Monday, April 11, 2011

Poetic perspective on economic orthodoxy

Poetry to the rescue! Early 20th century Russian poet Vladimir Mayakovsky wrote the following poem in 1926, which I post here as both a follow-up to Friday's post about the dominance of economics in our "value" system and in honor of the upcoming April 15 tax filing deadline here in the U.S.  Enjoy.

Conversation with a tax collector about poetry
translation by George Reave

Citizen tax collector!
                Forgive my bothering you ...
Thank you ...
        don't worry ...
                          I'll stand ...

My business is of a delicate nature:
about the place of the poet in the workers' ranks.

Along with owners of stores and property
I'm made subject to taxes and penalties.
You demand I pay five hundered for the half year
and twenty-five for failing to send in my returns.
Now my work is like any other work.
Look here -- how much I've lost,
what expenses I have in my production
and how much I spend on materials.

You know, of course, about "rhyme."
Suppose a line ends with the word "day,"
and then, repeating the syllables in the third line
we insert something like "tarara-boom-de-day."
In your idiom rhyme is a bill of exchange
to be honoured in the third line! ---that's the rule.
And so you hunt for the small change of suffixes and flections
in the depleted cashbox of conjugations and declensions.

You start shoving a word into the line,
but it's a tight fit --
                                you press it and it breaks.
Citizen tax collector, honestly,
the poet spends a fortune on words

In our idiom rhyme is a keg.
                                 A keg of dynamite.
The line is a fuse. 
The line burns to the end
                  and explodes
                        and the town is blown sky-high in a strophe.
Where can you find,
            and at what price,
                        rhymes that take aim and kill on the spot?

Suppose only half a dozen unheard-of rhymes
were left, in, say, Venezuela.
And so I'm drawn to North and South.
I rush around entangled in advances and loans.
Citizen! Consider my traveling expenses.
-- Poetry -- all of it! --  is a journey to the unknown.

Poetry is like mining radium.
For every gram you work a year.
For the sake of a single word
            you waste a thousand tons of verbal ore.
But now
                        the burning of these words
compared with the smoldering
                        of the raw material.
These words will move
            millions of hearts for thousands of years.

Of course, there are many kinds of poets.
So many of them use legerdemain!
And, like conjurers, pull lines from their mouths --
their own -- and other people's.
Not to speak of the lyrical castrates
They're only too glad to shove in a borrowed line.
This is just one more case of robbery and embezzlement
among the frauds rampant in the country.

These verses and odes bawled out today amidst applause,
will go down in history as the overhead expenses
of what two or three of us have achieved.

As the saying goes, you eat forty pounds of table salt,
and smoke a hundred cigarettes
in order to dredge up one precious word
from artesian human depths.

So at once my tax shrinks.
Strike out one wheeling zero from the balance due!
For a hundred cigaretts -- a ruble ninety;
for table salt -- a ruble sixty.

Your form has a mass of questions:
"Have you traveled on business or not?"
But suppose I have ridden to death
a hundred Pegasi in the last 15 years?

And here you have -- imagine my feelings! --
something about servants and assets.
But what if I am simultaneously a leader
and a servant of the people?
The working class speaks through my mouth,
and we, proletarians, are drivers of the pen.

As the years go by, you wear out the machine of the soul.
And people say:
            "A back number, he's written out, he's through!"
There's less and less love,
            and less and less daring,
and time is a battering ram against my head.

Then there's amortization, the deadliest of all;
amortization of the heart and soul.

And when the sun like a fattened hog
rises on a future without beggars and cripples,
I shall already be a putrefied corpse under a fence,
together with a dozen of my colleagues.

Draw up my posthumous balance!
I hereby declare -- and I'm telling no lies:
Among today's swindlers and dealers,
I alone shall be sunk in hopeless debt.

Our duty is to blare like brass-throated horns
in the fogs of bourgeois vulgarity and seething storms.
A poet is always indebted to the universe,
paying, alas, interest and fines.

I am indebted to the lights of the Broadway,
to you, to the skies of Bagdadi,           
to the Red Army, to the cherry trees of Japan --
to everything about which
                        I have not yet written.

But, after all,
            who needs
                        all this stuff?
Is its aim to rhyme
            and rage in rhythm?
No, a poet's word
            is your resurrection
and your immortality,
            citizen and official.
Centuries hence,
            take a line of verse
from its paper frame
            and bring back time!
And this day with its tax collectors,
its aura of miracles and its stench of ink,
will dawn again.

Convinced dweller in the present day,
go to the N.K.P.S., take a ticket to immortality
and, reckoning the effect of my verse,
stagger my earnings over three hundred years!
But the poet is strong not only because,
remembering you, the people of the future will hiccup.

No! Nowadays too the poet's rhyme
is a caress
            and a slogan,
                        a bayonet
                                    and a knout! 
Citizen tax collector,
            I'll cross out all the zeros
            after the five and pay the rest.
I demand
            as my right
                        an inch of ground
among the poorest workers and peasants.
And if
            you think
                        that all I have to do
is to profit
            by other people's words,
                        here's my pen.
            a crack at it


  1. i love this. thank you! we have a poetry post- a physical one ( actually two- one for adults and one for the tiny children in our neighborhood) and while i might have to excerpt to include this on our post...i hope to do so without damaging the whole - there's limited space and it won't fit if not edited-. The post is a great meeting place or quiet stopover for people walking past our home. the two are nestled in a yaupon holly tree and look like the kind of signage you encouter in state and federal parks. It's a wonderful way to share some of our favorite new and old poems with neighbors. Thanks for sharing this. psi

  2. What a delightful idea: poetry nestled in a holly tree to feed the thoughts of those gentle souls walking by. Very Waldenesque! (We should be walking more anyway, for the contemplative benefits as well as exercise...)

    I, too, debated whether to shorten the poem, but in the end decided to maintain its integrity and just let people set their own pace and determine how long to linger over it.

    I think in my heart I'm trying to start a new movement: slow blogging!