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 we’re seriously ill, need surgery— which is to say we might not get up 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 if 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”. . .
From Poems of Nazim Hikmet, translated by Randy Blasing and Mutlu Konuk, published by Persea Books. Copyright © 1994 by Randy Blasing and Mutlu Konuk. Used with the permission of Persea Books. All rights reserved.
For this peculiar tint that paints my house
Peculiar in an alien atmosphere
Where other houses wear a kindred hue,
I have a stirring always very rare
And romance-making in my ardent blood,
That channels through my body like a flood.
I know the dark delight of being strange,
The penalty of difference in the crowd,
The loneliness of wisdom among fools,
Yet never have I felt but very proud,
Though I have suffered agonies of hell,
Of living in my own peculiar cell.
There is an exaltation of man’s life,
His hidden life, that he alone can feel.
The blended fires that heat his veins within,
Shaping his metals into finest steel,
Are elements from his own native earth,
That the wise gods bestowed on him at birth.
Oh each man’s mind contains an unknown realm
Walled in from other men however near,
An unimagined in their highest flights
Of comprehension or of vision clear;
A realm where he withdraws to contemplate
Infinity and his own finite state.
Thence he may sometimes catch a god-like glimpse
Of mysteries that seems beyond life’s bar;
Thence he may hurt his little shaft at heaven
And bring down accidentally a star,
And drink its foamy dust like sparkling wine
And echo accents of the laugh divine.
Then he may fall into a drunken sleep
And wake up in his same house painted blue
Or white or green or red or brown or black—
His house, his own, whatever be the hue.
But things for him will not be what they seem
To average men since he has dreamt his dream!
From Caroling Dusk (Harper & Brothers, 1927), edited by Countee Cullen. This poem is in the public domain.