“It is difficult to get the news from poems,” William Carlos Williams wrote, rather famously. Still, there are many experiences and parts of the world I know, however inexactly, only from learning about them in books, often in poetry. Take Turkey, for example. I’ve read novels by Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk, a couple of histories, and the poems, in translation of course, of the Turkish communist poet Nazim Hikmet. I have seen the coast of Turkey while traveling between Greek islands. That’s it. Yet I feel I have a sense of something about the country, maybe only a vague impression of the streets of Istanbul. That impression fascinates me.
And it has been reinforced by a reading of Dirty August, the translations of Edip Cansever’s poetry recently published by former Ann Arborites Julia Tillinghast-Akalin and her father, Richard Tillinghast. Though the translators tell us that their poet “seldom refers to the city’s history, almost never mentions the mosques, fountains and so on …,” they are effective at finding or creating a mood, one Pamuk labels with the word hüzün, which they define inexactly as sadness or melancholy, something close to the French tristesse. Cansever (1928-1986) lived through the years of the revitalization of Istanbul, made his living as an antiques dealer, and seldom traveled, yet he seems to have captured the deeply ironic, skeptical sadness about the human condition that dominated so much of the European literature of the mid-twentieth century. In addition, there is a playfulness is his poems, a subdued sense of joy that rightly or wrongly I associate with his city. For instance, in his most famous poem, “Table,” the extravagances of our lives just seem to build:
A man filled with the gladness of living
Put his keys on the table,
Put flowers in a copper bowl there.
He put his eggs and milk on the table.
He put there the light that came in through the window,
Sound of a bicycle, sound of a spinning wheel.
And on and on, things real and imagined pile on the table. At the end, “It wobbled once or twice, then stood firm.”
In a nice touch, the Tillinghasts include an “Autobiographical Sketch,” where the poet complains that “I haven’t been able to escape from this poem ever in my life. The same poem would turn up in anthologies, the same poem would be talked about by those who know my poetry only remotely; and if they translated a poem of mine into foreign languages, it would be the Table poem.” Cansever was right, of course. Even I feel now that I know something of him, of his poetry, even something of the news of his city. And whatever I know feels right, pleasant, even important.
Father and daughter return to Ann Arbor to read from their translations at Nicola’s Books on June 1.