Skip to content

Ilhan Berk.

Part One of an extended essay on translated poetry.

By Peter Riley.

barbed rule

Ilhan Berk, translated by George Messo:

The Book of Things.
Shearsman 2016. 310pp paperback. £14.95 | $23.00

New Selected Poems 1947-2008.
Shearsman 2016. 200pp paperback. £12.95 | $21.00

Shearsman 2008. 102pp paperback. £9.95 | $17.00

Ilhan Berk - the Book of ThingsA FIRST SIGHTING OF Ilhan Berk’s The Book of Things can be a disturbing experience, prompting remarks like “What in the world is this?” Scanning through the book you notice a lot of white space with a word or two here and there at the top or the bottom of the page, but other pages crammed with text; there are lines set vertically or diagonally, pages cancelled with diagonal stokes across them, occasional very large figures or numbers floating around, photographs of a spanner, a hairclip, a safety pin and other objects… and a lot of text obviously of a heterogeneous nature: prose, tiny sparsely-worded poems, formulaic repetition, a page consisting of the letter “u” about 70 times with a footnote at the end reading “A penniless man riding a horse in Dicle”.1 Is this Turkish Dada?

It is not Turkish Dada, in fact it hardly resembles Dada at all; there is no sense of being released into free play. It is 300 pages of writings concerning “things”, taking various strategies, some bizarre, to locate something like the meaning or essence, or perhaps thingness, of things. Whether it does locate anything like this, or even wants to, is an open question. The “things” are not necessarily objects; in fact any noun seems to qualify: water, stones, golden oriole, roundness, slug, bra, sentences, book, numbers, house… It is perhaps justified to call the pieces “meditations” on these things. The meditations are either short (2 to 10 pages, for singular objects) or up to 50 pages (House) and 90 pages (Numbers). The meditational process, at any rate for the shorter pieces, is to go from the word for the thing on through other words, sentences, and phrases, related (or not) to the thing, until it stops. For each thing all sorts of linguistic material are offered us, but there is no apparent associational grammar at work, or at least none is unfolded, or at least none which is publically accessible. I think this is what makes this writing unique: uniquely difficult and uniquely engaging.

berk1THERE HAVE BEEN periodic attempts in modern European poetry to engage with the nature of things, and I can think of two comparable projects—

The first: Rimbaud’s Voyelles. Berk would know this because he translated Rimbaud and it might have been the seed of the whole thing, especially when you realise that Rimbaud’s correspondences between vowel and colour are completely random and embody no form of observed reality. They are meaningless. Berk has a similarly meaningless list of correspondences between numbers and voices—

1 is shrill; 2, scary; 3, angry; 4, ill-tempered; 5 is cold; 6, cursed; 7, crazy; 8, sorrowful; 9,wild; 10 is magical.

‘Voyelles’ may be the first appearance of serious meaninglessness as a poetical technique, at which Berk was something of an expert…

This is just as meaningless as A, black; E, white; I, red; U, green; O, blue. One would think that for 2 to be scary it might depend what it was two of, wolves or cup-cakes for instance, but we are very far here from such rationality. Voyelles may be the first appearance of serious meaninglessness as a poetical technique, at which Berk was something of an expert, mainly be making parts of the poem defeat each other. In both cases it is of course probably possible to work out some rationale for some of the items, but that does not seem to be what is wanted of us, or the task is too daunting. To accept 2 as scary would be to recognise some total, universal experience of 2, more even than the meeting of two people in love or war, more than duality and opposition. The sections on 2 of the long piece on Numbers evokes some of this, and 2 is there a setting out from 1 as if a developmental process, a moving into the world. But the quest would be infinite. Either you enjoy the disporting of Berk’s inventiveness without worrying about reality, or you just blink.

pongeThe second possible forebear is Francis Ponge. There might be some parallel here, not so much with Le Parti Pris des Choses, as with the longer pieces. There are passages in Berk comparable to Ponge’s extended logical processes of exposition as they pass through metaphor, personification or animation to a final bid at an essential meaning for the thing, or at any rate give the appearance of going through such a process. But Berk would leap to Ponge’s kind of characterising results immediately, or skip them, and go on from there into ever darker tracts.

