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Kategori Inspiratif 7 September 2017   00:51 WIB
Essay Poetry: Its Potential and Its Challenge by Agus R. Sarjono (Poet)

Essay Poetry: Its Potential and Its Challenge

by Agus R. Sarjono (Poet)



Essay poetry, as seen from its name, is a combination of two literary states of mind, namely poems and essays. It is not necessary to explain that poetry represents a genre of literature. On the other hand, essays are clearly not classified as works of literature. It is true that for many years there have been some people in literary circles who have wrongly claimed that essays comprise works of literature. Some essays can often be poetic, and essays can often be a form of writing that is chosen anytime someone wants to discuss a certain issue regarding literature and/or discuss a certain work of literature. Although essays frequently roam back and forth in the living quarters of literature, essays still remain texts that are not works of literature. This position is rather consistent with literary criticism.


Literary criticism is an important part of the life-support of literature; however, literary criticism itself is clearly not a work of literature. Literary criticism on one hand can assume the form of an essay composition, and on the other hand it can also appear in the form of a scientific composition; however, in either sense, literary criticism is not a literary composition.


The essay as a form of composition was first known when Michel de Montaigne published some writing entitled Essais (1580). Since then, the term “essai” in France and “essay” in England has been used to designate an effort or attempt (and in this sense it represents a more temporary than a complete final piece of writing) recognized as the name for a compositional genre rendered more or less in the writing style of Michel de Montaigne. Shortly afterward, Francis Bacon followed in de Montaigne’s footsteps by writing some essays regarding various subjects with a length that tended to be shorter than the general length of de Montaigne’s earlier compositions. The essay, as Bacon (1597) tried to clarify the position of his essays, was in the form of grains of salt that stimulated the appetite in comparison to food that one might gorge on.


Since its introduction by de Montaigne, the essay has undergone development in its underlying format, enticing many writers to become involved in this expository genre. Thus, it does not astonish writers when they are reminded that the essay is considered to be the most flexible and a highly adaptable form of writing. The rapid development and increase in popularity of the essay has caused almost every high-caliber writer in the world to have written an essay, even if in some cases this is not a frequent activity. Many groups of authors, even in elite literary circles, are assessed on the quality of their essays because nearly every great writer is also adept at writing essays, and writers who demonstrate expertise in writing essays are also very likely to be accomplished poets, novelists, and short story writers.


The popularity of the essay, which began in the 16th century, experienced an even greater acceleration in the 19th century; it has become even more popular and appreciated in modern times. It is difficult to find an example of a prominent mass media outfit that does not provide space for essays within its publications.


In Indonesia, there is a fairly long history of essay writing. However, the term “essay” as a genre only became popular when H. B. Jassin published a well-known book, namely Kesusastraan Indonesia Modern dalam Kritik dan Esei (Modern Indonesian Literature in Criticism and Essays), which was later published in a few editions. Since then, the composition of essays has become a common feature in the cumulative written archives, especially of literature, in Indonesia.


Despite this, upon reading the compositions which fill Jassin’s book, the concept of the essay tends to lack clarity. This is not only because H. B. Jassin did not sufficiently clarify what he specifically called an essay but also because he did not state explicitly which among his compositions should be called criticism and which should be called essays.


If we retain the basic and classical understanding of literary criticism, i.e. “a literary composition within which one finds an effort to assess or judge the merits of a certain work of literature,” then our understanding of literary criticism in the book, Modern Indonesian Literature in Criticism and Essays, becomes relatively clear. What remains unclear is our understanding of the term essay itself. Compositions in Jassin’s book do not equip us to distinguish between compositions that may consist of essays and those that may comprise literary criticism. This effort is even more daunting when we consider that a considerable amount of literary criticism was written in essay form.


Of course, it is clear that many other essays were written even before Jassin published his seminal work, Modern Indonesian Literature in Criticism and Essays. The notable composition by Ki Hajar Dewantara, “Als Ik Een Nederlanden Was” (If I were a Dutchman, 1913), which infuriated the colonial government and led to Dewantara’s exile, cannot be anything but an essay. This is also true for S. T. Alisjahbana in his composition, “Semboyan yang Tegas” (A Firm Slogan); this composition, which triggered the Polemik Kebudayaan (Cultural Debate) is obviously an essay.


But what is really designated as an essay?


