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Billy Bragg — Talking With The Taxman About Poetry — Vladimir Mayakovsky (1926)

[Translated from the Russian by Peter Tempest]

Sorry to bother you,
Citizen taxman!
No thanks…
Don’t worry…
I’d rather stand.
I’ve come to see you
on a delicate matter;
The place
of the poet
in a worker’s land.
Along with
and land users
I’m taxable too,
and am bound by the law.
Your demand
for the half-year
is 500 roubles,
And for not filling forms — 25 more.
My labour’s
no different
from any other labour.
Examine these figures
of loss and gain,
The production
I have been facing,
The raw material
I had to obtain.
With the notion of «rhyme»
you’re acquainted, of course?
When a line of ours
ends with a word
like «plum»
In the next line but one
we repeat
the syllable
With some other word
that goes
A rhyme
is an IOU,
as you’d put it.
«Pay two lines later»
is the regulation.
So you seek
the small charge of inflexion,suffix
In the depleted till
of declensions,
You shove
a word
into a line of poetry
But it just won’t go —
you push it and it snaps.
Upon my honour,
Citizen taxman,
cost poets a pretty penny in cash.
As we poets see it,
a barrel
the rhyme is,
A barrel of dynamite,
the fuse is
each line.
The line starts smoking,
exploding the line is,
And the stanza
a city
Where to find rhymes,
in what tariff list,
That hit the bull’s eye
with never a failure?
a handful of them
still exist
Faraway somewhere
in Venezuela.
I have to scour
and tropical climes.
I flounder in debt,
I get advance payments.
My travel expenses
bear in mind.
Poetry —
all poetry —
is an exploration.
is just like mining radium.
To gain just a gram
you must labour a year.
Tons of lexicon ore
All for the sake of one precious word,
how searing
the heat of this word is
the smouldering
heap of waste.
There are the words
that go rousing,stirring
Millions of hearts
from age to age.
Of course,
there are different brands of poet.
Famed for sleight of hand
are quite a few.
Verses they pull,
like a conjuror,
Out of their own mouths —
and others’ too.
What can one say
of the poetry eunuchs?
They write
stolen lines in —
not turning a hair.
like that
is nothing unusual
In a country
where thieves are enough and to spare.
odes ans verses
Which with rapt ovations
audiences greet
Will go down
in history
as overhead charges
For the achievements
of a few of us —
two or three.
It takes
quite a time,
to get to know people,
Smoke many a packets of cigarettes
Till you raise
that wonderful word
you’re needing
From the deep artesian
folk wells.
the rate of tax
grows less.
that wheel-zero
of the total due.
I pay one rouble 90
for a hundred cigarettes
And one rouble 60
for the salt I consume.
I see your form
there’s a host of questions:
«travelled abroad?
Or spent all the time here?»
What if
I’ve run down
a dozen Pegasuses
In the course of
fifteen years?!
You want to know
how many servants
I’m keeping,
What houses?
My special casee please observe:
do I stand
if I lead people
And simultaneously
the people serve?
The class
with the words we utter
And we
push the pen.
The soul-machine
wears out,
begins to splutter.
They tell us:
«Your place
is on the shelf.»
There’s ever less love,
less bold innovation,
strikes my forhead
a running blow.
There comes
the most terrifying depreciation,
The depreciation
of heart and soul,
one day this sun
shall like a fattened hog in
A land rid of beggars
and cripples
Dead by the fence
have long
been rotting
Along with
ten or so
colleagues of mine.
Drae up
my posthumous balance-sheet!
I tell you —
upon this I’m ready to bet —
all the dealers and climbers
you see
I’ll be
a unique case —
hopelessly in debt.
Our duty is
to roar
like brass-throated sirens
In philistine fog
and in stormy weather.
fines in cash
and high interest
on sorrow,
The poet
is always
the Universe’s debtor.
And I
owe a debt
to the lights of Broadway,
A debt to you also,
Bagadady skies,
To the Red Army
and to Japan’s cherry blossom —
To all
about which
I had no time to write.
did I undertake
this burden?
With rhyme to shoot,
with metre anger to spark?
Your resurrection
the poet’s word is,
Your immortality,
Citizen clerk.
Read any line
a hundred years after
And it brings back the past,
as fast as a wink,
All will come back —
this day
with the taxman
With a glint of magic
and the reek of ink.
Come,you smug dweller in the present era,
Buy your rail ticket
to Eternity
the impact of verse
and distribute
All that I earn
over three hundred years!
Not only in this
lies the power of a poet,
That it’s you
future generations
will think about.
Oh no!
Today too
are the rhymes of a poet
A caress,
a slogan,
a bayonet,
a knout.
Five —
not five hundred —
roubles I’ll pay
You,Citizen taxman!
Delete every nought!
As of right
demanding a place
With workers
and peasants
of the poorest sort.
But if
you think
all I do is just press
Words other people use
into my service
come here,
let me give you my pen
And you
can yourselves
write your own verses!


transcription:Rami Zakh ([email protected])