The Poets' Walk: From the Russian Revolution to Occupy Wall Street

Reportage by Matthew Clair

Some people say poetry is dying. Maybe. A few weeks ago I strolled through Central Park with my mom. We came to the famous Poets' Walk (perhaps better, and more appropriately, known as the 'Literary Walk'). The last green leaves of summer were dangling from the massive trees, the sun poking its rays through the shedding branches. We stopped at one of the statues at the southern end of the walk. The statue was of Fitz-Greene Halleck. A poet.

Reading the inscription below the statue, I learned that on May 15, 1877 a crowd of 10,000 people, including President Rutherford B. Hayes, descended upon Central Park for the statue's dedication. 10,000 people and a president so admired a poet that they trampled a park to attend his statue's dedication ceremony. Such a sight today would be unimaginable. True, Halleck is a rare exception. He was very popular in his day -- some considered his fame to be like that of a celebrity, and he was even called the American Byron (a nod to the romantic and eating-disordered British poet). Still, our most well-known poets today aren't lavished with half the popular attention as, say, the cast of Jersey Shore, as a quick glance at this list of poet laureates may readily (to the chagrin of your literary ego) confirm. 

Donald Hall (our fourteenth poet laureate, for those of you itching to get through this article and OnDemand last week's episode of Jersey Shore) would caution against the popular pronouncement of poetry's death. In his "Death to the Death of Poetry," he argues that "more people read poetry now in the United States than ever did before." Maybe. But while poetry may be thriving, what about the poet: the well-known individual who is at once a verse vigilante and also a laconic lyricist? Hall argues that that person is also just as strong as poetry itself; but, perhaps ironically, he or she must die before he or she can become revered as a Great. (His list of poets who fit this must-die dictum include Robert Lowell and Allen Ginsberg.)

Still, I must insist that something is different. Halleck was a celebrity before his death and has, if anything, lost his import since. And Lord Byron, Halleck's dashing eating-disordered eponymic predecessor, was also quite well-known while alive. In fact, his personal life was followed like that of your typical A-lister today. (Can anyone name a poet alive today with a string of love affairs attributable largely to his or her verbage?)

When speaking of poetry, or literature generally, a good place to look is Russia. And when speaking of Russian poetry, a good place to start is with Vladimir Mayakovsky. In my attempts to understand the shifting influence of poetry, I unearthed a dusty version of Mayakovsky's "How Are Verses Made?" from NYU's main library. I had come across a mention of Mayakovsky's essay in sociologist Janet Wolff's The Social Production of Art, a thrilling entry into the sociology of art which begins with the pointed sentence: "Art is a social product." And, as I would learn while reading Mayakovsky's work, he too believed that art was a social product, as well as a product that could shape society.

Vladimir Mayakovsky was born in 1893 in Tsarist Russia. A witness of the Russian Revolution, he was a Soviet poet before the Soviet Union existed. As a youth he was arrested several times for various revolutionary activities. When the October Revolution occurred, the biographer Victor Terras notes, Mayakovsky was proud of "the fact that the red sailors who marched on the Winter Palace [...] were singing a ditty of his composition:

Bolt your pineapple, stuff you face with quail,

Your last day, bourgeois, has come without fail!"

Mayakovsky was a revolutionary, a Communist, a Soviet. He believed in the revolution and the power of the people.

But, these sympathies did not encompass all that was Mayakovsky. Mayakovsky, as I gather from Terras' account of his life, was a love-sick young man, perhaps a bit narcissitic and certainly a germaphobe, a lover of fine things (clothes and homes) and particular about the way he dressed. Mayakovsky was complicated. And, he was a famous poet in Russia. Like the British Byron and the American Halleck before him, he lived in a time when poets traveled around countries giving raucous readings and commanded the attention of the high-brow and the low-brow alike. Even in Communist Russia.  

Depsite what may have been personal failings in his Communist responsibilities, Mayakovsky truly believed that poetry could be a medium for social change and for the furtherance of revolutionary goals. In Verses he states, "the fine poetical work would be one written to the social command of the Comitern." He believed that there were some problems in society that could be understood and communicated only in "poetical terms." His belief in the power of poetry was confirmed in the reaction to his own work. He read his poetry to soldiers and workers and he wrote plays that featured the proletariat. His work was for the people.

In 1925 Mayakovsky travelled to America. When visiting New York, he was taken, according to Terras, by the architectural sophistication of the Brooklyn Bridge -- the same bridge where nearly a century later more than 700 Occupy Wall Street protesters would be arrested for protesting against what they perceived to be governmental and capitalist corruption at the expense of America's middle class. After his trip to America, Mayakovsky wrote an eponymous poem about the Brooklyn Bridge. Terras notes that near the end of this poem, Mayakovsky writes about the struggle of American workers. About them and the bridge, Maykovsky says:

"From this spot,
                        jobless men
                        into the Hudson [sic]"
Reuters/ Jessica Rinaldi

While Mayakovsky's "proletariat" is Occupy Wall Street's "middle class/ 99%," the meeting of these two forces (the force of a Russian celebrity poet and that of a growing American movement against wealth inequality) on the Brooklyn Bridge provides a moment of comparison. Where is Occupy Wall Street's poet? Where is Occupy Wall Street's popular bard who can explain the movement in "poetical terms." It is no secret that Occupy Wall Street has a message problem. Michael Moore has tried to help, but he's no poet. Kanye West has lent a hand, but ... well, he's not quite a poet of the people. What happened to the slam poets of the late 90s and early 2000s? Where is the poet who could draw a crowd of 10,000 at the unveiling of a statue in his or her honor in the middle of a park ten years after his or her death? Vocal, inspiring, mind-altering poets are certainly still around -- in bars and small venues and underground slam sessions -- but they don't command the same national attention as a Mayakovsky or even a Halleck.

And perhaps this is what people mean when they pronounce the death of poetry. They don't really mean it's dying; rather, they mean that it's beginning to find a different way of living, a more fluid, non-individualistic way of existing. So, maybe, we will all have to find a different way of listening.

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