Orhan Veli Kanik: Translating Clarity
Orhan Veli Kanik's unfinished poem, ``The Parade of Love,'' was found
wrapped around his toothbrush after his death. It is not an inferior
poem. The second stanza has a blank at the beginning of each line,
followed by phrases. Why this stanza is incomplete is not clear. The
phrases at the end do not create rhymes or suggest syntactical patterns.
They are images. We don't know the pressure among these images that must
have existed in poet's mind. Everything seems to come out without effort.
The poem longer than usual for him, is a list. It is unclear if this list
is complete or like the second stanza unfinished. True, the poem seems
casual, appears almost to peter out. But the total effect is powerful,
evocative. This is the first mystery of the poem. Why is it unfinished?
What is the pressure in the second stanza that Veli couldn't breach?
Also, does it end as he intended or is some closure is still missing?
The second mystery is the toothbrush. Why is the draft wrapped around the
toothbrush? Did Orhan Veli give up on the poem? Is there a later version?
If so, no one has found it. My personal fantasy is that the draft was
the handiest piece of paper for Orhan Veli to cover his toothbrush with,
possibly while having a hangover or starving one of the trips his poetry
is full of.
In November 1950, Orhan Veli Kanik died of a brain hemorrhage in Istanbul
at the age of 36. He had fallen into a ditch drunk a few days beforehand.
It was assumed that his falling unconscious and his ensuing death were the
result of that accident. He had also been in a coma for twenty days in
1939 after an automobile accident. The short life, the heavy drinking,
the love affairs, more than one coma in a lifetime hint at a life lived
on the edge. They project the persona of a Romantic poet exploring new
The reality is different. Orhan Veli Kanik's poetry strikes one with its
ordinariness and the aggressiveness of this ordinariness. His poetry is a
mixture of daily life, streetwise humor and an undercurrent of lyricism.
To me the most enduring image in the poem on himself, ``I, Orhan Veli,''
is that he likes ``puffed cheese pastries''; he admits to having lovers,
but delicacy prevents him from mentioning any names. His poetry is a
poetry of little details, a Hungarian restaurant, low level civil servants,
alley cats, pets, etc.
Orhan Veli's poetry surprises by references which are so much part of
daily life that they don't seem to belong in a poem. The language is pared
down, colloquial, devoid of metaphors or rhetoric except as a source of
humor. At their best, Veli's poems create the illusion that language
has disappeared, that there is no mediation between the world and
consciousness, and that the reader is experiencing life as the thing in
itself. He says as much in the introduction to his first book, Garip
[Strange], which he published with his two friends, Melih Cevdet Anday
and Oktay Rifat, in 1941:
``Squeezing certain theories into familiar old molds cannot
be a new artistic thrust forward. We must alter the whole
structure from the foundation up. In order to rescue ourselves
from the stifling effects of the literatures which have
dictated and shaped our tastes and judgements for too many
years, we must dump overboard everything that those literatures
have taught us. We wish it were possible to dump even language
itself, because it threatens our creative efforts by forcing
its vocabulary on us when we write poetry.''
(translated by Talat Sait Halman)
Orhan Veli was one of the creators of modern Turkish poetry in the 1940s.
Before discussing his historical position, I must address the most common
criticism of him, that he is trivial. That criticism reflects a certain
attitude towards the anti-rhetoric of his poetry. Early critics attacked
him for defacing the noble art of poetry. Even some later poets criticized
him for being bourgeois, unconcerned with the great political issues of the
time, comparing him unfavorably with his leftist contemporary, Nazim Hikmet.
The fact is that while many significant poets get stale around the edges
after a time, Veli remains fresh. One goes back to him over and over again.
To the extent that one grows to appreciate the experience of the body over
rhetorical inflation, one grows to appreciate Orhan Veli. He is a poet
of moment-to-moment experience, being in love, being bored, being sad,
joking, casual musings. His poetic persona is designed to achieve this
effect. His style is pared down to deal with a version of reality which
is non-metaphysical, completely time-bound. In their delicate moments,
his poems create the illusion that they are not poems, that they could
be tosed of inadvertently by anybody. I think this quality is both the
source of the main criticism against him and an indication of his main
On one level, Veli's poems are an investigation of the meaning of reality.
Short, neutral, full of everyday details, they constitute a sustained
meditation on William Carlos Williams' ``red whell/barrow.''
Veli translated extensively from French poetry (including Francois Villon,
Jules LaForgue, and Jacques Prevert), and also translated Japanese haikus
from French into Turkish. Though haikus have a different philosophic
premise, they too regard language as an obstacle to reality, which in this
case is the spirituality in nature. Their pared down structure helps to achieve a spiritual revelation.
* * *
Middle Eastern languages, specifically Arabic and Persian, bear a
historical burden. The written and spoken languages have for a long
time been divided. Most of the literature exists in written form. One
may study Arabic literature for years and still not understand spoken
Arabic. If Arabs want to understand their literature, they have to learn
a special vocabulary. To a lesser extent, the same is true of Persian.