Several formulations regarding the essay have been done, for example by various dictionaries and encyclopedia, e.g. Webster’s Dictionary [1], Oxford Dictionary [2], Ensiklopedi Indonesia [3], Encyclopediae International [4], Encyclopediae Americana [5], Joseph T. Shipley [6], and J. A. Cuddon [7]. However, even at a glance, it is evident that the concept of the essay is apparently defined in a number of ways and incompletely; some definitions are even contradictory. Concerning the size of an essay, for example, there are sources (e.g. Oxford Dictionary) that claim that is a free form or of medium length (e.g. Encyclopedia International, Shipley). Another view is that an essay should be brief enough to read in one sitting, according to Webster’s Dictionary.


Looking from the stance of its contents, an essay should contain analysis and interpretation (Webster’s Dictionary), or literary, cultural, scientific, and philosophical commentary (Ensiklopedi Indonesia). On the other hand, there are other sources that do not state the contents of an essay.


The style and methodology of essays are also defined differently. Webster’s Dictionary states that the style and method of an essay is flexible and variable, while Encyclopedia Indonesia states that essays should be written with a coordinated style and method. Other sources do not mention this issue.


Some sources differentiate essays as being formal or non-formal [8] (Shipley, Ensiklopedi Indonesia, Encyclopediae International, Cuddon), while others (Encyclopediae Americana, Webster’s Dictionary, and Oxford Dictionary) do not.


For an example, let’s examine the definition in Ensiklopedi Indonesia [9]:


“An essay is a genre of prose that examines an issue within the following disciplines: literature, art, culture, science, and philosophy; on the basis of observation, close inspection, interpretation of facts or an approach which is appropriate for inducing concepts and insights, which are the product of the author’s personal efforts. Within an essay, the writer evokes a certain perspective, personal attitude, introduces his own findings, and closely examines the chosen subject with systematic analysis which is orderly, clear, and dispensed in Bahasa Indonesia from the 1930’s, especially within Pujangga Baroe magazine, and further developed in the post-World War II era.”


It is clear that the definition, “Within an essay, the writer evokes a certain perspective, personal attitude, introduces his own findings, and closely examines the chosen subject with systematic analysis which is orderly, clear, and dispensed in Bahasa Indonesia from the 1930’s, especially within Pujangga Baroe magazine, and further developed in the post-World War II era,” can be easily refuted. In an essay, the author can put forward more than one particular perspective; the author can also introduce his or her own finding or someone else’s. The author can also approach the issues systematically or in a disorganized manner, and the analysis can be clear or ambiguous. Furthermore, the essay need not be doled out in Bahasa Indonesia of the 1930’s or especially published in Pujangga Baroe magazine.


Let’s abandon (or at least postpone for a while) the definitions provided for an essay as addressed previously. This delay is not caused by the ease with which we can present proof that the definitions (above) are unconvincing, such as definitions that are viewed from the stance of the essay contents, i.e. stating that it should contain analysis, exegesis, or explication of literary, cultural, scientific, or philosophical texts. It is simple enough to establish that the vast majority of essays do not include analysis of the kind indicated by Webster’s Dictionary and furthermore, most essays are not replete with literary, cultural, scientific, or philosophical analyses, as stated in Ensiklopedi Indonesia; an exception is when the essay writer refers to another essay (e.g. in the field of science or literature) for the purpose of making a comparison or clarification.


This kind of comparison is performed in order to view the contrast in subject-object connections in the three types of compositions, as well as principles which are used as writing references for these three aforementioned kinds of compositions. This is done because Shipley [10], for instance, creates a range of essays by positioning the formal/objective (with attention to intellectual aspects) on one side and the informal/subjective (with attention to subjective experiences) on the other side. Within this range, he allocates the propensities of an essay. This definition appears quite persuasive and simple to apply when classifying types of essays. However, it is true that composing an essay cannot be recognized as separate from other forms of compositions because this would make a whole range of compositions, such as articles, monographs, running the gamut to sketches and comedy routines similar to essays and thus only distinguishable by their particular propensities. By contrasting the subject-object connections within scientific, literary, and essay compositions, it will become evident that apportioning of essays according to formal-objective versus informal-subjective elements as conceptualized by Shipley [11] (and followed by those who quote him in Indonesia) is totally irrelevant.


Several resources, which were discussed in an effort to become familiarized with essays, were used to take advantage of library collections, which are already well-known and very popular in Indonesia. Only when coerced will someone use a library that is not popular in this country.   This issue purposely facilitates and reminds people to be especially understanding concerning what is already available both in the horizon of expectations and the horizon of our consideration to the extent that recurrent surveys and efforts to discuss this issue have become more open.


