Monday, 7 February 2011

How Verses Are Made? by Vladimir Mayakovsky - A Manifesto For The Spoken Word Artist

The day the poetry of Vladimir Mayakovsky was introduced to me was probably the day I knew I wanted to be a poet as well as a Spoken Word artist. I’d been writing for years already but hadn’t yet found a so called “academic” poet to connect with.

I was just listening to lots of Bob Dylan, Gil Scott Heron, Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen, Saul Williams, Sage Francis, Peter Tosh, Jehst, Atmosphere, Big L, Jay-Z, Pharoahe Monch etc. It was summer 2008 when Mayakovsky’s poem ‘A Cloud In Trousers’ was put under my eyes.

Ladies and Gents!
Amateur collectors
Of blasphemies,
Have you seen
What’s most frightening of all-
My face when I am
Absolute calm”

The poem instantly spread wild fire across my brain before cutting open my soul with knuckle dusters. It wouldn’t be far off to say Vladimir Mayakovsky was the Eminem of his day. He was a true craftsman of energetic rhythmic flow, highly controversial and had a great understanding of the craft of poetry and performance.

He was essentially a Spoken Word Artist.

“For you I
Will tear out my soul,
Crush it underfoot
To make it bigger! –
And give it to you all bloody, for a banner.”

Reading the poem ‘A Cloud In Trousers’ you can really see how it must have inspired 'Howl' by Alan Ginsberg who was also a big Mayakovsky fan.

Mayakovsky wrote about his process as a writer and performer of poetry in 1926, the book is called How Are Verses Made?

It has since become one of my bibles as a Spoken Word artist and I say serves almost as a manifesto to poets who perform their poetry.
“The question of the tone of a poetic work is connected with matters of technique. You mustn’t design the thing to function in some airless void, or as is often the case with poetry, in an all too airy void. You must keep your audience constantly before your eyes, the audience with whom this poem is aimed. This is important in our day when the most significant means of communicating with the masses is the auditorium, the public platform, the voice, the spoken word.

You must adopt a tone that fits your audience – persuasive or pleading, commanding or questioning. The larger part of my work is based on a controversial tone. But despite all my planning this tone isn’t a fixed thing, established once for all, but a stance I often change in the course of reading, according to the kind of audience I have. Thus for example the printed text speaks in rather dispassionate tones, aiming at a qualified reader.

When you’re writing a poem that’s destined for publication you must calculate how the printed text will be received as a printed text”

“A poet must develop just this feeling for rhythm in himself, and not go learning up other peoples measurements: iambus, trochee or even this much vaunted free verse: rhythm accommodating itself to some concrete situation, and of use only for that concrete situation. Like for example, magnetic energy discharged onto a horseshoe, which will attract iron filings, but which you can’t use for anything else. I know nothing of metre...”

Most Spoken Word artists I come across don’t read poetry and you can usually tell from the quality of their work, I don’t mean to sound smug, its true. I do appreciate that page poetry and performance poetry are two different genres of poetry but they're often viewed as rivals rather than compliments of each other, especially in the UK.

The key reason Mayakovsky means so much to me is because he broke down my own prejudices of what poetry is on the page. He roared in his own voice, his work is passionate, sincere, intense, unrestrained and wildly imaginative without being as he puts it "airless voids" or pretentious.

He doesn’t write in stiff, outdated classic forms. I mean, how would anyone writing a poem and using eighteenth century language going to sound authentic or relatable to the common people?

Poetry is for the common people as explained rather famously by the American bard poet 'Amiri Baraka'.

"I used to tell my students, you think your stuff (poetry) is good? see those guys digging a hole in the street there, when they get a minute off to eat a sandwich go read em' a poem, see if you get hit in the head, if you don't get hit in the head, you got a future"
Mayakovsky's words scream with life and intense urgency from the page. My discovery of Mayakovsky then led me onto reading other poets in other genres and eras (Pablo Neruda, Andre Breton, Mark Strand, Sharon Olds, Dylan Thomas, Adrienne Rich, Raymond Carver, Maya Angelou, Li Po, Bukowski, Roger Robinson, Claude McKay, Ben Okri etc) the list goes on and I’m still as open as I was before to inspiration from other Spoken Word artists, musicians and song writers.

Thank you Mayakovsky.


  1. I think yours is one of the best blogs around, Ray. It's always full of ideas both colourful and challenging. I really like reading it.