A Brief Overview of Denny JA’s Essay Poetry
by Leon Agusta (Poet)
What sort of understanding can be attained if we, particularly people who read and write poetry, hear the following terms: lyrical poetry, contemplative poetry, Sufi poetry, religious poetry, mantra poetry, prose poetry, resistance poetry, pamphlet poetry, contextual poetry, or social poetry? And there are also various other appellations, such as Cirebonese/Klangenan poetry, mumbling poetry, mute poetry, dark poetry, and most recently essay poetry. The immediate impression is that the dynamics in the treasury of Indonesian poetry, in keeping with its nature, never displays a single face. There is variety, for example, in style, in its aesthetic inclination, as well as character from the works that are attached. This manifestation is propelled by the presence of a type of creative anxiety which always clings within poets who perpetually seek something distinctive. Differences in cultural background among these poets often feel like an inevitable quality that pervades this variety.
Or, another line of inquiry could be posed: What factors give rise to or serve as the background for such differences? Education and talent? Social environment or even other factors? Concepts of art and obsession with a certain quest? Like, for example, the difference in spirit and proximity in the poems of Chairil Anwar, the rebel of Angkatan 45; Rendra, the colorful peacock who vented his ideas through pamphlets and ballads; and Wiji Tukul, with his brave and soul-shaking resistance poetry—just to mention a few names. Presumably, these factors all touch upon each other, all influence each other, with different degrees of intensity, throughout the period of creation from time to time, and these are shaped by the experience of creation by each poet. What is stated above represents a basis for deliberation that will never end.
What is needed is a simple understanding from the stance of the form of writing and the definition of poetry, prose, essay, and any academic narrative that is packed with serious thoughts. Pure poetry, for example, is understood as a type of literature that is linked to sound and rhythm as essential aesthetic elements. On the other hand, prose is considered to be a literary form that conveys stories through narration which is slightly more connected to aesthetics when compared to other forms of writing that merely convey a theme or explanation (e.g. essays, reports, and news). What a literary artist does in the process of creating an experimental work is to demolish the barriers that separate poetry and prose to the point that a new genre is produced, which is called prose poetry.
This concept and examples of experimental prose poems first appeared in the mid-19th century (1855-1869) through a composition by Charles Baudelaire, entitled “Paris Spleen”. Baudelaire’s goal was to create prose that was rather lively in order to engender lyrical delight within the soul, a contemplative vibration, and conscientious sentiment. Until the current era, this literary genre, which could be called a sort of graft between poetry and prose, has generated various debates within groups of literary critics and authors.
Prose poetry represents a vehicle for introducing a story line or idea into a prosaic form (which is usually more intended for expressing thoughts), which is laden with poetic elements (that are normally occupied with nuance, emotion, and beauty). During the historical journey of prose poetry, several propensities have been identified in this mixed genre: 1. the obliteration of rigid poetic style by getting rid of the use of lines; 2. the introduction of phrases possessing poetic elements into the prose; 3. storytelling that communicates moral messages (e.g. fables), a technique that was later solidified to fantastic and surreal effect by Kafka; and 4. familiarization with a modernist approach, which was established in poems written by Robert Bly, Rosmarie Waldrop, and Charles Simic.
Regarding the matter of contents and weight, prose poetry has begun to raise issues and problems that exist within the public sphere in a certain historical period. In this regard, similarity exists between prose poetry and the type of writing that Denny JA has named essay poetry, which are found in his book, entitled Atas Nama Cinta: Sebuah Puisi Esai (In the Name of Love: An Essay Poem).
And the difference? From a close examination of Denny JA’s book, Atas Nama Cinta, essay poetry represents a vehicle that escorts poetry with “raw meat” which is compiled from the real world. At this point, it is important to note that essay poetry as conceived by Denny JA must be supplemented and reinforced by (a certain number of) footnotes. This requirement will apparently be a permanent burden in the art of creating essay poetry. A question arises: Would it be possible to bring forth an essay poem that lacks footnotes? This is a discussion that will require some meticulous deliberation.
Beyond the themes that are offered in Atas Nama Cinta, it would be a positive development if essay poetry as introduced and familiarized by Denny JA could receive both acceptance and a warm welcome from writers as a new genre which deserves to be developed since essay poetry possesses a reservoir of seemingly unlimited themes: the hustle and bustle of urban existence, the suffocating nature of daily survival, altercations and disorder, conflicts that can never be resolved, deceptive tactics full of subterfuge and deceit, insatiable lust and desire, and evasion of justice through prevarication and the buying and selling of alibis, without tolerance or solidarity in the name of truth, the aims of justice or any confidence in multilateral conciliation to achieve common goals.
The Esthetics of Liberation
When essay poetry was first introduced as a new literary genre by Denny JA, an academician and analyst who specialized in political science and business history during his college study in the United States, the publication of his book, Atas Nama Cinta, elicited astonishment and provoked a variety of questions. What was meant by essay poetry? A new name had appeared in the literary treasury of modern Indonesian poetry.
