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Ikinci Yeni : The Turkish Avant-Garde

Ikinci Yeni : The Turkish Avant-Garde

Translated by George Messo

Shearsman Books, 168 pp, ISBN 101-8-4861-066-1
Series 3 Number 16 - The Dialect of the Tribe

Critics soon detected a darker; more introspective, abstract and individualistic turn in modern Turkish poetry, which they labelled the Ikinci Yeni, the Second New.

Review by Alev Adil

Poetry has always been the dominant art form in Turkish culture but in the 20th century both Turkish politics and poetry were to be transformed in the crucible of a modernist revolution that strove to erase the past and rewrite the future. The Kemalist Turkish Republic in 1923 introduced a language revolution, which sought to streamline, simplify and ‘purify’ Turkish, to rid it of its Farsi and Arabic Ottoman court finery. A new phonetic Latin alphabet brought mass literacy, and instantly made the past unreadable. As in the Soviet Union, poets in the new Turkish Republic had a symbiotic and problematic relationship with the State. Nazim Hikmet, Turkey’s foremost modernist poet was to die in exile in Moscow. The first wave of Turkish avant-garde poetics, the Garip poets, produced limpid and often magical work, Orhan Veli’s ‘Rag and Bone Man’ for instance, which sought to strip poetry of its artifice, literary techniques and conventions, to write transparent direct language that spoke to the people. Unfortunately the exuberant surrealist and politically engaged verse the Garip movement produced was as short-lived as Veli himself, who died prematurely at the age of thirty-six. Critics soon detected a darker; more introspective, abstract and individualistic turn in modern Turkish poetry, which they labelled the Ikinci Yeni, the Second New. 

Messo chooses to open his spirited and idiosyncratic introduction to the movement theatrically with ‘Phaeton’, Ece Ayhan’s seductively decadent death-wish of a poem, which embodies many of the formal and thematic concerns thought to distinguish the Ikinci Yeni literary movement: allusive and elusive verse which plays fugitive games with the unconscious, evades clarity, refuses the definitive, defers meaning and accedes to dream-logic. Brittle melancholy loneliness plays on an old gramophone as a suicidal black phaeton rides through Pera’s ‘streets of deathly love’, past shop window displays of montenegro pistols wrapped in tulle, oleander photographs and Algerian violets in a showcase. Ayhan concludes that the presence of the horse-drawn phaeton, its rise to the heavens, ‘could be down to my sister choosing to buy the Algerian violets’. The tropes of the city, of loneliness, of dream-like encounter and surreal juxtaposition in Ayhan’s poem ripple throughout the collection. 

Unlike the Garip poets of the first wave of modernist Turkish poetry, the Second New poets all rejected the idea of being part of a movement and had no sense of collective identity, no manifesto and refused the literary characterisations ascribed to them. The Second New poets’ linguistic experimentalism reflected a search for a new epistemology. Messo characterises this experimentalism as ‘hermetic, ruminative, subversive – an implosive resistance to the naïve, delusional “open” language of a closed state.’ Whilst his story is, as he asserts, canonical in Turkish literary circles, this collection provides us with an intoxicating introduction to the ghosts that haunted the five most renowned Second New poets, and continue to haunt the Turkish literary imagination today.

Istanbul is a recurrent presence in the collection. The city had been a traditional locus for the Divan poetry of the previous century but the poetry of the Ottoman court had been written in a different alphabet, a different language, and its poets had celebrated the glories of a city of rose gardens, mosques and minarets. In contrast this first generation of poets born after the birth of the Republic, frequented the seamier, shabbier corners of a city shrouded in melancholy. Here in Uyar’s ‘One Day, Early in the Morning’:
And yet, fog still lingers on the Golden Horn,
There’s the echo of ferry horns.
Twilight everywhere,
The bridge is still up.

There is a constant contrast between the shadowy chiaroscuro of ferries, railway stations, tram stops, dilapidated ghetto bars and lokantas in the labyrinthine backstreets of Galata and Pera, the grimy glamour and decaying grandeur of Istanbul’s European quarter and the protean brilliance of the sea, roiling with wriggling squid and octopus, smelling of fish and tar. The city, so often characterised as a bridge between the East and West, dissolves, becomes cloud, rain, fog, a stream of consciousness. Deterritorialised memories and echoes drift across continents and time zones , as in Berk’s London poem ‘The Thames’:

At night I’m out to Piccadilly sitting on a stone
flushing a pigeon into flight
I break a glass with a black man in a bar and stare
long and hard at a woman, at a twisting road and
I take up the Thames and go, then perhaps it’s another river, the Bosphorous
(so it’s the Bosphorus and Asafpasha mansion, its divans and delicate
a canary – from the Philippines, yellow, it never sings or else the
canary I’m looking at
is a window – the interiors of dark rooms, lanterns,
kitchen hands (mostly Armenian), the men’s room, frying
pans, plates, knifes and forks and lamps, fuses, maces,
brazier coals, administrators, the little woman, a key, robes

Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Nerval, Breton, Eliot and Éluard’s visions of the city haunt these poems, and the sense of being in the wake of European modernisms is strong. It would be easy to dismiss the Turkish avant-garde as parochial; after all it’s 1958 when Ayhan’s ghostly hearse glides through Galata. However the reader familiar with Turkish history will be aware there are other ghosts at play. The sadness that pervades these poems owes as much to the centuries old Islamic tradition of huzun and to the contemporary political traumas of the Menderes era, as to European Romantic poetic melancholy or Surrealist nostalgia. This is an Istanbul haunted by the ghosts of its Greek inhabitants, expelled from Istanbul in 1955; of a people haunted by the ghosts of a centuries-old multicultural, multilingual Empire now rendered foreign and incomprehensible. At its best the poetry of the Second New provide us with glimpses of a subtle epistemology which evokes this haunting and evades crass political certainties. As Cansever puts it in ‘It was the Jazz Season’:

And it was strange, even remembering
Was remembering
Borrowing from the future
And that was a cause of happiness
A reason for unhappiness
As if a perfectly unique garden
From the peak of non-existence
Had come down piece by piece.

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