Author of the Week / 3 January 2023

‘Straw-Blond’: the surreal horizon of political poetry

Author of the Week: Turkey

Political Poetry

The pandemic opened several spiritual wounds and left us with economic instability. The global climate crisis and identity issues, though put forward by many for decades, have penetrated the public consciousness. The war in Ukraine not only sparked a sense of solidarity but also triggered forgotten traumas of the Cold War. And political poetry has become a thing again. After a few decades following the neo-liberal surge in the 80s, poetry in its various political forms was (re)discovered as an exciting lost language between the layers of palimpsest. Poets have felt the urge, acted, and are now trying to solve a puzzle intuitively – a task at which they excel far above the rest of humanity. Yet there is a long history of glorious achievements, fascinating real-life social benefits, spectacular failures, heated discussions and repetitive mediocracy of political correctness co-existing side by side.

The question is whether being politically correct is enough to be acclaimed and praised. Are we right by only being right? The fever of political urgencies might shed a light too bright to leave poetry’s real superpowers in the shadows. Just ask Mayakovsky. Or not. After all, he is the one who committed suicide after writing a wonderful poem against the practice as a response to Aleksandr Blok’s death, as the country he supported with all his heart and soul hanged him out to dry. Perhaps leaving the poetic truth aside for the sake of political correctness is acceptable as a necessary sacrifice. Maybe not. The poet’s intuition may lead us to a place where neither political awakening nor poetic emotion needs to be abandoned. Such a migration of contemporary poetry would be exciting to follow through a pair of bird-watcher’s binoculars.

Mayakovsky’s dear friend, Nâzım Hikmet, who had to flee his home city in 1951 and move to the Soviet Union, at least enjoyed the status of a globally renowned cultural actor despite his late disappointment, just like Mayakovsky. Hikmet has been such a grand figure as a leftist rebel in Turkish poetry and culture; any criticism of his political poems would immediately turn into a political controversy, be it fair or not. On the other hand, while protecting his legacy from pseudo-intellectual malware arguments, the symbolic nimbus casts a shadow on his most inventive and weirdly beautiful attempts to combine surrealist elements with his trademark tenderly political autobiographical ingredients in his late years.

When Nâzım Hikmet’s citizenship was restored in 2009, fifty-eight years after the Turkish parliament voted to deprive him of it, the news was greeted with enthusiasm, yet not without some too-little-too-late grumbling. His grave remains in the Novodevichy Cemetery in Moscow, where he spent his years in exile. Still, Hikmet is one of the most revered poets in Turkey today, with a solid claim on the status of the first modern poet in Turkish poetry. Pre-modern poetry, with a history dating back a thousand years, indeed boasted a strong political vein even before Hikmet burst onto the scene with his futurism. Yet it was Hikmet’s early shocking, constructivist, high-octane poetry, which opened the curtains of modern Turkish poetry for the young Republic.

Political narratives have been and still are a part of the lives of Anatolian people, despite the infamously small print runs. Hikmet combined lyricism with his political agenda and his adventurous and tragic life story. Many heroic attempts to follow his path were made, only to fail. In the 1940s, Orhan Veli, the quick-witted poet of everyday life, took a page from Hikmet’s book, honed his political edge and turned the narrative style into the mainstream, not least through the efforts of a whole generation dedicated to the cause of modernisation:

I’m waiting
Come in a weather such that
there can be no turning back.[1]

The hard-bitten folk poets may have kept Turkish poetry (and the Turkish language) alive for centuries; in contrast, in the imperial capital of Constantinople, poetry was written in the Ottoman language, a mixture of Turkish, Persian, and Arabic. Ottoman elite poets created a glorious tradition called Divan poetry, based on the mastery of language by eloquently combining various figures of speech with fabulous images – an ancient l’art pour l’art. This tradition was discreetly revived in an avant-garde manner in the Cold War times by a generation influenced by Surrealism, the Second New Deal, questioning the meaning in poetry while glamorising it with thrilling metaphors and breathtaking lyrical passages. Cemal Süreya, a gifted and poised madcap, was one of the generational talents who took the post-World War II scene by storm. His penchant for metaphor can be traced throughout his oeuvre, not least in his famous poem ‘Two Hearts’:

The shortest path between two hearts:
Stretched out to each other, at times
Touching with fingertips only
Two hands.

I’m running towards the stairs
Waiting is time acquiring a body
I got here too early; I can’t find you
It feels like something is being rehearsed.

Birds are gathering to migrate
I wish I loved you just for this.[2]

In the ears of modern poets, there is still a distant echo of classical Ottoman court poetry, a tradition that has skilfully exaggerated emotions and expressed them in a highly stylised way making extensive use of figures of speech.

Contemporary Turkish poetry, then, was left with an irresistible yet challenging task of reinventing itself as a hybrid and composite form, synthesising deconstructed surreal and linear political narratives. Again, Hikmet was one of the first to rise to the challenge with his poem ‘Straw-Blond’, an epic recollection of the travels of his youth, especially the almost decade-long odyssey into the unknown territory of the Soviet Union, at the end of which he was sentenced to prison for the first time. It is strange to think that ‘Straw-Blond’ is underestimated as it is quite well-known and considered unique in his oeuvre. But no, it did not send shockwaves through Turkish poetry. It was published in 1969, years after the exiled poet’s death. Back then, Turkish poetry was reclaiming its social status thanks to its political overtones and the newly-found freedom for the Turkish left. A provocative and militant poetics was emerging, and Hikmet was hailed as a symbol of the struggle. His more narrative poems were in focus, although he tried to go beyond his trademark social-realist style with ‘Straw-Blond’ a decade prior. The horizons it opens up may still be considered uncharted territory.

