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Nazim Hikmet: 'We must live as if we will never die'

Two poems by the great Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet, 'Some Advice To Those Who Will Spend Time in Prison' and 'On Living', show us that life, for all its grief, is the most beautiful thing. It should be lived for humanity and for the future.

Nazim Hikmet (1902-63), who spent much of his adult life in prison or exile for his subversive writings, was born into an aristocratic family in Salonica.  Both his grandfathers were high-ranking Ottoman soldiers, and he was educated in a French school and the naval academy.   Hikmet was drawn first to the nationalist movement under Mustafa Kemal, who had led the Turks at Gallipoli and established an alternative government in Ankara after the imperialist carve-up of the Ottoman empire.  It was Kemal (later known as Attaturk, father of the Turks) who told Hikmet to “write poetry with a purpose”.

Subsequently inspired by the socialist system in the Soviet Union, Hikmet travelled to Moscow where he met Mayakovsky and Meyerhold and later studied at the Communist University for the Workers of the East, before returning home in 1924 after Turkish independence had been won.  He had by then joined the Turkish Communist Party and his politics made him a target for the authoritarian government.  He was imprisoned frequently from 1929 onwards, and in 1938 given a 28-year sentence for inciting revolt in the armed forces – sailors had been found reading and discussing his poetry.

In 1949 an international campaign was launched for his release, headed by Tristan Tzara and Louis Aragon, and in 1950 he was awarded a peace prize in absentia in Warsaw, which he shared with Paul Robeson and Pablo Neruda.  After his release that year as part of a general amnesty, in poor health he fled to the Soviet Union to evade military conscription and lived in Moscow till his death, travelling widely and campaigning for peace.

After decades in which even his name was banned, Hikmet’s books are now available in Turkey, with two of his poems included in Turkish schoolbooks.  But it took a petition of half a million signatures in 2001 to restore his Turkish citizenship in  time for the 100th anniversary of his birth, in the teeth of strong right-wing opposition. 

It was while in Bursa prison during the 1940s that Hikmet wrote some of his some of his best-known prison poems.


Some Advice To Those Who Will Spend Time in Prison

Though it’s presented as a poem of advice to other activists facing incarceration, Some Advice To Those Who Will Spend Time in Prison is also speaking to the poet himself, charting his efforts to bolster his morale, even in the moment of articulation.  There is nothing finished or safely retrospective in it, but a very present search for an attitude, an emotional posture, that might make the unbearable bearable. The accuracy of the detail is clearly autobiographical, and it is this truthfulness that imbues it with poignancy: 

to wait for letters inside
to sing sad songs
or to lie awake all night staring at the ceiling
is sweet but dangerous.

These are the typical temptations for any prisoner, and it is obvious Hikmet has felt them himself.  There are other mundane details, evoked with a tenderness only experience could have produced: 

Look at your face from shave to shave,
forget your age,
watch out for lice…

The instruction “forget your age” – paradoxical as by speaking of it he is reminding us of it – evokes the loss, not just of freedom but of time.

 The poem’s ability to pass on useful advice, to persuade us to remain optimistic and defiant, depends on there being this live current of personal pain running through it.  We feel we are being given the unvarnished truth, which enables us to trust him.  This truthfulness emerges most powerfully when he discusses love: 

And who knows,
the woman you love may stop loving you.
Don’t say it’s no big thing:
it’s like the snapping of a green branch
to the man inside.

There is no attempt to deny that personal bitterness will add to our suffering.  By facing this head-on, and by insisting that it is indeed a “big thing”, the poet is refusing false comfort.

Yet this hard-headedness is the opposite of dispiriting.  Without it, his advice would be vacuous; with it, it becomes genuinely inspiring, the distilled wisdom of one who has gone before and found a means of survival against the odds.  It becomes a wider model of how to respond to defeat.

The opening lines draw us into instant solidarity:

If instead of being hanged by the neck
          you're thrown inside
          for not giving up hope
in the world, your country, your people,
          if you do ten or fifteen years
          apart from the time you have left,
you won't say,
              "Better I had swung from the end of a rope
                                              like a flag" --
You'll put your foot down and live.
It may not be a pleasure exactly,
but it's your solemn duty
           to live one more day
                         to spite the enemy.

We are addressed directly as comrades likely to suffer a similar fate.  The verbal forms move from an evocation of extreme passivity (“If instead of being hanged by the neck/You’re thrown into prison”) to one of stubborn resistance, which while not quite active – impossible given the circumstances – turns a refusal into a positive (“for not giving up hope”).  In describing the essential qualities of a revolutionary, he is persuading us of their value: “You’ll put your foot down and live.”  This is almost a command.  It is our “solemn duty” to carry on. It’s as though we’re being sworn to it. 

