Nazim Hikmet


In this paper, Nazım Hikmet’s poetry in exile years, from 1951 to his death in 1963, is examined in terms of identity projection and the role of language in this.    

Nazım Hikmet is one of the greatest poets of our age. His greatness lies in his ability to meet universality and the search of novelty with the contemporary and universal interpretations of the conventional. His poetry, meeting futuristic effects with socialist realistic, Marxist art and then with the voice of folk poems, gets the final touch by the poet’s distinctive sensitivity. This is why “earth”, “land” and “Turkish” are the key concepts in Nazım Hikmet. Before examining his language and identity perception, let’s take a global look on the relation between language and identity /culture.

Kramsch defines communities of language users and how the use of language affects viewing the world and thus identity:

People who identify themselves as members of a social group (family, neighborhood, professional or ethnih affiliation, nation) acquire common ways of viewing the world through their interactions with other members of the same group. These views are reinforced through institutions like the family, the school, the workplace, the church, the government and other sites of socialization throughout their lives. Common attitudes, beliefs and values are reflected in the way members of the group use language – for example, what they choose to say or not to say and how they say it.(2009:6)

Kramsch defines  a speech community as a community of people who use the same linguistic code and a discourse community to refer to the common ways in which members of a social group use language to meet their social needs. This is a view of culture that focuses on the ways of thinking, behaving, and values currently shared by members of the same discourse community.

Another view with more historical perspective lets us see cultural ways that have evolved and become solidified over time. They have sedimented in the memories of group members who have experienced them first hand or merely heard about them, and who have passed them on in a speech or writing from one generation to the next. The culture of everyday practices draws on the culture of shared history and traditions. (Kramsch, 2009, p. 7)

Language is not a culture-free code, distinct from the way people think or behave, but rather it plays a major role in the perpetuation of culture, particularly in its printed form, Kramsch argues. (2009:8) So language is not only a group of symbols to express what we see or feel, but a system that affects to the core our understandings and perceptions of the world.

Language is a symbolic expression of ways of thinking of a culture. Ways of thinking of each culture is determined by centuries of formation process of that culture. Titiz states that, languages are not only different in terms of vocabulary but also these formation processes and thus ways of thinking. (1998:307)

Akarsu states that language is a system that forms our mental patterns. A human being is born into a language as in a culture. Ways of thinking is shaped by language.  (1998:85)

According to linguist W. von Humbolt, one can go down to a nations’s culture and world view from that nation’s language. Language is the appearence of a nation’s soul. (in Akarsu, 1998, p. 62)

Each language contains a tissue of concepts and is a reflection of a part of humanity’s way of  projection,  Akarsu argues (1998: 62-63). She adds that each language is an echo of a world view.

So language is a system that is closely connected to identity. It’s by language that we define ourselves, constructing values and norms through our use of language and interactions with other members of our speech community. The effect is even more obvious for a poet whose work is not only done by language but also is the languge itself. It is the atmosphere where he breathes and lives in. In Nazım’s case, he does speak another language fluently but it’s not the language that shaped him as a person in the earlier years of his life.  That’s why Turkish language was the passport to Nazım Hikmet where he actually never had one.

Kramsch argues that, to identify themselves as members of the community, people have to define themselves jointly as insiders against others, whom they thereby define as outsiders. (2009, p. 8) This idea is also found in Said who points out the role of negation in construction of identity. Said’s ideas on the construction of identity make it easier for us to understand  why  Nazım’s already present ties with his language and country becomes more accentuated in the exile years:

To a certain extent modern and primitive societies seem to derive a sense of their identities negatively.  A fifth-century Athenian was very likely to feel himself to be nonbarbarian as much as he positively felt himself to be Athenian. The geographic boundaries accompany the social, ethnic, and cultural ones in expected ways. Yet often the sense in which someone feels himself to be not-foreign is based on a very unrigorous idea of what is “out there”, beyond one’s own territory. All Kinds of suppositions, associations, and fictions appear to crowd the unfamiliar space outside one’s own(Said, 1994: 54).

