The poems of ‘I, Orhan Veli’
William Armstrong - email@example.com‘I, Orhan Veli: Poems by Orhan Veli’ translated by Murat Nemet-Nejat (Hanging Loose Press, $13, 116 pages)
Often consisting of just a few terse lines, much of Orhan Veli’s work has an unfussy, haiku-like quality to it. His poems are invariably pared down and direct, sometimes saying much more than their few words, sometimes happy to say even less; Veli never used three words when two – or one – would suffice. The unpoetic ordinariness of his language is matched by his subject matter - personal snapshots of daily life, full of trivial little personal details that are so colloquial they don’t seem to belong in a poem. It all makes for a kind of radical simplicity that has aged very well.
Working up to his premature death at the age of 36 in 1950, Veli wrote determinedly apolitical poems in a highly political age. While the most prominent poets of the 1930s and 40s, both in Turkey and in Europe, turned their attention to the ideological struggles of the time, Veli’s work stands in marked contrast. He eschewed political platforms, plowing a resolutely personal furrow: humorous, irreverent, and completely unpretentious. As he wrote of someone else in a poem titled “Epitaph”: "‘To be or not to be' / Wasn’t his business.”
What was his business were poems that transcend their “poeticness,” making the reader feel that they are not experiencing poetry, but rather, as translator Murat Nemet-Nejat suggests in this volume’s introduction, “one person’s casual phrasings in the middle of daily experience … the funny, compassionate, rakish, sad, down-to-earth guy.” Veli’s subject matter was the joy and disappointment of moment-to-moment experiences, which are sometimes distinct sensations, sometimes mixed together:
The song one whistles
While drunk in the evenings
But the same song
From the inside of a train
Veli was among the first to break the conventional mold of Turkish poetry, but he took the disavowal of “nightingales and roses” further than most of his contemporaries, stripping his language of all artificiality in the quest for direct communication. He also had a good line in Istanbul poems, more often than not sodden in meyhanes, and marinated in the kind of melancholy that everyone is convinced makes up the essence of the city:
In Istanbul, on the Bosphorus,
I am the stranger Orhan Veli,
The son of Veli
With indescribable sadness.
At its best, the naturalness of his language and the ordinariness of the subject matter combine to make an unmistakable, intimate voice. Any translator of Veli faces the challenge of capturing the impression that these phrases are being uttered naturally and without forethought. But Nemet-Nejat manages to keep this sense mostly intact, reflecting the disarming transparency of Veli’s poems, their laconic, apparently spontaneous understatement.
Some criticized Veli’s apoliticism as “triviality” at the time he wrote, but he would probably have welcomed the charge; after all, he was no competitor to the likes of Nazım Hikmet. In fact, the same quality that was labeled “trivial” actually gives his work an immediacy and freshness that is still striking 70 years later. While Veli’s more politicized contemporaries can now feel dated, his own poetry still reads as if he is addressing you from across the table, with a glass of cloudy rakı in hand but certainly not slurring his words.
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