Nâzım Hikmet began to write poetry from a very young age. He was of a noble family and had received a very good education. Alongside classical Turkish poetry, he was also well acquainted with leading works of folk literature. In his early poems, themes such as patriotism, heroism, love and nature are in the forefront. At a time when the Turkish national liberation against imperialism was still in its early stages, he moved over to Anatolia with his friend Valâ Nurettin at the age of 19. Meanwhile, the Soviet Revolution was advancing with victory and the news from there had giving rise to great excitement in Anatolia too. He met a socialist named Spartakist Sadık Ahi in a town at the coast of Black Sea. He was influenced by him and decided to go to the heart of the revolution knowing too well how long and arduous a journey it would be.
At the period, the last month of the Russian Civil War was underway, and the Soviet Revolution was advancing towards victory. He came in touch with the Communist Party of Turkey in Russia. In the Communist University of Labourers of the East (KTUV) he received Marxism-Leninism education comprised of philosophy, political sciences and economics.
He became acquainted with the works of Mayakovski which would have a lasting influence on his poetry.
Becoming acquainted with Marxism-Leninism as well as coming into direct contact with the revolutionary products of the great Russian literature radically changed the main themes and the form of his poetry.
The Child of a World in Transformation
The evolution of Nâzım Hikmet’s poetry and personality is evidence of the strong impact of a world in motion. The working class and peoples’ demonstration of their power to change the world in the struggles waged against imperialism in Anatolia and against capitalism in Russia presented a great opportunity for the young poet to find new spirit. This is the decisive source enabling the transformation of a young man who could have been a good bourgeois or petty bourgeois poet in regular conditions into a communist poet.
On his way to Moscow, he met a lot of people from different nations and classes spread over a broad geography. Thanks to his great ability to observe, he discovered the deep social stories hidden behind each individual life. He became acquainted with the customs, tradition and the way of life of the peoples. He united all this knowledge and insight with the fire of communism in his heart. Becoming aware of a world that needs to be changed and that can be changed enabled him to write poetry with a completely new content. His whole life changed by learning what it means to conceive the world as a Bolshevik from Lenin. He put his talent at the service of world revolution. He wrote poems declaring the eventual triumph of the proletariat, calling the masses to the struggle.
“Human Landscapes from My Country”, which we can consider as the pinnacle of his poetry, began to be written in 1939 in prison and was completed eight years later, in 1947. This great work represents a new type of poetry bringing together features of the poetic, novelistic, narrative, dramatic and screenplay genres. Nâzım Hikmet states the following to summarise the purpose for writing this work: “I want this concrete expression of human crowd to convey to the reader the social state in a certain historical stage in Turkey through the people of Turkey belonging to various classes in a certain period… So that the world surrounding the society of Turkey is understood… I want the question of where it is comes from, where it is and where it is going, to be answered.”
Indeed, in this respect the poem has fully achieved its purpose. The work begins at Haydarpaşa Train Station, at the great station where trains from Istanbul to Anatolia depart. Firstly, people of different classes, getting off the trains and getting ready to set off, pass in front of us carrying their own stories. Then the train moves. The passengers of the wagon are ordinary peasants, soldiers, workers and prisoners.
The second book deals with the passengers of another train. This time the passengers are politicians, diplomats, town merchants and bourgeois. The third book takes place in prison and hospital. Nâzım Hikmet also knew these environments where people felt most helpless and lonely. Throughout this great river poem, the selected places and people display the social, political, economic and cultural scene of Turkey in a certain period in its totality. Each person’s individual story corresponds to a cross-section of general class relations.
Nâzım Hikmet’s poetry, first of all, has historical significance in terms of its full application of the basic principles of socialist realism. This is because many literary and artistic products produced in the name of Socialist Realism have been works that are generally devised for educational and propaganda purposes, have an official character, meet current needs, but whose effects are limited to the life of current needs. Nâzım Hikmet’s work, on the other hand, has been able to maintain its currency and influence despite the intervening 90 years. The main reason for this is that it has a content that goes beyond current political needs and encapsulates aesthetic concerns and ideological depth at the same time. Nâzım Hikmet also wrote propaganda and agitation poems. These are poems that describe dialectical and historical materialism, defend life in a socialist society, call to fight, and deal with current aspects of class conflict. In each of his poems, historical optimism, confidence in the future, a complete conviction that the emancipation of the working class will come through its own power appear as essential features.
However, individual passions, love, longing, loneliness and grief are also among his themes. Effective romanticism, occasional eroticism, human characteristics such as betrayal and regret have also been the subject of his poetry.