Perhaps we can find part of the answer to this query by examining the themes and contents of the book Atas Nama Cinta, an anthology which features five love stories with its unifying focus being the most troubling and complex social problem, namely discrimination: 1. Sapu Tangan Fang Yin (Fang Yin’s Handkerchief), 2. Romi dan Yuli dari Cikeusik (Romeo and Juliet from Cikeusik), 3. Minah Tetap Dipancung (Minah was Still Beheaded), 4. Cinta Terlarang Batman dan Robin (The Forbidden Love of Batman and Robin), and 5. Bunga Kering Perpisahan (The Desiccated Flower of Parting).
The first impression is that the author, Denny JA, is presenting a form of literature which combines elements of poetry, prosaic elements, and elements of academic essays that emerge from scientific traditions (such as using footnotes as confirmation of the real social phenomena that actually affect a specific community and also a means of providing context to the story) in order to yield testimony regarding the current state of existence of a certain society. He strives to extract poetic energy from various social manifestations within a society where discrimination runs rampant. Mankind and humanity are destroyed, the charitable disposition of man, which is a divine quality, is abandoned and abused.
It is likely that the author realizes that during the current era, Indonesia has still not completely instituted human rights. This is especially true in having not yet extended tolerance to minorities who suffer from differences related to religion and gender, including the issue of LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender). For example, Indonesia has not yet signed the current version (March, 2011) of the United Nations Declaration of Human rights, which covers gender issues and the rights that should be afforded to LGBT. Even worse, in 2008, as a reaction to a previous UN resolution to recognize the rights of LGBT, Indonesia signed a counter-resolution that rejected any acknowledgment of LGBT rights. It should be mentioned, however, that when the United Nations declaration was publicized in 2011, Indonesia no longer rejected the resolution which included aspects of tolerance for LGBT; on the other hand, in 2011, Indonesia still neither accepted nor acknowledged the rights that the UN had advocated, such as:
Denny JA decided to take action, as he admits, because his conscience was disturbed and because he was unwilling to just close his eyes and be indifferent. He felt challenged to respond to the realities of life in our current social circumstances, and he did so in an uncommon manner: writing literature. He could not imagine writing poetry similar to what he was already familiar with, although he was well-acquainted with Indonesia’s treasury of poetry. He was also personally acquainted with many local poets. However, he did not consider the possibility or have the ambition to become one of them. Inconceivably, he only wanted something that was truly suitable for himself: authenticity. In his efforts to become an authentic writer, he armed himself with a huge reserve of scientific knowledge, meticulous observation of social and humanitarian manifestations, as well as a considerable supply of experience in many facets of life that he had accumulated during many years of living and working in Indonesia. These aspects of his preparation enabled and facilitated his potential to express his ideas as an intellectual, equipped with linguistic proficiency and a vision of establishing a more humane society.
It is clear that the record of Denny JA’s steady progress in accumulating achievements as a public figure who became prominent as a young man (born January 4, 196) is truly amazing. However, his accomplishments were already behind him. The current decade represents an era of struggle for idealism within the realm of civilized cultural values.
The five essay poems in Denny JA’s book Atas Nama Cinta present stories of brutality that break and touch the heart as well as shine in a truly innovative way. Story plots that are gloomy become bright, and doors that are closed are opened. The reader feels the spirit of freedom become pervasive to the point that the reader is impelled to attain numerous points of view that bestow a new awareness that is also full of enjoyment. This is the essence of what the author calls the aesthetics of liberation. Denny JA escorts the reader from a totally obstructed state of affairs, from a gloomy overcast sky, from dense stifling air, from a one-sided attitude that is thick and saturated with blind obstinance, where everything emerges from narrow alleyways of the history of civilization. From this starting point, various processes of liberation ensue which lead to the opening of spaces of illumination. As Sutardji Calzoum Bachri has declared, “All of the verses in the book contain themes of varied forms of resistance.”
Liberation is another side of resistance and opposition. It is not impossible that the aesthetics of liberation as presented by these essay poems could serve as a source of inspiration for the rise of a cultural movement in our beloved country of Indonesia. With the concept of aesthetic liberation, whose scope is wide and far-reaching, we can hope that various new works of literature will emerge in the near future. However, it is obvious that just in order to read an essay poem, one already needs to be equipped with greater than average intelligence, even more so to create and compose it. Essay poetry cannot possibly be produced by a poet who is only equipped with natural talent. It appears that the era in which natural talent sufficed has already come and gone.
Civilization similar to the issue of culture requires a liberating effort to break free from the various forms of weakness that cling to it. Efforts to achieve liberation entail a process that is not possibly based on an all-purpose design that has previously been applied. Thus, intervention with aesthetic energy is necessary. In other words, the process of liberation must proceed by optimalizing the role of the aesthetic force. Rigid limitations between definitions of art and “non-art” will only reinforce aesthetic tyranny. The aesthetics of liberation has the ambition to create an organized space of immense capacity to accommodate its presence in the midst of society. The right of the public to enjoy art that is dedicated to the progress and enlightenment of human civilization should be served like one’s daily diet. However, it has been envisioned from the start that essay poetry requires literary critics who can build golden bridges between these poems and the general public. Therefore, an appropriate venture is to present essay poems through social media, such as Youtube.
