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CIEPO Congress 2004

Ottoman poetic legacy in the modernism of Yahya Kemal Beyatlı (1884-1958)

In direct contact with French poetry and poets, during his ten years stay in Paris at the beginning of the twentieth century, Yahya Kemal experienced the importance of having a poetic program, of being conscious of his own classical heritage -as preserved in poems, songs, tales and stories-, of using the spoken language of the Istanbul people of his time, of the linguistic levels of poetry, of melody and harmony in the construction of a poem, and, last but not least, of the fact that poetry is made out of words and not of messages or emotions, although an idea or a feeling may lie at the basis of a poem. These convictions about what poetry should be, may obviously be termed typically modernist. In the volume "Kendi Gök Kubbemiz" (only published after his death), of which even the title may be considered as a sublime symbol of these poetic ideas, Kemal realized his principle 'to bring home what one had learned at school ('mektepten memlekete') and try to create an authentic work of art'.

"In a language poetry contributes to the definition of that language, it is the memory of that language and it expresses the love for that language."
Jacques Roubaud in his Défense de la - ou d'une- Poésie,
presented during Poetry International 2002 in Rotterdam.
Today I like to discuss with you briefly the place of Yahya Kemal Beyatlı in the history of Turkish poetry as it has been evaluated by his colleagues, literates and critics in Turkey. Let us start with some quotations:
According to Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar - Kemal's pupil, admirer and close friend - "Yahya Kemal is the poet who did not realize a revolution but a transmutation from our classical period to modern times."
Whereas Mehmet Kaplan has offered this poet the last place in his Şiir Tahlilleri -Tanzimat'tan Cumhuriyete, first edition in 1954. In his next Şiir Tahlilleri of the Cumhuriyet devri there is no room for Kemal.
Kenan Akyüz concluded in his article on Kemal in Batı Tesirinde Türk Şiir Antolojisi from 1953, that "Yahya Kemal is a real renaissance figure who tries - supported by modern poetic ideas - to find our 'local' personality."
Mehmet Fuat declared Kemal, in Yeryüzü in 1951, "the master poet of the Ottomans who was concerned with form and kept himself and his poetry far from reality."
Turgut Uyar -one of the Ikinci Yeni poets- wrote in his article Bir Şiirden in 1982 that he considered Kemal as "a conservative and eminent Ottoman poet."
His Ikinci Yeni associates, Cemal Süreya, who died in 1990, and Edip Cansever, who died in 1986, asserted in different articles and interviews that "especially because of Kemal's poetic ideas about function and use of language in poetry he had an enormous influence on the development of modern poetry in Turkey."
Hasan Bülent Kahraman said in his Yahya Kemal Rimbaud'yu okudu mu? in 1997 the following: "On the one hand Kemal is the romantic poet fully alive to modern times, on the other hand he is the latest Ottoman poet who kept on living in the classical period."
Like Nedim Gürsel in 1993, Enis Batur in 2001 in one of his Şiir Yazıları expressed that "he preferred to classify Kemal as a neoclassic poet".
So as we see Yahya Kemal Beyatlı is often considered to be the last of the Ottoman poets, or to be a mediator between classicism and modernism -and thus at most a transitional poet. But I would prefer to call him the poet who in the first half of the twentieth century revitalized Turkish poetic heritage by writing authentic poems, and in that way opening a new future for Turkish poetry in a new era.
And therefore - as the proof of poetry is in the eating - I would like to invite you to read with me some fragments, which I have chosen from two poems written by Yahya Kemal. The first is from a gazel called Alp Aslan'ın rūhuna gazel [Gazel to the soul of A.A.] and the second from a poem entitled Açık Deniz [Open Sea].
From the Alp Aslan'ın rūhuna gazel we read the first four beyt's:
1 İklīm-i Rūm’u tuttu cihangīr savleti
   Tārīh o işde gördü nedir şīr savleti

3 Titretti arş ü ferşi Malazgird önündeki
   Cūş ü hurūş-ı rahş ile şemşīr savleti

5 On yılda vardı sāhil-i Kostantaniyye’ye
   Yer yer vatan diyārını teshīr savleti

7 Ey şanlı cedd-i ekberimiz āb-ı tīgınin
   Bī-hadd imiş güneş gibi tenvīr savleti

From Açık Deniz we read nine lines from the first stanza:

