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Essay Poems: What are They, and What is Their Value and Purpose?

Essay Poems: What are They, and What is Their Value and Purpose?

by Denny JA



In 2006, Poetry: A Magazine of Verse, published an article by John Barr, the president of the Poetry Foundation. Barr’s article was entitled, “American Poetry in the New Century”. This article represented a sharp criticism of development s in poetry in the United States at that time. However, his criticism is also relevant for addressing the world of poetry in Indonesia in these times.


According to John Barr, poetry is becoming more difficult for the public to comprehend. The writing of poetry has also experienced stagnation; there haven’t been any meaningful changes in decades.   The general public feels even more distanced from the world of poetry. Poets are too self-indulgent with their own imagination, or they relate only to ideas and feedback from other poets. They have become more separated from and less responsive to the concerns that are felt by the wider audience. In his own words, Barr writes, “ Poetry is nearly absent from public life, and poets too often write with only other poets in mind, failing to write for a greater public.”


John Barr longs for the type of poetry and literature that was written during Shakespeare’s time. In that era, poetry was an attractive form of literature that was widely discussed, appreciated by the public, and synergized with the development of a growing literate society. During the Shakespearian era, poetry also reflected the aura and salient issues of that time.


I myself conducted some research on poetry related to its development in Indonesia in 2011. I established the Lingkaran Survei Indonesia (LSI), which has conducted hundreds of research projects. The research that I performed at LSI actually managed to predict events that had not yet taken place, such as the victories of candidates in the legislative and presidential campaigns of 2009 in short order. In the current context, I tried to conduct research with a sample and purpose that is more focused on the world of poetry.


As a sample, I randomly selected five poems that were printed in the most prominent Indonesian newspaper during the year of January through December, 2011. I do not claim that these poems were representative of all of Indonesia. However, this sample represented poems which were chosen by the largest newspaper (specifically in terms of circulation). Next, I presented these five poems from 2011 to three groups of readers: those with high educational attainment (BA, MA, PhD), intermediate educational background (junior and high school graduates), and low educational background (elementary school graduates). Each group consisted of five subjects. For the sake of comparison, they were also provided with two well-known poems: Chairil Anwar’s “Aku” (1943) and WS Rendra’s “Khotbah” (1971).


It was quite shocking that not even a single subject from the group that had completed college programs was able to comprehend the meaning of the sample of five poems from 2011. Subjects in the intermediate- and lower-education groups experienced even greater difficulty in trying to understand these five poems. They considered the language in these poems too difficult to comprehend. Thus, since the vocabulary in these poems was incomprehensible, it became even more challenging for the subjects in these two groups to ascertain the ideas that these poems were trying to convey.


On the other hand, the study subjects were generally able to understand and deduce the messages in Chairil Anwar and Rendra’s poems. The outcomes from the respondents regarding these two poems were varied. However, the subjects were confident in conveying what each assumed to be the message of each poem. On the other hand, the respondents felt quite distanced in trying to understand the five poems in the sample from 2011. Approximately 90% of the study respondents could not actually venture any comment about the purported messages of these poems.


When the respondents were asked to analyze why they experienced difficulty in understanding these five poems, they gave a variety of comments. The more tolerant ones commented that poetry is like a painting. There are realistic paintings whose subject is easy to understand; there are also abstract art paintings that make it necessary “to crane our necks” to understand its contents. This tolerant view implies that difficulty in understanding these poems results from the poet’s choice of a certain expressive medium. However, more cynical respondents stated (in edited language) that “modern poets are preoccupied with imagination and their own loneliness. These poets write in language that is difficult to comprehend, and later it is labeled “an aesthetic achievement of language”. It seems that the more difficult it is to understand, the higher the value and quality of the poem. Modern poets share a community in which they compliment each other on the use of complicated phrases. “It appears that this whole group has become more alienated from the general public.”


However, whether these respondents are tolerant or cynical, both groups idealized poetry as a form of literature that can be enjoyed by the wider society and thus use language that is simple enough for the average person to understand.


