Author of the Week / 24 November 2023

Cevat Çapan: a life in poetry

Author of the Week: Turkey

Cevat Çapan, a prominent figure in Turkish literature, is a multifaceted talent whose life and work have left an indelible mark on the world of poetry, translation, academia and the arts. Born on 18 January 1933 in Darıca, Turkey, Çapan’s journey through life is a fascinating exploration of cultural bridges, literary innovation and the craft of poetry. In this article, we will delve into the life and poetry of Cevat Çapan, shedding light on his early influences, contribution to literature, and the lasting impact he has had on Turkish literature.

Early life and influences

Cevat Çapan’s upbringing in Darıca, a town in Western Turkey, was marked by a unique blend of cultural influences that would later permeate his poetry. He was born to Fatma Hanım, a descendant of a family displaced from Crete, and Ethem Bey, a well-travelled contractor. These diverse roots and the experiences of his parents significantly influenced his worldview and his ability to connect with different cultures.

As a child, Çapan displayed a keen interest in literature. His father introduced him to the classics, helping him set out on his literary journey. He also absorbed the music and stories of the immigrant community around him, which included Greek tales and songs, further enriching his cultural palette.

Those innocent reminiscences are the remainder of what you’ve lived,
connecting the future to an almost forgotten time.
Never forget, your memory is your prison,
your imagination, your freedom.
So, you wandered among the people
without understanding their language,
under the skyscrapers where you caught
glimpses of the sky like a blue patch.[1]

Education played a pivotal role in shaping Çapan’s artistic inclinations. In 1945, his family moved to Istanbul to ensure a quality education for their son. Çapan attended Robert College, where his academic pursuits led him to explore various literary traditions, from Fuzuli and Nedim to Şeyh Galip. Here he also embarked on the path of language study, acquiring a strong foundation in the English language.

Çapan’s academic journey took him beyond Turkey’s borders when he pursued higher education at Cambridge University. Surprisingly, he chose to study English language and literature instead of economics, which his family had expected. This decision would prove to be instrumental in his future literary endeavours.

Translation and early literary career

During his time at Cambridge, Çapan developed a deep appreciation of English literature, and this period marked the beginning of his literary translation pursuits. His translations ranged from English and American classics to works by Italian, Greek and even Japanese poets. While he may not have known Greek, his childhood exposure to the language through his mother and her friends, who were Cretan immigrants, provided him with a unique understanding of the language’s rhythm and cadence.

One of Çapan’s notable translations was The Waste Land by T. S. Eliot. This challenging undertaking demonstrated his commitment to making world literature accessible to Turkish readers. While the Turkish language might not have been well-suited to capture the nuances of a highly industrialised society like the one depicted in Eliot’s poem, Çapan’s translations strove to find common ground between cultures.

In my own way, I try to interpret you, your beautiful lines
in your mother tongue as if I were your stepbrother;
I try not to fade out the colours of the flowers.
The most difficult thing for me is your breath’s rhythm.[2]

Çapan’s proficiency in both Turkish and English allowed him to bridge cultural divides and bring literary treasures to a broader audience. His translations were not mere linguistic transfers, they were attempts to convey the essence and spirit of the original works. This commitment to maintaining the emotional resonance of poetry, even when faced with linguistic challenges, set him apart as a translator of exceptional skill.

Return to Turkey and academic pursuits

In 1957, Çapan returned to Turkey, which marked a significant turning point in his life. He commenced his military service in the Turkish military in an anti-aircraft battery and subsequently pursued a master’s degree at Cambridge University. These years were pivotal in shaping his perspectives and introducing him to the world of European literature, cinema and theatre.

The sun sinks far away, even birds
drift apart and disappear.
As I converse with those untimely gone every night,
in that uninhabited anti-aircraft battery
my thoughts ignite.[3]

Cultural exchange and dialogue played a central role in Çapan’s life. He fostered connections with both European and Turkish literary figures, and his time abroad allowed him to gain a unique perspective on the world of literature. His interactions with fellow poets, including Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, enriched his understanding of the craft.

Upon returning to Turkey, Çapan embarked on an academic career. He joined the faculty of Istanbul University’s Faculty of Arts, where he worked as a research assistant in the Department of English Language and Literature. Later, he pursued his doctoral studies, focusing on ‘Realism in the Irish Theatre’. He earned his doctoral degree in 1963.

Çapan’s academic pursuits did not end with his doctoral studies. He continued to contribute to the field of literary studies, publishing works on various aspects of literature and theatre. His role as an academic allowed him to inspire and mentor a new generation of Turkish scholars and writers.

Cultural exploration and synthesis

Cevat Çapan’s poetry is a reflection of his deep engagement with both Turkish and world literature. His work is a fusion of diverse influences, from traditional Turkish poetry to Western literary traditions. Çapan’s early interest in classical Turkish poets like Fuzuli and Nedim, coupled with his exposure to European and American literature, contributed to the rich tapestry of his poetic expression.

