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Nazým Hikmet

Nazim HikmetIntroduction to Selected Poetry of Nazým Hikmet
Translations by Randy Blasing and Mutlu Konuk

NAZIM HIKMET, popularly known and critically acclaimed in Turkey as the first and foremost modern Turkish poet, is known around the world as one of the greatest international poets of the twentieth century, and his poetry has been translated into more than fifty languages. Born in 1902 in Salonika, where his father was in the foreign service, Hikmet grew up in Istanbul. His mother was an artist, and his pasha grandfather wrote poetry; through their circle of friends Hikmet was introduced to poetry early; publishing first poems at seventeen. He attended the Turkish naval academy, but during the Allied occupation of Istanbul following the First World War, he left to teach in eastern Turkey. In 1922, after a brief first marriage ended in annulment, he crossed the border and made his way to Moscow, attracted by the Russian Revolution and its promise of social justice. At Moscow University he got to know students and artists from all over the world. Hikmet returned to Turkey in 1924, after the Turkish War of Independence, but was soon arrested for working on a leftist magazine. In 1926 he managed to escape to Russia, where he continued writing poetry and plays, met Mayakovsky, and worked with Meyerhold. A general amnesty allowed him to return to Turkey in 1928. Since the Communist Party had been outlawed by then, he found himself under constant surveillance by the secret police and spent five of the next ten years in prison on a variety of trumped-up charges. In 1933, for example, he was jailed for putting illegal posters, but when his case came to trial, it was thrown out of court for lack of evidence. Meanwhile, between 1929 and 1936 he published nine books - five collections and four long poems- that revolutionized Turkish poetry, flouting Ottoman literary conventions and introducing free verse and colloquial diction. While these poems established him as a new major poet, he also published several plays and novels and worked as a bookbinder, proofreader, journalist, translator, and screenwriter to support an extended family that included his second wife, her two children, and his widowed mother.

Then, in January 1938 he was arrested for inciting the Turkish armed forces to revolt and sentenced to twenty-eight years in prison on the grounds that military cadets were reading his poems, particularly The Epic of Sheik Bedrettin. Published in 1936, this long poem based on a fifteenth-century peasant rebellion against Ottoman rule was his last book to appear in Turkey during his lifetime. His friend Pablo Neruda relates Hikmet's account of how he was treated after his arrest: Accused of attempting to incite the Turkish navy into rebellion, Nazým was condemned to the punishments of hell. The trial was held on a warship. He told me he was forced to walk on the ship's bridge until he was too weak to stay on his feet, then they stuck him into a section of the latrines where the excrement rose half a meter above the floor. My brother poet felt his strength failing him: my tormentors are keeping an eye on me, they want to watch me suffer. His strength came back with pride. He began to sing, low at first, then louder, and finally at the top of his lungs. He sang all the songs, all the love poems he could remember, his own poems, the ballads of the peasants, the people's battle hymns. He sang everything he knew. And so he vanquished the filth and his torturers.* In prison, Hikmet's Futurist-inspired, often topical early poetry gave way to poems with a more direct manner and a more serious tone. Enclosed in letters to his family and friends, these poems were subsequently circulated in manuscript. He not only composed some of his greatest lyrics in prison, but produced, between 1941 and 1945, his epic masterpiece, Human Landscapes. He also learned such crafts as weaving and woodworking in order to support himself and his family. In the late Forties, while still in prison, he divorced his second wife and married for a third time. In 1949 an international committee, including Pablo Picasso, Paul Robeson, and Jean Paul Sartre, was formed in Paris to campaign for Hikmet's release, and in 1950 he was awarded the World Peace Prize. The same year, he went on an eighteen-day hunger strike, despite a recent heart attack, and when Turkey's first democratically elected government came to power, he was released in a general amnesty.

Within a year, however, his persecution had resumed full force. Simone de Beauvoir recalls him describing the events of that time: He told me how a year after he came out of prison there were two attempts to murder him (with cars, in the narrow streets of Istanbul) And then they tried to make him do the military service on the Russian frontier: he was fifty. The doctor, a major, said to him: "Half an hour standing in the sun and you're a dead man. But I shall give you a certificate of health." So then he escaped, across the Bosphorus in a tiny motorboat on a stormy night -when it was calm the straits were too well guarded. He wanted to reach Bulgaria, but it was impossible with a high sea running. He passed a Rumanian cargo ship, he began to circle it, shouting his name. They saluted him, they waived handkerchiefs, but they didn't stop. He followed them and went on circling them in the height of the storm; after two hours they stopped, but without picking him up. His motor stalled, he thought he was done for. At last they hauled him aboard; they had been telephoning to Bucharest for instructions. Exhausted, half dead, he staggered into the officers' cabin; there was an enormous photograph of him with the caption: SAVE NAZIM HIKMET. The most ironical part, he added, was that he had already been at liberty for a year.**

