Conversation with a Tax Collector About Poetry

Juan A. Caballero Prieto

Conversation with a Tax Collector about Poetry: A Sense of Grandeur and Craft

It is not often that the educated and uneducated meet in the arena of poetry. This poem, by Mayakovski, provides insight into the mind of the proficient artist and writer, letting us know that poetry is much more than a composition of words, it is art made through careful consideration and placement. Hence, the poet is a worker as necessary to the state as any other. Using the Tax Collector and his duties as a contrast, Mayakovski builds a metaphor using imagery that people of his time will understand without the need for much hermeneutics. The complexity of the poem is made simple, if only superficially, by its structure. Easily read, and just as quickly, “Conversation with a Tax Collector About Poetry” is the quintessential complaint of the artist against the mundane and pedestrian world of the non-artistic individual; in its words we find a world made up of worlds, if only to show the poet’s true understanding, his needs to be cultured, and leave in evidence the lack of the same in the mind of everyone else. Vladimir Mayakovski was born July 9th 1893 (d. Apr. 14th, 1930) in Baghdati, Russia; he was a supporter of the Bolshevik Revolution that took place in 1917, though he wound up quite disappointed with the Communist ideology and opposed his contemporary writers and artists. The poet would end up killing himself in 1930.1 The reasons for his suicide are only speculation, but perhaps we can find some meaning in his early disappointment with the state of affairs in the Soviet Union. In “Conversation with a Tax Collector About Poetry” Mayakovski begins by his addressing of the Tax Collector, and asserts that his “business is of a delicate nature: about the

1

Details taken from notes in class

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Conversation with a Tax Collector About Poetry

Juan A. Caballero Prieto

place of the poet in the worker’s ranks.”2 This idea, straight of out the poet’s milieu, reinforces the fact that someone needs to address a very particular problem: the poet is not being valued in the worker-driven revolution of the Bolsheviks. By addressing the tax collector, undoubtedly one of the figures who stood to benefit the most from the revolution due to their immediate rise to power and monetary gain, Mayakovski is personalizing the government and the revolution he has come so disaffected with in terms of an idea the people of the Soviet Union can understand. The tax collector, hence, serves a dual purpose: he is both metaphor and anthropomorphic personification. However, who is the poet? Is it Mayakovski himself? Are we speaking of a general artist, or is it the personal grudge of an individual being reflected in a poem written as a personal complaint? We cannot infer that the poet is speaking only for himself, for if the claim is that the Tax Collector represents the worker and state, then, Mayakovski must mean that “the poet”3 is both the artist and the revolutionaries. The reasons for this showdown are obvious, as the writer sees a problem in the value people place on those of his craft. Written in 1926, only four years before his death, Mayakovski is making a case for the need all people have of artists. After establishing that poets pay taxes as everyone else, and stating that the work of the artist is work the same as all other work,4 “the poet” moves on to describe how it is that he arrived to this conclusion by analyzing how the Tax Collector (the workers and the state) handle poetry. The allusion is made clear when, mocking the rhyme of average individuals, the poet states that in the idiom of the pedestrian “rhyme/ is a bill of exchange/ to be honored in th e third line!- that’s the rule”5 The poet is expressing himself in concepts the Tax Collector will

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P. 191 P. 191 4 P. 192 5 P. 193

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Conversation with a Tax Collector About Poetry

Juan A. Caballero Prieto

understand, for the former is well aware of the mental limitations of the latter. Expressing himself in the “idiom” of the worker and the people is not only a tool for understandable metaphor, but also a necessity; for how will they, who only care about money, understand an allegory that does not have monetary connotations? Furthermore, the worker and the state, says the poet, unlike the artists, are nothing more than butchers who hunt for pleasure “for the small change of suffixes and flections” in a mind empty of them, missing knowledge of “conjugation and declensions.” We should be rich, the poet seems to say, with the conundrums of language; and yet we hunt, like madmen and butchers, for small game in times of famine, we hunt for small victories in times of revolution. The constructing of poetry, in the artist’s eye is the delicate work of a surgeon. The worker, clumsy, starts “shoving a word into the line, but it’s a tight fit.” Of course, the man with the mettle pushes hard, he presses, and the line “breaks.” The use of onomatopoeia is clever here, for the artist compliments his metaphor with “shoving,” “press,” and “breaks,” all which sound like the action taken place. The clumsiness displayed by the worker attempting to make poetry is evident, and so is the frustration of the artist. Suddenly, there is a paradigm shift, for the poet abandons the realm of the Tax Collector, the worker, and the state, to provide an explanatory comment on how artists see their own work. “In our idiom,” he says, “rhyme is a keg” of dynamite; the line a fuse which burns to the end and then explodes in rhyme. Not only that, subsequent lines create a strophe that blow “the town sk y high.” The rarity of this explosive composition makes it hard to find, and thus the artist must travel far and wide, read avidly, work for days, months, and years, and incur debts that bog down his ability. Now, having put down the style of the worker, and placed in us the contrast of the artist, the poet moves on to explain, in terms the Tax Collector can understand, how poetry is

