ARTICLE: TANSEL E. TUZEL
He did it his way
time is an invisible graveyard where pure poets wander reciting poems in solitude whoever hears them dies of fright —their destructive power is great— exploding like a time bomb a moment comes attilâ ilhan dies
He was one of those born with a wounded heart, chronically consumed by loneliness. Indeed, this is what made him stand out from the crowd, a true eccentric. Anyone who reads his poetry knows this. Nor, although he changed with time, did he ever alter that stance throughout his lifetime. With his always original, ever lively mind, he survived young-at-heart to the age of eighty. His life did not lack for incidents. He first distinguished himself from the crowd at the age of sixteen when he was expelled from school for possessing some poems of Nâzım Hikmet sent him by a girlfriend, and spent two months in prison for it. In the end, all of Turkey’s schools were closed to him. Thus was the writer, thinker and poet Attilâ İlhan thrust into life. His first legal battle ended with his being reinstated in school by a decision of the Council of State. The love of poetry that shaped his entire life propelled him to the heights already in high school. The prize he won in the CHP (Republican People’s Party) Poetry Competition, which he entered entirely of his own accord, publicly proclaimed his identity as a poet. His name, which was gradually becoming better known, was usually written incorrectly, and he was forced to wage a new struggle, this time for Attilâ with two ‘t’s instead of the usual one. Not only that but with a circumflex over the ‘a’. This bugbear would haunt him to the grave. But the mistake on the tombstone was noticed straightaway, for by now it had come to be expected.
JOURNALIST, WRITER, THINKER, POET
While a student at the Istanbul School of Law, İlhan’s studies were interrupted a second time, again by his great love of Nâzım Hikmet. He took off for Paris. The decade of the 1950s, which was formative in the life of this poet who was born in Menemen in 1925, was spent in Istanbul, Paris and Izmir. Resuming his study of law upon his return, he abandoned it again, this time for journalism. His initial contribution to the cinema, in which he became interested as a journalist, was as a critic. Later, towards the end of the ‘50s, he put his signature on fifteen filmscripts under the pseudonym Ali Kaptanoğlu. In 1960 he again travelled to Paris where he lived for some time, eventually returning to Izmir upon his father’s death. Pursuing a career in journalism there, he published two novels: Yasak Sevişmek (Forbidden Love) and Bıçağın Ucu (The Tip of the Knife). In Ankara, where he later settled and went into the publishing business, he gave his readers a series of novels: Sırtlan Payı (The Hyena’s Share), Yaraya Tuz Basmak (Rubbing Salt on a Wound), and the extremely controversial Fena Halde Leman (Leman in a Bad Way). At the beginning of the ‘80s he moved to Istanbul, this time to stay, becoming a columnist with the daily Milliyet and later for Meydan and Güneş. He continued to write a column for the daily Cumhuriyet up to the day before he died.
NOTES FOR THE CURIOUS
Attilâ İlhan’s solitary stance in life asserted itself in his poetry as well. In his anthology of Contemporary Turkish Poetry published in 1985, the well-known literary figure Memet Fuat describes İlhan and his determination to go his own way: “Attilâ İlhan was an unknown youth when he was named second, between Cahit Sıtkı Tarancı and Fazıl Hüsnü Dağlarca, in the CHP Poetry Competition in 1946. Within a short time he gained recognition. Clearly he had excellent preparation and supreme self-confidence. Having adopted Nâzım Hikmet as his model, he was vehemently opposed to the Garip (Strange) movement in poetry, which he regarded as a degenerate approach that was hampering the progress of poetry in Turkish. He had an air about him, as if he wanted to take poetry a step further than Nâzım Hikmet, into new, more modern dimensions, as if he were going to address important issues. Those who took issue with his strong opinions claimed that the poems he wrote were not original, that they did not go beyond a slavish imitation of the by-then passé Free Verse movement. But Attilâ İlhan’s poetry underwent a sea change in the 1950s, becoming uniquely original, and dealing closely with the concerns of the individual as well as social issues. These poems, which would have been expected to alienate readers with their shocking new images, continually new voices, and their lines that did not fit any mold either old or new, were, quite the contrary, readily accepted in intellectual circles for the full-blown emotional atmosphere they evoked. The individualist poetry of Attilâ İlhan was, actually, a form of socialist poetry that often remained ‘inaccessible’ since it yielded no clues. This would emerge all the more clearly when, in later editions of his books, he began adding ‘Notes for the Curious’, explaining where, when and why each poem was written.
“In his later periods, Attilâ İlhan took a close interest in ‘Divan’, or Ottoman court poetry, going much further in the direction of a synthesis along the path already taken by Nâzım Hikmet. In doing so, İlhan was the only one among contemporary socialist poets in Turkey to favor a revival of the old Ottoman language.”
ONE OF US, BUT ALWAYS A LONER
İlhan’s prose writings come a close second to his poetry. Some of his output in different genres expressed painful memories; he would attach a poem-like note at the beginning of such works: “What is described in this book bears absolutely no resemblance to real events or real people. I envisioned it all in a great mirror, a mirror made of smoke glass, in an unreal city.”
Apart from his regular columns in Turkey’s various newspapers, over his lifetime he also composed dozens of scripts for films and television series, as well as short stories, memoirs, novels, essays and poems. At the time his first novel, Sokaktaki Adam
(The Man on the Street) was published, he was already prepared to bring out ten more. The reason they never appeared is that he believed first novels are always autobiographical. But many of his subsequent works of fiction also reveal very palpable traces of his personal experiences.
So much in our midst was Attilâ İlhan that it was not unusual to come across him at bus or tram stops and on the streets in many parts of this, his last city. Always one of us, he remained a loner to the end. Even on the screen with thousands of other people, he was always his own person somehow. But the things that were in his heart he shared with all of us. His poems added a profound new dimension to our lives: “when your eyes touched mine / i was devastated i wept”, “i am obsessed with you you’ll never know / i warm myself with you”, “it was november we were freezing / on the boulevard a tree was dying”, “hold my hand or i’ll fall / the rain will wash me away”, “whoever i love is you” — lines that made even people with no experience of love or loneliness feel something.
Newspaper headlines announcing his death carried a line from a poem he had written years earlier during an illness: “a moment comes, attilâ ilhan dies.”
We would like to thank Is Bank Cultural Publications and Bilgi Publishing for their help in securing the visual materials.