ARE WE THEN involved with mysticism of whatever brand? Possibly, and there are hints of it. Kabbalism is mentioned, as is Freud, and there is a lot about numerology in the Numbers section. But the question of belief is continually postponed, and the sense of disposition throughout, that is, the sense of where it is written from, is secular.

It will be gathered from all this that Berk’s procedures in dealing with his “things” are both varied and elusive. Indeed sometimes the naming of a thing in the title seems to be the only trace of it and the main purpose simply to write a poem with that title, though if you decide that is the case you are probably wrong.

The two long pieces in the book, “Numbers” and “House”, make a clear show of an act of exposition, at least in their beginnings—

Our subject, you gather, is house.
So we’re going to wander around in the world of things (by world we mean no more than “the world of things”). And this world we know too. It is therefore enough for us to open a dictionary (dictionaries are the embryos of life) and to list the things we see. Everything there is arranged and neatly set out with great care.
(Isn’t everything scripted anyway?)

No, it isn’t, but that’s not the point just now. The point is that “House” begins with a gentle, schoolmasterly invitation to explore a “subject” which is deftly evaded in three lines. In fact the first word, “So”, is, to say the least, logically suspect — why should attention to “house” necessarily involve us in “the world of things” which immediately becomes the world of words, rather than in focusing on this one thing? The whole of the rest of this book tells us, again and again, that all things are channels to a total world of things, that all things are one thing. And the whole question of “things” is immediately deflected into a question of words, which is where things dissolve into nothing but themselves.

THIS OPENING IS followed by a list of 35 words in alphabetical order, purposefully mixed in status (Babel / Baghdad / Broad Bean … Lampshade / Monument / Mosque…). Only three of these 35 words, as far as I can see, could easily relate to the concept “House”: Avenue, Courtyard, and Garden. Furthermore one of these “things” is adjectival (Glass-eyed) and one of them is “Green Plumb” which is perhaps a misprint. The point is clearly that these words, which we are looking at in order to understand the subject “house”, could be any words as long as their assemblage represents a dispersal rather than a focus. They are words in the world which can be found in a house if there is a dictionary in the house. Their function is to invoke the world in 35 words carefully (or intuitively) assembled for their heterogeneity. He calls it “to grasp at the outer edges of things” which is “to be in the world”. None of those words, or reference to their listing, occurs again in “House”, which does after this distracting prelude, turn at least part way towards its subject. What follows is a big string of epithets, namings of household objects, properties of a house (sometimes seeming to refer to a particular, Turkish, house, then not) which accumulate a growing sense of an elemental quality, a house-ness (“A place to which we’ll always come and go.”) reaching figures of increasingly totalising force: “House is a grand metaphor: both right inside us, and at the end of the earth.” … “The house is you.” … “Language is the house.” … “House stores time and lives.” … “House: throne of the unconscious.” … “House is the world.” This is, in fact, what happens to most of the things in the book; they become more and more comprehensive until they are everything. More of this later.

One of the shorter poems is called “Basilica”. It consists of 60 lines (divided into units of 24, 27, and 9, I don’t know why), each except the second beginning “For you my…” (with one or two slight differences which may be due to the translation). It starts:

For you my unwavering bell tower
You my weightlessness for you
For you, you are my covered bazaar my dead end street
For you my sleepless my Chechen fly
For you my twenty-third year
For you my amazon my white skin …

And continues very much like that to the end, which is “For you my basilica”. Grammatically, the 60 items could be “for you” in the sense of things offered to the basilica, but it seems more likely to me that they are epithets of the basilica, to whom an unknown thing is offered, perhaps this poem. Translation means we can’t know whether the ambiguity is there in the original, but lines 1 to 3 and the last seem to be structured by the poet (or the translator) to favour the latter reading throughout.

The principal counter to this sheer randomness is a sense throughout that all these listed items belong within the perceptual space of one person . . .

