was doing university work, part of my introductory class for poetry-making
students was to say we have access to more poetry than anyone has had in
human history, so how to investigate it, who to learn from and why, in the
development of our own work? What comes to us is haphazard, fateful, partly
to do with fashions in promoting this or that mode or mood by mainstream
publishers, partly access by word of mouth to, or chance discovery of the
'alternatives' (this term itself a mark of where we are) provided by smaller
publishers, magazines, by cultural groupings and networks of poets.
This by way of introduction to my being sent for review a book of Turkish
poets, all now dead. Here they are now, popping up in Britain. From George
Messo's introduction, that
the early 1950s until the late 1970s the poets
here, collectively and alone, were at the forefront of
poetry's most rapid and dynamic period of innovation
.... primarily in Istanbul and Ankara .... and drew
from the work
of the French Surrealists and the contemporary
avant-garde ..... to treat the poem as an object of the
subjectivity, to emphasise the self, the individual, and
possibilities of the wounded unconscious.
I seem always nowadays to want a definition of 'poetic', not to take it as a
given. But then 'subjectivity' (let alone 'deepest'), 'the self', 'the
unconscious', also need pinning down, so let's leave them be.
My copy of Modern Turkish Poetry (ed.and mostly trans.Fergar, 1992) enables a comparison
of translations. From this, the opening of Turgut Uyar's 'Everyone':
caught unprepared, they had long voices.
And from the new book:
unprepared, they had long voices
Long arms and
their beards had grown long
The first line of the second translation has no full stop, and there is none
throughout the poem; there are two commas. The earlier translation has both
stops and commas where you would expect them.
The translations are clearly of the same poem, but what of the rhythm, what
of the voice? One more example, from a poem by Edip Cansever. In the older
book it is called 'Aluminium Shop' and begins
I cast one
look at the sea
and the fish
turn into shoals of song.
I say this
shoe has been worn.
I say this
cheese is soaking wet.
And from the new book, where the title is 'The Metal Shop':
I cast an eye
at the sea
the fish are
This is the
worn shoe I say.
This is a
water-logged cheese I say
Decisions have been taken by the translators, such that (speaking for myself
anyway) the versions conjure different personalities. Imagine having attended
a reading by Cansever: which one of these was he?
Even these brief extracts might give a flavour of these poets and of the new
book. There is no conveyance of, let alone respect for, Turkish history and
tradition; a Turkish national or someone who knows the place well will no
doubt recognise occasional references, but the point for the poems seems to
have been, as the editor says, to join the European avant-garde, and not
merely to join but to re-enliven it.
The poems are an invitation to a merry party for the imagination, and they are seriously subjective.
The opening of this poem, Cemal SŸreya, called 'Five o'clock', might give
further good evidence of what's going on here:
I raised my
hands in Istanbul
Felt a little
drunk, amorous, like a minaret
Look I said
look how untouched the sky is
seagulls look how moody they are
I have five
thinnest minaret in Istanbul
Maybe someone somewhere has published a note on Turkish avant-garde punctuation;
it's not apparent to me what's going on with the lack of it it here.
Without access to the originals, my estimate is that the new book seems
likely to be closer, having a livelier way with the language; where I have
found the Fergar book (his own translations mostly, with others contributing)
relatively turgid, not lively or leading me on as reader), the new book is a
pleasure to 'hear' (as it seems), and this is the one I would give students
as an excellent example of a certain kind of mid-twentieth century writing.
The full list of poets in the book: Ece Ayhan, Ilhan Berk, Edip Cansever,
Cemal SŸreya and Turgut Uyar.
Laâbi's Fragments Of A Forgotten Genesis is very different, by way of a reading of past
into present, present into past, from a man (born 1942) now living in France.
Moroccan in origin, imprisoned there 1972-1980 as a subversive, by way of
magazine and book publishing, he has been living in France since 1985. French
is his mother tongue and the whole French poem (published 1998), a single
sequence, is printed here as a separate section.
Insofar as my shadow French allows me to say so, the translators' aim
"to preserve the unpretentious immediacy of Laâbi's French" seems,
superficially anyway, well implemented. The sequence moves through 26
Very recently, in January 2010, Laâbi has received the 2009 Goncourt Poetry
Prize. In a recent interview he said, "I am perfectly bi-lingual: my
birth-language is Arabic, my writing language is French. ... Even when I am
writing in French, my Arabic language is there. There is a musicality in
Arabic, and these words enter into my French texts."
This seems to differ somewhat from where the translators in the introduction
say it was "during (his) time in prison that Laâbi learned Arabic."
I suppose anyway from birth Arabic was in his ears.
On the back cover there are two strong recommendations, by Pierre Joris and
I have gone to some trouble here to display the presumptive reasons for
reading these 'Fragments', and I have done so because the book has left me
cold. A random few lines may show the mode; this opens Fragment 13 (and as in
the French there is no punctuation):
Again the cry
as in the
leads only to discord
it plants the
It will bear
gazelles of intuition
Perhaps the translation modulates the poem into ordinariness, my French isn't
good enough to say, but it seems to me more likely the poem does its own
thing by way of cod-philosophy. I find the thought - and it works by way of
spelt-out thought - interesting neither as a set of ideas nor in the manner
of its telling.
When I received this book in the post, I saw at its endpaper an advertisement
for Leafe Press's 1,000 Views of "Girl Singing", edited by John
Bloomberg-Rissman, which caught my imagination strongly enough for me to send
a cheque for it. It was money very well spent, it's a unique book, if in
uneasily small print, of many invited responses, by way of poetry or
visually, to a poem by Eileen Tabios.
It has led me to speculate about early modern, say 15th-16th centuries or earlier,
whether there were, along with circulation of poems by hand, also
response-poems and perhaps drawings: exchanges and additions verbally and
visually. The book implements a fertile present and suggests a future for
such intermingled new work. A delight.
© David Hart