Scientific, Literary, and Essay Compositions

Science represents efforts to expand knowledge, which are achieved through certain processes called the scientific method. This method separates science from other intellectual pursuits. Stanley M. Honer and Thomas C. Hunt [12] have stated that the basic framework for the scientific method consists of six steps [13], namely:


  1. Awareness and formulation of the problem;
  2. Observation and collection of relevant data;
  3. Arrangement and classification of the data;
  4. Formulation of a hypothesis;
  5. Deducing and refining a hypothesis;
  6. Testing the validity of (i.e. verifying) the hypothesis


It can be concluded from these steps that scientific writing possesses certain principles that involve an underlying framework and scientific method. Thus, the structure of scientific composition entails following certain rules that are signified by formulating a problem, organizing a theoretical framework, reporting the results of one’s investigation, drafting a summary of one’s conclusions, writing an abstract, and finally registering the research and arranging publication in a scientific journal [14].


Thus, writing a scientific paper must comply with certain rules, i.e. scientific procedures that are expected to assure objectivity within a certain scientific discipline. Being objective, according to Senn [15], means that data must be made available for scientific evaluation without regard for the character or reputation of the individual scientist.


From its objective contents, according to Cassirer, science abandons and does not emphasize the characteristics of the individual (scientist) because a key objective is to eliminate all personal and anthropomorphic elements. This is because, to fulfill its inherent nature, empirical science strives to achieve maximum objectivity, and scientific measurements require precision. Therefore, scientists must place distance between themselves and their subject. Any subjective “disturbance” regarding the subject of inquiry must be dismissed [16].

Diagram 1 [GRAPHIC IMAGE]:

S = Subject

O = Object

X = Scientific Principles

OX = Scientific Research Article


In Diagram 1, there is a clear connection between the subject (S), which is observing, and the object (O), which is being observed; S observes O, then O is processed and integrated based on scientific principles (X). The subject (S) distances himself from the object (O) to the point that the presence (and influence) of S is nearly eliminated. What remains is a description of the object (O) based on X (OX), which is called a scientific paper.


In contrast to scientific writing, a work of literature has its own principles. When composing a piece of literature, the author refers to aspects of writing literature that are relatively standard, such as: theme, plot, characterization, background information, perspective, and other elements in writing prose, such as novels and short stories; however, in poems, these include the theme, diction, pace, enjambment, figures of speech, and design of stanzas.


These rules are carried out by the writer in accordance with literary conventions that exist in a certain era; these conventions are normally followed but sometimes they are intentionally disregarded. Therefore, reading a work of literature, according to Culler [17], represents nothing less than the act of recapitulating the experience of the process that the author originally underwent in mastering the literary devices and rules that create meaning in a piece of literature.


In this regard, many literary experts, e.g. Luxemburg [18], believe that differences between fiction and nonfiction run parallel to differences between literary and nonliterary texts. Thus, fictionality can be applied as a benchmark for determining what is included or not included within literature.


The connection of literary authors with reality is a connection with imaginative possibilities, i.e. a realistic situation that a writer describes which is adapted somehow to the real world, or fictional situations in literature that possess the potential to occur in authentic reality.


Since works of literature are characterized by fictional elements, these works rely on the creativity and ingenuity of the author. If a chart is made that depicts the relationship between the observer (subject) and reality, based on the normal practice of a literary author in drafting a work of literature, it can be represented in the manner shown in Diagram 2:

Diagram 2 [GRAPHIC IMAGE]:

S = Subject

O = Object

Y = Literary Conventions

SY = Literary Composition


The second schematic diagram clearly describes the relationship between the subject (the author) who acts as an observer (S) and reality represented by the object being observed (O). S is observing O, then O is disregarded, and S conjures a fictional impression, which may or may not pertain to the object (O). If the fictitious plot is connected to O, the existence of O (in reality) is no longer significant because what exists is the subject (S) who orchestrates the creative story and writes it in accordance with the literary conventions (Y) which eventually yields SY (a work of literature).


The subject is minimized, while the object becomes the focal point when drafting scientific papers; conversely, when writing literature, it is specifically the subject that is prioritized, while the object is often neglected. This matter is handled quite differently in composing an essay. When drafting an essay, both the subject and the object play equally important roles, and thus, both are addressed. Diagram 3 describes this relationship:


Diagram 3 [GRAPHIC IMAGE]:

S = Subject

O = Object

OS = The Composition of an Essay


In Diagram 3, the relationship is clearly seen with the Subject or Essayist (S) intently observing and recording authentic reality or a specific object (O). The observer (S) views reality through its factual manifestations and cusal relationships as expressed within the observer’s human levels of perception and awareness. The essayist as a dependable observer then directly records the presence of the object which is physically and logically evident within his field of perception. This symptomology depends on the observer’s attitudes, character, temperament, intentions, attention, range of experiences, and depth of understanding. The object (O) is perceived by the essayist (S) in the sense that O exists within the essayist’s field of awareness, and to the extent that a dialectic process of discovering the objective truth, OS, emerges, it is then written by S and called an essay.