Taken to Moscow, he was given a house in the writer's colony of Peredelkino outside the city; the Turkish government denied his wife and child permission to join him. Although he suffered a second heart attack in 1952, Hikmet traveled widely during his exile, visiting not only Eastern Europe but Rome, Paris, Havana, Peking, and Tanganyika: I traveled through Europe, Asia, and Africa with my dream / only the Americans didn't give me the visa. Stripped of his Turkish citizenship in 1959, he chose to become a the citizen of Poland, explaining he had inherited his blue eyes and red hair from a Polish ancestor who was a seventeenth-century revolutionary. In 1959 he also remarried again. The increasingly breathless pace of his late poems - often unpunctuated and, toward the end, impatient even with line divisions- conveys a sense of time accelerating as he grows older and travels faster and farther than ever before in his life. During his exile his poems were regularly printed abroad, his Selected Poems was published in Bulgaria in 1954, and generous translations of his work subsequently appeared there and in Greece, Germany, Italy, and the USSR. He died of a heart attack in Moscow in June 1963.

After his death, Hikmet's books began to reappear in Turkey; in 1965 and 1966, for example, more than twenty of his books were published there, some of them reprints of earlier volumes and others works appearing for the first time. The next fifteen years saw the gradual publication of his eight volume Collected Poems, along with his plays, novels, letters, and even children's stories. At the same time, various selections of his poems went through multiple printings, and numerous biographies and critical studies of his poetry were published. But except for brief periods between 1965 and 1980, his work has been suppressed in his native country for the past half century. Since his death, major translations of his poetry has continued to appear in England, France, Germany, Greece, Poland, Spain, and the United States; for example, Yannis Ritsos's Greek versions had gone through eight printings a of 1977, and Philippe Soupault's 1964 anthology was reissued in France as recently as 1982. And in 1983 alone, new translations of Hikmet's poems were published in French, German, and Russian. A collection of Hikmet's finest shorter poems in English translation, this book brings together for the first time -in substantially revised new versions- the better part of two earlier selections, the long-out-of-print Things I didn't know I loved and The Epic of Sheik Bedrettin, as well as a number of important lyrics previously published in magazines but hitherto uncollected.

Like Whitman, Hikmet speaks of himself, his country, and the world in the same breath. At once personal and public, his poetry records his life without reducing it to self-consciousness; he affirms reality of facts at the same time that he insists in the validity of his feelings. His human presence or the controlling figure of his personality - playful, optimistic, and capable of childlike joy- keeps his poems open, public, and committed to social and artistic change. And in the perfect oneness of his life and art, Hikmet emerges as a heroic figure. His early poems proclaim this unity as a faith: art is an event, he maintains, in social as well as literary history, and a poet's bearing in art is inseparable from his bearing in life. The rest of Hikmet's life gave him ample opportunity to act upon this faith and, in fact to deepen it. As Terrence Des Pres observes, Hikmet's exemplary life and special vision - at once historical and timeless, Marxist and mystical - had unique consequences for his art: Simply because in his art and in his person Hikmet opposes the enemies of the human spirit in harmony with itself and the earth, he can speak casually and yet with a seriousness that most modern American poets never dream of attempting.*** In a sense, Hikmet's prosecutors honored him by believing a book of poems could incite the military to revolt; indeed, the fact that he was persecuted attests to the credibility of his belief in the vital importance of his art. Yet, the suffering his faith cost him -he never compromised in this life or art- is only secondary to the suffering that must have gone into keeping that faith. The circumstances of Hikmet's life are very much to the point, not only because he continually chose to remain faithful to his vision, but also because his life and art form a dramatic whole. Sartre remarked that Hikmet conceived of a human being as something to be created. In his life no less than in his art, Hikmet forged this new kind of person, who was heroic by virtue of being a creator. This conception of the artist as a hero and of the hero as a creator saves art from becoming a frivolous activity in the modern world; as Hikmet's career dramatizes, poetry is a matter of life and death.

(*) Memoirs, trans. Hardie St. Martin (New York; Penguin, 1978), pp. 195-196.
(**) Force of circumstance, trans. Richard Howard (New York; Putnam's, 1965), pp. 390-91.
(***) Poetry and Politics: The example of Nazim Hikmet, Parnassus 6 (Spring/ Summer 1978); 12,23.
Selected Poems of Nazým Hikmet:
  • PLEA