This division exists in Turkish as well, but with one big difference.
Turkish also has a tradition of poetry written in the vernacular. Since
the beginning of the Ottoman Empire, Turkish has had two independent
literary currents. One is that of court poetry. This polished literature,
which continued until the end of the 19th century, was based on Persian
and Arabic models and used a mixture of Turkish, Persian and Arabic
vocabulary. This language, called Ottoman, is different from modern
spoken Turkish. One has to study Ottoman separately to understand a
19th century Ottoman poem.
The vernacular current still coexisted for centuries. It is a folk
poetry that encompasses major poets like Yunus Emre and Pir Sultan
Abdal. These poets, who lived in the 13th and 16th centuries respectively,
are comprehensible without any special study. The theme of Sufism, which
permeates them, is also present in some of the love poems of modern
poets like Necip Fazil Kisakurek and Cemal Sureya (1). The immediacy
of a Yunus Emre poem is mind boggling. In feeling, it plunges the modern
reader into a time warp. Pir Sultan Abdal, a Shiite who was hanged for his
activities against the cental authorities, might easily have been a 20th
century Shiite fundemantalist, believing in sacrifice and fighting against
established Sunni interests. His religion is political; the following
poem is an invitation to rebellion within the form of a pure, demanding
I couldn't take its pleasures and its pains
Who can't take these pains should not come
I could paint His color and His paint
Who can not take this pains should not come
I dabbed on His color, I drank His wine
With many souls I cooed and conversed
With deep affection I played at love
Who considers this love a curse should not come
With affection visit your Patron Saint
Let him bind you to honesty
Let you with with complete truth set up your market stand
From your market stand harm should not come
The Forty Spirits wander in this square, they said,
They set the wise man on his road,
They wrench his right hand from his left, they said,
Whoever follows his own self should not come
I'm Pir Sultan, awake, the world is mortal
The discourse with the Spirits is the spot of love
The blood of grace is the faultless blood
The one who has black spots in his heart should not come
(translated by Murat Nemet-Nejat)
From the middle of the 19th century on, Turkish society and Turkish
poets expressed a need for reform by turning to the West, but in
literature, they saw the necessity for change only in subject matter.
Their language remained Ottoman. It wasn't until the reforms of
Kemal Ataturk, in the nineteen twenties and thirties, that the
transformation in Turkish poetry took place; then, it occurred very
quickly. The speed was due to the presence of a strong folk tradition
Four poets led the way in this change: Nazim Hikmet, Melih Cevdet Anday,
Oktay Rifat and Orhan Veli. Half a generation older, Nazim Hikmet stands
apart from the others. He was a communist, and spent many years in jail.
His poetry was periodically banned in turkey until 1965-66 when about
twenty about his books were published, some of them for the first time.
Nazim Hikmet began to write in the 1920s. Using a mixture of Vladimir
Mayakovsky's loose lines and the patterns of Turkish folk poetry, he
destroyed the Ottoman poetic structures. He developed a clear, fluid
style where personal and political themes combine easily. When Orhan
Veli, Melih Cevdet Anday and Oktay Rifat began to write in the 1930s,
they found his poetry an already new Turkish.
Nazim Hikmet's diction is less radical than his structure. Though his
language is clear and simple, he uses uncritically the language of the
upper middle class intellectual environment from which he came. That
educated class still had the sounds slightly dated today, curiously
class-bound, a contrast with his revolutionary politics and the power
of his personality.
Orhan Veli's colloquialism is radical and transcends the middle class
from which he also came. It is an attack on language. His people are
low-level civil servants (many poor but few utterly dispossessed) coping
with daily life. Surprisingly, there are very few slang expressions in
his work, that is to say, very little that belongs only to a sub-culture.
His colloquialism is central, classical. In its pared-down naturalness,
its selection of the most immediate cadences, it is also abstract. It's
due to the particular nature of Veli's colloquialism, I believe, and
despite the relative narrowness of his subject matter, that his poetry
remains fresh, continuously contemporary. In this respect he shares the
virtues of major folk poets like Yunus Emre, Pir Sultan Abdal and Karacaoglan.
Aside from his colloquialism, Veli's relationship to Turkish folk poetry
is often overlooked. this is a poetry of repetitions, of rhymes and the
repetition of lines at the end of stanzas. Orhan Veli is full of repetition,
not through rhymes or refrains like Nazim Hikmet, but in the form of lists
or disguised lists. These repetitions give his work its lyrical, contemplative
tone. As a translator, I first assumed that to create his poetry in English
would be enough to find the right colloquial expression, that the repetition
was not important. Many of the results were flat. Only when I began to
assimilate the repetitions themselves into the poems instead of avoiding
them did I begin to capture the mixture of colloquialism and contemplation
of immediacy and abstraction, of humor and sadness, which is particular
flavor of Orhan Veli's poems. The following demonstrates my attempt to capture
My friend Sabri
And I always talk
In the street at night
And always drunk.
He always says,
``I'm late for home,''
And always two loaves
Of bread under his arm.
