I’ve been reading Rosebud Ben-Oni’s work for a few years now, especially her writing at the Kenyon Review blog. Her reflections on Hikmet’s poem “On Living” are, like the poem, instructive. Rather than emphasizing the connection between one’s personal and political life, Ben-Oni writes, “As a Jew, I go back and forth with the power of living versus how we contribute to the larger living.” Instead of using “sentimental” as a catch-all phrase and moving on, she describes what she means, writing, “Hikmet understood the poet has to reach both the heart and the mind of people without falling into sentimentality, or merely appealing to human sympathies.” Thank you for joining us.
Rosebud Ben-Oni Reads “On Living” by Nazim Hikmet:
Jessica Hudgins: In our emails, you said that you’ve known this poem for a long time, and that you’ve been coming to it a lot recently. What do you think has made “On Living” stick with you? And what draws you to it now, specifically?
Rosebud Ben-Oni: Well, recently I’ve been in physical therapy for some problems with my spine. I’ve been in chronic pain for the last six years, and 2018 was an especially challenging year, health-wise; sometimes the pain was so bad I’d pass out. I’d turn to this poem in the past when I was at various low points in my life, but last year, there were many times I could not return to it because I felt like I was not strong enough to “live up” to whatever promise and faith the poem had always endowed within me. Then I had surgery. Under anesthesia, I had some really weird dreams that I’m not yet ready to share. But a few days after, when I was more lucid, I returned to this poem, particularly the lines:
with the four seasons and all time,
with insects, grass and stars,
and with the most honest people on earth—
I mean, affectionate like violins,
pitiless and brave
like children who can’t talk yet,
ready to die as easily as birds
The poem itself is filled haunting images like “women sitting doubled over,/their fists pressed to their flat bellies, or running barefooted before the wind.” Here the speaker makes the journey “with the dead;/with those forgotten on battlefields and barricades.”
Hikmet was a journalist, and you can see that in his work, that he is trying to leave a record of both the horrors and wonders of what he’s seen. A lot of his poetry is very political, but none of it is a rant. None of it is, to use a word I dislike, “spin.” Hikmet does not lose the heart and grit when he leaves us his poetic records, his lyrical commentary. He shows us that despite “brand new buildings” where “hope shone bight green like a young pine” there are too “lamps blazed on foreheads/a thousand meters underground.” He’s showing you what’s really behind the surface, what would otherwise be invisible, without losing the art of poetry.
As a still somewhat practicing Jew, and a tinkerer in string theory, I too have tried to get beneath the surface of things. Recently, Poetry magazine published my string theory poem “Poet Wrestling with Her Empire of Dirt,” in which the speaker and her father have lost faith in both Judaism and science, in the act of living and what is left as legacy.
JH: “On Living” is a didactic poem, but it also has an element of openness, or flexibility. I love especially how Hikmet uses that “I mean,” and the series of hypotheticals, “Let’s say you’re at the front,” and so on. The poet seems both very sure about what he is trying to tell us, and worried that we might misunderstand. Can you take a minute to describe his tone? How do you think Hikmet understood the role of the poet?
RB: Oh, I’m so glad you noticed this about his tone because that’s in part what first attracted me so to this poem. I like the “speaking to you” element of this poem. There’s both an urgency and patience to his tone. Like he’s trying to work it out in his head to say exactly what he means while feeling and knowing exactly what he means.
I believe all poets are trying to do this, no? That we sometimes, if not often, feel a knowledge, deep down, of exactly what we say, and are trying to write and position that best on the page. To me, Hikmet understood the poet has to reach both the heart and the mind of people without falling into sentimentality, or merely appealing to human sympathies. He was talking about fighting for the much larger things which is fighting for the much smaller things—that we plant olive trees and not just for our children, to paraphrase another line from “On Living.”
JH: What moments in “On Living” do you particularly admire?
RB: All of them? But I’m serious. The third section in particular cements the whole deal you are making with him as a reader. That not only is life here on earth short, but earth’s life itself is short. Perhaps our larger impact on the cosmos will only be felt in ways that exclude our particular contributions if humanity is ever gone. That is to say, there will be something that we leave behind, but perhaps it won’t be able to be traced back to us. It does make me sad, in a way. It’s very Jewish of me, I suppose. The whole name being inscribed in the Book of Life by God during the High Holy days. As a Jew, I go back and forth with the power of living versus how we contribute to the larger living. They are two very, very different things. “On Living” doesn’t make navigating this perilous channel any easier, but it does shed light on why we should both live and more importantly, why we should live as part of the human race.
Rosebud Ben-Oni is a recipient of the 2014 NYFA Fellowship in Poetry and a 2013 CantoMundo Fellowship. Her work appears in POETRY, The American Poetry Review, POETS.org, The Poetry Review (UK), Tin House, Guernica, among others. Her poem “Poet Wrestling with Angels in the Dark” was commissioned by the National September 11 Memorial & Museum in New York City, and published by The Kenyon Review Online. Her second collection of poems, turn around, BRXGHT XYXS, was selected as Agape Editions’ EDITORS’ CHOICE, and will be published in 2019. She writes for The Kenyon Review blog. Find her at 7TrainLove.org
Nazim Hikmet (1902-1963) was a poet, novelist, and playwright born in Salonika, Ottoman Empire, (now Thessaloníki, Greece). He lived in prison and exile for many years due to his revolutionary politics; in 1950, five days after Hikmet ended a month’s-long hunger strike which received international attention, the newly-elected Turkish government adopted general amnesty law, and he was released. Later that year, he received the International Peace Prize. His works translated into English include Human Landscapes from My Country: An Epic Novel in Verse (2009), Things I Didn’t Know I Loved (1975), The Day Before Tomorrow (1972), The Moscow Symphony (1970), and Selected Poems (1967).
Rosebud Ben-Oni reads with the Brooklyn Poets Reading Series
“I Guess We’ll Have to Be Secretly in Love with Each Other & Leave It at That”
Interview with Rosebud Ben-Oni at Poets House
Rosebud Ben-Oni at the Kenyon Review Blog
Jessica Hudgins is a poet currently living in Georgia.