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Conversation with a Tax Collector About Poetry

Juan A. Caballero Prieto

made. “Poetry is like mining radium,” working a year for the sake of a word, wasting a thousand tons of “verbal ore.” The final work will last forever, however; because while verbal ore can be flame inducing, the verbal product is “smoldering.” The imagery is as delicate as the words, for fire, says the poet, burns quickly, but it also dies quickly. The words of the artist “will move millions of hearts for thousands of years” because, in a sense, they are what remain from the burning, they are the long-lasting coals that are left, smoldering, for ages. Furthermore, in clever allusion, the artist states that there are corrupt poets as much as there are corrupt officials, and that they are the “overhead expenses” of what a few have achieved, this excuse made as a reason to lower the speaking poet’s taxes. Taxes are taxing, and they hinder the growth of artists and true revolutionary thought. The good artists and tax collectors have the common duty to stamp out the corrupted and over-ambitious. Continuing, the poet defends his use as a public servant, an artist, and a leader; he says he is the voice of the working class, of those who were not benefited by the revolution. Those who are successful in the revolution, those high-end workers and the state, “wear out the machine of the soul.” The contrast between warming the heart and wearing out the soul is the reality the poet sees separating him from the Tax Collector; he sees his work stifled by unwarranted taxes, and a future bleak for the people if, because of these burdens, he is not able to reach those who may need a bit of warmth in their lives. “Draw up my posthumous balance!” the artists blurts, for the work of the poet cannot be measured in his lifetime, and if someone were to look at those benefited for his explosive rhymes, complexity, and influence, those few individuals would be paid rich dividends. Only the universe is owed, says the artist, the rest is merely superficial understanding.

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Conversation with a Tax Collector About Poetry

Juan A. Caballero Prieto

The poem now begins to escalate, first to anger, then to rage. We read of an artist wronged and of accusations by others. The poet writes that the Tax Collectors’ future is assured, for he will be remembered (resurrected and immortal) in the written word. Time can be turned back, ideas revisited, and a new dawn made in the “stench of ink.” Mayakovski is adamant: the work of the artist is invaluable, for how to pay an individual whose work will earn payment “over three hundred years”? As the poem grows in intensity, the poet begins his rant; he asserts his strength, his influence over the future and the present. Again, the imagery is explicit, as the artist reaches for the collector’s form and crosses out “all of the zeroes after the five and pay the rest.” Because of his influence, the poet, demands to be taxed just over the poor peasants. As he concludes, Mayakovski places, in the words of the unknown poet, the outrage of claims made against too many of his craft, that of plagiarism and similitude. As the singular tone of the man against the Tax Collector is changed to a plural that addresses everyone reading, the poem closes:
And if You think That all I have to do Is profit By other people’s words, Then, Comrades, Here’s my pen. Take A crack at it Yourselves.6

At no moment is the anger and frustration more evident than here; the words used and the imagery suggest a poet so frustrated he throws his pen at the Tax Collector, telling him to try, if possible, to produce even the slightest bit of poetry. The disaffected Mayakovski expressed his ideas in a way that could be understood by every reader of his time, his frustration, though
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P.207

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Conversation with a Tax Collector About Poetry

Juan A. Caballero Prieto

evident, is also the work of careful analysis and even more careful metaphor. Allusion and allegory play well in the piece, as the writer seems to place us in a double bind: if you love poetry, you must love the poet. In the end, as it has been made evident, poetry is much more than a composition of words, it is art made through careful consideration and placement. Hence, the poet is a worker as necessary to the state as any other.

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