lnp3 at panix.com
Sat Apr 20 09:30:03 MDT 2002
NY Times, April 20, 2002
A Turkish Poet Whose Struggles and Art Touch a Universal Chord
By STEPHEN KINZER
He was reviled by the authorities in his homeland, his poems were
banned and much of his life was spent behind prison walls. But 39
years after his death, celebrations are being conducted around the
world for Nazim Hikmet, the "blue-eyed giant," who is universally
acknowledged as Turkey's greatest modern poet.
Among these celebrations have been a packed gala in Paris and a
theatrical evening in London. New Yorkers joined the festivities last
weekend at Hunter College in Manhattan with an evening of
reminiscences, tributes, dramatic readings and music. Hundreds
attended, and Zulfu Livaneli, a popular Turkish singer and composer,
flew in to perform. Nearly a dozen more events are scheduled in other
countries, with several co-sponsored by Unesco, which has declared
2002 the Year of Nazim Hikmet.
The reasons for this outpouring have to do with both the power of
Hikmet's poetry and the embattled circumstances of his life. Hikmet
was a Communist who fled to exile in Moscow, but then grew
increasingly critical of the Soviet system. He spent 17 years in
Turkish prisons and another 12 years in exile before dying in 1963 of
what is often described as a broken heart.
Mr. Livaneli said the poet embodied a strain of utopian socialism
that was strong in the era when modern Turkey was emerging as a
"He had a very powerful personality, and to this day he is a highly
symbolic figure," Mr. Livaneli said before taking the stage at
Hunter. "Even though he was treated in a most cruel way and he is
still not taught in Turkish schools, he had a great impact."
Hikmet finally seems well on his way to rehabilitation in his native
Turkey. His works are widely available, and the ministers of defense
and education attended a recent reception in his honor in Ankara.
"Today in Turkey, everyone is trying to use Nazim Hikmet for his own
ends," said Zeynep Oral, a director of the Nazim Hikmet Foundation in
Istanbul. "Even nationalist political leaders quote him. Embracing
him is a way of saying you resist injustice and hope for a better
Several new translations of his poetry have raised his American
profile. Mutlu Konuk, a professor of English at Brown University and
a co-translator of two volumes, attributed his appeal to "the sheer
emotional power of his language."
"He revolutionized Turkish poetry and single-handedly brought it into
the 20th century," Ms. Konuk told the sellout crowd gathered in New
York. "He orchestrated the experimental forms of international
modernism with the native trends of Ottoman and folk poetry."
During the intermission several audience members said the experience
of reading Hikmet had shaped their lives.
"When you meet him, you meet yourself," said Cafer Sahin, who owns a
restaurant on Long Island.
Although Hikmet wrote poignant love poetry and elegies to the
nobility of simple people, he is best known for long, sweeping works
in which he tells his country's history through the eyes of
multifaceted characters. Among the most popular is "The Epic of Sheik
Bedrettin," set in the 15th century.
Hikmet's patriotism was passionate but tinged with sadness,
reflecting a dichotomy common in Turkey. In a 1939 poem written from
prison, called "Istanbul House of Detention," he declared:
I love my country. . .
I swung in its lofty trees, I lay in its prisons.
Nothing relieves my depression
Like the songs and tobacco of my country.
. . . and then my working, honest, brave people.
Ready to accept with the joy of a wondering child,
progressive, lovely, good,
half hungry, half full.
half slave. . .
Hikmet, born in 1902, was outraged at the conditions he found when
traveling through his native land. After a visit to Moscow in 1922,
he returned home and began publishing fiery poems.
The authorities considered him subversive. He was in and out of
prison, at one point serving 13 years after military cadets were
found reading his banned work. Following his release in a 1950
amnesty, he was forced to flee Turkey.
"He told me how a year after he came out of prison there were two
attempts to murder him," Simone de Beauvoir later recalled. "So then
he escaped, across the Bosphorus in a tiny motorboat on a stormy
Hikmet fled to Moscow, where he lived for the rest of his life, and
from there toured the world in the 1950's and early 60's. American
officals denied him a visa on the basis of his Communist ideology. In
one verse he wrote: "I traveled through Europe, Asia, and Africa with
my dream, /only the Americans didn't give me a visa."
Hikmet wept at Lenin's embalmed corpse and wrote several crude poems
lionizing Stalin and the Soviet system.
He himself was lionized in the Soviet Union for his Marxism, but
later he became disillusioned. When the Turkish authorities announced
they were stripping him of his citizenship in the early 1950's, he
rejected a Soviet offer and chose to become a Polish citizen instead;
he claimed descent from a 17th-century Polish revolutionary.
Hikmet's appeals for permission to return to his homeland went
unheeded. He suffered a fatal heart attack at age 62 in Moscow and
was buried there. Because he had asked to be buried under a Turkish
tree, a group of admirers gathered at his grave in Moscow last year
and planted one there.
In a 1945 poem foreseeing his death, called "Letter From My Wife,"
Hikmet reflected the wry side of his wit:
want to die before you.
Do you think the one coming after
will find the one before?
I don't think so.
Best to cremate me
and put me in a jar
over the stove.
Louis Proyect, lnp3 at panix.com on 04/20/2002
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