Tuesday, November 14, 2023

Disarming the Reader by Admitting Your Flaws: Nazim Hikmet’s “Falling Leaves”

Readers are rightly suspicious of cliché language in literature. They don’t want to be taken for fools who’ve never read the famous lines. They’ve already seen the usual techniques that writers use to pull our heartstrings. But let’s face it—pulling our heartstrings is one of the best things that a writer can do. So how does a writer evoke deep emotion without alerting the reader’s sensitive antennae for corny language?

Well, one way to use cliché language and imagery is to start by flat out admitting to your reader that you’re doing just that. You concede to your reader that they are sophisticated and aware of the tricks that writers pull out of their hats to produce emotions. 

A writer who is extremely good at this is the Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet (1902–1963).

Nazim Hikmet
The breezy, colloquial tone of Nazim Hikmet’s poems could easily fool a reader into thinking that his poems do not involve a lot of craft. The opposite is the case. One of Nazim Hikmet’s favorite devices is to disarm the reader by confessing that he is using the standard gimmicks that artists and writers employ. Once he wins the reader’s trust by admitting that he’s using hackneyed diction, he throws in that kitschy imagery anyway, and he gets the reader to react to that deep emotion before they even knew what’s hitting them. 

A great example is Nazim Hikmet’s classic poem, “Falling Leaves”:

Falling Leaves


I’ve read about falling leaves in fifty thousand poems novels

   and so on

watched leaves falling in fifty thousand movies

seen leaves fall fifty thousand times

           fall drift and rot

felt their dead shush shush fifty thousand times

           underfoot in my hands on my fingertips

but I’m still touched by falling leaves

           especially those falling on boulevards

           especially chestnut leaves

           and if kids are around

           if it’s sunny

           and I’ve got good news for friendship

especially if my heart doesn’t ache

and I believe my love loves me

especially if it’s a day I feel good about people

           I’m touched by falling leaves

especially those falling on boulevards

especially chestnut leaves.


6th September, 1961



from Poems of Nazim Hikmet, translated by Randy Blasing and Mutlu Konuk, Persea Books

Nazim Hikmet starts by saying that there is nothing more trite than falling leaves. He admits that the image is so familiar, it’s used in the most sentimental genres, novels and movies. He lulls the reader by repeating over and over the words “falling leaves,” making it clear that he is aware of how completely stale and sentimental that image is. He even exaggerates by saying he’s seen the image “fifty thousand” times, giving the reader a chance to think, “Oh, falling leaves are not as corny as all that!” Nazim Hikmet even brings in a whole slew of other cliché images: kids playing, chestnut trees, boulevards, and true love, piling on the schmaltz like layer after layer of leaves.

So how does this poem get right to our hearts, even though it’s “as corny as Kansas in August”? After telling you he’s sick of corn, Nazim Hikmet sneaks it back in. He not only gives us the falling leaves again, but also the chestnut trees, the boulevard, and the true love, before we have a chance to realize how he’s snuck up on us and pulled our heartstrings in spite of our emotional defenses.

But there is a part of this poem that is not all sunshine and flowers: 

especially if my heart doesn’t ache

and I believe my love loves me

especially if it’s a day I feel good about people

There’s a terribly poignant note here, the implication that on many days, the speaker’s heart does ache, he’s not sure his love does love him, and he doesn’t always feel good about people. That undertone of melancholy gives the poem a tinge of the bittersweet that makes the poem’s happiness a little sharper. 

By tipping his hand and showing the reader what he is about to present, Nazim Hikmet ironically makes the reader more vulnerable to that content. A writer could potentially do that with any emotion that might otherwise be trite, from tragedy to comedy. 

Zack’s most recent book of poems, Irreverent Litanies

Zack’s most recent book of translations, Bérenice 1934–44: An Actress in Occupied Paris

Other posts of interest:

How to Get Published

Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop

How Not to Become a Literary Dropout

Putting Together a Book Manuscript

Working with a Writing Mentor

How to Deliver Your Message

Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?

Why Write Poetry?

Poetic Forms: Introductionthe Sonnetthe Sestinathe Ghazalthe Tankathe Villanelle

Praise and Lament

How to Be an American Writer

Writers and Collaboration

Types of Closure in Poetry