The Anti-Canon Series: Orhan Veli Kanik by Chimène Suleyman

The Anti-Canon series is a collection of short essays focusing on writers less well known, positioned outside of the literary mainstream or simply deserving more attention. An alternative (but by no means definitive) list of works that have influenced the writers at Influx Press, offering a different perspective to what is, and what is not, considered ‘important’, and hopefully giving you some new books to read into the bargain…

“When I walk on the street, alone,” Orhan Veli Kanik writes, “If I notice that I am smiling, I think that people will suppose I am crazy. And I smile.”

1940s Turkey was evolving, and with it a recent democracy that saw way to a new equality and understanding of secular life. The Ottoman Empire had collapsed, with it the Republic of Turkey emerged to replace it. The arabic script which had previously been used, was now exchanged for a latin alphabet. Naturally, Turkey’s liberated youth captured this socio-political independence, and with it transformed the recent anarchy into their words.

It is perhaps ironic, given my career, that I grew up with a dismal view of poetry. Like many I failed to relate; the language was not mine, the speculated life was too established. This was not my person that was being contemplated on page, or the life of my peers, and why should it be. And so in Europe and America the chaotic young have looked elsewhere in their literature, typically appreciating the Beats, the Bukowskis - those whose words and observations had become a clearer artistic place for the anomalous to turn. Yet ten years earlier in Turkey, Orhan Veli was already impressing with such style and content having established the Garip (Strange) Movement in 1941.

Orhan-Veli 1
Orhan-Veli 1

The Garips rejected metaphor, embracing free-verse where simile, exaggeration and cliché had once been. They removed the comfortable romantics of art and replaced them with poems that described their extensive drinking, or relationships with women. Orhan Veli took the now antiquated poetry of Turkey’s past and exchanged it for the man on the street. The movement injected humour where there ought not to be, and wrote of Istanbul and it’s every day mundane. His ability to tease, not only the poetic form, but himself, can be read in his poem Sevdaya Mi Tutuldum? (Did I Fall In Love?):

I didn’t believe I would have thought like this,

I would be sleepless at nights,

I would be so silent.

I didn’t believe I would not care

Even about the salad that I like so much.

How can I be like this?

His humour was important to his politics, to his style, so unlike his contemporaries he would never write with resentment or suspicion. His poetry remained free of diatribe or protest, and was inclusive to almost all who read him.

However, the uneventful nature of his poems were not tiresome or lazy. Instead the roads and people he described were in themselves extensions of the wars, poverty, or technical booms that were affecting. His politics were present, slipped between the scenes he painted of the everyday man. It can be argued that the Garip Movement (which he led alongside fellow poets Otkay Rifat and Melih Cevdet Anday) bore the aesthetic movement of “Poetic Realism”, in which the striving common man emerges as contemporary hero.

In his poem Fena Cocuk (Bad Kid), Orhan Veli writes of a contagious rebellion, likely a reflection of Turkey’s then recent uprising:

You break school,

Hunt birds,

You go to the seaside and

Talk to bad kids,

You draw bad pictures on the walls.

It’s nothing, but

You will tempt me as well,

What a bad kid you are.

In Ickiye Benzer Bir Sey Var Bu Havalarda (There’s Something Like Booze In The Air), he combines his two most visited topics; alcohol and women:

If you’re eating your heart out because you’re here

and the girl you love is God knows where,

and you miss her -

that crushes you.

There’s something like booze in the air:

Goes to your head, get’s you drunk.

Orhan-Veli 2
Orhan-Veli 2

My first introduction to Orhan Veli, like many of my literary findings, was from my father. The Turkish tongue is a poetic one, its language designed to share stories better. And so from Istanbul my father brought back for me, Orhan Veli’s Butun Siirleri (Full Collection). Though it is in Turkish, the universal subject matter and conversational language has meant that little is lost when translated.

Orhan Veli was - like our peculiar youth often are, like those who unashamedly break the mold and stick two-fingers up in doing so - sometimes despised and harshly criticised for his work. Yet it is indisputable that he caught the public’s eye no matter what their view of him. His modern style reflected the revolution of the time in which he lived. His attitude towards an outdated literary past was itself a declaration of a modern government and society that were rebellious in order to achieve the same.

He has undoubtedly become a part of Turkish literary culture, yet remains to be celebrated here, where such anarchy or poetic experimentation is largely admired. His short life (Orhan Veli died of a head injury after a night of heavy drinking, at the age of 36) was nothing short of poetry itself. His poems were mere extensions of the lyrical and expressive existence and sight of eye that was afforded to him. He is buried overlooking the Bosphorus, perhaps so that he may still be watching the city that allowed him to write it, and capture it so well.

Chimène Suleyman is a poet and critic living in London. Outside Looking On, her new collection of poetry and short stories set in and around Canary Wharf is being published by Influx Press in July 2014.