So we say goodbye to the “subject” of the poem after the first line, never to return to it. Fine. We are left with 59 nominal phrases of such disparity that we can only assume them to be, like the list of 35 words recently mentioned, a way of representing the whole world as an assemblage of disconnected items or experiences, or the world as an assemblage of disconnected linguistic tokens. The principal counter to this sheer randomness is a sense throughout that all these listed items belong within the perceptual space of one person, within the one life, not necessarily as personally experienced things but within a sphere of actual or potential experience and knowledge which has Ilhan Berk sitting at its centre. Other than that every effort is made to avoid the suspicion of coherence—as by yoking things of contrary status together (“For you my flatfish my baroque violence”), by including the extremes of what might be called important and insignificant in the one list (“For you my Far East” / “For you my Crusades” / “For you my gas-tap” / “For you my ignorance” / “For you my tissue my hypodermic needle” / “For you my broken water metre” / “For you my oxygen tent my yellow jaundice” …).

HOWEVER MUCH BERK might have read Freud there is no point in trying to probe under or between the items of this list for subliminal entities which connect them; that possibility is ruled out syntactically—there are no connectives between the items except that chant “For you”. The only sense in which they belong together in any way is that they evidently emanate from the one life, not as precious things but perhaps as unforgettable things. There is a delicate possibility of the ghost of a focus on a basilica image, its whiteness for instance recurs, (contradicted by “For you my princess of darkness”). There is perhaps a sense of desperation in the writing by which whether as offers to or as metaphors for the basilica, these are attempts to “catch” all the disparate things the author can think of before they leave him for ever. This is made more serious by the fact that like so many of the pieces in this book the process grows towards a totality which is an identity so that the process is circular. We are offered a piece on “basilica” which throws up a tremendous hodge-podge of world tokens, from vast to tiny, “wind-blown peak” to “washing line”, but which does gain a crescendo towards the end, a sense of the epithets getting more and more momentous. Five lines before the last a gesture of totality appears (not built up to but leapt to) — “For you my Alpha Omega” which establishes that we have been talking all along about everything and nothing else, and finally we get—

For you my Crusades
For you my princess of darkness
For you my Sodom and Gomorrah
For you my basilica

So we end exactly where we started, with the one thing as it is, with its name, undescribed and unfigured— unless it has been transformed from a light thing to a dark thing, has gone through all that variegated, multiple, kaleidoscopic colour, to end as a singular everything, a word, which drags all things down with it into final darkness. The decision lies with the reader.

In a prefatory interview, Berk is asked what are his thoughts on death, and replies, “For me it’s a word like any other, like tree, earth, pen. It doesn’t carry the same weight for me. I use it as I’d use any other word.” But making death into a word doesn’t stop it in its tracks.

‘Sometimes I meet young people who say “I want to be a poet”…Poetry is like tuberculosis, like cancer. The poet’s life is a kind of hell.’

IN THE SAME INTERVIEW, Berk says, “Sometimes I meet young people who say ‘I want to be a poet’. I tell them, being a poet will bring nothing to you but unhappiness. […] I want to write about everything. It’s a huge discomfort to me. What else could it mean to write about everything, except to take life away from me? To write about whatever I see and love. I can’t just sit on my own and comfortably look at a cactus or an oleander. I look at it as something that must be written about. Such a man’s life is a terrible thing, not something to be coveted. The poet is such a man. And for that reason I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone. The first thing I say to these young people is: ‘Poetry is like tuberculosis, like cancer. The poet’s life is a kind of hell.’”

This darkness and possibly despair is more than a sense of imprisonment in a vocation; it is the result of the final condition of his poetry, or of poetry itself, where the world vanishes into the words for itself. There is a great deal of joie de vivre in his play with experience, his “dictionary”, in which his love of the real capitulates helplessly to the retraction of the real into his poetry. There is also a lot of fiendish ingenuity in his invention of seeming epithets, pictures, accounts, explanations etcetera, with at best provisional sense and more likely none, singularities and fragments brought together in such a way as to avoid any over-all reality like the plague.