The previous quotations come from two sources that deserve attention. The first source is an expert in literature; John Barr heads an institution that publishes a prestigious poetry magazine, which has been in existence for more than a century. The second source is the local public at large, whose opinions were obtained through a research sample. These two sources have reached the same conclusion, and they have similar expectations. They miss poetry that cared more for the general public, away from the world inhabited specifically by poets. They also long for poetic language that is more intelligible to the public at large.


This is truly an era of free expression. Religiosity is not deterred and is thus present in every region. Starting with religion, ideology, and ranging all the way to art, this is always a multicolored spectrum. There are rights for every person, and thus for each poet, to choose his own form of expression independently. Every poet, regardless of the linguistic form or literary style he chooses, is entitled to be present in this postmodern era. However, the two quotations from the previously mentioned sources, which yearn for poetry that demonstrates a closer relationship with the concerns of the general public, also appeal for a proper response.



In March, 2012, I published a book of poems, Atas Nama Cinta (In the Name of Love). In addition to the printed edition, the book also appeared in a mobile web version so that it was easily accessible on cellphones and Twitter. Some claimed that this book was considered as a turning point that introduced literature to the era of social media.


In a matter of only one month, access to the web version of Atas Nama Cinta exceeded one million “hits”. This had never occurred before in the history of poetry books, books of literature, or even with any other book for the general market. People did not just go online to read the book; they also gave comments, which can easily be seen at the website, http://www.puisi-esai.com.


I was also amazed. It turned out that the general public actually read and responded to poetry in a swift and massive manner. I assumed that they would give responses that would be similar to comments made for other poems. They responded by saying that it was important that they were treated to poetry that was written in simple language. It was important that they were presented with important themes that resonated with their own sense of agitation in social contexts. It was also significant that these readers were provided easy access to these poems through new “hot” network technology, i.e. via social media, such as Twitter, smartphones, and the internet.


As I wrote in the preface to my book, Atas Nama Cinta, I had never really pretended to be a poet. At that time, I was searching for a different medium so that my social anxiety and commitment for change could be conveyed to the public within a suitable forum. During that journey and quest, I, as a capable writer, reached “the peak of several mountains”. However, “the peak of several mountains” remained unsatisfactory in my bid to express my “inner child” on several important social issues.


I had previously expressed my views on various social issues within the form of research articles. My research findings had already been publicized through the auspices of LSI; their value was already extraordinary. For example, in the two years of 2011-2012, ten of my research findings became front page headlines; in one national newspaper, research findings from LSI appeared as headline news in ten consecutive editions. These findings became “page one” headline news in the most prominent Indonesian newspapers, such as Kompas, Koran Tempo, Media Indonesia, Republika, Jakarta Post, Seputar Indonesia, and Rakyat Merdeka. Never before in Indonesian history since the republic’s establishment had research findings captured the attention of the national press in such a dramatic manner, placing these findings as front page headline news day after day.


I had already expressed my opinion on various issues in newspaper columns. This accomplishment was also exceedingly important. More than one-thousand of my articles were given space in newspaper columns in every national newspaper during the period of 1986-2004. I had also expressed my opinions on social issues on talk show programs. This accomplishment had also reached its maximal impact. For three years, I was the host of a talk show on Metro TV and Delta Radio. All of the opinions I aired were collected and compiled. The contents of all these social opinions filled no fewer than twenty books. It had never happened before that anything close to twenty books, especially comprising opinions on social issues, had been published in the national media.


Despite these achievements, various forms of expressing my opinions on social issues no longer felt satisfying to accommodate my “inner child” this time. I often joked with my closest friends that I was experiencing a late middle-age pregnancy because I still hadn’t managed to find the right medium to “give birth to” my inner child. Since 2004, I have taken an extended break from the world of continuous writing for the media. During an eight-year span (through 2012), it is possible that I only wrote once or twice for the media. I was looking for a new medium. In fact, I was yearning for a new medium.


