Poet, International Figure,
But Not a Turkish Citizen
the world enters a new phase of uncertainty, with
acts of violence taking on unimagined dimensions,
the celebration of Nazim Hikmet's 100th
Birthday assumes an even greater meaning and provides
even deeper comfort. Many are coming together to reflect
upon the life and works of this unwavering idealist,
whose books were banned for so long in Turkey, yet
whose status as the country's foremost modern poet
was pretty much agreed upon.
& Digital Art by Julie MARDIN
grasp of my family's native tongue has steadily declined
since my childhood summers in Istanbul. But even if one does not speak Turkish, one of the most inspiring
ways to acquaint one's self with Nazim Hikmet would
be to hear his own reading of his work.
The personal yet expansive tone of his voice,
gentle, one moment, bold and underlined, the next, is
enough to convey the excitement of his vision, as well
as the beauty and vigor, and the drama, of the Turkish
language. For us English-speakers, there are some
very fine translations, Selected Poetry
and his epic poem Human Landscapes,
by Randy Blasing and Mutlu Konuk, and also a recent
biography by Saime Goksu and Edward Timms, titled Romantic
provides a fascinating account of his life, and because
of which I will probably lapse into far more biographical
detail than there is perhaps space for, but it is hard
not to try to incorporate the feeling of so many ideological
movements and counter-movements that his generation
came of age in, and the sense there must have been that
anything was possible.
The aim of this article will be to introduce
Nazim Hikmet's work and life to the English speaking
reader, who might not know all that much about the birth
of Turkey as a modern nation, which coincided precisely
with Nazim's own growth as a writer.
was a wonderful discovery.
Never had I come across such an innovative literary
structure, which on the page looks like poetry, yet
reads like a novel, and feels just as much like a movie--but
a movie, a novel, with no expository or narrative restraints
whatsoever. It jumps from character to character,
location to location, human to bird to radio wave, from
train to the countryside through which it passes, to
create nothing short of a bold attempt at ubiquity.
It reminded me of the brilliant first ten minutes
of Wim Wenders' Wings of Desire, a passage which eavesdrops on a succession of city
dwellers and their thoughts, made in the eighties, yet
Nazim's untethered yet logical progression was sustained
for a good part of the work and written in the forties.
Ironically this great freedom in imagination took place
while Nazim was serving his longest prison sentence. A self-avowed Communist, Nazim was in and out of prison for
much of his life, yet in 1938 was sentenced to twenty-eight
years for inciting the army to revolt, based primarily
on the fact that his poem, The Epic of Sheik Bedreddin,
was being read by young army cadets.
The subject of the poem was a 14th
century socialist peasant rebellion, uniting Christian,
Moslem and Jewish Turks against the Ottoman sultan,
told with a dark, almost fairytale-like simplicity.
A barefoot woman is crying on the shore
in the lake
an empty fishing boat has broken loose,
floating on the water
like a dead bird.
goes where the water takes it
the lake to be smashed on the mountains.
Evening comes to Iznik Lake.
horesemen in the mountains
the sun's throat
and drain the blood into the lake.
the shore a barefoot woman is crying,
wife of the fisherman chained in the castle
for taking a carp,
from The Epic of Sheik Bedreddin
main crime was not only that he was a Communist writer,
but that his writings were so successful. No matter one's political beliefs, it
was pretty widely agreed that he was an innovator, forging
a modern literary language out of Turkish with the introduction
of free verse and colloquial diction.
It was resonant, yet informal and decidedly unflowery,
poetry that was fresh and accessible to all segments
of the population.
His trouble with the law could be said to have
stemmed not only from his beliefs, but also his enormously
appealing talent with the language.
Nazim's time at the Bursa prison is said to have been
crucial in his creation of Human Landscapes,
as he was able to gain far more intimate contact with
people from all backgrounds and classes in Turkey. He had actually first conceived
of the work as what he called an "Encyclopedia
of Famous People," yet his entries were not "generals,
sultans, distinguished scientists or artists, beauty
queens, murderers, or billionaires; they were workers,
peasants, and craftsmen, people whose fame had not spread
beyond their factories, workshops, villages, or neighborhoods." These entries eventually transformed into
a more interrelated whole, and all levels of life were
touched upon through various methods of representation,
incorporating elements of poetry, prose and movie script
techniques, causing Nazim himself to say that he felt
he had ceased to be a poet and become something else.
Raymond Carver called Human Landscapes
one of the great works of modern literature.
It seems appropriate that an American minimalist
writer would be drawn to Nazim's spareness of style,
which in turn had been influenced by the Russian Futurists. Though Nazim declared as he was getting
older that he saw the need for "healthy, hopeful,
even a little sad lyrical poetry".