At sunset, we find ourselves
in a waiting room.
A handful of souls not knowing each other.
One tries to whistle
with his slit lips.
The other tries to fix his hair
with his broken fingers.
No one knows what or whom we are waiting for.
The one squatting on the corner thinks
flowers must have bloomed on the outside.
Silence is rasping.
Suddenly, from the half-opened door,
with her most seductive smile, the death
joins us.[4

One of the defining features of Çapan’s poetry is its ability to transcend geographical and cultural boundaries. His poems are a testament to his status as a global citizen who draws inspiration from a wide variety of sources. He has written about Western literary figures like Lichtenstein, Roland Barthes and Walter Benjamin, while also delving into the lives of Cretan immigrants and East Anatolian workers.

Çapan’s poetry is a celebration of the human experience. He captures the essence of the age he lives in, offering profound insights into the human condition. His ability to seamlessly weave together elements from Eastern and Western cultures makes his work resonate with readers from all backgrounds.

Notable works and awards

Cevat Çapan’s literary career is marked by his large output of poetry and translations. He has received numerous awards and accolades that acknowledge his significant contributions to Turkish literature. His first collection of poems, titled Dön Güvercin Dön (Hover Dove Hover), a compilation of poems previously published in various magazines, is one of his initial steps in finding his own poetry process. While he incorporated Western influences in his work, he remained firmly attached to his roots.

In his second book, Doğal Tarih (Natural History), he gathered poems he wrote between 1968 and 1989. In these poems, where the poet explores his inner depths, we see social or individual events of all kinds turned into personal stories. To make sense of his culturally rich works, the reader should at least have a basic familiarity with Western music, culture, literature and art, as well as Turkish high and folk culture. In these poems that reinforce the idea that the poet’s primary identity is that of a translator, there are sometimes tones closer to Western cultural atmosphere. In addition to a synthesis of Turkish and international cultural influences, we also see autobiographical elements between the lines.

Sevda Yaratan (Love Creator) comprises poems written from 1989 to 1994 and has the form of a cultural atlas with abundant autobiographical data and details of the poet’s family history. For example, in the title poem, the poet explains the relationship between place and memory with examples from his personal life, and he also mentions the names of his children, Nigâr, Leyla and Alişan. The line ‘Life is an endless chain of associations’ from one of the poems in this collection embodies the meaning and spirit of Çapan’s poetry.

Çapan’s extensive oeuvre includes collections such as Ne Güzel Yolculuktu Aklımdan Çıkmaz (What a Beautiful Journey It Was, I Can Never Forget), Deniz Ürperiyor Uzakta (The Sea Trembles Far Away), Bana Düşlerini Anlat (Tell me Your Dreams), Şiir Çevir Denize At (Translate Poetry Then Throw It to the Sea), Ara Sıcak (Hors d'oeuvres), Su Sesi (Sound of Water), Son Duraktan Bir Önce (Before the Last Stop) Başka Bir Coğrafyadan (From Another Geography) and O Geniş Boşlukta (In That Vast Emptiness). Created in a simple yet profound language, his body of work showcases a variety of approaches and thematic focuses, from his position as a translator-poet as opposed to just a poet, to the influence of memories on poetry, his unique blend of lyricism and irony, his passion for incorporating features of poetry from different parts of the world into his own work, poetic reflections on Anatolia and Anatolian culture, to nature, memory spaces, cultural world, universal literature, music, cinema and the history of humanity.

His first poetry collection, Dön Güvercin Dön (Hover Dove Hover), received the Behçet Necatigil Poetry Award, the most important poetry prize in the Turkish Poetry scene. In 2000, he shared the prestigious Abdi İpekçi Special Award with Özdemir İnce, further cementing his status as a prominent figure in Turkish literature. His collection Bana Düşlerini Anlat (Tell me Your Dreams) received the Altın Portakal Poetry Award in 2008, underscoring his enduring relevance and creativity.

In 2009, Cevat Çapan was honoured as the guest writer at the TÜYAP Istanbul Book Fair, a recognition of his profound influence on Turkish literature. The fair celebrated his role in fostering cross-cultural dialogue through literature. In 2017, when he received the Erdal Öz Literature Prize, the jury stated that it was awarded ‘for his distinguished poetry and contributions to introducing our poetry to the world through translations, the years of dedicated effort he has invested in cultivating new generations in Turkish literature, and his contributions to elevating the quality of the Turkish publishing industry.’ This prestigious award was followed by two more: the Metin Altıok Poetry Prize in 2018 for Before the Last Stop and the Yunus Nadi Poetry Prize in 2021 for From Another Geography.

At the age of 90, Cevat Çapan, the oldest poet in Turkish poetry, currently resides in Istanbul and continues to craft his peerless poetry.


[1] From ‘Kaldığımız Yerden’ (Resumption). Su Sesi (Sound of Water): Yapı Kredi Publishing, 2013, translated by Gökçenur Ç.

[2] From ‘Yalıoba Günlükleri’ (Yalıoba Diaries). Su Sesi (Sound of Water): Yapı Kredi Publishing, 2013, translated by Gökçenur Ç.

[3] From ‘Taşrada’ (In the Provinces). Son Duraktan Bir Önce (Before the Last Stop): Yapı Kredi Publishing, 2017, translated by Gökçenur Ç.

[4] ‘Alaturka’ (The Turkish Style). Su Sesi (Sound of Water): Yapı Kredi Publishing, 2013, translated by Gökçenur Ç.

Author

Gökçenur Ç.

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