Author of the Week / 22 November 2023

An anomaly in populism: Orhan Veli’s Pit

Author of the Week: Turkey

Orhan Veli, born in Istanbul in 1914, is one of the few poets who has been considered as one of the greats by his peers and historians while reaching out to large masses. From the 1940s on, no history of Turkish poetry could have even imagined to omit him and, even today, it is equally impossible to find a Turkish reader who is not thoroughly familiar with his work. Veli single-handedly popularised poetry in the young Turkish Republic, modern poetry at least, by creating a sphere where you may talk about minor issues instead of grand abstractions, be it in folk ballads or elite Ottoman divan tradition. In other words, he welcomed daily life into poetry, awing and traumatising the intelligentsia with his Strange Manifesto published in 1939. It was only after him that personal matters, in their absolute concreteness, became part of the literary imagination despite how strange they seemed compared to what was considered poetic at the time. This is expressed in his ironically titled poem ‘Epitaph’:

His corn killed him most in life.
Even being born ugly
Didn’t bother him too much.
But if his shoe didn’t pinch
He didn’t mention God’s name.
He wasn’t a sinner either.
May he rest in peace, Suleyman Effendi!
(...)
They put his gun in the cupboard.
They gave his clothes to someone else.
No bread crumbs in his bag now
No lip traces on his canteen.
Such a wind
That it blew
And not even a name remained behind.
Only his couplet remained
Above the stove
In the coffee shop,
Written by hand-
‘Dying is the wish of God
If parting weren’t in it.’

Attacking the poetic biases was Veli’s first salvo five years after Nâzım Hikmet, the explosive avant-garde, wrote his poem ‘Letter to my Wife’ (translated by Randy Blazing and Mutlu Konuk): 

(...)
Look, forget all this.
If you have any money,
buy me some flannel underwear:
my sciatica is acting up again.
And don’t forget,
a prisoner’s wife
must always think good thoughts.

From 1929 on, Hikmet was on a mission to shake the poetry scene, rooting his texts in the futurist/constructivist experiences from his almost decade-long stay in the Soviet Union. He softened his language in the thirties, those curious times of silent transformation before the storm of the Second World War. The Great Crisis opened up a new era of closed economies and propelled nationalists to power worldwide. When its political and cultural waves hit the Republic of Turkey, a country that had recently made a clean break with the Ottoman Empire in 1923, the Republic had been moving towards a liberal economy and cultural modernisation. However, as aftereffects of the Great Depression, tensions and militaristic tone were on the rise internationally, which fortified the introverted political culture everywhere. The global waves of culture, swinging between populist regionalism and extreme nationalism were making inroads into every corner of cultural life in Turkey. The idea of transformation and the ground-breaking artistic aspirations fell from grace. Despite adapting to the new climate, Hikmet was a willing martyr-to-be and a dedicated communist when communism had enough appeal to attract intellectuals around the world and force the governments to isolate it.

Hikmet was locked up in a Turkish prison in 1938, when he was sentenced to 28 years in prison in a show trial. In jail he was respected by other inmates and the wardens. In 1950 the campaign for Hikmet’s freedom became an international affair and reached its goal with the support of many artists from Picasso to Aragon. Followed by the police and worried about death threats, Hikmet was forced to leave Turkey for good. After his adventurous escape via the Black Sea, he lived in Moscow for the rest of his life as a cultural attaché. He eventually grew disappointed in the oppressive ways of the Soviet Union, but he still managed to enjoy a productive decade as a lauded international poet, while in his homeland his books and other works were not available. Until the late 1960s, when the Turkish left finally broke its seclusion, Hikmet remained an anomaly, curiously unable to affect the next generations as one would expect. His early radical political tone and experimental style brought him some acclaim and renown, yet he did not count as a mainstream poet.

On the other hand, Orhan Veli’s challenge to the premodern flamboyance wrapped in formalistic self-esteem would catch the cultural winds of the Zeitgeist in its sail. In other words, it was Veli who released the poetry into the streets. After publishing the Strange Manifesto along with his equally adept and poetically gifted colleagues, Melih Cevdet and Oktay Rifat, he soon became a superstar or an anti-star as a stoic, ironic and honest poet. Many of his poems became instant hits, while ‘For Free’, thanks to its dark humour, continues to function as an idiom in public consciousness even today:

We are living for free;
The air is for free, the clouds are for free.
Hills and dales are for free;
Rain and mud are for free;
The outside of cars,
The entrance to movie houses,
The store windows are for free;
It is not the same as bread and cheese,
But salt water is for free;
Freedom will cost you your life,
But slavery is for free;
We are living for free,
For free.