It also seems fitting that Nazim was translating
War and Peace at the same time as working on Human Landscapes. The work's affinity with Tolstoy can be seen in its epic vision,
as well as its natural blending of the personal with
In a speech given by the prison doctor, reflecting
upon a farmer who has come for his help, we can get
a sense of the scope of the issues encapsulated in its
concise, direct language.
doesn't like me at all.
am the enemy.
am the effendi in this big building,
man who gives him grief out of sheer spite
instead of giving him a yellow pill.
county clerk and me-
we're both the same.
put his thumb on the paper,
because he believes in it
but because I ordered him to.
now he isn't thinking about anything,
except maybe the harvest.
done all he could,
and if his wife dies it's my fault.
effendi of this big building.
doesn't like me,
I am the enemy.
you see his wife?
like a piece of earth,
with two babies already.
means she's still cooking,
she can still be gone to bed with.
saw her birth certificate:
could be a year old,
she could be a thousand-
she hasn't lived.
I don't know,
has no idea of the sea.
hasn't heard of stuffed eggplant.
each time she's looked on
as her husband wound his watch-
if he has one.
she hasn't even dreamed
it might be possible to sleep
from Human Landscapes,
Book III, Part II
A pasha's grandson:
himself was from an aristocratic background. Born in
1902 in Salonica, the birthplace of so much revolutionary
thought in Turkey, he was part of a cosmopolitan family,
his father a government official in the foreign service,
and his mother a painter of Polish and Huguenot descent. Both her grandfathers were illustrious
commanders in the Ottoman army, with revolution and
adventure running through both their life stories, and
his paternal grandfather was also a Pasha, who practiced
mysticism, a Sufi.
Nazim was sent to French school and then later to the
He was in Istanbul as World War I was ending
and the Allied forces were poised to carve up what was
left of the Empire.
Occupying forces were already entering the capital.
As the government was doing nothing but capitulating,
Mustafa Kemal, the great hero of the Battle of Gallipoli,
on orders to disband the forces in the East, instead
set up an alternative government in the city of Ankara,
and set about building up a national resistance.
This was the movement which inspired Nazim's
early poetry and which he was so anxious to join, and
in late 1920 an invitation finally came from Halide
Edip, the famous writer and activist, and a woman sergeant
on the western front.
So, at the age of eighteen, he and another close
friend, also a poet, set out for Ankara.
As the railroad had by then been taken over by the Occupying
Powers, the journey had to be made by boat and then
by foot over treacherous mountain passes. On the way
they came into contact with a group of Spartacists,
also on their way to join up with the Revolution, who
exposed them to the ideas of Marx and Lenin. The friends
also enjoyed the hospitality of local villagers, despite
the extreme poverty that prevailed, and which they were
confronting for the first time.
In Ankara, they met Mustafa Kemal, who on learning that
they were poets, advised them to "write poetry
with a purpose." They were not sent to the front lines,
but to teaching posts in the small town of Bolu. Education was yet another crucial front on which the battle
for the country was to be waged.
Finding themselves and their assigned roles somewhat
ineffective, their imaginations got caught up with making
their way to Russia, and soon they manipulated their
way across the newly redrawn border. In Moscow, they were privileged to witness
the brief, incredibly dynamic Russian renaissance of
the arts that occurred right after the Revolution.
Nazim was introduced to the Futurist poet Mayakovsky,
and his even greater influence Meyerhold and the avant
garde theatre. He attended the Communist University for
the Workers of the East, and steeped himself in the
theories of Marx and Trotsky, but after a year returned
to Turkey after the Independence War had been won and
the Republic declared by Mustafa Kemal. It was not until his second stay in Moscow that Nazim was to
pursue his experiments in the theatre, establishing
a new company and becoming its resident poet and playwright.
Thrown out of the Communist party:
1925, because of the Kurdish uprising in the East, there
had been in a crack-down in Turkey on all political
opposition, and the Communist Party lost many members
and was in a state of disarray.
Many decided to align themselves with the dynamic
programme of modernization that was already underway
in Turkey. Practically
overnight, Kemal had abolished the fez, the Arabic script,
introduced the metric system and was insuring more and
more rights for women. They saw a compromise between
socialism and capitalism in Kemal's policies of state
planning, or Statism.
Though Nazim couldn't see himself working hand
in hand with the government, he was in a few years thrown
out of the Turkish Communist Party as well, for having
aligned himself with a faction that called for greater
internal democracy, independence from the Comintern,
as well as for working within the legal boundaries of
They were accused of putting Nationalism above
their allegiance to the Party.
By 1928 Nazim was settled back into Babiali, the journalistic
quarter of Istanbul, and into his self-proclaimed mission
of spreading the ideas of Marx and the Constructivists
to the Turkish audience.
