An Alphabet of Poets – H is for Hikmet

It’s This Way

I stand in the advancing light,
my hands hungry, the world beautiful.

My eyes can’t get enough of the trees –
they’re so hopeful, so green.

A sunny road runs through the mulberries,
I’m at a window of the prison infirmary.

I can’t smell the medicines –
carnations must be blooming nearby.

It’s this way:
being captured is beside the point.
The point is not to surrender.

Nazim Hikmet from  Poems of Nazim Hikmet, Persea Books, 2002, Trans., Randy Blasing and Mutlu Konuk

It was 1999, a small bookshop on West 4th in Vancouver in Kitsalano, long since shut down. There I found a book that brought poetry, truly, back into my life. It was Edward Hirsch’s How to Read a Poem. In smaller letters on the cover the sub-title added: And Fall in Love with Poetry. And it worked. I fell in love, again!

Hirsch’s book opened me to a range of poets and poetry. And in particular, in a chapter titled Beyond Desolation I was introduced to the celebrated Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet (1902 – 1963). In describing the poems in this chapter Hirsch said, To read these poems is to become their recipients, to open up the space for their dark wisdom. And yes, Hikmet is full of dark wisdom but in his poems it throws off such light.

Hikmet spent seventeen years as a political prisoner in Turkeybecause of his leftist views. He endured privations and hardships but never lost his hope. Thanks in part to a committee calling for his release, that included Picasso, Paul Robeson and Sartre, and publicity from recieving  the World Peace Prize in 1950, he was released from prison. But a year or so later, after two attempts on his life, he escaped to Rumania and ended up in Moscow, in exile, where he died of heart failure in 1963.

Hirsch describes why Hikmet has become such poetic food and light for me: I invoke Hikmet precisely for his emotional excesses, for writing an oracular human-sized poetry, for his toughness and unblushing sentiment….Hikmet affirms human connection. He wants to praise because he knows what we are going to lose and he’s determined to grieve about it right now.

The right now highlighted by Hirsch is from the three-part poem below. It’s a great example of Hikmet’s admonitory, didactic voice. For some, too talky or preachy perhaps, but the quirkiness of his images, of his voice, its matter–of-fact directness and lack of sentimentality, wins me over completely. And the last part, which so easily might have failed as poetry, becomes a passionate love poem to our world, our planet. It never fails to move me.

On Living

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’ve 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.


Let’s say you’re seriously ill, need surgery–
which is to say we might not get
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 it’s raining,
or still wait anxiously
for the latest newscast …
Let’s say we’re 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.


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

from Poems of Nazim Hikmet

Yes Hikmet can write in a declaratory plain style but he, too, was a master of metaphor , especially in his love poems.Married four times, Hikmet had a passion for women and it shows. This man lived hard, loved hard, died far too early. Here are two poems to Vera written in Moscow near the end of his life:




the chairs are asleep on their feet
                             the same as the table
the rug lies stretched out on its back
                             clutching its design
the mirror is sleeping
the eyes of the windows are closed tight
the balcony sleeps with its legs dangling over the edge
on the opposite roof the chimney’s are sleeping
                              the same as the acacias on the sidewalk
the cloud sleeps
                with a star on its chest
the light is asleep indoors and out
you woke up my rose
the chairs awoke
         and scrambled from corner to corner
                                the same as the table
the rug sat up straight
                        slowly unfolding its colours
like a lake at sunrise the mirror awakened
the windows opened their big blue eyes
the balcony woke up
                    and pulled its legs out of the air
on the opposite roof the chimney’s smoked
the acacias on the sidewalk broke into song
the cloud woke up
                and tossed the star on its chest into our room
the light woke up indoors and out
                                          flooding your hair
                                                  it slipped through your fingers
      and embraced your naked waist those white feet of yours

May 1960


she said
Stay she said
Smile she said
Die she said

I came
I stayed
I smiled
I died



One Comment

  1. Liz
    Posted April 11, 2012 at 11:30 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for selecting Hikmet for “H” such a wonderful poet, this is a great reminder to get some of his work, I had forgotten how much I love him. Support poets buy more poetry books yeah!!!!!

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