Because of this process, the personality of the essayist (S) is eternally reflected within the written content of the essay by S concerning O. In the essay, the existence of O cannot be neglected any more than the very existence of the essayist himself. If S disappears or achieves a relativistic or negligible posture, the essay will tend to become a scientific paper if it is thus written according to scientific conventions. On the other hand, if the object (O) is disregarded, it will tend to become a work of literature if literary principles are used in writing it.


The outcome of the O-S dialogue can be manifested in impressions, reflections, and other deliberations. Its attributes can be calm or more serious in addition to being imaginative or more intellectual. Moreover, regarding the topic at hand, it is open to many different issues, such as culture, art, philosophy, politics, science, economics, and religion. The degree of seriousness, casualness, and intellectualism depend substantially on the personality of the essayist and also depend on indications of the presence of the object in the cognitive awareness of the essayist. Thus, once again, the notion that essays can be classified as being formal or informal is not relevant; this is because the level of formality in an essay is not determined by the properties of a certain essay but instead, it results from an encounter between the subjective traits of the essayist and the indications of phenomena connected to the object which is being discussed in the cognitive awareness of this specific essayist.


The previous comparison represents the contrast among scientific papers, works of literature, and essays, based on the relationship between the subject (the writer) and the object (what is being described in written form). The differences among these three genres of writing can also be understood via intuitive reasoning as well as the form of writing which an author most frequently uses. However, for the particular purposes of this discussion, it is sufficient that this comparison indicates the differences among scientific papers, literary works, and essays [19].


Considered from the angle of applying abstract logic, regardless of which of these three forms of writing predominates, the composition of essays differs with the writing of scientific articles and certainly with works of literature.


From this perspective, it can be understood that essays can be brief, medium-length, or considerably long. The most common length of an essay is a maximum of approximately 2,000 words. The layout that is considered ideal is usually adapted to the size of columns found in the mass media, as well as newspapers and magazines. Despite this, essays can be differentiated according to those which are expository and descriptive, compared to essays, which express the viewpoint and attitude of the author. Essays as a form of written composition normally conform to a size that tends to be brief to moderately long. However, essays that express the attitude of the writer can be unlimited in the number of pages, e.g. John Locke’s book, entitled An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690) and Ernst Cassirer’s book, An Essay on Man (1944). These two writers named their books essays, not specifically because they were writing within the form of an essay but because they were writing within the “discipline” of an essay; it was not always necessary to think vertically; instead, these writers could also think laterally [20] and, in addition, they were able to adopt a subject-object relationship that was not mutually nullifying.


Seen from this perspective, at a basic level, every new trial (or effort) in the exchange of ideas tends to be written within an essay format. For instance, Edward Said’s composition, Orientalism, is in essay form because the character and subjectivity of the author is continuously revealed on each page, while the objects that are discussed are never abandoned, discounted or rendered in a fanciful manner [21]. He is unimpeded in playing with models, experiments, notes, and ideas. As it is common practice to think laterally, a form of creative thinking that attempts to break free from the frozen conceptualization of a certain system, Edward Said’s composition also tries to attain release from the frozen system of oriental discourse. This illustration can be extended with additional examples from Frantz Fanon’s books, which inspired post-colonial studies, as well as Benedict Anderson’s books regarding nationalism [22], which challenged the standard (and immutable) view of nationalism throughout the modern era. In Indonesia, Tan Malaka’s book, Madilog [23], was written with a mindset that is characteristic of essays. This is also true for Mochtar Lubis’ thin book, Manusia Indonesia.


Because an essay topic is open-ended, the public that reads essays can be said to be the general public. This issue distinguishes essays as a form of composition and essays that express the author’s attitude and opinions. The public for essays as a form of composition is general in character, while the public for essays as an attitude of writing tends not to be general in character. John Locke’s book, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Ernst Cassirer’s book, An Essay on Man, Edward Said’s Orientalism, Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities, for example, are similarly not intended for the general public. On the other hand, it is likely that Tan Malaka’s book, Madilog, was deliberately intended for wide readership, but it is almost certain that this book could neither be read nor understood by the general public; instead, it has only been read and understood by a specific group of people.


Puisi Esai: Spirit atau Pengertian? (Essay Poetry: Spirit or Understanding?)