The writing medium that I revered was one that could touch the heart. Beyond this, however, this medium could also render the readers more knowledgeable and sympathetic regarding a social issue, even if only to a limited extent. The following are some criteria that I have arranged for essay poems:


  1. It must touch the heart by exploring the inner, personal experience as well as express the inner psychological aspects of man in a concrete manner;
  2. It must portray mankind concretely in a social context or in a concrete, authentic historical event. It should not evade the existence of relevant research that comprehends the social reality attached to an event. It should also not avoid using footnotes, since their use is a central aspect of this medium;
  3. It must be written in language that is simple enough to be read by the general public, yet still be elegantly arranged; and
  4. It must depict a certain social dynamic or describe a dynamic that involves the character of a perpetrator. The composition of an essay poem should not elude or preclude the possibility that it becomes lengthy and divided into many short chapters.


These four requirements cannot be fulfilled by any medium that currently exists. It is clear that a regular essay, research study, or newspaper column does nor explore the inner side of man. On the other hand, a poem does not feature footnotes related to research findings, which are appropriate for research projects. I have independently developed a new medium, which was subsequently named an essay poem. It is a poem that possesses the characteristic feeling of an essay. Thus, my inner child was born in the format of an essay poem.


Is this a new genre in Indonesian poetry? This is no longer my concern. Beneath the skies in this current era, there is nothing that is totally new. However, the brew that is blended from the four criteria that I have “cooked” is something different and innovative. After all, footnotes placed within an essay poem are just as appropriate as using footnotes in a scientific research article.


What I did not anticipate was the public reception of the essay poems in Atas Nama Cinta. At the official website, http://www.puisi-esai.com, the number of “hits” exceeded one million in under one month’s time. In the world of social media, e.g. on Twitter, the book was debated. Some highly-rated artists were interested in cooperating to promote essay poetry. Sapardi Djoko Damono, Sutardji Calzoum Bachri, and Ignas Kleden were willing to provide the closing remarks. Putu Wijaya, Sutardji Calzoum Bachri, Niniek L. Karim, Sudjiwo Tedjo, and Fatin Hamama produced a video clip of readings from the essay poems. Hanung Brahmantyo, a film director who received this prestigious honor, also made a film clip and plans to produce a film for the big screen. If everything goes according to plan, this would be the first poem to be made into a movie for the big screen.


I found a format for writing that was able to represent and express my distress at that time. Observing the ultra-high number of “hits” at the essay poem website, I feel that this composition format has also been received enthusiastically by the public. Many of my colleagues will also write their own opinions and poems in a similar writing format.



In May, 2012, I met fellow poets and artists from one generation. For more than twenty years, they have been living in the world of poetry writers. They have established and built up the reputation of a poetry magazine, called Jurnal Sajak. The talent behind this poetry journal consists of four poets, Agus R. Sarjono, Acep Zamzam Noor, Ahmad Subhanuddin Alwy, Jamal D. Rahman, as well as Tugas Supriyanto, a graphic designer. Their dedication to poetry has been testeI am expressing my appreciation to these poets for publishing Jurnal Sajak, which they established. I am also making a close comparison between Sajak Journal and Poetry: A Magazine of Verse, which was founded by Harriet Monroe in 1912. The Poetry Magazine, which has maintained a long span of life beyond its first 100 years, is considered a significant literary publication for many reasons. One reason is that Poetry continues to absorb and energize various “movements” in the world of poetry which exist and have existed in various eras. Following developments in the dynamic s of the evolution of poetry in the United States can be accomplished by reading Poetry magazine from time to time, because this magazine “bounces” and reflects real trends in the evolution of poetry.


I have argued that it is appropriate in Indonesia for Jurnal Sajak to choose a path similar to that of Poetry Magazine in the United States. One similar approach Sajak could adopt would be to support and participate in making the local poetry “movement” more dynamic. It would be ideal if Jurnal Sajak in its Indonesian version would not only provide space for the best works of budding as well as veteran poets but also become more active in energizing the passion and rejuvenation of the poetry world in Indonesia.