Berk is soaked in European philosophy, especially Wittgenstein, therefore “linguistic philosophy” and generally the “cult of paradox and obscurity, an appetite which feeds on what it consumes and, as with a galloping illness, hardly allows the imagination to conceive its end.”2 (We could compare with this perhaps Berk’s Basilica as “my yellow jaundice”, “my sickness my open wound”, “my morphine cell”, “my hypodermic needle”…, all the more so as none of these, having become “linguistic”, can be thought of as actually endured by the author). There is passing reference to Kierkegaard, Husserl, Heidegger, Kant, Hartmann… and Wittgenstein is “the world’s greatest philosopher”. European poetry and art is repeatedly mentioned. This, not without Kabbalism and things oriental, brings with it the expected result that the focus is on language, or rather, everything is thrust behind a screen of language and there made unstable. We are surely very used to this kind of insistence now: “To write is to journey from word to word.” “The work has no bearing on reality. / Reality is the reality of the book.” (section 20 of “The Book / the Work”, a very Mallarméan section).

Berk rather than renewing meaning abandons it, without falling into random or mechanical formulations…

THIS PHILOSOPHICAL CLIMATE is commonly associated with poetry of the kinds known as “modernist” or “experimental”, at worst used as a justification for poetical procedures. Whether instrumental or not it has lurked behind much of the most rewarding modern poetry (and of course “challenging”, a less secure virtue) but it seems to me that Berk brings the whole course of language centering to a crisis and a contradiction which he welcomes. Shakespeare is language-centred to a degree; poets such as Stevens and more recent modernists seem to write on the very edge of a discourse which is language first and meaning second; some eliminate the second term. And however much the poet blusters and accuses this can normally be felt to have been done with a sense of excitement, the thrill of being engaged with the very edge of usage, pushing language into extensions of meaning and newly discovered connections. But Berk rather than renewing meaning abandons it, without falling into random or mechanical formulations, and does this by insisting that the immense varieties of experience, valued and celebrated as they are, are inevitably brought through language to a unity which cancels them. It must be a figure of death, and I take his renunciation of pleasure in the act of writing to be a result of the necessity to foresee the cancellation of his own experience, death prefigured in the withdrawal of experience into language—“Only poets have no hope”.

His philosophical sources are not enough for this adventure, and indeed are not mentioned without reservation, as if none of them goes far enough in the acts of denial. It is after all not a question of belief.

Dear Hartmann [they say his bed is in his paternal house] is interested only in the living—only them—and knows nothing else. Kierkegaard, Husserl and Heidegger opened parentheses only for “being”. Perhaps they wanted me to come and explain it all, so the pleasure I take in it is my right.)

This opening of parentheses is perhaps “phenomenological bracketing”? Anyway, “being” is obviously too substantial a thing for Berk’s enterprise. His procedures do not constitute a thought process but a poetical process. What brings Berk’s writing to its extremity is not philosophy but poetry. Only poets have no hope.

Thus it is that Berk’s texts contain declarations about reality and meaning as viewed from poetry which no philosopher would dare to make, but which the fictive and totalising nature of poetry absolves from authorial answerability—

Only poets can never be outside language.
Only language makes hope a reality.
There can be no talk of poetry if meaning (and reality) isn’t overcome.

These are from “Lyre”, a piece early in the book handling these kinds of propositions. Much more common, indeed the very long piece on numbers is full of them, are statements which declare properties of things or numbers which cannot be connected to experience—

Everything ends with “3” and “Many”
8 is the garden of gardens. Right from the start it excludes 1.
All numbers live at breakneck speed.
10 is the happiest number in the world.
Perhaps I like the pessimism in 3.3

And there are all the contradictions, and all the things which at some point or other are designated “everything” in defiance of each other. In “House” the door, window, and house itself all come to be “everything” after they have been put through the processes of animation, metaphorisation, dramatization, inflation, and reduction to nothing. Insofar as it is a perceptual proposition it proposes that when you concentrate on “door” you forget completely about the house, but it is more a poetical proposition by which poetry isolates the word “door” from the world in its own poetico-linguistic world where all terms outshine their contexts.