How does one translate Orhan Veli's transparency? One has to find both
the phrases and the breathing sequence connecting them that will give the
sensation that these phrases are being uttered naturally, without
forethought. No word can draw attention to itself by its cleverness and
brilliance. Otherwise, the poem is destroyed. The transparency is destroyed.
In Veli's terms, language as literature rears its ugly head. The translation's
ideal tone is not one of experiencing a poem, but one of some person's casual
phrasings in the middle of daily experience, the tone, in fact, of the voice
of Orhan Veli, the funny, compassionate, rakish, sad, down-to-earth guy.
There is a second problem for the translator. Turkish is a declined language
(suffixes replace prepositions). Word order, more specifically the order
of parts of speech, is very flexible. For instance, a verb or a phrase denoting
time can appear at the beginning, middle or end of a sentence. Any arrangement
impossible, each reflects a different shade of meaning or emphasis. Orhan Veli
exploits this flexibility to express his thoughts and observations as they
occur, without self-consciousness or artificiality. Spoken Turkish has a
great capability for intimate talk, as well as for oratory. The link between
modern Turkish poetry and folk poetry is based on this flexibility.
Repetitions and refrains of folk poems can be easily integrated into Turkish
speech patterns. Turkish speech can become lyrical or, if necessary, oratical,
without sounding artificial. That is why a political poet like Nazim Hikmet
developed in Turkish before any other Middle Eastern language.(2)
The translator's problem here is that although modern English possesses
some flexibility in the order of its parts of speech, it is to a significantly
lesser degree than Turkish. If one varies the set patterns of English
syntax too much, the language becomes self-conscious. As a translator,
my struggle has been to balance a fidelity to the thought sequences,
the repetitive patterns of Orhan Veli's speech, with the greater strictness
of modern English. That difference was the invisible wall I faced between
the two languages. I attempted to open doors in it as best I could. Some
images needed to be shifted. The key to rendering Veli in English
finally turned out to be the kind of repetition found in the cumulative
syntax found by Hemingway. I think certain styles in popular prose in
English form another point of contact with Orhan Veli's style.
It is difficult for modern British English to adapt to the requirements
of a political public poetry. The strict syntax patterns of British English
also reflect, in my opinion, class patterns, a social etiquette emphasizing
privacy, good manners. American English, with lists being an integral part
of poetic speech, that is to say because of Whitman and poets who followed
him, has greater possibilities. Significantly, this is the second book of
Orhan Veli's poetry in the United States. In England, no book by him has yet
The problem for a lot of American poets writing political poetry is a
hermetic style. The effort required to penetrate the language is so
intense that the contact can occur only on a private, one-to-one level.
It cannot become public, therefore truly political. It can appeal, at
best, to a small group. Modern Turkish poetry, particularly that of Nazim
Hikmet and Orhan Veli, represents other possibilities. Hikmet fuses
personal and political concerns in a poetry which is both intimate and
sublime. The following poem, one of a series he wrote from prison to
his wife while working on his long political poem ``Human Landscapes''
(and during the period when Orhan Veli was also writing) is characteristic
of his lyrical style:
POEMS OF TWENTY-ONE AND
How lovely to remember you among the tidings
Of death and victory,
In my cell,
And my life beyond its fortieth year...
How lovely to remember you:
Your hand lying forgotten on a blue sheen of cloth,
And in your hair the poised softness
Of the dear earth of Istanbul...
Like a second person
Throbs within me
The joy of loving you...
The smell staying at the tips of fingers
Is from geraniums,
A sunful ease,
The invitation of the flesh: a darkness,
Warm, divided by red, bright rays of light...
How lovely to remember you,
Write about you,
Lying on my back in jail,
Think of you:
The words you uttered at one place,
not the words,
but the universe in their tones...
How lovely to remember you.
I must carve something again out of wood
For you: a drawer,
I must weave three or four yards of silk cloth,
Then, again, hurtling from my place,
Clutching the bars of my window,
I must shoot to the milk-white
Azure of freedom the lines
I wrote for you...
How lovely to remember you: among the tidings
Of death and victory,
In my cell,
And my life beyond its fortieth year...
(translated by Murat Nemet-Nejat,
published in Contemporary Turkish Literature, edited by Talat Sait Halman,
Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1982)
Orhan Veli's style is a radical colloquialism. Clarity and transparency
are at the root of this style. It eliminates any clutter, either in words,
thought patterns or received opinions. The world is experienced as a personal,
physical, day to day act. The wonder of this poetry is how deceptively easily
it involves the reader in this extremely intimate act.
1. I am referring to Necip Fazil Kisakurek's ``Hirs (Rage)'' and ``Beklenen
(The Awaited One)'' and Cemal Sureya's ``Ulke (Country).'' In these poems,
an obsessive love transcends its object.
2. The transformation of Arabic and Persian occurred gradually and sporadically.
Only relatively recently, with Lebanese and Palestinian poets like Arabic
poetry. Interestingly, this occurred in two areas of the Arab world experiencing
great political upheaval.