According to some estimates, the poetry of Nazim Hikmet has been translated into at least fifty languages. Perhaps more than that of any other Turkish writer, his work transcended the bounds of stylized Ottoman versification. At their best, his poems call to mind settings the author knew well, while extending a universal appeal on behalf of his social beliefs. Lyrical and rhetorical passages occur alternately in some of his major works; his epics exhibit narrative powers that in some segments are used to depict events from the distant past or to evoke those from the author’s lifetime.
Moreover, though early in his career he came to be known as much for his outspoken ideological positions as for his literary achievements, Hikmet’s poetry conveys the sudden dramatic impact of historical occurrences; social issues are depicted in ways that can be felt beyond the strict limits of party politics. On a more personal level, romantic yearnings, whimsical observations of street scenes and travel, and indeed nature and the weather are discussed in simple yet deeply felt lines that complement Hikmet’s more directly expressed political concerns. Some of his poems communicate the loneliness and anxiety he felt as a political prisoner, without indulging particularly in self-pity. On the whole, he cannot be classified purely as a rationalist or a romantic; rather, his works combine elements of both inclinations.
From the outset, Hikmet’s poetry was brash, vibrant, and politically engaged; defiantly casting aside traditional poetic styles, the author’s work exuberantly mixed ideology and amorous inclinations in lines that at first glance resemble dismembered declarative sentences punctuated by crisp, staccato repetitions of phrases and nouns. Statements begun on one line are carried forward, with indentations, to the next, and sometimes further indentations are inserted before the thought is concluded. Question marks and exclamation points enliven stirring passages in which the author seems to be carrying on a dialogue with himself, if not with nature or society.
The vowel harmony characteristic of the Turkish language is used to impart added force and velocity to some passages; moreover, the author’s writing drew from folk songs, time-honored national sagas, and other sources in eclectic and distinctive combinations. Colloquial expressions, lower-class idioms, and outright vulgarisms appear from time to time. This approach, which seems ever fresh and lively in the hands of a talented practitioner, is notably well suited to Hikmet’s subject matter. One early poem, evidently composed in a devil-may-care mood, contrasts the author’s straitened and difficult circumstances—his many monotonous hours as a lowly proofreader were rewarded with a pittance—and the effervescent sensations of springtime, with Cupid urging him after a comely girl.
Jokond ile Si-Ya-U
Considerable powers of creative imagination were called on in early poetry of a political character. In the long poem Jokond ile Si-Ya-U (the Gioconda and Si-Ya-U), various narrative transitions are conjoined with abrupt changes of setting, from Paris to the open sea to Shanghai under the white terror; eventually the author’s summary is presented from his vantage point in Europe. Some of Hikmet’s experiences during his travel—he had met Chinese revolutionaries during a visit to France—appear in an ultimately fictional and somewhat fantastic form. The author, who is bored and chafing at what he regards as hidebound aesthetic classicism in the Louvre, comes upon a modern Gioconda in a most unusual guise. Her modern incarnation is exotic and remote, but deeply concerned about mass upheaval that aims at the transformation of traditional Asian society. Still inscrutable, she is made to stand by as the soldiers of nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek execute a Chinese Communist spokesperson. Ultimately the Gioconda is tried and found guilty by a French military court; hers is a fate quite different from spending centuries on canvas as a creation of Leonardo da Vinci. Other works express Hikmet’s proletarian views of art: Beethoven’s sonatas, he maintains, should be played out on wood and metal in the workplace. The raw power of the industrial age is reflected in his taut descriptive lines about iron suspension bridges and concrete skyscrapers. However, the workers in his native Turkey were invariably badly off: They were bound to an unthinking routine and could afford only the lowest quality of goods.
Taranta Babu’ya mektuplar
One early composition took up the cause of striking transportation workers in Istanbul in 1929. At times Hikmet considered events that were not too far removed from his own experience; his sojourns in Russia during the early years of the Soviet government probably furnished impressions recaptured in verses about the revolutionary events of 1917. Poems collected in Taranta Babu’ya mektuplar (letters to Tarantu Babu) raised another problem in world politics; they are letters in verse purportedly written by a young Italian to a native woman caught up in the Ethiopian war launched under Benito Mussolini. The author’s commentary on the brutal excesses of fascism reveals a measure of political prescience as well as an expanded sense of solidarity with like-minded people in many nations.
The Epic of Sheik Bedreddin
Historical dimensions of class struggle are explored in The Epic of Sheik Bedreddin. Government pressure by this time had restricted Hikmet’s choice of subject matter, making it almost impossible for him to publish work on contemporary issues, so the author turned to more remote ages with the avowed intent of rescuing major events from the antiquarian dust that had gathered around them. This epic, based on a book he had read during one of his early prison terms, was given added intensity by the author’s experience of seeing a man hanged outside the window of his cell. While set in the early fifteenth century, Hikmet’s work underscores the solidarity that brought together Turkish peasants, Greek fishermen, and Jewish merchants. In places, he suggests that though historical works had depicted this era as the prelude to an age of imperial greatness, it in fact was rife with social unrest and discontent provoked by inequality and injustice. Ten thousand common people took up arms to oppose the sultan before the rebellion was finally put down. The eventual execution of his protagonist, one of the insurgents’ leaders, was a grim, bloody business that Hikmet recounts in unsparing detail but with impassioned sensitivity. This long poem, one of the most celebrated in Turkish literature of the twentieth century, is also notable for the author’s broadening concern with different verse techniques, which reached fruition with his works combining modern usage with classical Persian...
(The entire section is 2835 words.)