At one point Berk quotes Blake, “Some are born to endless night”. This is the poetical company to which Berk elects himself, making an almost mystical exceptionality out of the figure of the self/poet as hero and victim. He is not the only one. I think at once of Jack Spicer espousing and angrily dismissing this elevation at the same time, and if I understand him right J.H.Prynne speaks similarly of the poet as having exclusive access to transformative linguistic acts which elevate that self far above the common realm, but at a cost of self-sacrifice.4  I guess that all this grew out of Romantic privileging of the creative artist (perhaps especially 1890s aestheticism)

‘The Book of Things’ runs poetry itself to an extremity at which it can no longer function as language…

It would be fair to say that The Book of Things runs poetry itself to an extremity at which it can no longer function as language, and does this by pressing all the wild and thoughtful theatres of modernism on to excess. A legacy of intuited connectivity with a religious ancestry becomes an aesthetic of non-connectivity at all costs. And yet the semantic function is never abandoned, for without it he could not attain significant meaninglessness but only a kind of linguistic nothing. There is also a balance, and an extravagance, in the writing which could invite the reader to write meaning into it him/herself. It might be the reader’s task to return this text to the real, connected, world from which the author has removed it.

It is an important and fascinating book, a kind of demonstration done with powerful wit and intermittently intense feeling, of the ultimate outcome and self-destruction of modern poetry as it gets more and more the way it is, laying bare the world’s meaninglessness within experience. But in this demonstration there is a full poetical effusion taking place and the donation of a person’s entire presence into the poetry, in both cases to expire there. The failure it promotes is its victory as it is reduced to nothing. It is a delightful and impossible book.

Ilhan Berk - New Selected PoemsNEW SELECTED POEMS SHOWS BERK’S career mainly from a turning-point in 1953 when the discourse starts to transgress quite dramatically a rational or unified view of reality (in a very effective sequence called “Saint-Antoine’s Pigeons”) up to and beyond A Book of Things. It is evident how Berk stretched himself there, for prior to The Book of Things the only modernistic “devices” are an extreme brevity in one- or two-line poems, a line set vertically and some enigmatic footnotes. Most of the small poems immediately preceding A Book of Things are about things, and briefly anthropomorphise them, as Berk does more extensively in the later book as part of a process of treatment rather than an isolated figure. There is a piece from 1982, “The Secret History of Poetry”, which declares his aesthetic in a collection of definitions of poetry insisting very strongly on its independence and its power; it becomes a whole other realm—

The language of poetry is a language used nowhere else.

What poetry writes is silence. A silence like the stopping of the world, the severing of its breath.

Poets carry people, cities, rivers and streets in their pockets.

Poets write in parentheses.5

Interestingly, this text occupies a period of his work (around 1980) in which, following earlier essays in prosaic and documentary language, quasi-symbolic narratives which don’t add up, and other things, he writes a far simpler and more direct form of address with a permanent edge of poetical distance to it, a sense that it is held tenuously in the balance and might at any time (and sometimes does) lurch into an irrational figuration. It is a very confident and accomplished writing which holds much in reserve, some of which, as in the second line below, seeps through, transgressively but not disruptively, though the whole scene is, really, calmly disruptive in its not-quite explicit location and action, the ambiguous status of its figures and the as-if concealed narrative—

An Old Street in Pera

Birds take to the air above Hagia Irene
Stalks of grass behind their ears.

At last you’re here I say to myself
Here where the roads of an old map meet.

A cat stares at you wide-eyed
And the sky is as low as it gets.

A woman is trying to cross the street. I think of you,
And say the neck I’ve never seen is terribly thin.

Peddlers, soldiers, knife grinders, pass me by
And the sullen faced grave diggers of our world.

A voice says we’re with you on the same peninsula,
Then vanished into an old Pera street.

So it is every night I tread an old street in Pera,
every night your mud on my soles.

This is, in its way, as firm a declaration of the autonomy of poetry as anything in The Book of Things.

