BY KUTAY ONAYLI
Nazim Hikmet Ran is an imposing figure for the aspiring Turkish poet: more than fifty years after his death, his country still remembers him as a literary giant who managed to defy convention yet invent a poetic voice rich in its ties to tradition. His body of work is deep in meaning and symbolism yet also accessible. His voice is unapologetically political but full of human compassion and softness. He simplified language gave poetry a sharp social purpose and artfully advocated simple freedom and decency.
Nazim Hikmet, or Nazim, as he is commonly referred to in Turkey, was born in 1902 in the city of Salonika, soon to be part of the Republic of Greece. Part of a distinguished family that had produced a number of influential Ottoman officials, he grew up and went to school in Istanbul. He was already winning awards for his poetry as early as 1920. In 1921, he travelled with three other poets to Ankara, then a village in the heart of Anatolia. There he briefly joined the nationalist movement fighting against the post-World War I occupation of Turkey by the Great Powers and Greece. The movement was to be victorious—its leader, Mustafa Kemal Pasha, became the first president and Ankara became the capital city of the new Republic of Turkey in 1923. Nazim was a student at the Communist University of the Toilers of the East in Moscow by then.
His time in the Soviet Union would come to be essential in the creation of Nazim’s unique voice and focus: he’d be deeply affected by the scenes of poverty and famine that he witnessed during his Caucasian trip to Moscow, embrace the fervor and optimism of Lenin’s communist state, and come to love the works of the Soviet avant-garde. Deeply influenced by the revolutionary style of Bolshevik poet Mayakovsky, he started breaking the boundaries of classical rhyme and form, which until his time were preserved and protected almost religiously throughout centuries of Ottoman and Turkish poetry. By the time he returned to Turkey, his poetry had a completely unique, arguably lawless, voice.
The content of his work was similarly radical: he combined his communist ideology with loving representations of the Anatolian countryside and its impoverished peasantry. He composed poems that served as sweet odes to the life and struggles of the everyman while ferociously attacking the capitalist economic and social system. Even his love poems carried traces of his ‘romantic communism.’ The newly-created, monolithic nation-state of Turkey naturally took great offense to his work: the government was trying to build economic and social ties with Western powers and the official rhetoric was very much branding communism as a subversive, malicious ideology. Nazim’s open -but strictly democratic- political activism in favor of communism did not help. Harassed for years by accusations, arrests and trials, he was finally sentenced to twenty-eight years in prison on a number of made-up political charges in 1938. His works were banned by the government in the same year and would remain so until 1965. They also remained ferociously popular.
In fact, respect and admiration for Nazim Hikmet’s work extended well beyond the borders of the country. To this day, he is Turkey’s most internationally-known poet by far, and amongst those who campaigned for his release at the time were Jean-Paul Sartre, Pablo Picasso, Paul Robeson and Pablo Neruda. After a long period of international campaigning and a series of hunger strikes, (joined by other Turkish poets of renown, namely Orhan Veli, Melih Cevdet and Oktay Rifat,) Nazim was finally released in 1950. Shortly after his release, however, he was exiled. His citizenship revoked, he would never be allowed come back to his beloved Turkey. He died in 1963 in Russia, where he abhorred what the ironfisted Stalin was doing to the Communist state, the glorious ideal of his youth. During his exile, the theme of longing rose perhaps above all in his poetry. He would write in 1957, “I am a walnut tree in Gulhane Park./…/My leaves are my hands, a hundred thousand hands I have/ With a hundred thousand hands I touch you, I touch Istanbul. / My leaves are my eyes, in amazement I gaze/ With a hundred thousand eyes I watch you, I watch Istanbul./Like a hundred thousand hearts beat, beat my leaves.”
Nazim Hikmet could not return to his native country; but his native country has been turning to him more and more in respect and admiration since his death. He is more widely read than ever, many of his poems have been set to music, documentaries and movies about his life abound and he is nothing short of a household name in today’s Turkey. His Turkish citizenship was restored in 2009 and his family has been asked if they would like his remains to be repatriated from Moscow. And, perhaps most importantly, however intimidating Nazim’s larger-than-life odyssey and literary output may be, Turks who dabble in poetry still turn to him above all for inspiration and guidance. Few leave empty-handed, and that means Nazim will ‘like a hundred thousand hearts beat, beat’ in the very heart of our poetry forever.
An extended selection of Nazim’s work is available in English translation on the public domain.
Kutay Onayli is one of those Turks who dabble in poetry. His work in Turkish and English can be read at theshamelesstwat.com.