Mayakovsky: a Biography by Bengt Jangfeldt, review: ‘authoritative and sympathetic’

[From The Guardian]

BPAXTR‘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.

In Jangfeldt’s pioneering account, the public story of Mayakovsky’s life is interwoven with the private stories of his poems, which multiply that life through metaphor, as in a house of mirrors. Mayakovsky was a great self-dramatiser in everything he did, whether falling in love, writing and starring in films, or giving histrionic readings that gripped his listeners with – in the words of one translator, the Scottish poet Edwin Morgan – his “scooping and pouncing mastery of pause and emphasis”.

He made his debut at 19 in a Futurist anthology called A Slap in the Face of Public Taste, and one of his earliest works was titled “Vladimir Mayakovsky: a Tragedy”. Jangfeldt suggests there is something Walt Whitman-like about the preening way in which Mayakovsky presents himself. But the Russian makes the American look demure in his self-mythologising, which is more likely to remind modern readers of the braggadocio of hip hop.

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