The essay poem’s lungs: Footnotes
We can demonstrate that the text Atas Nama Cinta is prose in several aspects. One is impressed that the extent of the poetic content is occasionally weak, even more so to be called an essay. The format is far from the typical structure and conventions of an essay. Despite this, the presence of three elements—poetry, prose, and footnotes—it appears that this hybrid literary form can be understood and that the term “essay poem” is acceptable. The presence of footnotes performs a function in a manner similar to creating “lungs” for the stories which are presented. Footnotes breathe life into the essay poem, allowing it to thrive, not only within the restricted environment of highly literate readers, but they also enable the essay poem to break through and infiltrate the readership of the general public. Thus, footnotes not only facilitate an engrossing opportunity to enjoy and contemplate but also offer many intriguing surprises.
Footnotes are seen in Fang Yin’s Handkerchief (7 citations), Romeo and Juliet from Cikeusik (6 citations), Minah was Still Beheaded (6 citations), The Forbidden Love of Batman and Robin (11 citations), and The Desiccated Flower of Parting (6 citations). These footnotes affirm that Denny JA is asserting a connection with traditional conventions practiced at universities where he enjoyed his education and accumulated an appreciation for science. This is what distinguishes Denny JA’s essay poems from the works of other genres. Footnotes open up a space of liberation among the empirical sciences, technology, law, theology, social issues, and art, which are normally compartmentalized within their own individual discipline but are drawn together and united within these texts. Essay poetry cannot function or exist without footnotes. The presence of footnotes in these literary works called essay poems represents an innovative breakthrough within the treasury of creative writing in Indonesia.
Pursue Chinese. Kill Chinese (Fang Yin’s Handkerchief). Hordes of rioters scream hysterically back and forth. Savage and vicious, like ravenous beasts. Rape occurred here and there. As well as looting and ransacking. They fought over turf for plundering, competing to outdo each other / Helter-skelter, piling down on each other encircled by flames / In buildings which were set on fire / They were roasted alive / Killed in vain / How should we comprehend a text like this?
We might ask and inquire endlessly without reaching a sound conclusion. Where did these wild creatures come from? Who were they? These questions leave us very agitated to the point that they disturb our dreams. A calamity can approach so suddenly, crushing the weak until they are pulverized. From the footnotes, we can find some information that revives the bitter memories of the events of May 13-14, 1998, including significant details that leave us stupefied, unable to make sense of them. (It is mentioned that 70,000 ethnic Chinese left Indonesia in the aftermath of the violent riots of May, 1998 (Footnote 2; … at that time a rivalry between two generals, Prabowo and Wiranto, was transpiring (Footnote 6).
In the text of another essay poem, the presence of footnotes is especially significant. The contrast evinced between the first three and the last eight footnotes in The Forbidden Love of Batman and Robin required persistent research by a social analyst who truly cares about the world and problems of the gay community. They were created by the same God who created us. By setting forth several examples here, it will be apparent that reading Atas Nama Cinta provides a unique experience for understanding social problems wherever discrimination occurs.
In the essay poem concerning gay love, Denny JA selects death as a setting for ending his story. At his mother’s grave, the son begs forgiveness while expressing a confession that was too late in coming. Let’s appreciate how beautifully the poignant mood of sorrow at the cemetery is described:
The overgrown grass surrounding the gravesite cringed
A breeze wafting through the frangipani trees became suddenly silent
But the sky remained blue
And clouds passed gently by
(The Forbidden Love of Batman and Robin)
In the essay poem that relates the love story of an interfaith couple, death also lurks close at hand. Denny JA chooses the sad beauty of a highly melancholic tragedy as his final offering:
The story of grief and sorrow had reached its conclusion
The topsail had already been lowered
From up on high
(Romeo and Juliet from Cikeusik)
Who would not be startled to read, for example, footnote 4 in The Desiccated Flower of Parting that explains, “There is information that the Prophet Mohammed married Maria Qibtiah, a Coptic Christian woman from Egypt as well as Sophia, a Jewish woman. The prophet’s companion (sahaba), Utsman bin ‘Affan, married a Christian woman named Nailah bint al-Furafisa; another companion, Thalhah bin Ubaidillah, married a Jewish woman in Damascus, and Huzaifah married a Jewish woman in Madian. This information was supplied by Professor Musdah Mulia, Professor Kautsar Azhari Noer, and Professor Zainun Kamal at the 200th session of the Klub Kajian Agama (KKA), which was held by the Paramadina Foundation on October 17, 2003.”
As a final note, the essay poem anthology In the Name of Love confirms the authenticity of Denny JA as an artist who possesses the spirit for seeking a new form of expression within the repository of contemporary Indonesian art. Essay poetry is a literary manifestation derived from contemporary artistic ideas that obtain poetic energy from the alleyways of the history of civilization, wherever it can roam unimpeded. The spirit of liberation in its soul and the obsession from artistic ideas that strive to be realized have already given rise to an inspiration: aesthetic liberation. Thus, this inspiration is jam-packed, much like an architect who in designing spaces discovers new outlets for creativity that he has devised independently.