I imagine that essay poetry could be a starting point to “be touched” by the Sajak Journal. Essay poetry also has the potential to be packaged as a new poetic “movement.”   In our previous experiences at the Ciputat School, my colleagues and I moved in similar directions. Zuhairi, Gaus, Novri, Anick, Jon, Elza, Ihsan, Neng Dara, Buddhy, and other colleagues at the Ciputat School had earlier paved the way to making essay poetry a ”movement” that offers a new strategy both for expressing social opinion and for adopting an innovative style of poetry.


What comes around goes around. A meeting with Agus R. Sarjono and his colleagues has made essay poetry wander to its next phase, which is to become a “movement”.   An agreement was made; Jurnal Sajak will be active in energizing this movement by organizing a contest for essay poetry writers in which both established poets and the general public can participate.


A new need has emerged. In my position as the writer who originally conceived of essay poetry, I need to consider in greater detail what constitutes and does not constitute an essay poem. A manifesto and a sturdier platform are required. The platform for essay poems will be applied as the criteria for the panel of judges to determine the value and validity of the essay poems that are submitted in the contest.


For me personally and for my colleagues, this contest is merely a simulation that will serve to return poetry to the public at large.   The contest is only a simulation that invites the public to illustrate social reality in a new poetic format. This contest is only a simulation that invites the public to express opinions through poetry. It is very fortunate that Jurnal Sajak is willing to perform an important role by providing a permanent space and rubric for essay poems in its publications.



So what constitutes an essay poem and what does not? This is the platform for essay poetry. First, an essay poem must explore the inner personal side of a person who is grappling with a social conflict. Thus, if Budi falls in love with Ani, this by itself is insufficient to become the basis for an essay poem. This topic could only become a true essay poem if the social context for this situation were to change; for instance, Budi falls in love with Ani, but their religions differ, or they come from different castes or social class to the extent that these differences instigate a dilemma or conflict within that community.


A father and child who argue back and forth is insufficient to be the ingredients of an essay poem. In order for this situation to be deemed the basis for an essay poem, it must be contextualized within a social setting. For example, the father defends Soeharto’s New Order (Orde Baru), while the son defends Reformation (Reformasi, i.e. the post-Soeharto reformation era, 1998-2002). Although they love each other, they confront each other angrily because they advocate diametrically opposed political positions.


Secondly, essay poetry must employ language and phrasing that is easy to understand. Literary devices, such as metaphor and analogy, are indeed valuable for inclusion in the poem; however, an effort should be made so that any high school student will be able to quickly grasp the message that the poem aims to convey. The poetry of Chairil Anwar or Rendra can be used as a reference for language usage. Poetry also serves as an effective medium of communication.


The main principle that governs essay poetry is that the more difficult and challenging a poem is to be understood by the general public, the less valuable the poem becomes as a means of communication between the poet and the external world of potential readers.


If a story is written in difficult language, although it may be written that way in the name of aesthetic linguistic attainment, this subverts the purpose and spirit of the essay poem. From its inception, essay poetry has endeavored to revert poetry so that it is easily understood (again) by the public at large. Aesthetic achievement does not need to be accomplished specifically by using difficult phrasing. Indeed, if the language is too difficult to comprehend, it cannot represent the crowning achievement of aesthetic beauty; instead, it just demonstrates the incompetence of the poet to communicate effectively.


I myself am able to appreciate a painting that is rendered in a non-realistic, abstract style, which is characteristic of the surrealist art movement. For example, I truly enjoy Salvador Dali’s surrealistic painting, The Persistence of Memory. When I was attending college in the United States, I had the opportunity to buy a copy of it, and I often stared at it when I was tired of working on my research essays. However, when it relates to linguistic expression, I subscribe to the notion that “if it is easier to understand, it is better.”