Universal and National
In his youth, Nâzım Hikmet took poetry lessons for a long time from Yahya Kemal Beyatlı, one of the most important poets of Turkey. Yahya Kemal is a poet who successfully applied Aruz Prosody, which is a very important feature of Arabic poetry, to Turkish. Yahya Kemal was a master who frequently used the harmonic effect of Arabic and Persian poetry in traditional Ottoman poetry in his own poetry. Prosody brings a sound harmony that gives the poem a deep musicality and emphasizes emotion especially in the recital of the poem. Nâzım Hikmet used Aruz very often in his free-form poetry. Aruz has played a role that strengthens these features, especially in his poems that require an emphatic voice, where he shouts, calls, or those which contain anger and violence. Unfortunately, it has not been adequately possible to reflect this feature in translations. On the other hand, Nâzım Hikmet made the Syllablic Verse, characteristic to Turkish poetry, an element of his own poetry by examining the great masters of traditional folk poetry. He utilised rhyme scheme and rhythm features in his poetry. Thus, he brought not only the poetry accumulation of the nearby geography, but also the rich creations of his own people to socialist literature.
Nâzım Hikmet also studied the classics of world literature such as Shakespeare, Goethe and Pushkin. While espousing the understanding of form of the great Russian poet Mayakovsky, he added the creations of these great poets to his own poetic treasure. In this way, he created a great understanding of poetry and a worldwide voice, which emerged out of the melding of national and universal values with the socialist worldview.
Relationship between Arts
Nâzım Hikmet was also closely interested in other types of literature and other branches of art. His mother was one of Turkey’s famous woman painters. He had acquired the culture and skill of painting from her. During his prison years, he discovered the painting talent of İbrahim Balaban, who was a simple peasant, and trained this prisoner who would later become a very famous painter. He created a great novelist out of a prisoner called Orhan Kemal interested in literature. He has also written plays and novels himself. He was very interested in the art of cinema. In the letters he wrote to his friends from prison, he explained his comments and views on literary theory, socialist realism, and the general political world situation. These letters are of invaluable theoretical scope, summarizing the socialist conception of art.
The picturesque features in Nâzım Hikmet’s poetry are the result of his interest in non-literary arts.
Don Quixote and Romanticism
One of Nâzım Hikmet’s most famous poems is named after the hero of Cervantes’ great novel. In this poem, Nâzım Hikmet identifies himself with Don Quixote, who sets out for big dreams. He updates his struggle through a fiction that equates Windmills with capitalism. Through this, he creates an important example that renders the concept of “revolutionary romanticism” functional. His description of himself as a romantic in his semi-autobiographical novel “Living is a Beautiful Thing Brother” is also interesting in this respect.
Revolutionary romanticism, which is considered as one of the important elements of the socialist realism movement, has been the subject of many criticisms. Nâzım Hikmet’s attitude against criticism claiming that romanticism is an idealist movement and cannot therefore be compatible with socialism is important both in the theoretical respect as well as in terms of explaining the communist individual’s attitude towards life and struggle. The possibility for a scientific explanation as to how a communist world will affect the relations between people and the characteristics of the human individual does not exist today. About questions on this subject, Marx said that the people who lived that life would answer them. Not only a poet but also a worker can only but dream about the world of the future. Deep sentimentalism and excitement accompany these visions. Those who struggle for such a world by confronting many difficulties cannot evade idealizing both communist society and their struggles. Songs, poems, anthems written for comrades who die at the barricades, under torture, in prison, tributes to heroism, sacrifice, and the revolutionary struggle and party of the proletariat, always describe a life beyond ordinary reality. These are, to be sure, life scenes from a world very different from ordinary human life. The founders of the Socialist Realism current experienced all the phases of the Great October Proletarian Revolution and witnessed the enthusiasm and determination of the masses and revolutionary communist individuals as well as their dreams for a new world. Beyond politics and theory, they saw the revolution as a human achievement and saw how important the stories of each individual and the events in which they took place were. Upon identifying that it would not be possible to explain this with the usual literary methods and entrenched perspectives, they resolved also to develop a new movement such as socialist realism. Due all this, the concept of revolutionary romanticism has become one of the characteristics of the new movement. Bringing a revolutionary content to classical romanticism, developing new images and new forms of expression is one of Nâzım Hikmet’s achievements.
