The enduring legacy of Turkey's communist poet Nazım Hikmet

Nazım Hikmet is one of greatest poets in the history Turkish literature. As a brazen communist, his work was most popular in left-wing circles, but bewitched even his literary adversaries with his energy, rhythm, and creativity. Today his poems are still being read, new books are being written about him, and exhibitions of his life and work are being opened; all evidence of his enduring legacy.

Nazım Hikmet is the greatest poets of all time in the world of Turkish literature. He published his first poems in the 1920s, became well-known in the 30s and 40s, gained a cult following the 60s, and died young in 1963. Hikmet’s poetry was unlike any that came before him. He bewitched even his literary adversaries with his energy, rhythm, and creativity. He gained his followers by being an influential poet and a fearless intellectual.

Hikmet never ceased being a communist poet and as a result, spent a significant part of his life in prison. Despite this, his life was filled with great loves and long exiles.

He was most popular in left-wing circles. During the last couple of decades, as socialism and communism have lost their former appeal, Nazım Hikmet somehow has not lost his popularity. This can be attributed this to the supremacy of his poetry and to his engaging personality and life. His poems are still being read, new books are being written about him, and exhibitions of his life and work are being opened.

Recently, Literatür Publications published three books on Nazım Hikmet. Two of them are by Atilla Birkiye: “Clouds Pass by Calling Your Name, Piraye” and “The Poet was in Istanbul.” In one of the books, Birkiye discusses the poems written by Nazım Hikmet to his wife Piraye from Bursa Prison in 1945, collected under the title, “Poems Between 9 p.m. and 10 p.m.” Even though Birkiye said it was not a critic book, he has focused on minute detail, on the period when they were written, and most importantly on Piraye herself. The book goes back and forth between essay, narrative, and review, which the style that Birkiye utilizes in many of his books.

His other book, “The Poet was in Istanbul,” is about a little-known event in Nazım’s life: In 1927, the poet made a mysterious journey from Moscow to Istanbul. Hikmet arrived in Istanbul on the Ilyich ferry. He was tasked with collecting the cells that were disbanded after the large-scale Communist Party of Turkey (TKP) arrests that year. Since he was already a fugitive sentenced to 15 years of hard labor, it is not clear whether he disembarked and stepped on Istanbul soil. We know about his journey only from his letters to Hasan Ali Ediz. Based on these letters, Birkiye has created a plot which he writes about as a kind of novella. The story describes Nazım on board, his Ukrainian wife he left behind, his longing for her and Istanbul, the tension he experiences while trying to do his duty and not be caught. The Poet, the Secretary (Hasan Ali Ediz), the Woman (Nazım's wife Yelena Yulchenko, who dies in a pandemic a couple of years later), and the fictional character the Journalist, who represents the author, make up four chapters of the book. We understand that Birkiye believes that these details have not been precisely covered or even included in some biographies because Nazım Hikmet’s association with the TKP has always been ignored. The appeal of a mysterious and romantic story, such as Nazım’s ferry trip to Istanbul when he was 25 years old and his immediate return must have been instrumental for Birkiye to write the book. (The same ship would later take Trotsky to Istanbul for his two-year exile there.)

Like all cult literary or political figures, there are several different perspectives about Nazım. Some emphasize his poetry, some his political identity, others his personality. An important book was written on accepting these qualities and social conditions as factors in the emergence of an artist. This book has also been published by Literatür Publications, based on Birkiye’s studies. It is Göksel Aymaz’s review, titled “A Great River – Nazım Hikmet and Landscapes.” This is the new edition of a book that was first published in 2010 with the title, “Nazım Hikmet and the Country,” and received the Nazım Hikmet Research Award in 2013.

Associate Professor Göksel Aymaz is an intellectual known for his work on cultural sociology. In this book, he examines Nazım Hikmet’s “Human Landscapes from My Country” epic novel in verse. He develops an important perspective on Nazım Hikmet by referring to Schiller, Michelet, Marcus, and Adorno, all the thinkers who have written about art and artists, and especially Bourdieu. This review is written by studying almost every aspect of Nazım. The book stands at an important place in the total collection of books on Nazım Hikmet. Nazım Hikmet has embraced the Anatolian person as an artist in favor of life and hope. He is described in this book as a poet who determines his whole life accordingly and who compromises not on his stance but his social correlations. With his creativity and innovation, he is not affected by transformations of the time but rather initiates them, the book says.

Nazım Hikmet has always been a brilliant poet who was praised by the great literary writers of the Ottoman Empire. Starting from his first poems written in his youth, each poem of his was a differentiation, but they affected everyone from Yahya Kemal to Abdülhak Hamid with their rhythm, energy, and voice.

This literary power of Nazım Hikmet cannot be explained only by his genius, according to Göksel Aymaz. Aymaz wrote that “Genius is a social factor.” He added, “The most decisive factor in the poetic and literary production of Nazım Hikmet is undoubtedly his communism. This identity, which he fearlessly proclaimed and exposed at every opportunity, carried like a flag in his hand, is also a factor that has steered the evaluations about his artistic work. But (...) what matters here is not what he believed in, but what his beliefs have done to him.” In this process, Nazım Hikmet’s personality comes forward. In an environment where society does not have an authentic space for the artist, he opens his own space.

As a self-reliant and free personality, he does not adapt to the space created by his elite family ties (symbolic capital), by his political connections, nor through opportunities opened by the socialist bloc. He has always felt free to be critical, disharmonious, and aggressive. All these fights and preferences became elements that determined his poetry and artistic identity. Nazım Hikmet existed as an “independent mind” according to Göksel Aymaz.

Hikmet, who made a fast entry to the artistic world of the time, became a new star in Bab-ı Ali with his articles in the magazine Resimli Ay.

According to the journalist and writer Oktay Akbal, he became a “kind of a hero” among young literary figures. He was aware of that, but defined himself as a literary laborer and lived accordingly. In a “moral anger” towards the elite, with an empathy for the country and Anatolia, he molded his character as a poet and literary writer. He started writing “Human Landscapes from My Country” in 1939 as a product of this attitude, which some consider his masterpiece. Sadly, Nazım’s book, which he designed and worked for as a “kind of human comedy,” could only be published in Turkey in the 1960s. His poems would be banned for a long time, with even reading them being considered an offence. However, all these bans and punishments did not make people forget him. Perhaps they had a multiplying effect on the interest for him.

Today, Nazım has a kind of supra-political acceptance. He may not be an inspiration to musicians as he once was, but he remains to a poet whose poems are read the most. Reading Nazım, reading about Nazım, and thinking about him give one the opportunity to learn about the history of Turkish literature and Turkey’s political-intellectual past.



July 13, 2021 Solace from tensions