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Understanding Denny JA’s Essay Poems

Understanding Denny JA’s Essay Poems

by Sapardi Djoko Damono, Poet


When Denny JA sent me his long verses, there was a certain issue that made me interested to ask:

Could you please explain the possible connection between poetry and footnotes? As he has already clearly explained, the footnotes in his poems possess an essential function in understanding the poem.

Are footnotes unnecessary in writing poetry? And conversely, are there no examples at all of poets having attached footnotes to one of their poems? We already know the answer: Yes. Footnotes are occasionally needed to provide clarification regarding various issues, such as names, events, foreign language terminology, and many other aspects that need to be elucidated for the edification of the reader. And footnotes can be written directly by the poet or another person. This last aspect concerns poetry in translation, which often requires footnotes in order to provide clarifications concerning various words or phrases (in the original language) whose poetic nuance may be misunderstood or unappreciated by the intended reader. Of course, it is also possible to exclude footnotes and thereby place the burden of trying to understand the meaning of a poem in translation entirely on the reader.


So, what is the connection between footnotes and Denny’s poems? In the preface to his book, he states that his poems “do not just depict the inner personal experiences of people but also the context of related social facts.” Furthermore, he explains that his compositions are motivated “not only to agitate the heart but also to help the reader to better understand social issues in the real world.” In order to achieve this objective, footnotes derived from various types of sources become crucial; thus, they become an indispensable part of his poems. Because footnotes fulfill this purpose, this has piqued my interest in discussing issues that concern these notes in greater detail.


Denny’s compositions are poetry; this is clear because among other poetic aspects, his poems are written in a visual form that has a lyrical structure arranged in stanzas. And poetry is also fiction, meaning that the composition has a particular source (and sometimes exclusively) that is inspired by imagination and creativity. How exceedingly close are Denny’s stories to everything that has ever happened… Everything is fiction because the source is derived from his own imagination. We certainly understand that common imagination is induced by all kinds of events. This is what I read within Denny’s compositions.


However, Denny has named his compositions “essay poems.” Is an essay not fiction? People say that an essay is normally fact that is conveyed in a distinct manner, which reflects the opinion of the author. An essay is a piece of writing that represents a personal approach toward a certain problem or issue that exists in one’s environment; in this sense, an essay is a work of literature.


A work of literature also possesses a similar function. However, the footnotes that are attached within this book are not merely a personal perspective but instead derive from a variety of sources that cannot be classified as essays. We like to refer to the footnotes that Denny attaches within his essay poems as facts. Many of the footnotes he cites are in the form of news items; this certainly impels us to normally classify his footnotes as facts. News is always linked to facts, i.e. something that has really happened. But what if the fact that is recorded within a footnote is used to cite fiction, i.e. a poem that is derived specifically from Denny’s imagination?


News is real and factual, while fiction is not; this is generally our perspective. However, can’t a “news story” easily change or be modified to become a “story”? I have the distinct impression that there is a difference between fiction and fact. However, between news and a story?; this is what causes him to consider a certain form of composition that I had hitherto never witnessed throughout the development of our literary history… He calls this form of composition, “Essay Poetry.”


In this context, an essay is classified as fact and, conversely, poetry is certainly classified as fiction. The issue that attracted my attention when I first read Denny’s compositions and explanations was that a push-pull interaction had emerged between “news” and “story.” This is certainly what he wants; he has composed five stories that are linked to various social and cultural issues, but he doesn’t want his readers to simply enjoy his stories. He also wants his readers to gain “a deeper understanding of social issues.” This is the distinct purpose of the accompanying footnotes.


When Rendra and F. Rahardi, for example, wrote social poems, I’m sure they also wanted us to gain “a deeper understanding of social issues,” and they offered their points of view regarding these issues. However, these two poets did not include footnotes. In one verse, F. Rahadi regarding “tuyul” provides a quotation from a dictionary to define the word “tuyul,” and this in my view also constitutes an example of a “footnote” since it is inserted within the body of the poem. However, in contrast to these two poets, Denny neither ridicules nor blames a certain side of the conflict; instead, he tries to show that there is “an attempt to foment conflict,” regardless of its outcome.


This issue among others demonstrates that Denny’s compositions are not poems of resistance and opposition or social poems like the ones we already recognize and understand; instead, these represent a distinctive subgenre developed by the author, which he calls essay poems. We know that in the field of photography, there is something called “a photo essay,” which is a series of photos that are sequenced to tell a story regarding a certain issue, normally without any deliberate footnotes of the kind Denny applies in his compositions.


In an intentional manner such as Denny chooses, essay poetry can become a stylistic choice that any writer with a similar viewpoint can emulate. What is written and conveyed by Denny originates from a certain idea that he adeptly unravels through his delivery of the story. More significantly, he has already raised some important issues, which, to my knowledge, have never been expressed before within our poetry, such as issues concerning Ahmadiyah, homosexuality, Indonesian migrant workers, religious differences, and the impact of the events of May 1998, in long verse replete with footnotes. Many of our Indonesian poets have written poems about the events of May 1998, but they are all in lyrical form, expressing feelings and emotions concerning these events.


In the five essay poems that were given space in his book, Atas Nama Cinta (In the Name of Love), Denny classifies each as pertaining to issues of social discrimination. At least, this is what makes his ideas and compositions, which have been labeled “essay poems,” significant in recording the current developments in Indonesian poetry.


I figure he needn’t worry whether the genre of poetry he has chosen will be emulated by other poets in the future. He has already offered a new style of writing, and this is already more than enough… even more so if, as he has stated, several other poets also choose to write in a similar form. So we will soon witness numerous anthologies of essay poems, which we certainly hope will not only include informative footnotes but will also serve up the kind of stories that, according to Denny, “stir the heart.”


Karya : Denny JA