It is always interesting and exciting when a literary case uncovers a soft spot in the cultural life of a country. The literary case in point is the recent essay Şairaneden Şiirsele: Türkiye’de Modern Şiir (From Şairane to Şiirsel: Modern Poetry in Turkey) by literary critic, translator, and journalist Murat Belge, one of the founding fathers of Istanbul Bilgi University, and a maîtres à penser of the Turkish liberal intelligentsia. The book was designed as a manual for university students who attend a course in Turkish literature, with a focus on poetry (an excerpt can be found at https://www.iletisim.com.tr/images/UserFiles/Documents/Gallery/sairaneden-siirsele.pdf). Hence, it has the aim of providing quite a broad overview of the Turkish verse in the Republican period. However, for many people it is a problematic book both on a methodological and on an ethical level, the latter being closely related to the former. I have tried to unravel the two levels as follows.
On the methodological level, it is a rather weird choice to exclude from the book the poetry of the last half a century, in spite of the significant contributions made by several poets from the 1980s onwards, with the expression of minority belongings, diverse political linings, as well as multiple (and often contrasting) poetics. In fact, one is left to wonder how adequate the concept of modern can be, if used to group together such diverse authors as the neoclassicist Yahya Kemal (1884-1958) and the postmodernist İlhan Berk (1918-2008), only to quote two important poets dealt with in the book.
On the ethical level, this publication was regarded by literary critics, poets, and journalist as an an outrageous work: Belge’s book contains personal anecdotes (often quite intimate and defaming ones) about the private life of cult-poets like Cemal Süreya (1931-1990) and Can Yücel (1926-1999), whom Belge got to know in person. This was perhaps the most provocative coté of the book. In the words of poet Enis Batur, “Almost from cover to cover, the book by Belge [reveals] a magazine-like understanding of [literary] criticism, and is threaded with gossips that in my opinion are low and unethical.” (http://t24.com.tr/k24/yazi/murat-belgeden-bir-ders-kitabi,1588) So far, Belge has not replied to these accusations, although in an earlier interview (25 January 2018) he made clear that personal anecdotes constituted a precise (methodological, if you wish) choice: “It has been a while,” Belge explains, “since I started […] to add something personal to the narration of […] an impersonal topic. This has partly to do with […] age and the need to mention some memories; I have to add that there was a subjective side to it, meaning that I didn’t want the events I tell in the book to fall into oblivion.” (http://www.cumhuriyet.com.tr/haber/kitap/915390/Murat_Belge_den__Sairaneden_Siirsele_.html)
This kind of approach should naturally bring the reader to consider Şairaneden Şiirsele as a collection of memories, and yet the aim of the book – as well as the context of its production and circulation – is to be a manual used in academia. On its part, literary critic Orhan Koçak questions how much the panoply of anecdotes (or gossip) contained in Şairaneden Şiirsele actually help understanding poetry (http://t24.com.tr/k24/yazi/siiri-hatirlamak,1583; https://www.gazeteduvar.com.tr/kitap/2018/02/06/tartisilan-kitap-tartisilan-yazar-murat-belge/).
In this sense, the ethical and methodological levels are profoundly intertwined, and reveal what in the title of this note I have labelled the “Pandora’s box of Turkish-style criticism”. Belge’s book has actually uncovered a chronic disease affecting literary criticism in Turkey: by indulging in personal anecdotes and first-person accounts of the private life of poets and novelists, too often critics (and poets) produce a criticism wherein poetry has at best an ancillary role, and the jealousies, the fights, in short all the mundane biographical aspects of intellectuals are given the centre of the stage. (On this point, see another review of Belge’s book: http://www.karar.com/yazarlar/omer-erdem/cemal-sureyanin-sevgili-tokadi-6138)
If the Turkish poetry scene was (and partly still is) characterised by interpersonal linkages of tutorship between older and younger authors – well rooted in the Ottoman courtly tradition – it cannot be denied that in 2018 the instruments of literary criticism have evolved, and that a more finely-tuned analysis of Turkish verses is both necessary and urgent. In fact, it is the only way a sound narrative of the rich poetic tradition of Turkey can be written, and if possible, made known to the international public.
In this respect, Baki Ayhan T.’s work on the poetry of the 1980s is among the few valid counterexamples, for the coherence and the meticulousness of the research behind his essays. In a comment about the Belge case, Ayhan warns: “If no solid data are [used], the ‘biographical reading’ of textual analysis and criticism has serious shortcomings. What is more, if this [kind of] works become a ‘psychology/ical reading’, or a ‘reading of the intentions’, it is unavoidable to get some tragicomic results. In the variations of contents, one can look for psychological, biographical, and private reasons, and these can be supported by sources such as letters, diaries, and the like. But what about the variation in the [poetic] voice? …They talk about ‘overreading’: unfortunately, this is one of the traps in which the post-modern logic of [literary] criticism most frequently falls.”
Personally, I am convinced that the status of cult figures of some poets in Turkey (Nazım Hikmet being the most overwhelming example of poet-activist) has often been an obstacle to a lucid, scientifically solid analysis of their poems, which in turn makes it difficult to write a history of the Turkish poetry of the 20th century. Finally, judging from the translator’s point of view, I believe that good literary criticism, just like good poetry, can be enriching even when read in translation. So, leaving aside Belge’s book, my question is: How much of this gossip-like poetry criticism can be translated into any foreign language without becoming meaningless?