Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Orhan Veli Kanik all of a sudden

The Turkish poet Orhan Veli Kanik (1914-1950), in the honorable tradition of poets the world over, lived in penury, drank too much for his own good, and died young. He left behind a body of work sometimes accused of being too simplistic, even unpoetic, but Kanik's rebellion was actually against what is conventionally thought of as the "poetic" - lyrical effusions, elaborate conceits, stifling metres.

Kanik's poems are about the texture of everyday life and about the sudden epiphany or realization glimpsed amidst life's chaos. Their language is simple and undecorative, all verbs and nouns, and they have a tone of casual, offhand utterance. We may hold that the special quality of poets is that they present (as Alexander Pope memorably put it) "What oft was thought, but ne'er so well expressed", but curiously with Kanik we feel as if he has expressed something in exactly the language we would have found ourselves. All readers of Kanik go from his work convinced, for good or for bad, that they are poets themselves. "Even I," they may say to themselves, "could write a poem such as 'Fine Days' - in fact I was thinking these very thoughts just the other day...." And why do I put those thoughts in quote marks? Even I have thought them - but here is the poem:

Fine Days

These fine days have been my ruin.
On this kind of day I resigned
My job in "Pious Foundations.''
On this kind of day I started to smoke
On this kind of day I fell in love
On this kind of day I forgot
To bring home bread and salt
On this kind of day I had a relapse
In my versifying disease.
These fine days have been my ruin.
(translated by Bernard Lewis)

Kanik's favourite poetic device is repetition, which confers upon his lines the rhythm without which poetry is impoverished, and which embodies at the level of form the moment when everything has suddenly become clear, and the connections between disparate things have become visible to the mind. A variety of experiences then appear filtered through some unifying phrase: the wistful "On this kind of day" in the earlier poem, and "All of a sudden" in this one, with its ascending notes of wonder:

All of a Sudden

Everything happened all of a sudden.
All of a sudden daylight beat down on the earth;
There was the sky all of a sudden;
All of a sudden steam began to rise from the soil.
There were tendrils all of a sudden, buds all of a sudden.
And there were fruits all of a sudden.
All of a sudden,
All of a sudden,
Girls all of a sudden, boys all of a sudden.
Roads, moors, cats, people...
And there was love all of a sudden,
Happiness all of a sudden.

Translated by Anil Mericelli
Elsewhere the repetitions evoke a child's querulousness and petulance, as in "Tree":

I threw a pebble at the tree.
My pebble didn't fall.
Didn't fall.
The tree ate my pebble,
The tree ate my pebble.
I want my pebble.
I always think of this poem when a public phone refuses to return my coin even though my call has not gone through.

And in this six-line poem called "Landscapes", Kanik is found making a cheeky jibe at nature poets:
The moon came up
Behind the house across the street.
Street noises began.
The air is cooler,
From far away comes the smell of the sea.
I am an expert on landscapes.
Five lines of comically jumbled observation ("From far away comes the smell of the sea" is particularly funny) are rounded off by the abrupt claim of the sixth.

The translations of "Tree" and "Landscapes" are by Murat Nemet-Nejat, who has done more than anyone else to make Turkish poetry available to an English-speaking audience. In 2004 Nemet-Nejat brought out Eda: An Anthology of Contemporary Turkish Poetry, and he also has published a book of translations of Kanik's work called I, Orhan Veli, and all of it is available to read online here. Among the poems I like best are "I, Orhan Veli", "I Am Listening To Istanbul", "The Poem of Being Lonely", "Sunday Evenings", and "Rumors".

Nemet-Nejat's introduction to I, Orhan Veli is here, and offers some very interesting thoughts on different approaches towards translation in an essay called "Translation and Style".

Other posts on poets: Osip Mandelstam, Nazim Hikmet, Attila Jozsef, Constantine Cavafy, Antonio Machado, Dunya Mikhail and Jorge Luis Borges.


Anonymous said...

I cannot read much poetry. I usually find it hard to relate to, it does not do much for me. But Veli Kanik's poems are so clean; I can understand perfectly and relate to all that he is saying.

A longer piece, with more observations, would be appreciated.

Anonymous said...

Great post, Chandrahas- can't comment on what you say about this guy because I'd never come across him but what you quote is lovely. I'm just running over to have a read. Thanks

Chandrahas said...

Anirudh - I'm afraid I can't write a longer piece because I've been sitting and writing poems all day: "For BreakFast I Had Nothing But a Cup of Tea", "These Kolkata Days Will Stop My Lungs", "A Bit of Me and A Little of You", and so on. I've realised suddenly that I can be a poet.

Anonymous said...

Having read some of his other poems, I'm also feeling poetic or at least, within arm's distance of it. Just read "Rumours" and am now wondering whose knee to squeeze. (Ah! It's a rumour. I don't have to squeeze a knee. That allows me to begin now.)

Szerelem said...

Ooh...this was very interesting! I started learning Turkish a while back so reading these was very interesting. I am conflicted about English translations of Turkish poetry though.(Obviously, they are necessary - so I guess it's a bit of a silly comment). Shall try to find the original turkish versions for these. Loved I am listening to Istanbul.

Halil İbrahim Çakıroğlu said...

Thanks for this page. Orhan Veli is the best. :) Very hard to find some good translated poems of him... This page came to me very kind. Thanx again.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for getting that together. Here is another Veli Kanik poem that first drew my attention to him.

There Must Be Something
(Probably translated by Bernard Lewis)

Is the sea as beautiful as this every day?
Does the sky look like this all th time?
Are theses furnishings, this window always as lovely as this?
by god, no
there must be something behind this somewhere.