A very interesting essay by Murat Nemet-Nejat, “Orhan Veli Kanik: Translating Clarity,” begins by describing Orhan Veli Kanik’s unfinished poem, “The Parade of Love,” which “was found wrapped around his toothbrush after his death,” gives a brief account of his life and early death (in 1950), and proceeds to the main point: Veli’s poetry and its place in modern Turkish literature:
Orhan Veli Kanik’s poetry strikes one with its ordinariness and the aggressiveness of this ordinariness. His poetry is a mixture of daily life, streetwise humor and an undercurrent of lyricism… He is a poet of moment-to-moment experience, being in love, being bored, being sad, joking, casual musings… On one level, Veli’s poems are an investigation of the meaning of reality. Short, neutral, full of everyday details, they constitute a sustained meditation on William Carlos Williams’ “red wheel/barrow.”
Of special interest here is Nemet-Nejat’s description of various Middle Eastern literary traditions:
Middle Eastern languages, specifically Arabic and Persian, bear a
historical burden. The written and spoken languages have for a long time been divided. Most of the literature exists in written form. One may study Arabic literature for years and still not understand spoken Arabic. If Arabs want to understand their literature, they have to learn a special vocabulary. To a lesser extent, the same is true of Persian.
This division exists in Turkish as well, but with one big difference. Turkish also has a tradition of poetry written in the vernacular. Since the beginning of the Ottoman Empire, Turkish has had two independent literary currents. One is that of court poetry. This polished literature, which continued until the end of the 19th century, was based on Persian and Arabic models and used a mixture of Turkish, Persian and Arabic vocabulary. This language, called Ottoman, is different from modern spoken Turkish. One has to study Ottoman separately to understand a 19th century Ottoman poem.
The vernacular current still coexisted for centuries. It is a folk poetry that encompasses major poets like Yunus Emre and Pir Sultan Abdal. These poets, who lived in the 13th and 16th centuries respectively, are comprehensible without any special study…
From the middle of the 19th century on, Turkish society and Turkish poets expressed a need for reform by turning to the West, but in literature, they saw the necessity for change only in subject matter. Their language remained Ottoman. It wasn’t until the reforms of Kemal Ataturk, in the nineteen twenties and thirties, that the transformation in Turkish poetry took place; then, it occurred very quickly. The speed was due to the presence of a strong folk tradition in Turkish…
Orhan Veli’s colloquialism is radical and transcends the middle class from which he also came. It is an attack on language. His people are low-level civil servants (many poor but few utterly dispossessed) coping with daily life. Surprisingly, there are very few slang expressions in his work, that is to say, very little that belongs only to a sub-culture. His colloquialism is central, classical. In its pared-down naturalness, its selection of the most immediate cadences, it is also abstract. It’s due to the particular nature of Veli’s colloquialism, I believe, and despite the relative narrowness of his subject matter, that his poetry remains fresh, continuously contemporary. In this respect he shares the virtues of major folk poets like Yunus Emre, Pir Sultan Abdal and Karacaoglan.