Be the suppositions about the others fictious or true, Nazım found himself in exile ina  foreign surrounding, where he continued to write in and only in Turkish, recreating an aura of belonging. It’s being in a different speech community and people of a different culture from that point on, that made him accentuate his ties with his original country and culture more and more.



For Nazım Hikmet, who had not written a single verse other than in Turkish, not being able to speak his own language was the biggest exiles of all. Doğan writes that he would search for the Turks first in the cities he visited; he  was a motormouth in  Turkish over the phone; he would carry around the books of Orhan Veli, Melih Cevdet and Oktay Rıfat whom he calls “the best poets of Turkish” in his suitcase during his travels. All these facts are indicators of his solitude (1994). For him, Turkish language and poems in Turkish was the water that he lived and breathed in.

In his short writing, titled “Sürgündeki Dil” (Language in Exile), Doğan asks:

Braudel, the historian says that “language = identity”. A person who loses his language, or  is driven away from the speech community, finds himself in identity troubles. In old ages, and later in Rome, sometimes the death sentence would be turned into exile and the murderer would be given a chance to be sent into exile instead of being exucuted. Can we think that the underlying thought  here is derived from  such identity troubles? (1994).

If we ask this question, focusing on the exile of a poet whose work is the language itself, rather than an ordinary person who is exiled from the community he/she identifies with, we may get to see how the first case can lead to  more severe and multi layered identity troubles. In Pırağ’da Vakitler (Times in Prague)(1956), he says: Ah my rose, being an immigrant is worse than death. Being exiled from the language that he lives in and writes with, forces the poet to reevaluate his identity projection while it leads to a kind of romanticism that makes it very hard for him to do this objectively: the romanticism of being away from his homeland.

When Nazım got out of prison and fled to Russia, he didn’t know that he would find a different country and a political milieu than his years of  pupillage. He was followed by the secret service like all the other foreigners. He neither had a citizenship nor a passport. Finally,he was given a Polish passport due to his Polish roots.

In Nazım’s poetry during exile years, we see the same convinced communist, but a romantic attachment to his roots can be observed as well. His language becomes more lyric and romantic in this era.

In Russia, he had his comrades that surrounded him, his poetry was largely recognized, he had  internationalist views that made him write verses like The country that I like most is the earth (“Dörtlük”, 1959). All these must have had a relieving effect on him. We see his internationalist views in his poem, “Gelmiş Dünyanın Dört Bir Ucundan”:We’ve come from the four sides of the World /We speak different languages and understand each other/We are green branches from the world tree/ There’s a nation called youth, we are from it. (1956)

But being abroad, away from his homeland affects his identity projection, the internationalist views melts into homesickness. This amalgam changes the themes in his poems, the vocabulary, the meanings attributed to the language and the land.  His poetics become gradually romantic.

In “Memet’e Son Mektubumdur” (My Last Letter to Memet), the verses below is an example of the two conflicting concepts: his nostalgia for his roots and internationalist views:

Memet,/ I’ll die far from my language and my songs, /my salt and bread,/ homesick for you and your mother, / my friends and my people, /but not in exile, / not in some foreign land / I will die in the country of my dreams /in the white city of my best days(Moscow, 1955)

Turkish, with all its feeling and perception, is fundamental in Nazım’s sensitivity. We hear the voices of Yunus Emre and Fuzulî in “Kerem Gibi”, a poem which is a turning point in his poetry and avant-garde and revolutionary in Turkish poetry. We see Kerem as a modern hero, ripped off from its original context and reinterpreted. Bu still the sensitivity that lies beneath the original story is present in the poem. The expressions like “O diyor ki bana”(“He says to me”), “Ben diyorum ki ona” (“I say to him”), are different versions of  minstrels’ “Aldı aşık” (“the minstrel took the word”) expression. (Gürsel, 2001: 45)

I say to him: / – Let me burn / let me become ash / like Kerem. / If I do not burn / if you do not burn / if we do not burn / how will dark-ness/ ever turn into / light…

As we see in “Kerem Gibi”, Nazım profites from the traditional poetry but transforms it into an avant-garde, contemporary poetry. He modernizes the traditional and makes it meet with the universal. He is a world poet while he stays true to his roots.