Essay poetry is a fusion or combination of poetry and essay. Designating this genre as “essay poetry” yields two possibilities:

  1. Poetry that is written by applying the spirit of an essay; or
  2. An essay that is written which applies principles of poetry.


First of all, regarding the relationship between subject and object, and in reference to the literary works of Denny JA [24], it is evident that essay elements are very pronounced in his essay poems. The objects which are described are all social facts. This is true in Fang Yin’s Handkerchief, as well as Romi and Yuli of Cikeusik and Minah was Still Beheaded since these make reference to factual events. The factual background is clarified by the presence of footnotes, which indicate when, where, and how events transpired, and who was involved, by making reference to sources that inform the reader of these facts. The Ballad of Batman and Robin distills factual elements connected to the perpetrators of certain events; however, these events, or at least these phenomena, by themselves are truly founded in social facts, and to emphasize the factual basis, again, these are indexed by footnotes.


All of these facts if researched through scientific methods would yield a scientific article. However, a scientific paper, similar to that addressed previously, requires the elimination of the subject (i.e. the view of the writer) to the greatest extent possible. However, the disappearance of the subject-writer’s presence along with all his involvement and tremulous emotions toward the object he describes and further impels the writer, in this case Denny JA, is rendered impossible and undesirable. The social issues which he gleans as a social scientist and analyst dismay the author, and it is precisely the active involvement of the subject-writer that is desired. The active involvement of the subject along with the disappearance of the entity of the object as a durable fact, although rather common in works of literature, may not be desirable here, when looking at this from a different stance. Hard facts are what the writer wants to grab hold of in a subjective manner. These two aspects, i.e. objective facts and subjective involvement, truly need to be maintained by the writer. Preserving and supporting both of these aspects, whether or not this is desirable, compels the author to select the essay as the basic form of his composition.   However, this degree of subjectivity begs to augment the writer’s involvement and attachment both internally and externally; thus, this literature, in this case poetry, is understood as accommodating the extent of involvement of the writer. To guard against facts being misconstrued as fiction, footnotes are required to protect the factual veracity of certain events, thus preserving them as historical facts rather than fiction.


Literature is also favored for being associated with a certain subject-object relationship. For scientific inquiries, the object of research must be scrutinized with great detail in order to draw general conclusions that explain a certain phenomenon. On the other hand, in writing literature, the author normally avoids reaching general conclusions. All manner of general conclusions, observations, attitudes, and inquiries concerning a certain phenomenon are disdained by literary authors because good literature at a basic level truly probes and then rejects anything that has general implications. General phenomena and perspectives that make generalizations will be critically tested through the lens of particularity. General categories will be downgraded and interred, then transformed to become the particular experience of a certain person in specific conditions and situations.


Considering an example from one of Denny JA’s essay poems, the phenomenon of the May 1998 Jakarta riots, which exacted a toll among ethnic Chinese victims, gives rise to the experiences of a particular figure, a young woman named Fang Yin. The grounding of social phenomena in the life of the protagonist and the particular situations she encounters necessitates literary proximity. A quarrel between two large ancestral families (in the form of a long-standing ancestral feud between two villages, two ethnic groups, two cultures, or two religious groups) is reduced to the particular experience of two young lovers, as described by Shakespeare. Thus, the tragedy which was experienced by Romeo and Juliet becomes a tragedy that also breaks the hearts of readers and viewers of the eponymous play.


Various treatises concerning the sociological and psychological reasons for the feud between two warring factions, although replete with theoretical presentations, statistical data, and advice for resolving these conflicts, will not make the public experience and appreciate this absurd ancestral quarrel. It is particularly the presence of two love-stricken teenagers, Romeo and Juliet, since it was first performed on stage during Elizabethan times and through each era until now, which stirs the soul of each sensitive reader.


Because it emerges from the desire to personally enter the social phenomena that are especially crucial in Indonesia and raise them within a poetic form so that one can become emotionally involved and enter the psychological mindset of the protagonist, who appears as a victim due to social circumstances, it is not surprising if the medium of communication becomes an important consideration. Choosing poetry as this medium would not be efficacious if the social issue that was raised in a poem could not be communicated to the widest possible audience of readers. Because of this, the diction (phrasing) of the poem tends to be as communicative as possible. The idea of being communicative on its own is a relative concept because it depends entirely on the recipient of the message. The greater the lack of sophistication among the readers as recipients of the message, the simpler and easier the language use must be in order to be called communicative. Conversely, the greater the sophistication of the readers as receivers of a message, the more complex the language and ideas must be in order to be called communicative.


