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The South Atlantic Quarterly 102.2/3 (2003) 567-598
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"Our Master, the Novice":
On the Catastrophic Births of Modern Turkish Poetry
A hastening world, this one; everything is too early, And everything too late. The sun will go into eclipse while we are asleep.
—M. C. Anday, "Faltering Night"
My subject is the "Second New," a group of poets who entered the Turkish poetry scene in the early 1950s and had mostly exited it by the end of the 1980s. Over these forty years, the reception they had would move from total bewilderment to outright rejection to an all too ready acceptance—with little sober assessment in between. But perhaps sobriety was altogether out of the question: they tantalized the less obdurate of their peers and immediate followers, rather than delivering them to their own powers. No, they did not lack followers or imitators, although in the end it was mostly the Second New poets themselves who would have a mute but sharp intimation of the fact that they had pushed poetry to an intolerable edge, that their late-won acceptance had a ring of futility about it, that in repeatedly overturning and outdoing their own previous performances, they had also undone themselves as poets. The one thing [End Page 567] no Second New poet could bring himself to acknowledge, however, was also the movement's supreme, perverse achievement: not only had they drawn many of the poets of the preceding generation into their own force field, but by their action, they had also compelled at least three of them to become more consummate poets than themselves. Cemal Süreya, a leading protagonist of the Second New, in an essay written just a year before his death in 1990, would call attention to the group's influence on its predecessors:
There are two movements in the history of Turkish literature that have influenced earlier generations, or at least imbued them with fresh passions: The Servet-i Fünun [The Riches of Learning—a group of writers and poets that had been active at the end of the nineteenth century and were so labeled in reference to the journal that published their works] and the Second New. That a generation exerts some influence on the succeeding ones—this is only natural. But the reverse must be something rarely encountered. . . . There were as many poets who were influenced by [us], as those who were not. But on the whole, this: When the Second New appeared, some of the artists who had been writing for some time went into action in their own direction. 1
What really happened was even more complicated than Süreya's ambiguous account allows. Not "some," but only the major poets were influenced; they prevailed as major poets by letting themselves be influenced; they did not "go into action in their own direction," but were stopped short and led astray; and by going astray became still stronger poets than the ones who had thrown them off their course. The Second New poets had overwhelmed their predecessors and effectively nullified the poetry of the 1940s, but even as images of the phoenix began to frequent their poems more and more, they found themselves watching the three elders move to an infinitely hardened poetry. The epigraph above belongs to one of the latter. 2
But, as many a Turkish studies scholar around the world may have wondered, how to write about a subject practically nonexistent for a non-Turkish-speaking audience? The main body of work by these poets still awaits translation, which greatly hinders any attempt at pertinent commentary. 3 But this may still be regarded as only an end result, the range of difficulties starting with the marginalized status of Turkish literature itself, with the fact of its effective isolation from any kind of international discursive setting. Turkish literature was written off as a literary phenomenon [End Page 568] almost concurrently with the establishment of a specifically literary Orientalism at the end of the nineteenth century, and the most...