But why survive? In order “to spite the enemy”.  There is something jaunty in this reasoning and in the off-hand tone of the phrase “It may not be a pleasure exactly” that  gives us strength, especially in contrast to the floppy passivity of being hanged “like a flag” where the body has been reduced to a symbolic object, a sign. We can all survive one more day if it makes the enemy pay a price, since we have nothing to lose; it’s an achievable aim.  Having persuaded us to live, Hikmet gets to work on the detail as to how.  He knows how dark and serious things can get:

Part of you may live alone inside,
             like a tone at the bottom of a well.

The internal rhyme here, at least in this excellent translation, seems to toll.  But while acknowledging the inevitable despair, Hikmet exhorts us to maintain a living connection to the outside world, that is, not to close off and lose interest in it.

But the other part
          must be so caught up
          in the flurry of the world
          that you shiver there inside
      when outside, at forty days' distance, a leaf moves.

He advises against mirrors, against self-reflection, which remind us of the passage of time. Dwelling on the distant and eternal – like the sea – is useful, whereas things associated with love are too poignant:

To think of roses and gardens inside is bad,
to think of seas and mountains is good.

He goes on to suggest basic creative tasks, like weaving – making something out of nothing.  This is, of course, precisely what he’s doing with his words. 

The context for the whole poem is the narrow avoidance of death.  This establishes the stoical viewpoint from the start with prison set against the worse alternative. It’s a fighting poem that resonates not only for its purported audience but for all revolutionaries in an era of defeat.


Some Advice To Those Who Will Serve Time In Prison

If instead of being hanged by the neck
          you're thrown inside
          for not giving up hope
in the world, your country, your people,
          if you do ten or fifteen years
          apart from the time you have left,
you won't say,
              "Better I had swung from the end of a rope
                                              like a flag" --
You'll put your foot down and live.
It may not be a pleasure exactly,
but it's your solemn duty
           to live one more day
                         to spite the enemy.
Part of you may live alone inside,
             like a tone at the bottom of a well.
But the other part
          must be so caught up
          in the flurry of the world
          that you shiver there inside
      when outside, at forty days' distance, a leaf moves.
To wait for letters inside,
to sing sad songs,
or to lie awake all night staring at the ceiling
                   is sweet but dangerous.
Look at your face from shave to shave,
forget your age,
watch out for lice
              and for spring nights,
     and always remember
        to eat every last piece of bread--
also, don't forget to laugh heartily.
And who knows,
the woman you love may stop loving you.
Don't say it's no big thing:
it's like the snapping of a green branch
                              to the man inside.
To think of roses and gardens inside is bad,
to think of seas and mountains is good.
Read and write without rest,
and I also advise weaving
and making mirrors.
I mean, it's not that you can't pass
    ten or fifteen years inside
                        and more --
        you can,
        as long as the jewel
        on the left side of your chest doesn't lose its lustre!

May 1949

A self portrait: Nazim Hikmet in his prison cell, 1946



On Living

In On Living, Hikmet once again uses the mundane things of life to inspire.  We should live, he says:

like a squirrel, for example —
   I mean without looking for something beyond and above living,
        I mean living must be your whole occupation.

This emphasis on immersion in day-to-dayness is the opposite of the ‘declamatory’ mode of propaganda, which he condemned in his own work in 1937. It is a materialist outlook, busy, full of energy and an implicit, tenacious optimism.

Living is no laughing matter:
    you must take it seriously,
    so much so and to such a degree
   that, for example, your hands tied behind your back,
                                            your back to the wall,
   or else in a laboratory
       in your white coat and safety glasses,
       you can die for people--
   even for people whose faces you've never seen,
   even though you know living
       is the most real, the most beautiful thing.

As in the previous poem, Hikmet never denies the pain of loss and death.  He understands that “living/is the most real, the most beautiful thing” yet suggests that to live life fully we must be prepared to die “even for people whose faces you have never seen”.   The act of solidarity, even unto death, is the apotheosis of living, not an altruistic or religious martyrdom; it is this readiness to die for the cause – living with that vital connection to the fate of others –  which gives life its meaning.  The attitude is summed in the image of planting an olive tree at the end of one’s life.  Though apparently irrational, such a positive act is an assertion of life against death.  It is action, “living”, (not the passive noun “life”) which is the “most beautiful thing”, because it creates purpose:

I mean, you must take living so seriously
that even at seventy, for example, you’ll plant olive trees –
and not for your children, either
but because although you fear death you don’t believe it,
        because living, I mean, weighs heavier.