The Indonesian readership, virtually from various educational backgrounds, are not readers who have a tradition of reading literature in a manner that would make them familiar with various literary techniques and linguistic conventions. At a certain point, one could presume that this issue demonstrates a weakness of Indonesian intellectual traditions since intellectual traditions normally presuppose relatively proficient knowledge of literature. However, blaming the educated class in Indonesia for their lack of adeptness, which did not develop in the tradition of reading and comprehending literature, is also not a wise idea. This is even more true when we consider the sufficiently large number of Indonesians who have progressed beyond a Bachelor’s degree in literature by pursuing higher degrees and doctorates in literature after studying for many semesters yet still lack a satisfactory grasp of literature, although some have published books on literary theory and summaries of various theories which apply to foreign literature.


Poetry often requires that the poet process and exploit words and language as optimally as possible. Chairil Anwar selected words and pursued them to the bare bone of their essence. Sutardji Calzoum Bachri probed the use of everyday language and overturned the conventions of general language to liberate words from these conventions, which were overburdened, to the point that words were ostensibly able to break free and stand independent from social, ideological, and psychological loads. In short, poetry occasionally needs poets who are willing to test the conventions of language. In this regard, in order to obtain the greatest opportunity to communicate, Denny JA must truly choose language that already conforms to public conventions and apply them optimally in his quest to communicate with the widest spectrum of the public.



Jurnal Sajak (the Sajak Journal) is holding a contest for writing the best essay poems (Lomba Menulis Puisi Esai). Denny JA has already joined and become a member of Jurnal Sajak as its general manager. He conceived of the idea to hold an essay poem writing contest, and we reached agreement on this together. Thus, the Essay Poem Writing Contest has become an endeavor that has been consciously chosen by Jurnal Sajak.


Previously, Berthold Damshäuser, an editor at Jurnal Sajak, had written an article concerning his longing for rhyming verse as a form of poetry that was combined with arousing and melodic meter. This yearning is shared by the staff of Jurnal Sajak. In the midst of the current environment of Indonesian poetry, which predominantly entails prosaic poems that demonstrate little consideration for incorporating diction (creative phrasing) and meter, this yearning has become more consequential. With the current presence of a new element of poetry, “Essay Poems”, the Essay Poem Writing Contest showcases discrete extremes in poetry: “pure poetry” versus “engaging poetry”.


Several basic guiding principles have been addressed above regarding scientific, essay, and literary compositions. In deliberating our understanding of the features of composing essays and literature, it is possible to imagine, more or less, a fusion of these two forms: essay poetry. There may be some experts who are more interested in the terminological aspect of “essay poetry” and who may thus grapple with testing and questioning the legitimacy of the specific term “essay poem”.   We, on the other hand, are more interested in underscoring the spirit which is being conveyed by essay poetry rather than rigidly questioning the validity of the term “essay poetry”.


Essay poetry, as demonstrated in Denny JA’s anthology, Atas Nama Cinta (In the Name of Love), could be labeled on the basis of several aspects narrative poetry, epic poetry, a ballad, and other such appellations, in consideration of the plots and cast of figures as well as the explicit social setting (in each of the five essay poems in this book).


However, the designation “narrative poetry” would encourage people to underscore the narrative aspect of these works, i.e. their story line. On the other hand, the label “epic poetry” would promote the idea of emphasizing the epic nature of long episodic verse. Both terms, narrative poetry and epic poetry, could be certainly applied, for example, to fiction, such as the epic story of the Mahabharata. In this regard, it should be emphasized that essay poetry differs with fiction because it is firmly and solidly grounded in fact and, because of this, it requires footnotes whose purpose is to cite related facts. Consequently, I am more interested in the spirit that is conveyed by essay poetry rather than getting involved in discussing the narrow and rigid aspects of the term “essay poetry” itself.


These are some of the manifestations of the spirit conveyed by essay poetry:

  1. The involvement of the poet in crucial matters inhabits and represents important issues in the lives of the public at large;
  2. It demonstrates respect for facts, accompanied by a generally unhurried approach to drawing conclusions regarding certain facts or phenomena (or even more so tacit acceptance of public announcements) and then fictionalizes them;
  3. It shows respect for research, which provides effective and relatively objective opportunities to discern the truth about social issues, which are intended as subjects for discussion in poetry;
  4. It grounds social phenomena in a unique manner, which considers many assumptions about social stigma that thrive among the common people as general beliefs (and prejudices), and frames these ideas within a specific social setting, populated by protagonists and antagonists; and
  5. It demonstrates an awareness that poetry by its very nature performs a communicative function. Poetry that does not communicate with its readers loses its significance; this is true for communicative failure that results from the shortcomings of the poet, e.g. obscurity, but it may also result from the deficiencies of the reader, e.g. a lack of insight or experience in reading poetry.


