BORN: 1901, Salonika, Greece
DIED: 1963, Moscow, Russia
Seyh Bedreddin destani (The Epic of Sheik Bedreddin) (1936)
Memleketimden insan manzaralari (Human Landscapes) (1938-1950)
Things I Didn’t Know I Loved (1975)
Nazim Hikmet. Hikmet, Nazim, photograph. AP Images.
Nazim Hikmet is posthumously considered one of the giants of twentieth-century Turkish literature, though his poems, plays, and prose were banned in his homeland during most of his lifetime.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Early Political Activism and Trouble. Born in 1901 in Salonika, Greece (then under Turkish rule), Nazim Hikmet published his first poems when he was fifteen years old. In 1921 he went to the Soviet Union to study at the University of the Workers of the East and returned to Turkey in 1924, when he joined the Turkish Communist Party as a supporter of the rights of farmers and workers. A year later, after publishing his first political poems, he was sentenced to fifteen years in prison, so he fled back to the Soviet Union. In 1928 he again returned to his homeland and worked on the progressive periodical Resimli Ay (Pictorial Monthly).
From Prison to Exile. Hikmet found himself in and out of prison between 1928 and 1933. The offending actions or affronting works that caused Hikmet’s continual incarceration remain vague, and sources contradict each other. For instance, in 1938 Hikmet was sentenced to thirty-five years in jail either for inciting military cadets to rebel, for his antifascist poem ‘‘Madrit kapilarinda’’ (‘‘At the Gates of Madrid’’), or for his long poem ‘‘Seyh Bedreddin destani’’ (‘‘The Epic of Sheik Bedreddin’’). Regardless of the specific charge, Hikmet remained in prison until 1950.
There are also contradictory accounts surrounding the end of his prison time in Turkey. Some sources say he was released and sent into exile in the Soviet Union. Others credit a dramatic escape from Istanbul to Moscow through Romania. It is certain that in 1950 he left Turkey for the Soviet Union. He was stripped of his Turkish citizenship but given a hero’s welcome in the Soviet Union. From 1950 until his death in 1963, Hikmet lived both in the Soviet Union and in other socialist countries. He emerged as a prominent figure in the peace movement of the European left, lending his poetry to the cause of Communism. He remained critical of the rising political reaction in Turkey, but also grieved over his forced separation from the country that continued to provide inspiration for his poetry.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Hikmet's famous contemporaries include:
Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956): Brecht was a German playwright and theater director whose writings and productions significantly influenced twentieth-century theater.
Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961): Hemingway was an American writer who is considered one of the greatest influences on twentieth-century literature.
Salvatore Quasimodo (1901-1968): Quasimodo was an Italian author considered one of the most important Italian poets of the twentieth century; he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1959.
Jaroslav Seifert (1901-1986): Seifert was a Czech writer who was a leading member of the Czechoslovakian avant-garde; he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1984.
Walt Disney (1901-1966): Disney was an American animator and entrepreneur who was one of the most influential figures in twentieth-century entertainment.
Pablo Neruda (1904-1973): Neruda was a Chilean writer and politician associated with the international Communist movement; he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1971.
Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980): Sartre was a French philosopher who was a leading figure in the existentialist movement.
Works in Literary Context
Hikmet’s poetry, often compared with that of American poet Walt Whitman, is credited with revolutionizing Turkish verse by challenging its traditional forms: Hikmet introduced modernist techniques—including the use of broken lines and a style influenced by street vernacular— and confirmed contemporary issues as legitimate thematic material. ‘‘Free verse with alternations of short and long lines, occasional rhyming, and wide use of alliteration, assonance, and onomatopoeia, a staccato syntax, were to remain the hallmarks of his art and his major influences on modern Turkish poetics,’’ wrote Talat Sait Halman in Books Abroad. Because of his verse’s impact, Hikmet was the first Turkish poet to establish an international reputation.
Poetry and Marxist Politics. Hikmet’s poetry, inseparable from his Marxist politics, drew admiration and applause from some of the foremost intellectuals and artists of the century, from Jean-Paul Sartre and Bertolt Brecht to Pablo Picasso and Pablo Neruda. Hikmet was remarkably successful in bringing poetic lyricism to politics. His populist patriotism, and passionate but critical commitment to the Communist promise, found expression in a poetry that is as striking for its musical qualities as it is for intense visual aesthetic.
His poems ranged in genre from the poetry of love composed for his many mistresses to epic works, such as The Epic of Sheik Bedreddin and Human Landscapes. The poems drew their power not just from a superb use of Turkish free from pedantic ornamentation, but also the sensibility that he brought to his politics, in which sadness played against defiance, tenderness against toughness, and a deep sense of the vagaries of life against his utopian hopes for the future.