5   Aldım Rakofça kırlarının hür havâsını,
     Duydum akıncı cedlerimin ihtirâsını,
7   Her yaz, şimâle doğru asırlarca bir koşu,
     Bağrımda bir akis gibi kalmış uğultulu...
9   Mağlupken ordu, yaslı dururken bütün vatan,
     Rü'yâma girdi her gece bir fâtihâne zan.
11 Hicretlerin bakıyyesi hicranlı duygular,
      Mahzun hudutların ötesinden akan sular,
13 Gönlümde hep o zanla berâber çağıldadı.
I propose to consider first the similarities between both fragments:
Strikingly enough the metre, aruz, is the same in both poems, namely:
the first variety of muzāri‘.
If we look at the words in those fragments we find two which are literally the same; the first one: vatan [motherland] (6 + 9). If we then look at the contents, this concept appears also to be the central theme, although in both with a different connotation - the first related to satisfaction, the latter to sadness- , but the fundamental meaning clearly is the same: pride! Pride about the -our / my- ancestors.
Here we have the second identical word: cedd-i ekberimiz and cedlerim (7 + 6), who run by horse from the Altai through Central Asia up to Malazgird, from where they finally found their shining victory at Constantinople and eventually found their Motherland.
Although not exactly in the same words, we could say that in both fragments the ancestors are said to have reached those new regions (the north - Malazgird - Constantinople) more or less in the same noisy way: Titretti arş ü ferşi - uğultulu!

3 Titretti arş ü ferşi Malazgird önündeki
4 Cūş ü hurūş-ı rahş ile şemşīr savleti

6 Duydum akıncı cedlerimin ihtirâsını,
7 Her yaz, şimâle doğru asırlarca bir koşu,
8 Bağrımda bir akis gibi kalmış uğultulu...

Tārīh and rü'yā have witnessed our cihangīr and fātih...

1 İklīm-i Rūm’u tuttu cihangīr savleti
   Tārīh o işde gördü nedir şīr savleti

6 Rü'yâma girdi her gece bir fâtihâne zan
From the poetical point of view there is of course another similarity -though not in the same pattern- i.e.: rhyme.
Let us move on to the differences:
To start with which are probably the most striking features: the use of the izafet- construction in the first fragment, and its total absence in the second, as well as the absence of enjambment between the beyt's in the first, and the existence of it in the second one (line 11 to 13).
Then we could call the first poem an ode, whereas the second seems to be the expression of a personal experience of the so-called 'poetic-I', in words like: aldım - duydum - bağrım - rü'yām - gönlüm, which refer to the historical or collective memory of the motherland of the poetic-I.
But also there is another way of dealing with the 'material' of which poetry is actually made, namely words. I'll return to that later.
To follow the poet's poetical way of thinking it would perhaps be useful now to envisage the author, Yahya Kemal, and his ideas about poetry:
According to his principle 'mektepten memlekete' [from school to the own country] (i.e. 'the things one learns at school should not be imitated, but adopted to the concrete situation in one's own country), Yahya Kemal Beyatlı -after he had returned to Istanbul from his ten years' stay in Paris in 1912- started with what turned out to be his main endeavor during the rest of his life as a poet, namely to try to create an authentic work of poetic art.
What did he actually learn during what he called his "school years" in France? What he had learned from French poetry and poets was the importance of having a poetic program, of being conscious of his own classical heritage, of using the Istanbul colloquial of his time, of the varying linguistic levels of poetry, of melody and harmony in a poem, and, last but not least, of the fact that poetry is made of words and not of messages or emotions, although an idea or a feeling may lie at the basis of those words. These convictions about what poetry should be may be characterized as typically modernist.
During the last decades of the nineteenth century Turkish poets were looking for new possibilities to get out of the cul-de-sac of the Ottoman poetry of that period. They studied the French poets, but they did not succeed in going beyond the stage of imitation and artificiality. Only Tevfik Fikret (1867-1915) experienced a revolutionary moment when he broke through the immovable classical limitation of the line, and successfully applied enjambment, especially in his masterpiece Sis [Fog], which was written in 1902 in the teeth of the harsh censorship of the Hamidian regime; it could only be published in 1909 after the forced abdication of the so called Red Sultan.
This enjambment of Fikret turned out to be the first step towards modernism, it created a free atmosphere in which talents like Yahya Kemal found space to develop again after a long time an authentic Turkish poetry.
To which these modernist theoretical standards could possibly lead in the hands of the -or better this- artist, we should of course read his poems. Doing this we become aware of a deeply felt affinity with what one may call 'the Turkish soul'. Probably it is here that the unique character of this poet's work lies: he 'sings' a Turkish song with all the recognizable aspects of Turkish history, culture and language, in the melody of Turkish spleen which always longs for land and love.
Açık Deniz [Open Sea] from which we have read a fragment, is one of the modern poems of Kemal chosen from the collection entitled Kendi Gök Kubbemiz [Our Own Dome of Heaven] (though only published after his death, it was composed by himself). As the title may be considered to be a symbol of the poet's poetic ideas, we shall turn to it now.
Knowing the importance for Yahya Kemal of the architect as a symbol of the artisan among artists, personified by Mimar Sinan, the architect of domes and of the perfect harmony during the reign of Süleymân the Magnificent in the sixteenth century, one could well say that this 'title' functions as an allusion to one of the highlights of Ottoman cultural history and to classical Ottoman harmony.
According to the poet himself the classical metre, aruz, in combination with final rhyme, was the backbone of his poetry, to which he adhered for the rest of his life. The absence of the izafet-construction in Açık Deniz, as we have observed above, is not a coincidence either. He wrote on purpose in his own language - i.e. the Istanbul Turkish of his time -, as he had learned from his favourite French poets.
Nevertheless he certainly did use the izafet-construction if he considered it necessary. In this respect it is useful to return to the Alp Aslan gazel, which I had chosen from another volume of Kemal entitled Eski Şiirin Rüzgāriyle [With the Wind of the Old Poetry]. There he tried to master the art of Ottoman divān poetry with the intention of incorporating -i n conformity with the 'French lessons' - the classical legacy of his own culture. He knew that only after a thorough mastering of the old forms he would be able to develop new ways. But he was the first to admit that he never attained the high level of famous classical predecessors like Bākī or Nedīm.
So much for theory! But what about practice? If we consider the two examples quoted earlier, could we trace another way of dealing with the 'material' of poetry, with the words? Let us read again with a view to semantics.
First Alp Aslan (new sheet)