In the midst of the current situation of poetry in Indonesia, which we tend to imagine involves readers who have common ground with the poet (and all poets presume this to be true), this new movement is significant. It is imprudent to imagine merely a handful of poets when a poet who writes poems lives in a country whose population exceeds 250 million people, whose lives are continuously inundated with multiple social issues and often oppressed and battered by social ills. Because of this reality, Indonesian poets need to constantly remind themselves that they dwell among a population of more than 250 million souls and that many Indonesians suffer and remain impoverished both due to their own mistakes in life and mainly due to the intransigence of the political elite whose life horizons never extend beyond their own physical needs, including their economic welfare, political self-preservation, and physical compulsions.


Indonesia has suffered from many tragic events, including social misfortune (e.g. the Jakarta riots of May 1998, and other riots in Sambas, Maluku, Poso, Mesuji, and others), as well as natural disasters (e.g. the tsunamis of Aceh and Flores, earthquakes in Yogyakarta and Western Sumatera, volcanic eruptions of Mount Merapi and others). Many poems have been written commemorating these calamities. However, how particularly these poems were all written in verse, or are these verses still in the form of a general perspective? Particularity makes problems become more difficult for drawing conclusions at the same time that we engage in retesting generalizations; indeed, these stigmas have persisted in the lives of the public throughout this era.


Concerning the Yogyakarta earthquake (May, 2006) or the Aceh tsunami (December, 2004), for instance, we tend to feel upset and mournful as a result of these tragedies. However, literature is insufficient when it only supplies us with tears and verses of commiseration. Its value would be much different if poets presented a specific figure within a particular situation. This figure could appear in the form of the victim of a tragic event whose situation is unique or special and not necessarily representative of a general scenario featuring a generic “victim of a disaster”.   In fact, it never fails to present a challenge for a poem concerning an earthquake to portray a figure in the form of an adventurer, such as a loan shark or a political party member, for example, who at first appears displaying assistance posters and business cards in various locations which provide a good view from every angle of the disaster, then appears at the head of the efforts to collect donations from various far-flung regions of Indonesia and finally distributes a small portion of this money and swallows the remainder whole without blinking. Upon seeing verse that exhibits a particular theme in an explicit manner, the reader is served an authentic illustration by having a chance to contemplate a contextualized social phenomenon in a heartfelt way rather than experience a poetic treatment of a certain topic in a detached manner.


There is a widespread assumption among the public that poetry is about daydreams and fantasy. Daydreams and fantasies, of course, are then attached to fiction. Consequently, any poem can be neither more nor less than the product of the poet’s fantasy or daydream. It is clear that this public perception is inaccurate. Unfortunately, some literary authors also believe that poetry is a form of fantasy and reverie. All poems (of decent quality) derive from facts, including social facts and psychological facts. At a basic level, authentic poets are analysts who will methodically research their subject of interest before writing a poem related to that theme. Without conducting research, without meticulous observation of the intended topic, poetry becomes a kind of tinkering with language and a meaningless vocation because even a laborer who manufactures chairs is attached to the fact that the chairs he makes have to pass quality control based on their practical use by people in real life. Thus, the spirit for returning research and observation to the lap of poetry is important both for the public at large and for poets who tend to believe that poetry is just the result of fantasy and mere dreams.


Literature remains distant from the public for two reasons. First, reading poetry has yet to become a tradition and thus an important part of the educational process for the purpose of creating an educated class that is literate [25]. Secondly, literary authors are not involved in writing about the themes of the current era [26], including the crucial issues that confront the general public.


Chairil Anwar was widely recognized by Indonesians due to the two reasons mentioned above. His poems were taught and recited in the public schools, and he wrote from the heart of the Indonesian revolution (against Dutch colonialism), which represented a major theme for the public during that historic era.


Finally, poetry by its fundamental nature is a form of communication. Communication within literature tends to be construed in two ways: pure poetic communication and general communication. Believing that literary communication serves the purpose of communicating pure poetic ideas, the poet is often tempted to play around with language with the mistaken presumption that making his phrasing less common necessarily makes it better or that violating grammar rules makes his verses shine. A certain poet has engaged in reduplication of words by uniting the repetitive pair as one word (and obscuring the elements of the reduplicated words along with their meaning). Another poet removes affixes from verbs turning them into basically meaningless words even though a verb is syntactically appropriate, e.g. “the moon is pale, the wind quiv” when the correct form would be “the moon is pale, the wind quivers.” This meddling with linguistic rules appears creative, but it reduces intelligibility and communicative value.