The son of the conductor of the Presidential Symphony, Veli received an excellent liberal education but left university before completing his studies. After the surname law, he chose Kanık as his surname, which can be translated as ‘abstinent’ or ‘satisfied’. He worked in the Post Office until he was called up during World War II. On his discharge in 1945 he obtained a post as a translator in the Ministry of Education but left this job in less than two years to lead a Bohemian life and launched his legendary literary magazine Yaprak, the Leaf. During his short lifetime, his Garip movement (Orhan Veli, Melih Cevdet and Oktay Rıfat), along with other more politically sharp poets of the 40s generation, not only transformed the mainstream view of poetry but also defined the stereotype of the poet in public perception: a witty yet vulnerable vagabond, a principled yet romantic man of honour who would sell his coat in harsh winter to finance his poetry magazine, writing alone in the late evenings to the light of his cigarette yet never cutting ties with the working men and women. He writes about this in his poem ‘The Sea’:

I, in my room overlooking the seashore,
Not looking out of the window,
Know that the boats sailing out in the sea
Go loaded with watermelons.

The sea, as I used to do,
Likes to move its mirror on my ceiling
And tease me.

The smell of seaweed
And the masts of sailboats pulled up onto the shore
Remind the children living on the seaside
Of nothing.

He encouraged intellectuals to reject their habits and traditional judgments, and attacked the practice of interpreting a work of art in a piecemeal fashion or a poem as the mere sum of its stanzas and lines. According to Veli, interpreting a work of art without seeing it as a whole transcending its constituent parts is traditional formalism and does not help communicating with the people. To elaborate this point, he used an architectural metaphor in his Strange Manifesto: ‘The skeleton exists even if we do not see it. Beauty exists in totality, as even a thousand-word poem is written for the sake of one beauty.’ Neither the brick nor the plaster is beautiful, but together they constitute a beautiful work of architecture, just like his poem ‘Living’: 

I know, living isn’t easy,
Falling in love and singing of your sweetheart,
Walking under the stars at night,
During the day feeling the warmth of the sun,
Finding the chance
To go to Camlica Hills for one of two hours,
Watching the Bosphorus run a thousand sorts of blue,
Being able to forget everything in blue.

I know, it isn’t easy to live,
True;
But a corpse’s bed is still warm,
Someone’s watch is still ticking on his wrist;
Living isn’t easy, I know;
But dying isn’t easy either, guys.

It isn’t easy to leave this world.

Veli believed that the form should arise from within the work itself. As ‘poetry’s real value resides in its meaning’ (from the Strange Manifesto, 1940), the poet cannot afford to overlook it. A poem is a literary convention of wholeness and unity, which is ultimately the only tactic to reach out to the masses using ordinary language. A revolutionaries’ dream in a way, an avant-garde contested by Hikmet himself only and able to penetrate the readers’ hearts. An answer, finally, to the two decades of swinging and searching for the cultural identity of the new Turkish Republic.

Orhan Veli Kanık’s books still sell well after his tragic and tragicomical early death – at the age of 36 he fell into a pavement construction pit while strolling. His poems are still included in textbooks (a rare privilege today) and his reputation is still intact. It’s almost impossible to find anything controversial about him published recently. He is still popular, still a household name, but something seems out of place. 

What happened to Orhan Veli? Strangely, he is neither in the spotlight as an avant-garde figure nor is he hailed as a people’s poet. His revolution was to popularise poetry, and he became popular because he spearheaded a poetic revolution. Was he too much of a synthesis of everything so that he does not represent anything in particular today? Yet it was precisely that synthesis that made him a boy-next-door titan. Perhaps it was his ability to tick all the boxes that pulled him into the pit once again – a pit of historical nonchalance this time.


All poems by Veli, stated above, are from the book I, Orhan Veli: Poems by Orhan Veli by Orhan Veli. Hanging Loose Press, 1989. Translated by Murat Nemad-Nejat.

Author

Efe Duyan

Efe Duyan (poet, architect, event curator) was born in Istanbul in 1981.

 

As an internationally recognized poet, he has been invited to numerous international events, including the Hurst Professorship at St. Louis University and IWP at Iowa University. His poems have been translated to over 25 different languages. His poetry collections are Sıkça Sorulan Sorular (Frequently Asked Questions, 2016), Tek Şiirlik Aşklar (One Poem Stands, 2012) and Takas (Swap, 2006) and his debut novel Başka (Other) is published in 2022.

 

As an advocate of freedom of expression and creative thinking, he has been an active cultural actor curating international events, workshops and conferences. He has co-created the Offline Istanbul Poetry Festival, Turkish American Poetry Days and Mosaics: Gaziantep International Poetry Festival.

 

He is currently teaching architecture as Docents Dr. at RISEBA University. He has affiliated with several universities for research or guest lectures, such as Berlin Technical University, Ca' Foscari University, Minnesota University, Istanbul Technical University, Georgia State University, Iowa University, George Washington University, and Boston Massachusetts University.

 

 

Photo by David Konecny

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