His “Rubai” is a sign of his perception of language and identity:Utterance rot in emptiness /If it does not come from earth / If it does not plunge into earth / If it does not put down roots to earth.

Earth symbolizes a culture area, a cultural accumulation that covers this area (Gürsel, 2001, p. 19). We can observe that Nazım  uses the notion of putting down roots and describes his identity based on these cultural roots, from the early times of his poetry.

For Nazım Hikmet, language is the most important constituent of identity. In one of his writings in 1934, he writes:

“The words of my language are like precious stones. Precious stones: red, green, yellow, white, of different sizes; they lay in front of my eyes. They sparkle. My eyes are dazzled. I grisp them. They fall through my fingers, brilliant, like water with sun! I am a jeweler’s apprentice. I want to crash these stones into one another and make voices that are unheard of. I want to align them in a way so that my eyes are like listening to the best song ever.”(in Gürsel, 2001: 23)

In one of his letters, Nazım says that Turkish is one of the most beautiful languages in the world, and adds: “I love Turkish language in the way a peasant loves his land, a carpenter loves his wood and grater. “ (in Gürsel, 2001: 24)

As a poet who spent a great deal of his life in exile, in a different surrounding of language and culture, he never fails to protect his ties with his language. In 1961, he writes:My books are printed in thirty or forty languages / But in my own Turkish, in my own Turkey / I am banned. (“Autobiography”, 1961, Berlin)

During his exile, he visits many European cities towards the end of 50’s: Prague, Sophia, Varna, Paris… During these visits he becomes more nostalgic. He complains about getting old, his health condition, being away from his homeland. In Varna, homesickness becomes unbearable:


It’s not a heart, but a rawhide sandal, made of buffalo leather

hoofs the rocky roads constantly

                        but does not get torn apart

A steamer passes by Varna,

Oh the silver strings of Blacksea,

A steamer passes towards Bosphorus

Nâzım caresses the steamer quietly,

                                    His hands get burned. (“The Steamer”,1957, Varna)


A few days after this poem, he writes the one below:

The opposite shore is homeland, /I call out from Varna, /Do you hear it? / Memet! Memet!(“Memet”, 1957, Varna)

Another example of elements and traces of his culture capturing him from the heart:

This Varna has driven me mad /  has driven me crazy. / tomatoes, green peppers, fried turbot on the dining table, / A Blacksea air, “Ha uşaklar!” on the radio / rakı in the glass, lion’s milk, anise, / oh the smell of anise! / My language, spoken friendly, brotherly.(“Sofra” 1957, Varna)

He finds a brief relief at Varna, feeling like home with the memory of the food of his homeland:

Cucumber soup in a blue bowl. /they brought a cheese pita / -it’s as if I’m in Istanbul- /they brought a cheese pita /with sesame seeds, soft and steaming…/ This summer day in Varna, /all big talk aside, /even for a very sick, very exiled poet / this happiness to be alive. (“The Balcony”, 1957, Varna)

In “Gözlerin” (Your Eyes) (1956), he likens the eyes of the beloved to, “the crops in Antalya towards the end of May”, to “the chestnut trees of Bursa in fall” and then to “İstanbul in every season and every hour”.  Againin 1956, in “Karlı Kayın Ormanı” (Snowy Night Woods) he turns his homeland and youth into a distant dream with the verses: Is my country the farthest away, or my youth or the stars?

He gets depressed and loses hope from time to time:

Great days in the future / They won’t see me / At least let them send me regards /  I’m dying of sorrow. (“Days”, 1958, Warsaw)

He is smitten with the idea of having lost every material thing of his homeland:


My country, my home, my homeland,

Nothing you made remains in my possession,

not a cloth cap

or a pair of shoes that once trod your roads.

Your last shirt wore down long ago to bare threads on my back;

                                    It was homespun cotton.

Now you live only in the white of my hair,

                                                the failing of my heart,

                                                            the lines of my forehead,

my country,

my home,

my homeland… (Prague, 1958)


He has nothing material left from his homeland, but his homeland is now engraved in his body and soul.

