It’s the sixth day of Christmas, by my count, and my friend Elaine Ray has sent me a post from her blog, entitled “Langston Hughes, my father, Joseph Stalin and Jesus”, discussing a rather anti-Christmas poem by Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes, and a 1940 article objecting to the poem written by her own father, the New York Age columnist Ebenezer Ray.
In an article in Poetry magazine, Hughes biographer Arnold Rampersad noted that during the most difficult days of the Great Depression, Hughes “had composed some of the harshest political verse ever penned by an American. These pieces include Good Morning Revolution and Columbia, but above all, Goodbye Christ. Here the speaker of the poem ridicules the legend of Jesus in favor of the radical reality of Marx, Lenin, ‘worker,’ ‘peasant,’ ‘me.’”
What struck me about the poem was … hadn’t I read this before? It sounded awfully familiar. My search for the poems Vladimir Mayakovsky, the gifted and misguided bard of the Bolshevik Revolution, in my ancient edition published by the USSR’s Progress Books, led to an unsuccessful household excavation.
So I tried google instead.
My nose hadn’t led me astray. In fact, Hughes translated Mayakovsky. The Communist writer Louis Aragon had offered his guidance to the American poet, and give an indication of how Hughes may have interpreted the Russian’s legacy.
From a paper by UCLA’s Ryan James Kernan:
Hughes’s choice of a literal translation for Mayakovsky was, in part, the result of his decision to heed Aragon on how to translate the peculiarities of the Russian master.
Aragon most likely hand-delivered his advice for explicitly Western translators to Hughes when the two crossed paths in Paris. His advice offers both a justification for Aragon’s own literal translation of Mayakovsky, and a prescription for future translators. He urges that they forsake the reproduction of the formal elements of Russian poetry in the interest of preserving the totality of Mayakovsky’s revolutionary message and spirit for the purpose of its infusion into Western Europe:
Oui, le poèmes de Maiakovsky sont rimes. Mais allez comparer la rime française, et je ne dirais pas la rime russe, mais la soviétique! Tout un nouveau langage, le langage d’une nouvelle vie, des mots qui n’ont jamais été usés par les rabacheurs poétiques, jetés du jour au lendemain à la disposition du lyrisme. [....] De plus, la rime de Maiakovsky toujours imprévisible, souvent complex, faites de plusiers mots, tient peut-etre advantage du jeu de mots que de la rime.
Yes, Mayakovsky’s poetry rhymes. But let’s compare French rhyme, and not Russian rhyme, with Soviet rhyme. An entirely new language, the language of a new life, composed of words that were never used by old, tired poetics, which should not be thrown out because of a thirst for lyricism. [....] Moreover, Mayakovsky’s rhyme, always unexpected, often complex, is perhaps more concerned with word play than rhyme.