I’m racing the minutes now they’re ahead now me
when they’re ahead I’m scared I’ll lose sight
of their disappearing red lights is
when I’m ahead their headlights throw my shadow on the road
my shadow races ahead of me suddenly I’m afraid I’ll lose
sight of my shadow
I go into theaters concerts movies
I didn’t try the Bolshoi you don’t like tonight’s opera
I went into Fisherman’s Bar in Istanbul and sat talking sweetly
with Sait Faik I was out of prison a month his liver was hurt-
ing and the world was beautiful
I go into restaurants with brassy orchestras famous bands
I ask gold-braided doormen and aloof tip—loving waiters
hatcheck girls and the neighborhood watchman
we didn’t see
the clock tower of the Strastnoi Monastery rang midnight
actually both tower and monastery were torn down long ago
they’re building the city’s biggest movie house there
that’s where I met my nineteenth year
we recognized each other right away
yet we hadn’t seen each other not even photos
we still recognized each other right away we weren’t surprised
we tried to shake hands
but our hands couldn’t touch forty years of time stood between us[3]

The life of the well-educated, patriotic young poet from the Ottoman capital of Istanbul took a serious turn when he decided to travel to Anatolia to participate in the war of independence, and when his interest in the Soviet Revolution took him to Russia soon after the war. Influenced by the Futurist-Constructivist art scene, he grew into a poet utterly convinced of the functional role of art in the shaping of society, and of the necessity to cut ties with tradition. On his return to Turkey in 1929, he stunned the intellectual community with his experimental poetry and antagonistic attitude. However, when the global political waves of nationalism hit Turkey in the 1930s, the country started to cop out of its rapid modernisation, and Hikmet out of his meteoric futurism. His language softened and became more communicative. The way he treated political propaganda in terms of personal and concrete emotions put him on the path to fame. Still, as a popular figure with a left-wing political agenda in an era of nationalism, he was always going to be suppressed. He was sentenced to prison in a mock trial, and was released after 13 years thanks to an international campaign to free him. Persecuted by the police and worried about the death threats he was receiving, he was forced to leave Turkey for good.

the store windows are empty
no cloth no crystal no meat no wine
not a book not a box of candy not a carnation
and in this loneliness enfolding the city like fog an old man
trying to shake off the sadness of age made ten times worse by
loneliness throws bread to the gulls from Legionnaires Bridge
dipping each piece in the blood
of his too-young heart
I want to catch the minutes
the gold dust of their speed stays on my fingers
a woman sleeps in the lower berth in the sleeper
she hasn’t slept so soundly in years
her hair straw-blond eyelashes blue
her hands candles in silver candlesticks
I can’t see who’s sleeping in the upper berth
if anyone is sleeping there it isn’t me
maybe the upper berth is empty
maybe Moscow is in the upper berth
fog has settled over Poland
over Brest too
for two days now planes can’t land or take off,
but the trains come and go they go through hollowed-out eyes
since Berlin I was alone in the compartment
the next morning I woke to sun on snowy fields

After an adventurous escape via the Black Sea, he lived in Moscow for the rest of his life as an exile and a cultural attaché. Whereas his late productive years included various forms, varying from anthem-like propaganda poems to experimental prose poems, his poetry was always highly communicative and realistic with a lyrical tone. As an avant-garde artist, though, he tried to reinvent himself many times – an attitude which brought about the sui generis ‘Straw-Blond’, one of his late travel poems.

His work as a cultural attaché included extensive trips to several countries except for Turkey. In a certain sense, he was constantly on the road without ever reaching his ultimate goal – returning to his home city of Istanbul. This predicament may have inspired ‘Straw-Blond’, an experimental journey poem encompassing a different kind of anxiety and a complicated set of emotions, as well as a distinct style generated through a specific way of understanding space: a synthesis of his political stance and his proclivity for surrealist experimentation. It offers a fusion of space as a symbol and a real place. He developed a new instrument of poetic composition to forge this synthesis, namely the flow of spaces as an element of rhythm. The poem is a long text dealing with several themes, with the passing of time and the journey as the main central concepts feeding other themes.

can you paint happiness Abidin
can you paint freedom the kind without lies
night is falling in Paris
Notre Dame lit up like an orange lamp and went out
and in Paris all the stones old and new lit up like orange lamps
and went out
I think of our crafts the business of poetry painting music and so on
I think and I know
a great river flows from the time the first human hand drew the
first bison in the first cave
then all streams run into it with their new fish new water—grasses
new tastes and it alone flows endlessly and never dries up
I’ve heard there’s a chestnut tree in Paris
the first of the Paris chestnuts the granddaddy of them all
it came from Istanbul the hills of the Bosporus and settled in Paris
I don’t know if it’s still standing it would be about two hundred
years old
I wish I could go shake its hand

He successfully flirts with post-World War II subjectivism, shaped by the legacy of Surrealism and a style that fits the post-war mood of anxiety and trauma. The non-linear narration generates a mesh of love and loss, exploration and homesickness, past and present, tragedy and peace. ‘Straw-Blond’ walks the thin, icy, red and restless line between being and nothingness. It is the political poem.

It shows us that political poetry rises out of the individual human condition, and that is what many contemporary poets have sensed, calibrated their intuitions and sharpened their quills accordingly. A journey to the future, past and, finally, the present, is on the horizon.


[1] Orhan Veli: ‘Invitation’, translated by Murat Nemet-Nejat.

[2] Cemal Süreya: ‘Two Hearts’, translated by Efe Duyan.

[3] Excerpts from the ‘Straw-Blond’ were translated by Randy Blasing and Mutlu Konuk. From Poems of Nâzım Hikmet, Karen and Michael Braziller Books, 2002.

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