He worked on a variety of publications, in particular
Resimli Ay (Illustrated
Monthly), where he got involved in all aspects of production,
graphic design and illustration, as well as contributing
his poetry and a series of polemics bashing all the
established poets and icons of the time, a period which
was sure to have earned him more than a few enemies. In the mid thirties however, these debates
gave way to a far more urgent fight, against the growing
spectre of fascism in Europe as well as in Turkey.
During this period Nazim had published ten books of
poetry, had also produced numerous plays, screenplays
and a novel. By 1938, however, the pretext was provided
to hand down a severe sentence, based primarily on a
few young military students' enthusiasm for poetry. The authorities had realized that they could not convict Nazim
through the civil courts, they had to find a way to
try him through secret proceedings in the National Security
for the first time, they took me out in the sun.
I just stood there, for the first time in my life,
how far away the sky is,
and how wide.
I reverently sat down on the earth,
Leaning my back against the wall.
At this moment, no trap to fall into,
At this moment no struggle, no freedom, no wife.
Only the earth, the sun and me.
I am happy...
from Letters from a Man in Solitary,
Part of the amazing story of Nazim Hikmet was the strength
of his creative spirit, his ability to celebrate the
small details of his concrete existence, even in the
most crushing of isolation and disruption to his life
and world. Although,
even the most personal of lyrics we begin to understand
are infused with political meaning.
The sun is used throughout his poetry as a symbol
of revolutionary truth. Recurring images of the blue sky, which
he is not allowed to see, becomes synonymous with freedom,
and the four walls with the human condition.
Throughout his sentence he kept up a frequent correspondence
with friends and family, enclosing copies of his poems,
which were then transcribed and distributed.
It was said that his Legend of National Liberation
was being read and appreciated even by members of the
most important lifeline to the outside world was his
wife Piraye, and it was in her honor that some of his
most beautiful works were written.
He began to set aside an hour each night devoted
to her contemplation, and produced a series of love
letters and poems that would endow their relationship
with something of a mythical status.
beautiful to think of you:
amid news of death and victory,
when I'm past forty...
How beautiful to think of you:
your hand resting on blue cloth,
your hair grave and soft
like my beloved Istanbul earth...
The joy of loving you
is like a second person inside
the 9-10 P.M. Poems
their real life romance was to suffer, and after surviving
so many years of tribulation together, they were divorced. Nazim had fallen in love with his younger
cousin while in prison and married her when he was finally
released, following in a pattern of deep attachment
In 1949 an international campaign was begun to secure
his release, led by to Tristan Tzara and Louis Aragon,
and in 1950 he was awarded a peace prize in absentia
in Warsaw, which he shared with Paul Robeson and Pablo
same year Menderes came into power after the country's
first democratically held elections and there was finally
a general amnesty declared. After serving twelve years of his sentence he was let go.
Soon after his release, however, at forty-eight
years of age and in poor health, he was called to serve
his military service.
Turkey had just entered NATO and was committing
soldiers to help fight in Korea. Nazim, convinced he would never survive
basic training, yet unable to convince the authorities
to exempt him, decided he had to flee the country once
the help of a young friend, leaving behind his young
wife and newly born son, they drove a speed boat into
the Black Sea, where the Rumanian tanker Plekhanov finally
took him aboard.
Back in Moscow he discovered a completely changed world.
All his old artist friends from the 1920s had
either been imprisoned or become embittered drunks.
Any kind of experimental thinking had been crushed.
On seeing the state of the Soviet theatre he
spoke out a reception honoring his arrival, much to
the embarrassment of the guests. Spending all that time in Turkish prisons
had spared him his illusions about Soviet Russia. This initial boldness seems tempered as
his stay went on.
As he was a famous foreign writer, he had some
protection. Though in the USSR he was also under constant surveillance
and was made aware of at least one attempt on his life.
His commitment against the spread of nuclear weapons:
the world was in the throes of the Cold War, many in
Turkey considered him a traitor.
Even the peace movement which he was to become
a part of was regarded with suspicion as being nothing
but Soviet sponsored propaganda. While the threat of Russian imperialism,
and the fragility of the young republic, were very real
concerns, one cannot deny that Nazim Hikmet was motivated
by a love of his country and his desire for social justice.
His life's focus can be defined just as much
by his commitment to Turkey's independence, his commitment
against Fascism, and his commitment against the spread
of nuclear weapons, as by his leftist views. He was a modernist, a staunch secularlist,
just like Mustafa Kemal.
In a last minute appeal to the ailing president,
he had written in a way that makes one believe he was
a confirmed Kemalist, "I am not blind and I appreciate every giant step you
take for progress.