Love for Nature and Humanity. Hikmet wrote volumes of short pieces, many of them concerned with his love for nature, for his fellow human beings, and for his wife, Piraye. Critics note that Hikmet’s loves were what fueled his communism and not a logical or economical appreciation of theoretical politics. ‘‘His communism never appears cold and doctrinaire but seems a natural outgrowth of his love for people, his desire that humankind grow in love and cooperation and his deep reflection on life and living—and beneath it all he is himself a loving, hurting, feeling human being,’’ judged Walter G. Andrews in World Literature Today. Another reviewer wrote, ‘‘The composite picture of Nazim Hikmet... is that of a man with a total commitment to life. He is in love with nature’s splendors as well as the machine age. . . . When he wrote of human love and tragedy in lyric and dramatic terms, he was a great modern poet by any and all criteria.’’ ‘‘What emerges from his poems,’’ wrote Mutlu Konuk in the introduction to Things I Didn’t Know I Loved: Selected Poems of Nazim Hikmet, ‘‘is his human presence; the strongest impression that we get from his poetry is a sense of Hikmet as a person.’’
‘‘I conceive of art as an active institution in society,’’ Hikmet once said. ‘‘To me, the artist is the engineer of the human soul.’ Hikmet also once said, according to Village Voice Literary Supplement contributor Don Shewey, ‘‘Living is no laughing matter, we must live as if one never dies.’’
Works in Critical Context
The most notable critical response to Hikmet's poetry came from the Turkish government, which banned his writings for most of his lifetime. Exiled from Turkey after twelve years of imprisonment, Hikmet was virtually unknown in his homeland, but when he died in 1963, he was a prominent figure in international literary circles. Much of his work was only published in Turkey many years after his death, and he has more and more been regarded as one of Turkey's greatest poets.
Human Landscapes. Hikmet’s most ambitious project was written while he was imprisoned between 1938 and 1950: a five-volume poem titled Memleketimden insan manzaralari (Human Landscapes) that was published, as is true of much of his work, only after his death. In the poem, Hikmet crafts what one critic called ‘‘a sprawling, episodic saga of the twentieth century.'' Originally conceived as an encyclopedic survey of modern Turkish life, the poem, consisting of nearly twenty thousand lines, touches on a range of themes, cinematically painting the portraits of individuals drawn from all segments of Turkish society. A Publishers Weekly contributor called Memleketimden insan manzaralari ‘‘a grand, impressive, sophisticated work, rich in dramatic incident and varied in tone and language.’’ Robert Hudzik, writing in Library Journal, found that ‘‘Hikmet’s ability to particularize the general helps make this a bold, remarkable work.’’ The Hudson Review wrote, ‘‘Hikmet has an uncanny way of bringing characters to life in a few lines so vividly that, whether they are scurrilous or noble, one can't help but care about them. ... His special gift is to show that every human life is a story, and a compelling one.’’
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Hikmet's poetry often depicted the suffering created by repressive governments and hailed the promises of communism, which promoted sharing of wealth among all citizens. Here are some other works written for these purposes:
El tungsteno (1931), a novel by Cesar Vallego. This social realist novel depicts the oppression of Peruvian miners by foreigners.
Mother (1907), a novel by Maxim Gorky. This socialist realist novel tells the story of a man and his mother who transform into revolutionaries.
Cement (1925), a novel by Fyodor Gladkov. This novel shows the struggles of workers rebuilding their lives after the Communist revolution in Russia.
Responses to Literature
1. Hikmet was jailed and censored in Turkey because the government considered his communist ideas to be dangerous to the country. Do his ideas still seem dangerous from today’s perspective? Would a writer producing such works today face the same repressive treatment?
2. Hikmet wrote many poems on the theme of his love for nature and for humanity. In what ways were his communist ideas fueled by this love? Do his expressions of love fit consistently within the system of his communist ideas, or are there contradictions and points of tension? Explain.
3. Through his poetry, Hikmet was able to turn common people's lives into compelling stories about humanity, history, and current issues. Using his poetry as a model, write a poem or short story about a common person that tells a larger story.
4. Hikmet’s works were banned in Turkey throughout much of his life, and he was frequently jailed for the ideas expressed in his poetry. Do you think a government has a right to control the products of its nation's authors? Write an argumentative essay supporting your position on this question.
Contemporary Literary Criticism. Vol. 40. Detroit: Gale Research, 1986.
Dirlik, Arif. ‘‘Romantic Communist: The Life and Work of Nazim Hikmet.’’ Book Review. Arab Studies Quarterly (Fall 2002).