1 İklīm-i Rūm cihangīr savleti
2 Tārīh o işde gördü nedir şīr savleti

3 Titretti arş ü ferşi Malazgird önündeki
4 Cūş ü hurūş-ı rahş ile şemşīr savleti

5 On yılda vardı sāhil-i Kostantaniyye’ye
6 Yer yer vatan diyārını teshīr savleti

7 Ey şanlı cedd-i ekberimiz āb-ı tīgınin
8 Bī-hadd imiş güneş gibi tenvīr savleti

1 The world conqueror took the land of Rum at one jump
2 What did history see therein but the ferocity of a lion’s attack

3 Heaven and earth he made tremble on the plain of Malazgird
4 Galloping head over heel, swords flashing, in his attack

5 Ten years took him as far as Constantinople’s shore
6 He conquered every corner of the country by his attack

7 Oh famous father of us, with your shining sword
8 Limitless it was, like the sun, the splendor of your attack
The rhyming word savlet(i) sets the atmosphere; we know the subject: attack.
What kind of attack do we witness here?
From the sequence of substantives which precede each savlet and functions as adjectives in those possessive constructions creating '...... savleti', we may conclude that the magnificent attack described here has been executed by a glorious attacker, expressed by the words: cihangīr [world conqueror], şīr [lion], şemşīr [sword], teshīr [conquest], tenvīr [splendor].
The next point is location. Three capitals leads us directly to the first line: Rūm, to the third: Malazgird, and to the fifth: Kostantaniyye, in other words we find ourselves in the heartland -the vatan proper- of what would become during the next centuries (after 1453) the Ottoman State. Not just a state, but - already from the beginning - a realm which would terrify the world, a realm of historical meaning and universal impact, as we can read from the following concepts: 2. tārīh [history], thé, not just mine or ours, 3. arş ü ferşi [heaven and earth], 8. bī-hadd [limitless] and güneş [sun].
A final point is personality. Let there be no misunderstanding, those actors were our famous ancestors: şanlı cedd-i ekberimiz.
In short, our Ottoman State should be considered as the mirror of the universe on earth, like the sun she is the shining centre of the heaven above.