Because of these features, Nâzım Hikmet is a communist poet not only of his time, not only of his country, but a communist poet of all times and the entire world. His following lines describing the function of his own art explain what he wrote for:
must attack the enemy in the forefront, foremost.
Before us must be painted
the faces of our songs in blood...
His poems fulfilled this task assigned to them. Banned for
years, its readers were imprisoned, tortured and dismissed from
their jobs. Today, his songs continue to call on everyone to
join the fight at every moment of the revolutionary struggle of
the working class, and to attack the bourgeoisie, capitalism and
imperialism at the forefront.
Building and Builders
Builders are singing while building
but building isn’t like singing.
It’s a little more difficult.
Builders’ hearts, bustling like fairgrounds
but building sites are not fairgrounds.
Building sites are full of dust, earth,
On a building site you get your foot sprained,
your hands bleed.
On a building site,
neither is the tea always sweet and hot
nor is the bread fresh and soft
neither is everyone a hero
nor are friends always faithful.
Building isn’t like singing.
It’s a little more difficult.
Yes, difficult it is,
but the building is rising regardless.
Flower pots have already appeared
on the windowsills of the lower floors.
The birds carry, on their wings, the sun
to the newly completed balconies.
There is a heartbeat
in every beam, in every column, in every brick
Yes, it is rising, it is rising
the building is rising in blood and sweat.
To Asian-African Writers
don’t look at me being blonde
I am an Asian
don’t care my blue eyes
I am an African
the trees don’t make a shadow under themselves here
just like yours there
where I live, money doesn’t grow on trees
dragons lie over the fountains
and one dies before he’s fifty
just like you do there
don’t look at me being blonde
I am an Asian
don’t care my blue eyes
I am an African
eighty per cent of my people doesn’t know how to read
the poems wanders around from one mouth to another,
becoming a folk song,
the poems can be a flag where I live
like where you live
our poems must be trotted beside the skinny ox
and plough the field
they must go into the mud in the rice fields
up to their knees
they must ask all the questions
they must collect all the light
they must stand by the road
like a milestone
they must see the approaching enemy before anyone
they must beat the tamtams in the jungles
till there is no single captive land and single captive person
till there is no single atomic cloud in the sky
our poems must give all they have, bricks and mortar, wit,
and whatever else,
to the great freedom
I will release my shadow on the asphalt in the morning
by swinging on the bridge.
I will survive
with the mark of a white beard on my shaved chin...
if I could survive
to the old men
who lean against the walls of the city squares
and survived on the last fight
I will play the violin
on feast evenings...
The illuminated sidewalks
of a perfect night around
And the steps
of new people
who are singing new songs..
(Translated by Cahit Baylav)
Living is no laughing matter:
you must live with great seriousness
like a squirrel, for example—
I mean, without looking for something beyond and above living,
I mean living must be your whole life.
Living is no laughing matter:
you must take it seriously,
so much so and to such a degree
that, for example, your hands tied behind your back,
your back to the wall,
or else in a laboratory
in your white coat and safety glasses,
you can die for people—
even for people whose faces you’ve never seen,
even though you know living
is the most real, the most beautiful thing.
I mean, you must take living so seriously
that even at seventy, for example, you’ll plant olive trees—
and not for your children, either,
but because although you fear death you don’t believe it,
because living, I mean, weighs heavier.
Let’s say we’re seriously ill, need surgery—
which is to say we might not get up
from the white table.
Even though it’s impossible not to feel sad
about going a little too soon,
we’ll still laugh at the jokes being told,
we’ll look out the window to see if it’s raining,
or still wait anxiously
for the latest newscast...
Let’s say we’re at the front—
for something worth fighting for, say.
There, in the first offensive, on that very day,
we might fail on our face, dead.
We’ll know this with a curious anger,
but we’ll still worry ourselves to death
about the outcome of the war, which could last years.
Let’s say we’re in prison
and close to fifty,
and we have eighteen more years, say,
before the iron doors will open.
We’ll still live with the outside,
with its people and animals, struggle and wind—
I mean with the outside beyond the walls.
I mean, however and wherever we are,
we must live as if we will never die.
This earth will grow cold,
a star among stars
and one of the smallest,
a gilded mote on blue velvet—
I mean this, our great earth.
This earth will grow cold one day,
not like a block of ice
or a dead cloud even
but like an empty walnut it will roll along
in pitch-black space...
You must grieve for this right now
—you have to feel this sorrow now—
for the world must be loved this much
if you’re going to say “I lived”...
(Translated from the Turkish by Randy Blasing & Mutlu Konu)
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