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.

He sounds a bit like a Turkish equivalent of Paul Blackburn, of whom I am very fond.
(Via wood s lot, where you will find other Orhan Veli links and poems.)


  1. What do you think about Timur Kibirov (Тимур Кибиров)?

  2. Michael Farris says

    “wrapped around his toothbrush”????????

  3. Is it just because I’m British that the following seems misguided? Are our versions of English so far apart?
    >>It is difficult for modern British English to adapt to the requirements of a political public poetry. The strict syntax patterns of British English also reflect, in my opinion, class patterns, a social etiquette emphasizing privacy, good manners. American English, with lists being an integral part of poetic speech, that is to say because of Whitman and poets who followed him, has greater possibilities. Significantly, this is the second book of Orhan Veli’s poetry in the United States. In England, no book by him has yet been published.

  4. I wondered about that too. But I do think British poetry, aside from the occasional outlier like Blake, has traditionally been resistant to the unbuttoned, repetitious style associated with Whitman, Pound, Ginsburg, et al. I have no idea whether that’s still true, though.
    Map: This is my first introduction to him, but based on what you linked I don’t find him that interesting — spirited for sure, but the rhythms are boring and the rhymes sometimes far-fetched (I think I might have liked him better when I was into Voznesensky). I did learn the word лабух (lábukh) ‘musician, band member’ from him, though; does anybody know the etymology?

  5. It’s one thing to say British poetry has been resistant to the unbuttoned, repetitious style etc., and another to say that British syntax has strict patterns, so that if a British poet *could* not write that way. This is nonsense. And it’s the same language! Nor do I know what is meant by BE having difficulty with ‘a political public poetry’.
    I agree the poems didn’t look that interesting. The translator said it wasn’t until he repeated the words in English that the feeling came through, but I don’t see any particular effect of that repetition (though if it’s in the original I would repeat it too). Really, one’s looking through a glass (very) darkly here.

  6. Reagrding Timur Kibirov, when LH said “He sounds a bit like a Turkish equivalent of Paul Blackburn” I thought who could be a Russian equivalent, and Kibirov was the one who came to my mind.
    “лабух (lábukh)”: here is a relevant discussion. I asked a question about etymology here, let’s see if they have an answer…

  7. There is an opinion that the word came from the Gipsy language.

  8. Map: Thanks very much for raising the question at the forum — the answer is very full and (mostly) convincing! To summarize, V.V. Shapoval, in “Otkuda prishel slovo labukh?” [Where did the word labukh come from?] suggests that the verb labát’ ‘to play music (for money)’ is the original form and was borrowed from Romanes gilabe- ‘to sing (songs),’ specifically from the 2 pl. imperative gilaban(te)! ‘sing!’ (with or without the Russified -te ending), with the initial syllable elided as in other popular borrowings (a striking example is Ukr. raklo ‘thief, nogoodnik’ from Gerakl ‘Heracles’), so that gilabante gave rise to labaite (with a fully Russified imperative ending), from which an entire conjugation labát’ was constructed. The weak point, to me, is how you get from there to the noun lábukh, about as unobvious a derivative as you could hope to find. But the Romanes (Gypsy) derivation is strengthened by the fact that the prototypical lábukh is a member of a restaurant band, and such bands traditionally featured Gypsy musicians. A most interesting read!

  9. Actually, I asked this question in a Hebrew forum after I came across this quote:
    “When you play a wedding in Russia, you don’t want the customer to understand what you’re saying. So labukh or labushnik is a musician, lomir labern means “let’s play,” bashalemen means to pay up, and a lazhuk is someone who’s a pain in the butt. My partner Mishka used to say, “Every simkhe, every celebration, has to have a lazhuk, someone who bothers you, who tells you that the music is too loud or too this or too that.” That’s a lazhuk.”
    Perhaps labaite did come from Romanes gilabe, but perhaps it came into Yiddish first, and only then into Russian. “lábukh” sounds like it could be a Hebrew or German derivative. I posted in a “Russian-Hebrew” forum hoping there could be some Yiddish-speaking people there.

  10. mehmet cicek says

    the life of orhan veli

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