I have a heart that loves my country. I am a
poet of the Turkish language who believes in you and
Much earlier Kemal had been very impressed with Nazim's
"The Holy Book." When members of his entourage had intimated that he was
a communist, he apparently declared, "I don't care
what he is! One
thing is certain, no one has written anything as powerful
as this in the Turkish language."
If we listen to the radio broadcasts that Nazim started
to make in the late 50's, where he decries the Menderes
regime, many of his critiques have resonance today. He paralleled the situation right after
WWII with the situation they found themselves in right
after WWI. Similarly, he saw that Turkey was now
opening its doors far too readily to American interests. He points out that specialists had been
brought in to advise on torture techniques, and the
newly appointed director of the Press and Communications
office had been trained at the American Propoganda Service.
"Did not Ataturk bequeath to you our independence
as a country, a republic, and a nation as the most precious
thing of all?" He was not rallying for Communist revolution
or an alignment with the Soviet Union, but for Turkey's
independence and neutrality in the international arena.
He also warned quite vehemently of the dangers of religious
fundamentalism and how it was being manipulated, as
he saw it, by Menderes, for political purposes. Under Menderes, there was a further decrease
in religious restrictions, but not only as a policy
of tolerance, but with rather substantial funding and
the establishment of religious schools and academies
throughout the country.
Religious instruction became a part of the standard
curriculum in all schools, and Turkish was eliminated
in the call for prayer and in the Koran.
The struggle between the secular and the fundamentalist
is still very much alive, and strangely enough often
seems to play along the lines of the struggle between
the left and the right.
The violence that has been inflicted by the Sunnis,
upon the more tolerant, heterodox Alevis, throughout
the years, often with the government just standing by,
is an example of this.
Why has the fundamentalist strain of religious
thought so consistently been favored over the liberal? With the striking up of dubious alliances,
a tangle of ideologies is created that gives pause for
thought to this day, of course, not only in Turkey's
affairs but those of the superpowers as well.
exile, Nazim traveled widely and became a prominent
member of the World Peace Council, sharing the platform
with Sartre and Picasso, Neruda, Ehrenberg and Aragon. His poems were performed by such international stars as Pete
Seeger and Paul Robeson. 1n 1956 his play, Ivan Ivanovich,
a satire on Soviet bureaucracy, was banned, and led
Stalin's daughter to call him a "romantic communist."
When he was stripped of his Turkish citizenship,
according to many accounts, he greatly offended his
Soviet hosts by taking on Polish citizenship, in honor
of his ancestor who had fought so bravely against the
Russians. His late poetry is filled with a confusion
of the multiple places, times and women of his life,
a sense of his own mortality and longing for his country. He died in Moscow in 1963.
Nazim Hikmet's books are now available in Turkey, his
poems are set to pop songs.
Compilations of his recorded readings from prison
are available on CD.
There is a campaign to bring the poet's remains
to be reburied in Turkey, as the poet had imagined his
final resting place in Anatolia in his poems, though
this still remains a matter of controversy, as does
the even wider campaign to restore Nazim's citizenship.
His supporters point out, he was a recorder and
celebrator of his country's history, a forger of a modern
literary language out of spoken Turkish, a national
poet, as well as perhaps Turkey's only international
poet. His work has been translated in over fifty languages. It would seem ironic that we would not
be able to claim him as ours, as a Turkish citizen. One positive step has been the inclusion of two of Nazim Hikmet's
poems in the Turkish school books, from which, until
only recently, even the mention of his name had been
Today everyone, even in Ankara, even in the military,
is celebrating Nazim Hikmet's 100th birthday.
Despite the hardships he endured, and what must
have been nothing but a series of disillusions and periods
of tragic isolation, Nazim Hikmet never gave up on his
faith and love for the world, and his dream of social
justice, and proudly proclaimed himself a child of the
the 20th Century
Bursa prison, 1941
fall asleep, my love,
and wake up a hundred years later-
my century doesn't scare me.
I'm not a deserter.
My miserable ,
I was born too soon.
I'm a child of the 20th century
and proud of it.
It's enough for me
to join the ranks in the 20th century
on our side
and fight for a new world.
No, earlier-in spite of everything
And my dying, dawning century,
When those who laugh last will laugh best
my awful night that comes to light
with rising cries,
be all sunsine,
- Human Landscapes,
tr. Randy Blasing and Mutlu Konuk, New York: Persea,
- Poems of Nazim Hikmet,
tr. Randy Blasing and Mutlu Konuk, New York: Persea,
- Romantic Communist,
Saime Goksu and Edward Timms, New York: St. Martin's
- On the 20th Century, tr. Randy Blasing and Mutlu Konuk, Light Millennium, January 2000, published
and appearing in the video documentary, On the 20th
Century, produced by The Light Millennium.