Is Ataturk Poetry Transforming to Performative Writings?: "Children of Atatürk March"

"Children of Atatürk”, as a polyphonic coral performance performed by thousands of different students at primary and secondary schools; watched, shared and commented in social media platforms, and has become very popular in the past few years.

"Children of Atatürk”, as a polyphonic coral performance performed by thousands of different students at primary and secondary schools; watched, shared and commented in social media platforms, and has become very popular in the past few years.[1] A book containing the works of Muharrem Baz, who is the composer and the writer of “Children of Ataturk”, was published in the past few months. In the book titled Children of Atatürk: Marchs and Children's Songs, there are two music CDs with fifteen different works. In this article, while "Children of Atatürk" is considered as a performative form of the Atatürk's poetry popularized in recent years, it will be interpreted in a critical debate, focusing on the textual and semantic features of it. With reference to the theoretical texts of Richard Schechner, Judith Butler and Viki Bell; performativity will be approached as one of the conceptual aspects, in which Kemalist subjectivity has gained an identity and this subjectivity has been established, -literally, musically, and physically- with formal ceremonies repeated in specific days and weeks. I will argue that the literary, social and political functions of Atatürk poetry, which have been developed to praise Mustafa Kemal and raised in time with their subordinate codes, gave their places to the performative texts, in which visuality has been dominant in this current cultural environment.

First of all, I think it is necessary to outline the publishing and writing processes of Atatürk poems. Mustafa Kemal, who was for the first time commemorated in the epic, written by Mehmed Emin Yurdakul in 1915; and as the time passes, became the epic hero of a twentieth century hybrid subgenre, which is consists of epic and praise (methiye). While these poems, known as Atatürk poetry today, were published intensely with certain thematic, imaginative and genre common features in certain periods, have lost their popularity in some certain periods. The historical adventure of Atatürk poetry from 1915 onwards can be graphed as follows:

 (Kaya 2015)

The graph was created with the data of the date of publications of 2050 poems, published in 12 different Atatürk poetry anthologies. Especially in 1930s and after 1950, we can talk about the ups and downs in the writings and publishing of Atatürk poetry. In these periods, Atatürk poems were frequently published in magazines, newspapers, radio talks and in different circles; especially in November, special numbers were printed and publications were made.[2] Statistically, from the 1960s on, it is possible to speak of a downfall in the publication of Atatürk poems in general. It is noteworthy that the publication and/or writing of Atatürk poems, especially after 1980s, has declined significantly, even to the point of stopping. Is it possible to argue that Atatürk poems have turned into performative texts due to the fact that "Children of Atatürk", which has the characteristics of Atatürk poetry, became so popular in this current cultural atmosphere, where Atatürk poetry have almost forgotten compared to the past?

In order to express again this question from another point of view, it may be appropriate to refer to the concept of "recitation" (inşat), which is often considered together with Atatürk poetry. The word meaning of “inşat” (recitation) is to read out a poem or a literary work in front of a community in a loud and necessary manner ("inşat" TDK Contemporary Turkish Dictionary). Recitation (inşat) is the criterion to determine the poetry selection of the anthropologists who compiled the Atatürk poetry. Behçet Necatigil, who was an influential figure in the formation of Atatürk poetry canon, says; "We compiled poems, -whether short or long- that were appropriate to read out in the ceremonies and at schools, in other words, appropriate for ‘recitation’” (Necatigil VII). The aim of the selection of Atatürk poetry, the way they are read out/performed, their venue, their time, and their addressee are more or less certain. Therefore, poems are written or chosen in the direction of these expectations/acceptance. When poetry meets the concept of performativity in the cultural flow of the 2000s, which was mediated by the virtual illustrations and online platforms; how does this poetry, which was written/selected in the past to be read out in public spaces as Necatigil pointed out, transform textually and semantically?

Performativity or performance are used in a variety of ways within a wide range of possible meanings. According to Richard Schechner's, one of the prominent figures of performance studies, concept of performance marks identities, bend time, reshape and adorn the body, and tell stories. Each performance has a story. Performances –of art, rituals, or ordinary life– are “restored behaviors,” “twice-behaved behaviors,” performed actions that people train for and rehearse. Hence, many moments, which are considered as individualistic and personal, are in fact parts of pre-determined performative actions such as the manner of having daily food, naturalized handshaking, the cliché words used for special moments and situations and chosen idioms to express emotions (Schechner 28-9). According to Judith Butler, “In this sense, gender is in no way a stable identity or locus of agency from which various acts proceed; rather, it is an identity tenuously constituted in time -an identity instituted through a stylized repetition of acts. Further, gender is instituted through the stylization of the body, and hence, must be understood as the mundane way in which physical gestures, movements, and enactments of various kinds constitute the illusion of an abiding gendered self” (Butler 519-20). Vikki Bell considers the performativity together with the concepts of subject and subjectivity in her "Performative Knowledge”. In this context, she focuses on the possibility of opening up a discussion for the performativity problem, various subjectivity types and the repeated power relation practices that the subjects are based on. Bell quotes Deleuze in her work: “The line of subjectification is a process, a production of subjectivity in a social apparatus (dispositive)” (Bell 215). In this context, Atatürk poetry can be regarded as a performative poem, which interpellate Kemalist nationalism in the context of Turkish national education formation as well as in a social dispositive –with Althusserian terminology; in the schools, which are the ideological apparatus of the state- (Althusser 127-186). The subjectivity established by the Kemalist discourse and as dictated form of identity become real with repeated rituals under the influence of social dispositive and with the performative texts, which integrate music, text and physical movements.