Ilhan Berk - MadrigalsMADRIGALS IS LATER THAN The Book of Things, probably his last work, dated 2005 (he died in 2008). It’s a unified book in four sequences or “books”, though we are given permission to open the book and read anywhere in it. The first sign we get of Berk’s difficulty (or obstinacy or perversity or inventiveness or dazzling originality) is in an appendix to the contents page listing the four books, where each is given a parenthetical epithet. I’ve paid particular attention to Book III “Madrigals” which is labelled “Collage” and I cannot see the ghost of a reason for this. Nothing in the text suggests that it is collaged from other texts or anywhere else, unless the entire referent is to things Turkish. Nor can I see why Book II “Your Name was a Leaf” is labelled “onomatopoeia” (nor why this gets a lower case initial and Collage an upper case). I find it difficult to believe that the original Turkish language text is crowded with onomatopoeic signals. A leaf does not make a sound that could be echoed. Names (of birds especially) may well be onomatopoeic but I don’t see how this arises. The trouble with this kind of impasse, which is commoner in The Book of Things than here, is that it does not give the impression of being an improvised fancy, emotional jerk or impressionistic dream of the author’s, but rather of a knowingly calculated conclusion in a system of thought unknown to us. We don’t know how he arrives at it and we can’t refer it back to what we know. It seems that in his later years Berk cultivated an extreme version of what some poets would call “risk-taking” which mainly casts the task of cohering back on the reader. I like to think of this name (of a loved person) somehow represented as one leaf’s contribution to the large symphonic rustling of a tree, and this person having been singled out of a whole population to receive special regard. I feel that it is I who have done this rather than Berk. There is, however, some justification for it in the last poems of the sequence itself, the words of which (ignoring all the spacing) read: “The road wends away. (bird-filled) With your name it calls you: Everything. Your name was a leaf.” This lyric intensity is, anyway, a greater achievement than me struggling with a sub-title. It occurs to me that I just solved a problem which I said couldn’t be solved; but the question is whether it can be solved in this way for or by anyone else, whether it is in fact definitive.

‘Madrigals’ is, after ‘The Book of Things’, in some degree a turn back to poetry as an evident discourse, or at least a series of sayings suggesting a narrative…

In fact Madrigals is, after The Book of Things, in some degree a turn back to poetry as an evident discourse, or at least a series of sayings suggesting a narrative, or contributing to a running progression. Books I, II and IV consist of small poems (mostly one to four lines) in sequence. Book I has the poems at the top of the page; Book II has most of them at the top of the page plus a line or two right at the bottom of the page; book IV goes in for verticality: single words in vertical sequence, or more commonly one or two lines running down the page without spaces between words, some of them with a “floating” word, syllable, or letter elsewhere on the page needing to be attached to the column. Almost none of the words has more than one syllable (in English).

These sequences more or less make sentences which are accounts or narratives, very much stretched out by the setting. The quotation above from book II, 16 words, occurs as three poems and as ten lines. I can’t pretend to have grasped the substance of the evident sequentiality (which thankfully we can ignore if we wish, it says) but the book begins with a poem numbered I (which looks like the letter I) and consisting of the one word, “Be.”. The book ends with this poem:


[and far away at the foot of the page:]





the purport of which as a diagrammatic minimalist reduction of all experience is obvious.

I HAVE NO certainty as to the result of the reader’s exposure to all this blank paper. I don’t think it creates a tension between distant words as a lot of French poetry in this mode does; I think rather it encourages patience in reading, slows you down. If read at a normal reading speed without regard for the spacing the whole of Book I (21 pages) would take no more than two minutes. You feel that to read it thus would be to violate it. You are encouraged to take the words one by one which sometimes is rewarding because the word demands consideration as something removed from its normal habitat, like something in a zoo, but sometimes doesn’t. You are also encouraged to take perfectly commonplace pieces of language carefully; you are encouraged to take the world carefully. Similarly the lines, mainly in Book IV, which are set vertically, sometimes at a slight slant, do note invite you to slide down them at speed because the absence of spaces between the words means that you need constantly to seek these word-endings, which is rather like taking grips on the slope as you descend.

Book III, “Madrigals” is different, taking on more of the discursive techniques of some of the poems in The Book of Things (such as “Basilica”), the grammatically poised statement-like or story-like line which does not amount to any kind of full statement or narrative picture, the line which feels it is possibly an extract from something else (Collage!) but from an unknowable place of the same kind as this one. But there is more continuity than anywhere in The Book of Things. There are 18 poems each consisting of six (sometimes five) lines of about normal length. They are numbered and spaced apart, but no more than a stanza break would be. They each have a title which is identical to one of the lines. It is best to quote a whole poem:

