You must take living seriously, he said

Just past the middle of our two-week Turkey tour, we had a day “at leisure” in Antalya, on the Mediterranean Sea. In the morning, H. and I wandered around Old Town, an area of charming narrow streets, ruins, cafes and shops which we entered via Hadrian’s Gate. We came upon a monument–to a Turkish poet. An odd-looking thing, a scroll of words tumbling downward, as I recall, and in relief, a face behind bars. (The photo I took of it seems to have disappeared, though here’s the one I took of the English inscription so I could look him up later.) IMG_4766

Nazim Hikmet. Never heard of him, but a quick search yielded some poems online. And oh oh oh! I read his “On Living” and “Things I Didn’t Know I Loved” and “Some Advice to Those Who Will Serve Time in Prison” and it was like a space inside me opened up and joy rushed in. Sometimes something like a poem or two or three will come your way, and it marks a day, or even an entire two weeks of holidays. It stays with you. Once home, I was delighted to find a book of his selected poems in the library, which I’ve enjoyed too.

Below, Nazim Hikmet’s “On Living” as translated by Randy Blasing and Mutlu Konuk. (And if you like it, there’s more of his work at


Living is no laughing matter:
you must live with great seriousness
like a squirrel, for example–
I mean without looking for something beyond and above living,
I mean living must be your whole occupation.
Living is no laughing matter:
you must take it seriously,
so much so and to such a degree
that, for example, your hands tied behind your back,
your back to the wall,
or else in a laboratory
in your white coat and safety glasses,
you can die for people–
even for people whose faces you’ve never seen,
even though you know living
is the most real, the most beautiful thing.
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,
but because although you fear death you don’t believe it,
because living, I mean, weighs heavier.

Let’s say you’re seriously ill, need surgery–
which is to say we might not get
from the white table.
Even though it’s impossible not to feel sad
about going a little too soon,
we’ll still laugh at the jokes being told,
we’ll look out the window to see it’s raining,
or still wait anxiously
for the latest newscast …
Let’s say we’re at the front–
for something worth fighting for, say.
There, in the first offensive, on that very day,
we might fall on our face, dead.
We’ll know this with a curious anger,
but we’ll still worry ourselves to death
about the outcome of the war, which could last years.
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–
I mean with the outside beyond the walls.
I mean, however and wherever we are,
we must live as if we will never die.

This earth will grow cold,
a star among stars
and one of the smallest,
a gilded mote on blue velvet–
I mean this, our great earth.
This earth 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” …


6 thoughts on “You must take living seriously, he said

  1. Yes!
    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” …

    Thanks for introducing me to Nazim Hikmet, Dora. He describes A Good Day (my current theme) so well!

  2. Yes, Nazim Hikmet and this poem of his you’ve posted makes the most sense because if we’re not living then we must dead, so why not really, really live while we live?

    • Thank you, Susan. Really, really live, yes, I think that’s what he’s saying, and in spite of his words to the contrary, never without an awareness of death either, somehow it’s the fact of an ending, to my mind, and — I would add — hope beyond that, that animates this intensity. His prison poems unpack this further.

  3. Thank you Dora for introducing this poet to me. I look forward to reading more works by him. “We must live as if we will never die.” Lately I’ve heard more about living with awareness that I WILL die! It comes naturally at my age! I just want to live well and make the moments count!


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