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The South Atlantic Quarterly 102.2/3 (2003) 529-534

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A Prisoner of Language:
The Strange Case of Modern Turkish Poetry

Necmi Zeka

I came to Istanbul to look at the past, not at the future—since the latter doesn't exist here: . . . Here there is only an unenviable, third-rate present of the people, industrious yet plundered by the intensity of the local history. Nothing will happen here anymore, apart perhaps from street disorders or an earthquake." 1 These rather harsh remarks belong to the Nobel Laureate Joseph Brodsky, who paid a short visit to Turkey in the 1980s in order, among other things, to see the city where his "favorite poet" Cavafy had once lived. Even though one has to admit that Brodsky might be right about the "street disorders" and "earthquakes," one cannot help but wonder, from a literary point of view, why such a well-read poet showed no interest at all in the poetry of a country that prides itself on producing many world-class poets.

Indeed Turkey is a country well deserving to be called a nation of poets, if not necessarily poetry readers. Despite incredibly low sales of poetry volumes, every month the number of unsolicited poems submitted to literary journals is easily double, even triple, the journals' circulation figures. One can safely argue that poetry [End Page 529] in Turkey is the most favored form of personal expression, with perhaps just one possible exception: love letters. More than this extraordinary popularity, however, what strikes one as peculiar is the firm conviction shared by both ordinary readers and professionals about the allegedly worldwide superiority of the poetry written in Turkish. In fact, the majority of Turkish poets seriously believe in their capacity to revitalize world poetry, which they assume to be a dying form of art outside of Turkey. For instance, Ismet Özel, one of the leading contemporary poets and political thinkers, recently posited that modern Turkish poetry should be considered Turkey's most significant contribution to modernity in general. 2 What makes this claim sound rather naive is, of course, the fact that hardly any international student of modern world poetry seems to be aware of, let alone acknowledge, such a contribution. Actually, it is even quite unlikely that an average European or American poetry enthusiast could name a Turkish modern poet other than Nazım Hikmet, the exiled "romantic revolutionary" who is usually ranked with poets such as Pablo Neruda or Louis Aragon.

What causes many magnificent Turkish poets to remain unnoticed in the Western world? For years, Turkish intellectuals have been struggling to find a plausible answer to this question. Leaving aside ludicrous conspiracy theories arguing that the international literary establishment deliberately ignores this powerful poetry because it would threaten its hegemony, the most favored explanations center upon the lack or insufficiency of publicity and marketing efforts by both state officials and academic institutions. Recently, a new dimension has been added to this idea, emphasizing the fact that Turkish poets' lack of interest in contemporary poetry written abroad might be a contributing factor to their own poetry's nonpresence outside of Turkey. Enis Batur, one of Turkey's most prolific poets and vigorous publishers, uses the monetary term convertibility to illustrate this idea. According to Batur, "To understand the right quota of the poetry written in Turkey, to discover its depth from a universal perspective, it is sine qua non to get to know world poetry thoroughly." 3

However, Turkish poets display such a high degree of self-esteem, bordering on vanity, that, even after increased transactions with world poetry circles, an adjustment in their self-perception looks quite doubtful. In other words, Turkish poets with their current disposition would most certainly continue to regard their achievements as being superior in every aspect to [End Page 530] those of their foreign contemporaries. The argument developed below can be seen as an attempt to highlight some of the underlying reasons for this unshakable conviction of literary greatness.

Obviously, one is inclined to relate this idiosyncratic state of...


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pp. 529-534
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