A river moves around like a peasant

1. I saw time I saw the emptiness I saw their youth.

2. I saw that time was grey, everything grey, grey.

3. A river moves around like a peasant.

4. I saw and now I’m telling you eternity is everywhere.

5. You undressed me like this as if watering a flower.

6. We get better as we kiss.

All I want to say about this is that obviously the lines could stand as they are to form a poem, a modern poem low on rational linkage, but a poem of more-or-less coherent composition, moving from perception of total lack, to an erotic redemption. The only thing that questions this, increases the separation of the lines from each other and doubts the tone, is the format itself, especially the numbering. The lines become like items on an inventory as if they have survived from some unknown place, like objects in a museum. Also that the line chosen as the title is the one which contributes least to the poem’s consistency (this is not always the case). Through the sequence images and notions recur, one line at a time, without a sense of narrative progress and conclusion but with a sense of the accumulation of instances and perceptions to form the “world” of this particular sequence, with echoes elsewhere in Madrigals and in Berk’s other books. Also that beautiful elegiac lines like these can be an end in themselves, open to collaboration with any poetry which attains their pitch.


WHEN STUDYING TRANSLATED poetry, I always feel I’m on slippery ground. There is really no way of knowing that what you have before you is exactly the poem it was when it was issued by its author. I don’t mean when translators deliberately change the text—versions, “after” etc. In that case, the original poet then becomes more or less beside the point. I mean I’m not reading exactly the same construct, and — language being a subtle and tenuous thing in poetry — things may be added or omitted which make a difference. Questions arise about factors of poetical composition which are beyond translation but which are part of the poem and can be said to have “meaning”: such as the phonetics, the vocal sounds made; the historical and cultural nuances of the word; and sometimes the precise sequence of words one by one, which may itself embody a process. Rhyme and metre are only one of these, and not necessarily the most important; attempts to reproduce them are almost invariably damaging, usually because they shift the poem into a different (and often older) poetic. Rilke easily becomes Victorian lyric. As reader or translator you have to have your priorities, which in my case amount to the question of what is being done with language in the poem, what is it being made to do, and what does that do to perception of the world, a word we so casually think we understand.

All this is to say (a) my reviews of translated books here and in the forthcoming second part of this essay on poetry in translation, are reviews of the English text before me, exclusively so, of course, when the original tongue is Turkish. (b) I feel sure that George Messo is a very good translator, and can be relied on to transmit as thoroughly as he find possible without losing priorities in poetical décor. The translated poems work remarkably well, and we do not hear Messo impressing upon us, “I am a poet too”. His role with a poet like Berk is more important than that.

FOLLOWED by Part Two: Lorenzo Calogero, Antonella Anedda, and Rilke translated by Ruth Speirs, either as the next review or following a review of books by Denise Riley and several others. This latter could include Geraldine Monk, Sandeep Sethi, Michael Heller, Maurice Scully, Alice Notley, Angela Leighton and other books which are on the heap called “to be dealt with” in which may be found two books by Simon Jarvis, which I would like to mention if I live long enough to read them both. —PR

duenorth_covFortnightly ReviewsPeter Riley, the poetry editor of The Fortnightly Review‘s New Series, is a former editor of Collection, and the author of fifteen books of poetry (including The Glacial Stairway [Carcanet, 2011]) – and some of prose. He lives in Yorkshire and is the recipient of a 2012 Cholmondeley Award for poetry.

Peter Riley’s latest book is Due North (UK/US) (Shearsman, 2015). A collection of his “Poetry Notes’ columns appears in The Fortnightly Reviews: Poetry Notes 2012-2014, published in 2015 by Odd Volumes, our imprint.


  1. Dicle is a small town in Diyarbakir Province, Turkey. The post code is 21830.
  2. Ernest Gellner, Words and Things (1959) p.236., on Heidegger. This book bears an epigram from Bertrand Russell: “The desire to understand the world is, they think, an outdated folly.”
  3. All the numerals in these quotes are about double the type size of the text.
  4.   See the essay “Huts” in Textual Practice 22.4 (2008)
  5. To many poets of the west for centuries such beliefs about poetry have been axiomatic, and still are, splintered into many divergent versions from syntactical modulation to the cancellation of the semantic function altogether in favour of noise. But they have never had the field to themselves. The belief in poetry as an instrument for knowing the world directly and immediately in the common tongue rather than by linguistic space-travel does not easily die, and probably both currents, sacred and vernacular, negotiate together in the best work.
Notify of

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Would love your thoughts, please comment.x