That word “weighs” gives life a solidity and meaning as against death, in whose shadow we live and whose presence galvanises us to live fully to the last.

The second section moves from second person to first person plural address. Again, the same themes are repeated in different form.

Let's say we're seriously ill, need surgery--
which is to say we might not get up
            from the white table.
Even though it's impossible not to feel sad
            about going a little too soon,
we'll still laugh at the jokes being told,
we'll look out the window to see if it's raining,
or still wait anxiously
        for the latest newscast. . .

We must laugh at jokes and wonder if it’s raining, that is, concern ourselves actively with the everyday reality of life, whose meaning is created by such engagement.

In the third section, it is as if he is wrestling harder with what he is trying to say, the repetitions mapping the movement of his thought:

This earth will grow cold,
a star among stars
               and one of the smallest,
a gilded mote on blue velvet--
      I mean this, our great earth.
This earth will grow cold one day,
not like a block of ice
or a dead cloud even
but like an empty walnut it will roll along
      in pitch-black space . . .

The perspective change – from the earth as “a gilded mote on blue velvet” to the sudden hugeness of “our great earth” – enacts the process by which the poet’s thought moves from death and the infinite back to the immanent, inhabiting his own life here in the present, and back to “pitch-black space” again.  The image of the world’s end – not as some cosmic event but couched  in the domestic image of an empty walnut – recalls the squirrel.  The earth will bear signs of the life lived on it, even after it’s grown cold.

You must grieve for this right now
--you have to feel this sorrow now--
for the world must be loved this much
                               if you're going to say "I lived". . .

These final lines, with the emphatic “You must grieve for this right now” are as forceful as a commandment.  Only by embracing mortality “right now”, by understanding and feeling life’s negation, can we live fully.  Loving life to the point of grieving for its loss is inseparable from truly living – the half-rhyme of “loved” and “lived” in this translation underscores this.

This sober-minded optimism in the face of personal deprivation, defeat and death demonstrates a thoroughly materialist frame of mind: no metaphysical release; no consolation from outside; meaning in the here and now. These poems are actively thoughtful in the sense that we see Hikmet working things out, with the repetition throughout of the phrase “I mean” showing his constant search to grasp and express the dialectic.  What gives them a more specifically Communist character, perhaps, is the combination of this dialectical approach with the revolutionary’s intense love of life and a steely militancy.  Like all good theory, these texts are a crystallization of practical experience, and act as a call to arms.


On Living

1
Living is no laughing matter :
you must live with great seriousness
        like a squirrel, for example -
I mean without looking for something beyond and above living,
                  I mean living must be your whole occupation.
Living is no laughing matter:
    you must take it seriously,
    so much so and to such a degree
that, for example, your hands tied behind your back,
                   your back to the wall,
or else in a laboratory,
    in your white coat and safety glasses,
    you can die for people -
even for people whose faces you have never seen,
even though you know living
    is the most real, the most beautiful thing.
I mean, you must take living so seriously
that even at seventy, for example, you'll plant olive trees -
and not for your children, either
but because although you fear death you don't believe it,
    because living, I mean, weighs heavier.

1947

 


2
Let's say we are seriously ill, need surgery -
which is to say we might not get up
            from the white table.
Even though it's impossible not to feel sad
            about going a little too soon,
we'll still laugh at the jokes being told,
we'll look out the window to see if it's raining,
or still wait anxiously
        for the latest newscast…

Let's say we are at the front -
for something worth fighting for, say.
There, in the first offensive, on that very day,
We might fall on our face, dead.
We'll know this with a curious anger,
    but we'll still worry ourselves to death
    about the outcome of the war, which could last years.

Let's say we're in prison
and close to fifty,
and we have eighteen more years, say,
         before the iron doors will open.
We’ll still live with the outside,
with its people and animals, struggle and wind –
         I mean with the outside beyond the walls.
I mean, however and wherever we are,
        we must live as if we will never die...

1948


3
This earth will grow cold, a star among stars
     and one of the smallest,
a gilded mote on blue velvet -
         I mean this, our great earth.
This earth will grow cold one day.
not like a block of ice
or a dead cloud even
but like an empty walnut it will roll along
        in pitch-black space.
You must grieve for this right now
- you have to feel this sorrow now -
for the world must be loved this much
         if you're going to say "I lived"...

February 1948

Nazim Hikmet, 1902-1963


Poems of Nazim Hikmet, translated by Randy Blasing and Mutlu Konuk, is published by Persea Books.

 

Front page image: Nazim Hikmet's memorial stone in the Novodevichy Cemetery, Moscow.