When Children of Atatürk: The Marchs and the Children's Songs, together with two music CDs, were ready for sale it was designed by considering that it will be performed in different contexts and places again and again. In the part of “What Kind of Book is this”, which is at the end of the book, the author defines the book in seven statements. These seven statements are:

“The performances in the CDs are examples for our students and teachers. We expect better performances from you on the CD's music, which are without lyrics... You can send your performances, both chorus and solos, your thoughts and questions to the” (Base 38)

One of the descriptive functions of the book is to set an example for other teachers and students with the help of performances in the CD. Together with this, it is noted to communicate with the author via e-mail in order to establish relationships between performances. Beyond being a static text, the book commences a door to an open area of mutual performative communication. Moreover, while there is a music with lyrics in one of the CDs that comes with the book; on the other one, the music is without lyrics prepared for others to perform the texts. In the section where "Children of Atatürk" is located, the event which lead this performance to spread in Turkey and to the international schools is:

“Children of Atatürk March, which is highly appreciated by the performance evaluation committee and the audience, is performed in the 17th Turkish Chorus Festival organized by the Polyphonic Choirs of Turkey at Nazım Hikmet Centre in Ankara in 2012. The march continues to be enthusiastically heard all over our country and abroad.” (8)

"Children of Atatürk" as the author noted, was liked in the festival held in Ankara, and has begun to become popular after this festival. Undoubtedly, it can be thought that "Children of Atatürk" was also performed before 2012 through the Cide Public Education Center, Rıfat Ilgaz Choir of Children. The festival that was held in Ankara in 2012 was perhaps a breaking moment, which is an important factor for the march to become more popular. Muharrem Baz wrote, described and composed the “Children of Atatürk” as a march as it is seen in the quotation above. March was originally created as a musical form with strongly accented first beats to facilitate military marching; many later examples, while retaining the military connotation, were not intended for actual marching ("march" Encyclopedia Britannica). While the naming and the construction of the “Children of Atatürk" as a march puts it into the content relations, in which militaristic references exist; its quality of the actionality, together with the prepared re-performable books and CD's, is consolidated.

"Children of Atatürk" is textually influenced by the performative structure of the books, and CDs prepared to be performed by different people in different places. The possibility of re-performing and of operating it physically have led to some blank spaces in the structure of the text. First of all, let's look at the lyrics of "Children of Ataturk":

We lighten the dark horizons like the sun

We are full of love, respect and hope; truth is our path.


We watch the horizons, heads always up

Both hardworking and honest the children of Atatürk are.


We never fade away; we are the children of [The name of the place where the march is sung]

We always follow the truth; we will never forget you.


Lal la la la la la la la

We will never forget you


Lal la la la la la la la

Children of Atatürk (Baz 9)

Regarding the text, it can be said that it is in accordance with the poetic codes of Atatürk poetry in terms of its content and imagery. In Atatürk poetry, the "sun" analogy is frequently used with different fictions such as Mustafa Kemal's emergence as a savior in the dark days of the country, and his rise as the sun from Samsun to Anatolia. Particularly, in the poems, which were written when Atatürk was alive; "the risen sun in darkness" is one of the most common poetical motifs, as it is case in “Children of Atatürk” as well. In this text, children take over the tasks of progress and modernization, which are established by the discourses of Atatürk, the main hero in poetry. Kemalist subjects, who are open to development, with their heads held high, and looking at the horizons, are imagined as the lights which do not fade away. Many poetic similarities can be found between this text and Atatürk poetry; however, what is different in "Children of Atatürk" is that this as a text can be reproduced. The first line of the third verse is not actually completed yet. In the book, this line is written "We are children of Cide" and a footnote is given for Cide: "When singing" ‘Children of Cide’ can be replaced with the name of other provinces and towns, where the singers live. (Eg. Children of İzmir, Children of Aydın)"(ibid.). In other performances of the text, it can even be seen that this option is filled with brand names given, for instance, private schools. This space, which is deliberately left to be rewritten, replayed, or to become belong to the place where it is performed; is actually one of the obvious markers that “Children of Atatürk” is a performative text. In a sense, the missing text will only be completed when it is performed. Because of this, the repetitive performative action is necessary for the elimination of textual imperfections.