Thirdly, essay poetry is a form of fiction. It is permissible for an essay poem to portray a real historical figure who actually lived; however, that reality should be enhanced through dramatization that involves various fictitious figures. The significance of an essay poem lies in its ability to convey moral content and contemplation based on drama that does not require an accurate portrayal of historical events. Essay poetry is neither meant to be a biography nor a slice of objective history.


It is true that during the riots of May, 1998 there were cases of rape against young women of Chinese descent. It is also true that in the aftermath of these riots, many ethnic Chinese families left Indonesia and sought refuge in various countries. However, the figure named Fang Yin who appears in my essay poem, Sapu Tangan Fang Yin (Fang Yin’s Handkerchief), is fictitious. She is a made-up figure. It is precisely because she is fictitious that the author felt especially free to create a more touching dramatization, which also makes the reader more contemplative.


It is also true that there were incidents of violence in Cikeusik in 2011. It is true that there were confrontations between hard-line Muslim groups and followers of Ahmadiyah. However, the figures Romi and Yuli in my essay poem, entitled Romi and Yuli of Cikeusik, are both fictional. They are inserted into the story in order to dramatize issues of discrimination and thus enhance our edification.


Fourthly, essay poems are not just born from the imagination of the poet but are also the product of at least some minimal research concerning social reality. These poems respond to social issues that resonate within a certain community, whatever they may be. The social issues that are documented may relate to issues of social bias, religious resurgence, poverty, riots, and a thousand other issues. Although essay poems are fictional, they are contextualized within an authentic social setting.


When the gay community claimed that a person could be homosexual from early childhood (related to the essay poem Cinta Terlarang Batman dan Robin /The Forbidden Love of Batman and Robin), this argument was sustained and upheld by publications who cited authentic findings in the real world. In the same poem, when Bambang gets married to another gay man in an American church, this is reinforced by a reference that documents that there is a particular church that arranges weddings for gay couples.


Footnotes represent a central feature of essay poems. The footnotes indicate that the fiction in the underlying story emerges from concrete social facts. If the reader wishes to seek more details concerning this social fact, he or she can investigate and receive more detailed information through the footnote.   The function of the footnote is not simply to be an accessory or stylistic feature but instead it serves a central purpose in an essay poem. From the outset, essay poems actually combine fact and fiction. Factual elements in an essay poem are mediated by these footnotes.


Fifth, essay poems are long and arranged in chapters. At a basic level, an essay poem is a drama or a short story that is converted to a poem. Within an essay poem, it is appropriate for the dynamics to be portrayed concerning the attributes of the main character or a change in a certain social reality.   In the essay poem, Fang Yin’s Handkerchief, a change is described in Fang Yin, who gradually becomes able to break free from her traumatic past. She approaches the idea of returning to Indonesia with great anger; however, as described in a natural style in the poem, she manages to stifle her hatred and begins to yearn for Indonesia.


In the essay poem, The Forbidden Love of Batman and Robin, a change is depicted in the character of Amir. In the early stages, he is afraid of openly admitting his homosexuality. However, in the final stage, he is brave enough to remove his mask.


A change in character in itself requires the story to be divided and arranged in chapters. When it is quantified, an essay poem is manifested in at least 10,000 characters. The five essay poems that constitute the anthology Atas Nama Cinta (In the Name of Love) each consist of approximately 20,000 characters.


It is clear, however, that these five criteria are not binding (like a religious reprimand for committing a sinful transgression). These five criteria represent the requirements that are easiest to discern if one wants to compose an essay poem. When a new “movement” and genre needs to be packaged, it is impossible to evade the issue of determining the line that separates “what it is” and “what it’s not.” These five criteria clearly describe what an essay poem is.


Essay poetry is only one variation among many forms of poetry that already exist and which will exist in the future. It does not pretend or claim to be superior or inferior to other forms of poetry. It also does not purport to either dominate or homogenize poetry. It is just one rose from the exuberant garden of Eden, which is filled with many other types of flowers. It is just one deer of a certain species that dwells among many other kinds of wildlife. It is only one color, orange, among a rainbow, which is enriched by a variety of other colors.


Karya : Denny JA