On Living

Hikmet, Nazim

Primary Category: Literature / Poetry

Genre: Poem

Annotated by:
Kohn, Martin
  • Date of entry: Apr-17-2001


Written from prison during the tenth year of a twenty-eight year sentence, "On Living" is a remarkably moving--in fact, uplifting--poem. It is written in three parts. The first part addresses the seriousness of life: "you must live with great seriousness / like a squirrel, for example--" (p.128); later, and more poignantly: "I mean, you must take living so seriously / that even at seventy, for example, you'll plant olive trees-- / and not for your children either," (p.128).

The second part deals with hope and commitment and relates directly to his time in prison. "Let's say we're in prison / and close to fifty, / and we have eighteen more years, say, / before the iron doors will open. / We'll still live with the outside, / with its people and animals, struggle and wind--" (p.129).

The third section deals with the universal, with our grieving for the earth which ". . . will grow cold one day, / not like a block of ice / or a dead cloud even / but like an empty walnut it will roll along / in pitch-black space . . . / You must grieve for this right now / --you have to feel this sorrow now--/ for the world must be loved this much / if you're going to say 'I lived' . . . " (p.129-30).


Hikmet is considered by many to be the greatest of modern Turkey's poets. He was sentenced in 1938 to 28 years in prison "on the grounds that military cadets were reading his poems, particularly 'The Epic of Sheik Bedreddin'" (a poem about a 15th century peasant rebellion). "On Living" was written in 1948, two years before Hikmet was released as part of a general amnesty.

Shortly later, after two murder attempts, he went into exile. He travelled widely (never to America), lived in a writers' colony outside of Moscow, and after his Turkish citizenship was stripped, became a citizen of Poland, "explaining he had inherited his blue eyes and red hair from a Polish ancestor who was a seventeenth-century revolutionary" (p. xii).


Translated by Randy Blasing & Mutlu Konuk.

Primary Source

Poems of Nazim Hikmet



Place Published

New York