October 4, 2012

Poem of the Week: On Living


by Nâzım Hikmet
(translated by Mutlu Konuk and Randy Blasing)

Living is no laughing matter:
           you must live with great seriousness
                     like a squirrel, for example--
      I mean without looking for something beyond and above living,
                     I mean living must be your whole occupation.
Living is no laughing matter:
           you must take it seriously,
           so much so and to such a degree
      that, for example, your hands tied behind your back,
                                                   your back to the wall,
      or else in a laboratory
            in your white coat and safety glasses,
            you can die for people--
      even for people whose faces you've never seen,
      even though you know living
            is the most real, the most beautiful thing.
I mean, you must take living so seriously
      that even at seventy, for example, you'll plant olive trees--
      and not for your children, either,
      but because although you fear death you don't believe it,
      because living, I mean, weighs heavier.


Let's say you're seriously ill, need surgery--
which is to say we might not get
                          from the white table.
Even though it's impossible not to feel sad
                          about going a little too soon,
we'll still laugh at the jokes being told,
we'll look out the window to see it's raining,
or still wait anxiously
                           for the latest newscast ...
Let's say we're at the front--
        for something worth fighting for, say.
There, in the first offensive, on that very day,
        we might fall on our face, dead.
We'll know this with a curious anger,
        but we'll still worry ourselves to death
        about the outcome of the war, which could last years.
Let's say we're in prison
and close to fifty,
and we have eighteen more years, say,
                            before the iron doors will open.
We'll still live with the outside,
with its people and animals, struggle and wind--
                            I mean with the outside beyond the walls.
I mean, however and wherever we are,
        we must live as if we will never die.


This earth will grow cold,

a star among stars
                and one of the smallest,
a gilded mote on blue velvet--
        I mean this, our great earth.
This earth will grow cold one day,
not like a block of ice
or a dead cloud even
but like an empty walnut it will roll along
        in pitch-black space ...
You must grieve for this right now
--you have to feel this sorrow now--
for the world must be loved this much
                              if you're going to say "I lived"...

February, 1948

[Nizam Hikmet is considered--and not just by me--among the greatest communist poets ever. That reference in the second stanza, framed hypothetically, to being the slammer at 50, with 18 years to serve--Hikmet wrote this in a Turkish prison in the tenth year of a 28 year sentence for inciting revolt in the armed forces. Sailors had been found reading and discussing his poetry.  
The watercolor is a self-portrait drawn in prison.]

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