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International Socialism, Winter 1961


D.A. Steel

The poet revolutionary


From International Socialism (1st series), No.7, Winter 1961, p.33.
Thanks to Ted Crawford & the late Will Fancy.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The Bedbug and Selected Poetry
V. Mayakovsky
Weidenfeld and Nicholson. 21s.

Mayakovsky. Two poets hammered into one, one poet sickled in two. A magnificent personal sacrifice that left at least some magnificent poems on the far side of the operation table, or an ugly job of political surgery that produced at most the ugly scars of humdrum propaganda shanties. Six of one and a half dozen of the other perhaps in Mayakovsky’s case, and the answer to the sum was a bullet in the brain when he was thirty-seven and the revolution was thirteen and turning sour. The decadent suicide of Russian roulette.

Nauseous dust-jacket apart, this is an excellent book and vital reading for anyone interested in red-blooded twentieth century poetry. It is the first opportunity for the majority of us who read no Russian to break the language barrier of the original; and Russophobes (if they exist) can confine themselves to the left-hand page and welter among the explosive rhymes which the English, evidently, cannot reproduce opposite. The translation (of the poems by George Reavey and the short satirical play The Bedbug by Max Hayward) reads at least very comfortably and often very well indeed. Also there is a good and not too long-winded introduction by Patricia Blake which gives us, in between the biographical lines, much food for thought on the problem of how to keep the sheets clean when the poet climbs into bed with the party. The party’s bed, of course, has never been the traditionally poetic one of roses, and Mayakovsky, unlike Brecht or Aragon, succumbed to the thorns.

The early poetry is the violent surging verse of the social and literary rebel -poetry of overstatement. The old goes by the board. The futuristic, tawdry and exotic, gentle and brutal, respectable and obscene, is splendidly manoeuvred into yells of anguish or loneliness. Even later the tone is scarcely more sober and The Bedbug of 1928 is still a startlingly original attack on Soviet society of the day. All this is good. One grumble only. Why not at least a smattering of the bad by way of comparison – a couple of commercial jingles or the poem Vladimir Ilich Lenin. This we have been paternalistically spared.

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