Nazım also wrote propagandist poems in those years. In those poems we see a communist and internationalist, quiet sure of himself. He is the part of peace movement against nuclear weapons, he writes about radioactivity, post war polarizations, Turkey becoming a colony of the United States, etc. But frequently, some disturbed feeling finds its way to daylight and makes him suffer. In “About the Sea”, he says: I thought of Engels. / How beautiful to have your ashes scattered at sea! / But me, I want to be laid in a pine box / and buried on the Anatolian plateau. (1954, Tbilisi- Moscow)

He sees almost  everything connected to his homeland. Even the expected socialist revolution in Turkey, is a way back home. Wherever he goes, he writes verses that reflect his longing to find a way back home. Turkish and soil nest in his poetry, they transform into one another and becomes the past that is now a distant dream. Nazım defines himself with that longing to go back:


No clouds in the sky

The willows are rainy

            I’ve ran into Danube

            Flowing muddy

            Hey Hikmet’s son, Hikmet’s son

            If only you were the water of Danube

            If only you came from the Blackwoods

            If only you flew into Blacksea

If only you became blue, and blue and blue

If only you pass from the Bosphorus

The air of İstanbul over your head

If only you beat the Kadıköy pier

If only you beat and flutter

When Memet and his mother gets on the steamer. (“On Danube River”,1958)


He watches his son grow in photographs:

My heart writhes with the pain of a branch whose fruit has been plucked, / the image of the road that goes down to the Golden Horn never leaves my eyes, / a pair of knives stuck right into my heart:  / yearning form my child and nostalgia for İstanbul. (“My Son is Growing up in Photographs”, 1954)

In the first verse, we see an image of separation from an Anatolian folk song: “Ham meyvayıkopardılardalından /Beniayırdılarnazlıyârimden.” (They have plucked the green fruit from its branch / They have separated me from my beloved). The voice of folk songs that often melts into Nazım’svoice, is used here to describe separation from his son and from İstanbul.



I write poems / they don’t get published / but they will(“Optimism”, Leipzig, 1957), says Nâzım Hikmet. And they are now.He missed by two years seeing his poems published in Turkish. But he is now the first name to come to mind in Turkish Poetry. His belated recognition is closely connected with the epic way of him narrating Turkey and its people.

He feels like he gets his swerve on in a balcony in Üsküdar against the sunset while sitting in a tramway station in Leipzig (“Kederleniyorum”, 1958). On the road to Stockholm from Leningrad, he looks out of  the port hole and sees the white sea,  he remembers İstanbul’s warm sea, then looks at this rigid, white sea with absolute grief (1959). Near Vienna, he wishes to become a river, pass by Bosphorus and reach and touch the steamer his wife and son gets on. He gets worn out of calling out to his wife from Paris (“Sensiz Paris”, 1957). In Prague, he suddenly realizes he has no material left from his homeland and he grieves (“Yine Memleketim Üzerine Söylenmiştir”, 1958). In Varna, he gets excited sitting by a dining table full of food and beverage that reminds him of İstanbul. He sometimes loses hope and tells the captain to not wait for him anymore, as he cannot take him to that blue port with plane trees and a dome (“Mavi Liman”, 1957). Sometimes he is so puckish and becomes the walnut tree in Gülhane Park, where nobody –including the police-  notices him: My leaves flutter like silk handkerchiefs. / Break one off, my darling, and wipe your tears(“Ceviz Ağacı”, 1957). He is mostly not bitter. But one can understand how being in exile affected him as a person and a poet judging by things he and his poetry has gone through.

His last will is to be buried in a village cemetery in Anatolia, which is a  striking sign of his idea of belonging: Comrades, if I die before that day, I mean, / -and it’s looking more and more likely- / bury me in a village cemetery in Anatolia, / and if there’s one handy, / a plane tree could stand at my head, / I wouldn’t need a stone or anything (“Vasiyet”, 1953)


(This article was first appeared in the book of proceedings of Turkish Migration Conference held in 2015)


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About the Writer

Assist. Prof. Dr. at Anadolu University, department of Turkish Language and Literature.

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