Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Nazim Hikmet in prison

The trial of the Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk, for having “publicly denigrated Turkish identity” with his remarks about the massacre of Armenians and Kurds by the Ottoman regime early in the twentieth century, makes this an apt time to recall the life and career of another Turkish writer prosecuted - indeed, persecuted - by the state for his controversial views: the most prominent name in modern Turkish poetry, Nazim Hikmet (1902-1963).

In 1938 Hikmet, who like a great many poets of his time (Pablo Neruda, for example) was a committed Marxist, was sentenced to 28 years in prison on charges of sedition for a long poem about a fifteenth-century rebellion against Ottoman rule. Hikmet’s case, like Pamuk’s now, received wide international attention. Indeed, the figure of Hikmet looms in Pamuk’s recent remarks (in an essay in the New Yorker) about his country’s historic persecution of writers, and his joke that it is only with his trial that he has become “a real Turkish writer”. In 1949 an international committee, including on its rolls Picasso and Sartre, was formed to campaign for Hikmet’s release, and in 1950, the year he was released by Turkey’s first democratically elected government, he received the World Peace Prize. Hikmet continued to be harassed even by the new regime, and eventually had to seek refuge in Poland.

His long years in prison, and the experience of hardship, privation and even torture, seemed to have focussed Hikmet’s attention on questions of life and death - on what it meant to be alive, to really live fully and vitally, and on the shadow of mortality that always hangs over life and renders our existence precarious and fragile. There are not many Hikmet poems in which these concerns do not come up in some form or the other. One of his most famous poems, “On Living”, begins: “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 occupation.” In another poem he speaks of the necessity of living as intensely as possible, of being “caught up/ in the flurry of the world”. His verse often reflects this; it is full of vivid details and small epiphanies. Here is another of his best-known poems, “Today is Sunday”:

Today is Sunday
Sunday today.
Today they took me out in the sun for the first time.
And I just stood there, struck for the first time in my life
by how far away the sky is,
how blue
and how wide.
Then I respectfully sat down on the earth.
I leaned back against the wall.
For a moment no trap to fall into,
no struggle, no freedom, no wife.
Only earth, sun, and me...
I am happy.
And in one of his most beautiful and affecting poems, Hikmet imagines his funeral:

My Funeral

Will my funeral start in our courtyard below?
How will you bring my coffin down three floors?
The lift will not take it
and the stairs are too narrow.

Perhaps the courtyard will be knee-deep in sunlight and pigeons
perhaps there will be snow and children's cries mingling in the air
or the asphalt glistening with rain
and the dustbins littering the place as usual.

If in keeping with the custom here I am to go, face open to the skies,
on the hearse, a pigeon might drop something on my brow, for luck.
Whether a band turns up or no, children will come near me,
children like funerals.

Our kitchen window will stare after me as I go,
the washing on the balcony will wave to see me off.
I have been happier here than you can ever imagine,
friends, I wish you all a long and happy life.

One stops upon the marvellous images of “the courtyard knee-deep in sunlight and pigeons” and the washing on the balcony waving the corpse off. And the booming final line asserts, just like the glittering details of the lines that precede it, the desire to breathe fully of life, celebrate its colours and textures, even at the point of taking leave of it. Has any poet ever made death seem so much fun?

Some of Hikmet’s other poems can be found here; I recommend in particular “Hymn To Life”, “Last Will and Testament”, "Things I Didn't Know I Loved", and the wonderfully poignant and plaintive “I Come and Stand at Every Door” (“I come and stand at every door/ But no one hears my silent tread”), which was made into a song by the Byrds. Hikmet’s most recent translators, Randy Blasing and Mutlu Konuk, observe, “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.”

Pamuk’s essay “On Trial” can be found here, and here is Pankaj Mishra’s recent essay about the Pamuk affair, “Secular Democracy Goes On Trial”. The Indonesian novelist Pramoedya Ananta Toer has an essay called "Literature, Censorship and the State" here, and here is an excellent essay on writing and censorship by the South African novelist JM Coetzee, from his book Giving Offence. And in his essay "Defend the right to be offended", written last February, Salman Rushdie writes: "The idea that any kind of free society can be constructed in which people will never be offended or insulted is absurd. So too is the notion that people should have the right to call on the law to defend them against being offended or insulted. A fundamental decision needs to be made: do we want to live in a free society or not?"


leftedge suzy said...

Thank you. Thank you especially for the poem, Today is Sunday.....

Anonymous said...

i discovered hikmet about 10 years ago, and have delighted in his works again and again. there are some wonderful english translations now available in america and europe. alongside pot, hikmet is possibly the best antidote to pessimism.

Unknown said...

Many many years ago I read a Hikmet poem in an anthology, English translation.

Lost the book long ago, but the words keep in my head. Haven't been able to find it again. Anyone got the full text?

It went, "We are at one, the world & I".