Let us now turn to the other fragment, from Açık Deniz:

5    Aldım Rakofça kırlarının hür havâsını,
6    Duydum akıncı cedlerimin ihtirâsını,
7    Her yaz, şimâle doğru asırlarca bir koşu,
8    Bağrımda bir akis gibi kalmış uğultulu...
9    Mağlupken ordu, yaslı dururken bütün vatan,
10  Rü'yâma girdi her gece bir fâtihâne zan.
11  Hicretlerin bakıyyesi hicranlı duygular,
12  Mahzun hudutların ötesinden akan sular,
13  Gönlümde hep o zanla berâber çağıldadı.

5   I inhaled the free air of the fields of Rakofça,
6   And felt the passion of my galloping ancestors,
7   Every summer a rush to the north, for ages on end,
8   Its clamour has remained in my breast like an echo...
9   The army crushed, the whole country was steeped in mourning,
10 But thoughts of glory entered my dreams every night.
11 What remained of the departures are feelings of forlornness,
12 Running water on the other side of sad boundaries,
13 Murmured in my heart together with that thought.
Let us pose some questions:
What is this all about?
Probably the first striking thing is the existence of an I or a me. Striking because of their prominent position in each line in conjugations like aldım, duydum and the possessive forms such as bağrım, rüýām and gönlüm.
What happens to this poetic-I?
From line 5 till 8 there seems to be a positive connotation with a past related to those Rakofça kırları and the cedlerim in concepts like hür havāsı, akıncı ... ihtirāsı, her yaz, asırlarca bir koşu, of which the uğultulu has been kept as an akis until the days of the poetic-I.
Whereupon in line nine the fragment reaches its turning point, from where the key words or concepts contrast with those before line nine: mağlup, yaslı, gece, hicret, mahzun hudutlar, akan sular. Finally the poetic-I can only dream of better times, though those brilliant historical acts are still there, kept on living in the open minded, sensitive soul of a new generation in a new era.
Let's compare again: we cannot find real differences in the mastery of three essential elements of poetry (be it classical or modern): metre, assonance (rhymed or not) and the determination of the individual lines.
So where lies thé difference which there undeniably is between Gazel and Deniz?
I would say the gazel consists of an accumulation of images and word constructions belonging to an Ottoman poetic 'description' of glorious times of victory. It could have been written by any poet knowing the rules of how to praise his sultan in an ode. So here the hand of Kemal is not unequivocally recognizable despite the mahlas in the last beyt, although the hand of an artisan is.
This indeed is Ottoman poetry in full-fledged form, albeit written in the first half of the twentieth century and therefore belonging to the last sparkling of the moribund genre.
If we finally turn to Açık Deniz: here no cliché or - if you like - no use of well-known Ottoman images or metaphors, whereas it refers to the same Turkish history. The poetic-I is reminiscing in a subjective, sensitive way, though it keeps itself far from any outburst of personal emotions, or political messages. It lets share the - Turkish - reader and listener by referring to the common history known by the educated Turk. But this is not Ottoman poetry. It is new poetry belonging to the Turkish literature of the first half of the twentieth century.
Both fragments are a wonder of semantic condensation (see the accented words in bold as well as those in Italic). The words are used in a most effective way, there is no loss of material, no useless 'dressing', every word receives its full emphasis, this is poetry.
To conclude: the gazel is part of the Ottoman era, whereas the Sea belongs to a new age, albeit not with a revolutionary rejection of the past.
It is a fusion between the legacy of the classical poetry, of the different manifestations of Turkish culture and history, ánd of new phenomena - like the use of contemporary language, the freedom of form, and the absence of emotional, political or religious messages.
Actually, this is what constitutes Yahya Kemal's mastery: the creation of a balance between poetical knowledge learned from the West (in Paris) and the Turkish tradition.
Açık Deniz, like most of the other poems in the volume Kendi Gök Kubbemiz, is this harmonious fusion which revitalizes the legacy of the past with poetry of the twentieth century, appealing as it does to the Turks of the present, with its language, its sound, and its gurbetçilik spleen.
And thus it is Yahya Kemal Beyatlı who turns out to be the first modernist in Turkish poetry, therefore it is not surprising that it was he who discovered and stimulated a young poet who in later years turned out to be the first avant-gardist in Turkey's modern times, namely Nazım Hikmet.

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