Sunday, December 9, 2007

an insightful distance from the host language

In translating Turkish poetry into English, working with other translators, and writing a series of essays that help readers in English contextualize the poetry, Murat Nemet-Nejat has taken on a task of a size and significance that few contemporary translators and editors can match.

In 2004 EDA: An Anthology of Contemporary Turkish Poetry was published by Talisman House and made the range of this achievement apparent. Now Jacket 34 is featuring further developments in the project, including new poems and essays. If you want to learn more about Turkish poetry, obviously there’s no better place to turn. These translations, and the contextualization Nemet-Nejat supplies for them, continue to help all of us who speak English primarily to reduce our own myopia and have at least somewhat more awareness of global literary history.

Coming in neatly just under the 750-word limit, my review of the original EDA anthology appeared in the Oct/Nov 2005 issue of The Poetry Project Newsletter. I’m reprinting it here. Needless to say perhaps, some of the issues I take up regarding the inevitable incompleteness of all anthologies still hold, while at the same time this new work in Jacket 34 shows that Nemet-Nejat continues making this project ever more thorough and impressive.


For some years, translator, critic, and poet Murat Nemet-Nejat has been providing English speakers a detailed look at developments in Turkish poetry. Although with luck it’s not the culmination of his effort, EDA: An Anthology of Contemporary Turkish Poetry certainly gives the fullest look yet at Nemet-Nejat’s project. Readers wanting an introduction to 20th century Turkish poetry as well as guidelines for future exploration can find it here.

It’s a strange time for anthologies. By now it’s a cliche to note that the work found in one always reveals the ideology of its editors, yet the cliche has accompanied not the death of the anthology but an explosion of anthologies that wear their ideologies openly. Even as standard English language anthologies like Norton and Heath prepare to release new editions with thousands of more pages than past versions, as if desperately believing that somehow they can get it all in, the editors of other too-numerous-to-read anthologies struggle to find convincing (or at least interesting) reasons for creating alternative concepts of what an anthology might be.

Nemet-Nejat negotiates this problem carefully. He makes no claims for EDA as a thorough representation of 20th century Turkish poetry. Instead he acknowledges individual bias, claiming that the poems in the book represent primarily his own interests. But he also highlights a concept that helps him move beyond merely personal investments. He defines “eda” (a term he borrows and alters from Mustafa Ziyalan) as an impulse animating much of the poetry he presents, an “essence” perhaps best defined in a phrase by Walter Benjamin as “distance from the host language”; that is, as those marks that make a poem distinct from other uses of the language into which it's translated. Nemet-Nejat breaks down the “otherness of eda” into three aspects, thematic, linguistic, and metaphysical. While we should be wary of the idea that a single concept can sum up all the important developments in any literary tradition, the concept of eda is broad and precise enough simultaneously almost to do the trick.

The anthology traces a spirit of innovation in Turkish poetry since 1921, when “for the first time in almost four hundred years” Turkish “became a written literary language.” Nemet-Nejat locates this spirit in three major periods: the initial one of the 20s and 30s; the period known as The Second New during the 50s and 60s; and finally a contemporary era beginning in the 90s. Each era is represented by substantial selections of poetry by major figures and a smattering of work by related writers. Also included are some important era-undermining iconoclasts, Ilhan Berk most prominently.

One of the anthology’s great successes is its focus on a number of writers who deserve to be more known outside Turkey than they are. The book wisely plays down work by the great Nazim Hikmet, who of these poets is most thoroughly familiar to English-speaking readers, in favor of writers whose work will benefit more from attention here. It’s a pleasure to read extended sequences by writers such as Ahmet Hasim, Orhan Veli Kanik, and Ece Ayhan, and to compare their achievements with contemporary poets like Seyhan Erozcelik, Sami Baydar, kucuk Iskender and others. It’s fun to consider which of these poets seem more incisive outside of their cultural context and which more lodged within it. For instance, the earthy ironies of Orhan Veli, the satires of Ilhan Berk, and the linguistic adventurousness of Ece Ayhan resonate more across cultures than the male erotic sado-masochistic anguish of Cemal Sureya and its critique of Sufism.

The anthology also does a good job of tracing at least the outlines of various cultural problems in Turkish poetry, including sexual orientation, gender, and others. It’s interesting to see the coded homoerotics of Sait Faik in the 1950s contrasted to the open homosexuality of Ahmet Guntan’s linguistically sly 1995 book Romeo and Romeo. And if gender issues emerge primarily through the way women are imaged by male poets, the presence of an outstanding contemporary poet like Lale Muldur at least begins to develop an understanding of women’s writing in Turkey, although more clearly needs to be done. By the 1990s, Turkish poetry was also taking new risks with linguistic experimentation, and it will be intriguing to see where that tendency heads.

The shorter selections of work by figures less central to Nemet-Nejat’s thinking were occasionally more frustrating than enlightening. It’s not always clear why some of these poets are included, or what good it does to translate no more than several lines of their poetry. Yet in at least pointing to these writers, Nemet-Nejat suggests possibilities for further exploration. And many of these poems were both insightful and clearly connected to the anthology’s interests.

The book ends with a series of essays that provide brief readings of poems or develop more thoroughly the guiding concepts of the anthology. While other essays addressing the more marginal figures would have been welcome, it’s hard to pretend that demanding greater thoroughness is always the best way to handle anthologies in an era that highlights ideological transparency and the necessity of limits. Readers of EDA come away with much more than an understanding of Nemet-Nejat’s approach to Turkish poetry. They see as well a detailed outline of a poetic tradition that’s emotionally gripping and intellectually adventurous, one clearly deserving greater world attention.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...


Important post. I think that all of us who blog here are in varying degrees interested in, if not dedicated to, seeing poetry through global lenses. At least as much as some of us are dedicated to finding repellant the use of 'globilization' in its free-marketeering context. That said, it is harder to delve into the myriad possibilities than to contemplate them--especially for an American poetic community that has suffered institutional (provincial) bias against learning second or third languages (=the hegemonic influence of American English). Another editor who has the ability to contextualize while inform through translation, off the top of my head, is poetry editor of the Brooklyn Rail, Monica de la Torre. I'm thinking a lot about Latin American, specifically Mexican poetry lately. It's important to remind ourselves and each other as much as possible to, when possible, dig for difference. So, thanks.

Speaking of 'lenses', your last post was particularly interesting to me. Maybe a brief contribution: I've fairly recently come down with a chronic illness that, among other things, reconfigures the way my brain sees words. Not as drastically as dyslexia, but nonetheless the output is often a misspelling [sic]. To avoid covering a lot of what you and others already pointed out, issues of normativity and so forth, I just raise the issue of mid-life rupture of training. To me, the change has been frustrating, yes, but endlessly fascinating. Moreover, I've found--synce I do a lot of algorithmic work in my poetry--that more than once I've taken what would have been (say a year ago) purposefully misspelled words or sets of words and changed them back to the normative spellings. A kind of knee-jerk response that makes me wonder about the psychological complexities of these issues. Not really an argument from me here, but simply to point out the strange desire to conform when I can't. [Mafalda, anyone?]