Insights: Contemporary Poetry in Turkey
by Metin Celal
The foundations of Turkish poetry are built upon Divan (Ottoman) Poetry and Folk Poetry. Divan Poetry is form driven by aruz-prosody and not easily understandable due to its mixed usage of Turkish, Arabic and Persian while Folk Poetry is content driven using syllabic meter and folkloric elements.
Turkish poetry grew from the conflicts and contrasts between these two approaches. Two major poets marked the beginning of contemporary Turkish poetry after the establishment of the Republic in 1923. Yahya Kemal, while providing important late examples of Divan Poetry, announced the onset of contemporary Turkish poetry with his use of language and image structures. Ahmet Haşim served a similar function by changing the usage of Divan Poetry’s forms, by his decisive search for innovation and by his introduction of new poetry from the West. Nâzım Hikmet and Necip Fazıl complement these two major poets, and contemporary Turkish poetry has since been developing in the footsteps of these four pioneers, always bearing traces of one or more of them.
The disengagement from Divan Literature, and the replacement of the Arabic Alphabet with the Latin Alphabet, changed the Turkish language and reintroduced syllabic meter to Turkish Poetry. Rising nationalism also established a “National Literature, New Language” movement. Cahit Sıtkı Tarancı, Ziya Osman Saba and Ahmet Muhip Dıranas, used syllabic meter to write poems according to their own unique styles. French Literature especially inspired the poets of the new generation who tried to overcome the limitations of syllabic poetry, limitations such as meter and rhyme, by enriching the poetry’s content. Nâzım Hikmet implemented the most important changes in this period. With his socialist approach, he reduced structure, brought in free verse and introduced new themes into Turkish poetry. Necip Fazıl, whose focus was on the spiritual and theindividual, brought a new voice to poetry by using syllabic meter with a modern edge. In time, Necip Fazıl moved towards a more mystical construct and pioneered a poetics driven by the religious, aesthetic and political roots of Islam.
One of the most important movements was The Garip (Strange) movement of 1941. Against all limitations such as rhyme and meter, The Garip developed a new poetic concept unconcerned with imagery, sound or poeticity. Later, however, The Garip Poets made the drastic change of writing poems that put more importance on sound and images. This change was not noticeable in Orhan Veli’s poetry due to his early death, and it can be said that Melih Cevdet and Oktay Rıfat later abandoned their insistence on the Garip movement. Poets like Hasan İzzettin Dinamo, Rıfat Ilgaz, Enver Gökçe and Arif Damar formed the 40’s generation of Socialist Poetry. With a socialist viewpoint, they used free verse, but also syllabic poetry, folk poetry and folklore. These poets’ destinies were similar to Nâzım Hikmet: They spent their lives in prison or in exile, and their books and journals were continuously banned.
The 1950’s created more room for individual characteristics of poets. Fazıl Hüsnü Dağlarca was one of those who most clearly marked the individual difference of his poetry. He contemplated Turkey, the world, and space according to his own created universe. He is also a poet who continuously searched and questioned form. Behçet Necatigil wrote about the life of the middle class, squeezed into the narrow streets of the city. His significance lies in his success in developing his own articulation of the traditions of World and Turkish poetry. The poems of Can Yücel and Metin Eloğlu, at first sight seem similar, with their irony, black humour and accessible way of writing, but their poetry followed different political paths. In time, Can Yücel established a socialist view in his poetry, and he also wrote contemporary satire. Attilâ İlhan incorporated Divan and Folk Literature, as well as Western poetry movements, into his work to form his own synthesis with a socialist point of view.
Ahmed Arif remolded traditional folk narratives, epics and elegies to create his poetry. He fused the Anatolian people’s integrity, courage and love for humanity with socialist values. İlhan Berk continuously transformed and renewed himself by closely following world poetry.
In the mid 50’s, the İkinci Yeni (The Second New) movement brought a polyphonic, polysemic, imagist approach to poetry. Edip Cansever captured attention with his poetry that analyzed the problems of individuals down to their smallest details. Turgut Uyar’s poems questioned urban people’s relationships with society and the world. Cemal Süreya, with his own way of internalizing Turkish and World cultures, associated lyricism and imagery with wit and cynicism. With his modern approach, Sezai Karakoç was a turning point for Islamic mystic poetry which had developed under the influence of Necip Fazıl’s work. Ece Ayhan, whose poems require a deep cultural background and special knowledge of Turkish history to be understood, became one of the most unique, most idiosyncratic of poets.
After the oppressive period of the Democrat Party and the military coup of May 27, 1960, the influence of a more free and democratic atmosphere was felt in Turkish poetry. Gülten Akın, Ahmet Oktay, Kemal Özer, Hilmi Yavuz, Özdemir İnce, Ülkü Tamer and others reflected the social changes in their poems while keeping their individual traits. Under the influence of Sezai Karakoç, a mystical and traditionbound poetic style was introduced by poets like Cahit Zarifoğlu and Erdem Bayazıt who at the same time incorporated characteristics of the current period into their work.
Events in 1968 also had counterparts in Turkey. Ataol Behramoğlu’s poems, which were read aloud, expressed the period’s socialist enthusiasm. İsmet Özel reflected the revolutionary discourse in a style that placed importance on verse and strong imagery. Later, he easily moved to Islamic mystic poetry without changing the structure of his poems. In the 70’s, Turkish poetry became more strongly politicized. The idea of poetry as a vehicle for paving the way to socialism strengthened the tendency of writing poetry that could be easily understood by the masses. The tone of some of these poems was slogan-like. On the other hand, Enis Batur, Lâle Müldür, İzzet Yasar and similar poets formed a “modernist” approach leaning toward the West, while poets such as Arif Ay, Ebubekir Eroğlu and Turan Koç made themselves known by their mystic poems in which Islamic values are foregrounded. Contrary to politically oriented, cliché-laden and slogan-laden poetry, poets of the 80’s such as Tuğrul Tanyol, Adnan Özer, Haydar Ergülen and Metin Celâl stated that “poetry should be first and foremost poetry.” They claimed that aesthetic concerns should be put before political criteria. A multi-coloured conception of poetry which changed from one poet to another and which could not be categorized or classified, emerged. Poets like Mehmet Ocaktan, İhsan Deniz and Hüseyin Atlansoy, who carried on the mystical, metaphysical tradition, and others like Nevzat Çelik, who was imprisoned for his socialist political activity, attracted attention.
The 90’s was a period when the tradition of a new movement every ten years was not realized. Each poet decided to exist basically within his or her own poetics and identity, and this probably reflects the discussions and values of those years.
Metin Celal represents the Turkish lyrikline partner EDISAM.