On the other hand, by supposing that literary communication has a general communicative purpose, some poets may tend to choose verb phrases that are easily understood but lack poetic aspects.


However, there are actually many possibilities and opportunities in poetic communication which can be utilized, starting with diction (e.g. word choice), form, design, meter, connotation, as well as figures of speech and literary devices (e.g. metaphor, metonymy, and repetition). Indeed, a poet may exploit non-poetic forms in order to facilitate poetic communication, similar to Rendra’s use of a pamphlet to effect poetic communication in his verses that evoke social criticism. Some readers at that time thought that this was a real pamphlet, without considering the possibility that the form of the pamphlet was adopted by Rendra as a ruse to momentarily stray from the routine design of lyrical poetry and then abruptly strike the reader by resuming his parody in the form of a pamphlet.


Diction as well as poetic form can be orchestrated by intense involvement of the poet in consideration of the object of a certain poem. This intensity demands the determination of the poet to seek the appropriate form of communication, one that can optimally express the ideas that are signified within the creative consciousness of the poet.


Spirit is required to make a poem an active expression of a crucial issue that concerns the public and also processes the zeitgeist of that era. Spirit is necessary to present the poem not as an extension of the public viewpoint or social stigma that thrives among the populace but instead as a means for assessing everything that exists within the particular lives of the affected people; the spirit to effectively recognize objects and themes which are meant to be written as poetry, both through research and through intense observation; the spirit to become involved with hard facts related to social phenomena which cause suffering for many Indonesians who are marginalized by various forms of intransigence; and the spirit to realize that a poem from its initial lines until its final verse is a form of communication. This spirit represents the foundation for explaining why essay poetry has become an integral part and movement within Jurnal Sajak.


We believe that Indonesian poets can render their best contributions and that these may produce unexpected and valuable achievements to the point that Indonesian poetry becomes an inherent part in addressing the dreadful pain and throbbing hopes of the Indonesian people.


Kepustakaan / Bibliography:

[Tolong ambil langsung dari halaman 319-323]


Catatan Kaki / Footnotes:

  1. Webster Encyclopedic Dictionary of the English Language. Chicago: Consolidated Book Publisher, 1877.
  2. The Oxford English Dictionary (Volume III). Oxford at the Clarendon Press: Oxford University Press, 1997.
  3. Ensiklopedi Indonesia (Jilid 2). Jakarta: Ichtiar Baru-Van Hoeve, 1980.
  4. Encyclopediae International. New York.: Glorier Inc., 1986.
  5. Encyclopediae Americana. New York: Scholastic, 2001.
  6. Joseph T. Shipley, The Dictionary of World Literature. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1962.
  7. J. A. Cuddon, Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory.

London: Penguin Books, 1992.

  1. The differentiation of essays within formal and non-formal literary categories has been discussed by certain Indonesian writers, among others: Panuti Sudjiman, Kamus Istilah Sastra. Jakarta: Sinar Harapan, 1982; H. G. Tarigan, Menulis Sebagai Suatu Ketrampilan Berbahasa. Angkasa: Bandung, 1983; Saini KM dan Jakob Sumardjo, Apresiasi Sastra: Sebuah Pengantar. Jakarta. Jakarta: Gramedia, 1985.
  2. Ensiklopedi Indonesia (Jilid 2). Jakarta: Ichtiar Baru-Van Hoeve, 1980.
  3. Joseph T. Shipley, Ibid. op. cit.
  4. Ibid. loc. cit.
  5. Yuyun Suriasumantri (ed.), Ilmu dalam Perspektif. Jakarta: Gramedia, 1982, halaman 9.
  6. These 6 steps represent the general standard for following the scientific method as applied internationally. For the meantime, we will disregard the different perspectives advanced by Thomas Kuhn in his book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962, on one side, and Karl Popper in The Logic of Scientific Discovery. London: Routledge. 1959, on the other side of this issue.
  7. For descriptions concerning this issue, a popular article, which is both lucid and enjoyable to read, was written by Yuyun Suriasumantri, Filsafat Ilmu: Sebuah Pengantar Populer, Jakarta: Sinar Harapan, 1985, especially pages 309-244.
  8. Senn, in Yuyun Suriasumantri (ed.). op. cit., page 115.
  9. Ernst Cassirer, An Essay on Man (1944). Cited by Alouis A. Nugroho. Manusia dan Kebudayannya. Jakarta: Gramedia, 1987, page 345
  10. K. Bertens, Filsafat Barat Abad ke-20 (Jilid II). Jakarta: Gramedia, 1985.
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Karya : Denny JA