge
the tracks below me are smoky and
glistening with a passion for running
I leap into the leaves, green like the sea
Now I am quietly waiting for
the catastrophe of my personality
to seem beautiful again,
and interesting, and modern.
The country is grey and
brown and white in trees,
snows and skies of laughter
always diminishing, less funny
not just darker, not just grey.
It may be the coldest day of
the year, what does he think of
that? I mean, what do I? And if I do,
perhaps I am myself again.
The University of Chicago Press has posted an excerpt from Mayakovsky: A Biography here, and you can find more information about the book here, including this high praise from Marjorie Perloff: “Bengt Jangfeldt’s prize-winning Mayakovsky, first published in Sweden, gives a beautifully detailed portrait of the period as well as the individual life … A real page turner, copiously illustrated and well translated, this biography is essential reading not only for students of modernist poetry but for anyone interested in the relationship of literature to life in the former Soviet Union.”
Fortunately, Jangfeldt’s Mayakovsky: A Biography will bring some renewed and welcome attention to one of the most important influences on Frank O’Hara and the New York School of poets.