On the 20th Century Bursa prison, 1941
To fall asleep, my love, and wake up a hundred years later
My miserable ,
2002 is the birth centenary of Nazim Hikmet. The first modern Turkish poet, Hikmet is recognized around the world as one of the greatest international poets of the twentieth century. Indeed he was one of the most authentic poets of the just concluded century with almost all his poems pulsating with the quintessential twentieth century spirit of revolution and resistance. In what follows we bring you a brief profile of Hikmet, the man who turned the prison into a poet’s workshop, his views on poetry and, of course, four of his most memorable poems.
Born in 1902 in Salonica, Ottoman Empire (now Thessaloníki, Greece), Nazim Hikmet 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. Nazim was sent to French school and then later to the naval academy. 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 the avant garde theatre. He attended the Communist University for the Workers of the East, but after a year returned to Turkey after the Independence War had been won and the Republic declared by Mustafa Kemal.
Back in Turkey, Nazim was however soon arrested for working on a leftist magazine. He managed to escape to Russia, where he continued to write plays and poems. In 1928 a general amnesty allowed him to return again to Turkey, and during the next ten years he published nine books of poetry — five collections and four long poems — while working as a proofreader, journalist, scriptwriter, and translator. He also produced numerous plays, screenplays and a novel. By 1938, it was again time for Nazim to return to the prison. With the spectre of fascism haunting the whole of Europe, in 1938 Nazim was sentenced to twenty-eight years of imprisonment 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 peasant rebellion, uniting Christian, Moslem and Jewish Turks against the Ottoman sultan, told with a dark, almost fairytale-like simplicity.
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 Neruda. The same year Menderes came into power after Turkey’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. Convinced he would never survive basic training, Nazim decided he had to flee the country once again. With the help of a young friend, leaving behind his young wife and newly born son he again landed in Moscow.
In 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. Nazim could however never reconcile himself with the bureaucratic degeneration that had already started surfacing in the USSR in the 1950s. 1n 1956 his play, Ivan Ivanovich, a satire on Soviet bureaucracy, was banned. When he was stripped of his Turkish citizenship, according to many accounts, he greatly offended his Soviet hosts by taking on Polish citizenship. He died of a heart attack in Moscow in 1963.
After receiving early recognition for his patriotic poems in syllabic meter, he abandoned traditional forms of poetry under the influence of the Russian Futurists in Moscow. “Human Landscapes” is regarded by many critics as the best product of Hikmet’s literary genius. It is credited with “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”.
Ironically this great freedom in imagination took place while Nazim was serving his longest prison sentence. 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 neighbourhoods.” 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. It also seems fitting that Nazim was translating War and Peace at the same time as working on Human Landscapes.
Nazim’s main crime was not only that he was a Communist writer, but that his writings were so successful. The amazing 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, merged splendidly in his poetry with his innovative language and resonant yet informal and colloquial diction, infusing the most personal of his lyrics with profound political meaning.
(based on inputs available on the Net, with special thanks to the Winter 2002 issue of the Light Millennium e-magazine)
I was born in 1902
(translated by Randy Blasing and Mutlu Konuk)
Living is no laughing matter:
Let’s say we’re seriously ill, need surgery—
This earth will grow cold,
— Nazim Hikmet
Sectarianism in art is our greatest enemy, especially in the question of form. Those who exclude poetry in rhyme and measure are as narrow-minded as those who believe that there can be no poetry without rhyme and measure. Poetry can be written both ways… I wasn’t less sectarian when I was young. After writing poetry in classical folk measure and rhyme, I sought for novelty in form and began to write in my own way, in a kind of free measure. At its roots was the folk measures of poetry, and even aruz (prosody written according to the rules of classical Turkish poetry, Translator’s note) sometimes. It was the same for rhyme and language. But I attempted to suggest that this was the only way for writing poetry. I didn’t write any love poems for a long time. I didn’t even use the word ‘heart’ in my poetry, because it was the symbol of feeling, not of the mind. There were times when I was after the most colourful and harmonious poems. I thought that it would be more enjoyable, better understood and more effective if I said what I wanted to say to the people in that way. There were also times when I wanted to present my song in its most basic and invisible form. When was I mistaken? In my opinion, we need both ways and many others. An artist has to search for the most suitable forms non-stop, until the end of his life, in order to have his songs listened by the people. Sometimes these efforts do not produce anything but months’ long headaches and suffering. Never mind that. Sometimes he is mistaken. Let it be. An artist who doesn’t suffer from headaches, nervous breakdown, who is not mistaken, would not advance.
Now I use all forms. I write in both folk measure and in rhyme. I also write poetry in the simplest possible form, in everyday language, without a measure or rhyme. I write about love, peace, revolution, life, death, joy, sorrow, hope and desperation; I want my poetry to cover everything human. I want my reader to find the expression of all their feelings in my, or our, poetry. Let them read our poetry when they want something for May Day, or something for their platonic love.
A poet talking about himself or not, talking to one person or to the millions… This doesn’t explain anything about his philosophical or political views. There are poets who don’t talk about themselves but talk to millions, but who are also the representatives of mystic, subjective, idealist, or even religious philosophy. On the other hand, there are many poets who talk about only themselves, but who are materialist, even dialectical materialist. And their poems have been embraced by the masses.
I want to write poems which talk about myself, poems which talk to a single person and to millions. I want to write poems which talk about an apple, about the upturned soil, about the psychology of someone returning from a dungeon, about the fight of the masses for a better future, about the sorrows of love. I want to write poems both on the fear of death and on fearlessness towards death.
Since I became a poet what I have been expecting from art is that it should serve people and call them for a better future. That it should be voice for people’s suffering, their anger, hope, joy and longing. This is what has not changed in my understanding of art. The rest of it has changed, is changing and will change constantly in order to be able to express the unchanged in the most touching, talented, useful, beautiful and perfect way.
(Nazim Hikmet talking about his understanding of art, compiled by Ekber Babayev, 14/11/1965, based on Hikmet’s own writings and his dictations to Babayev.)
(From Revolutionary Democracy, September 2002)