October 20, 2018 / 21:44
Zeynep Tanıtkan (book & movie)

Can Yucel: Poetry with the tang of wine, the burn of a cigarette

3 March 2011 Thursday 13:48
"Ink runs from the corners of my mouth. There's no happiness like mine. I have been eating poetry," says Canadian poet Mark Strand in one of his poems.

The very same feeling embraces the reader while reading poems of one of modern Turkish literature's most distinguished poets, Can Yucel. Yucel's poems can be poured into a glass like a wine as they can be lit up like a cigarette; they are like concrete objects you can touch with your bare hands.

The son of a legendary Education Minister Hasan Ali Yucel, Can Yucel was born in Istanbul. He studied classics at Ankara University and then Cambridge and later worked for the BBC for five years as a program assistant in the Turkish section of the World Service. He lived in France and Britain for a long time and did his military service in Korea.

Yucel was a man of vast knowledge and culture, as well as keen political and social awareness. Yet, his awareness cost him two years in jail as on his return to Turkey he was sentenced  to 15 years for translating works by Che Guevara and Mao Zedong. He was released within two years under a general amnesty. According to one of the persistent rumors about Yucel, while he was in jail in Adana, the parents of world-renowned director Ali Ozgenturk visited Yucel every week. During these visits when they asked whether he needed something, Yucel requested grapes. Every week Yucel asked more and more grapes. Later it appeared that Yucel made bottles of wine with those grapes in his cell.

In brief, Yucel was occasionally persecuted due to his aim of founding a better world with a socialist view.

Earning himself a leading place in today's modern Turkish poetry, Yucel's first literary works were the poems that he published when he was a student at the university.

Warm irony and a combination of strong lyricism and sarcasm dominate Yucel's poetry. This quality is especially evident in his "Poems of a Political Prisoner" (1974). His mastery in language attained with puns made his poetry effective, providing it with new dimensions of meaning. When you dive into Yucel's poems you feel like you are walking in a bazaar buzzing by thousands of vivid colors and scents.

In addition to his own poetry, Yucel was a superb translator of other verse giants, William Shakespeare, T.S. Eliot, Federico Garcia Lorca, Dylan Thomas and Greek poets.

His translation of Hamlet's "To be or not to be, that is the question" soliloquy, some of the most familiar lines in the world, became a legend in literary circles, as well as his translation of Sonnet 66 ("Tired with all these, for restful death I cry"). Although some conservative literary lights accused Yucel of making farfetched translations, most people find pleasures in his renderings, claiming that Yucel was no ordinary translator making word-for-word renditions but a creator making the poem speak in Turkish, which is quite difficult in poetic translation.

Although American poet Robert Frost claims that poetry is what get lost in translation, Yucel found a way to save the poem from sinking into the oblivion of foreign words and phrases.

Can Yucel's life was like the big trick bag of a magician surprising the audience for almost 80 years. Out of his hat he pulled poems colored with slang and obscene words and unique translations (he proved that a translation can also be unique despite its nature). Through his death the big bearded man left every poem unfinished.
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