"Children of Atatürk", which is textually dependent on the performance, must also be performed to be completed semantically. Students, as being children of Atatürk, are constituted as subjects who are full of love, respect and hope as well as hardworking and honest subjects. The basic condition of being an unfading light, and being in the right path, is focused on the leitmotif line: "We will never forget you!" At this point, to whom "you" refers to is textually ambiguous. One of the meanings that the text originally delayed corresponds to a textual blank space. This ambiguity is completed when the text is performatively constructed. The moment when the music, text, sounds and physical movements are at the peak, the children turn and looks at the Atatürk poster/table/sculpture, and say "We will never forget you!" Voices and enthusiasm suddenly rise up, and students turn to Ataturk dapperly. Then, to whom “you” refers to becomes clear. This verse at the end of the poem is also at the end of the performance, and is usually repeated three times. Muharrem Baz in the performances that he directs tries to establish connections between students and audience in this section. He gives the instructions, which is given to the students with hand-arm movements, to audience, and asks the audience to sing "Lal lal la la la la la la/We will never forget you", and hence; he tries to get the audience be involved in the performance. Most of the time, the performance ends up with a scene where the audience stands and sing the march loudly.

Muharrem Baz's choreography management includes certain movements arranged in accordance with the text, and these movements are accepted and taught by other teachers with minor changes. In videos, which are accessible from the internet, or in Muharrem Baz's own website, it appears that there is a common tendency to develop the choreography of "Children of Atatürk", which aims to interpret the text physically. Children, who are usually put on lines and are dressed with the picture of Atatürk printed uniform t-shirts, move their hands, arms, legs and heads in accordance with the rhythm and lyrics of the march. The choreography of the text, under Muharrem Baz's control, begins with stepping with right foot, and beating out the rhythm; this section can be transformed into performances, which are similar to military "march" movements, in which two legs are stepped in accordance with rhythm. In the choreographies; "us/me" is emphasized by bringing the right hand close to the chest, while "we are full of love, respect, and hope" and "we are hardworking and honest" lines are recited. Along with the words "we watch the horizons"; right hand comes close to face, in parallel to the eyebrows, similar to a watchman waiting for guard. Also, the upper part of the body is rotated from left to right, and thus, the action of watching the horizon is stimulated. In the "their heads are always up" section, children lower their arms and lift their heads up that reminds the “ten-hut position”. While the "Children of Atatürk" verses, which are located in two different parts in the text, are recited; students, whose arms are risen, mark powerfully that they are the children of Atatürk. Children, who are discursively invited to be Kemalist subjects, are dragged into physically repetitive militaristic activity. While the same lyrics, voices and physical movements are performed in the same rhythm, the performative effect, which creates an impact on the audience, is spread.

As I quoted from Richard Schechner at the beginning of the article, performance marks identities, bend time, reshape and adorn the body. They are seen as restored behaviors to educate people or to be rehearsed/replicated in rituals, artistic activities or ordinary life. And every performance has an absolute story (Schechner 28-9). In the story of "Children of Atatürk", which is textually a basic Atatürk poetry; children, as being honest, hardworking and respectful subjects, who are surrounded by Kemalist discourses and are invited not to forget Atatürk. They are also performatively trained by symbolic physical movements in a militaristic imagery, which is evoked by the march. Thus, in the sense that Butler emphasizes, the Kemalist identity and nationality, which is naturalized in time, is created with repetitive performances on specific days and rituals such as 23th of April. In Deleuze’s terminology, a line of subjectification is a process, a production of subjectivity in a social apparatus (dispositive). From such a point of view, it can be argued that "Children of Atatürk", which is a popular sub-genre of Atatürk poetry, is one of the recent performative designs that substitute political, social, ideological and literary functions of Atatürk poetry. "Children of Atatürk", carrying contemporary cultural elements, is shaped by the state ideology, and it is a performative text; it is called a "march" that calls for action; its textual gaps can be completed with performance; it is sold with CDs to be performed in other places, and a choreography, which disciplines children, is developed. It is possible that what Atatürk poetry writers and compilers had in their minds is to put the poems, which can be recited in the schools with a loud voice in front of the crowd of audience in the ceremonies.



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[1] It is possible to see various versions of it by typing the keywords “Children of Atatürk” to the search engines on the internet.

[2] For more information on Atatürk Poetry and the graph, please see, Özcan Kaya, Atatürk Şiirleri ve Atatürk Şiirleri Antolojileri: Tür, İçerik, İmgelem, 2015.