“Essay Poetry”: In What Directions Can it Develop? by Berthold Damshäuser
I first heard the term “essay poem” several years ago. I normally wouldn’t have paid much attention to it. However, this “essay poem” turned out to be connected to Jurnal Sajak (the Sajak Journal), an avant-garde poetry journal in which I play a role as an editor. There was no other choice; I would have to pay attention, especially after I was informed that the Jurnal Sajak, beginning with its third publication in 2012, would include a new heading called “Essay Poetry” with an editor who was specifically in charge of arranging this new literary genre.
As the first stage in becoming familiar with the circumstances and background of “essay poetry”, I visited a website which featured an anthology of poems, entitled Atas Nama Cinta (In the Name of Love), written by Denny JA. At his website, I read five long poems, accompanied by footnotes, which raised important themes in a style that was simple but not very poetic. This collection of poems was obviously not dazzling from a literary perspective; it was also not especially expressive in terms of linguistic content. I was disappointed. Moreover, I was reluctant to accept the term “essay poem” and, even more so, the claim that it represented a new literary genre. And the notion that this new brand of literature would be accepted as a new heading that would continue to occupy a certain number of pages in each new publication of Jurnal Sajak? Wah…
In an editorial, entitled Longing for Poetry that is not Prose, Yearning for Verse, which was published in Jurnal Sajak in February, 2011, I had conveyed what kind of poetry I loved and what sorts of poetry deserved both the limelight and the exertion of promotional efforts from Jurnal Sajak. And this kind of poetry was nothing but nor other than poetry in the form of verse. “Verse” in this regard is an understanding of verse poetry that is “the antithesis of prose”. Or, to quote directly from the editorial, it is:
“a work of literary art that fulfills the conditions for being called ‘music’; art that arranges melody or voice (sound) astride a rhythmic foundation (meter). A work that even surpasses works of music since it also conveys thoughts or ideas, facts or stories, in short everything that can only be conveyed by language as a rational medium. Works in which melody and rhythm (sound and beat/meter) in accordance with meaning or the message of the text, indeed supporting, expanding, and sharpening the rational message through feeling that is developed by its musical elements.”
All this— and I was quite aware while reading Denny JA’s works— are not the special characteristics of “essay poetry” as involved poetry that wishes to convey a message to the largest possible audience of readers, including people who rarely read poetry or are normally even disinterested in literature. “Essay poetry” which includes elements of “pop” was not intended for aficionados of “pure poetry” or for readers who had substantial experience dealing with poetry as a linguistic work of art of the kind that I had always admired.
However, I also realized that my position as a defender of “pure poetry” or “supreme poetry” was rather elitist and that I was not entitled to simply reject what was described as “essay poetry”. Through discussions with my fellow editors at Jurnal Sajak, I heard several arguments in favor of “essay poetry”, including the argument that this type of poetry deserved to be called “a new genre”.
During the ensuing years, I have witnessed that the concept of “essay poetry” has been accepted by a widespread segment of Indonesian literary authors. A substantial number of well-known poets began writing “essay poems” and hundreds of “ordinary” writers felt impelled to convey their thoughts and emotions via this new genre, especially to defend the victims of social injustice and abuse. I concluded that it would be especially fitting for me to welcome this kind of development and even more so deserving to be proud that Jurnal Sajak had pioneered this new movement—through its dissemination of “essay poems”— in fighting for tolerance and pluralism, as well as fighting against discrimination.
According to Denny JA’s own definition , “essay poetry” represents a long poem that is subdivided into several chapters; it is written in poetic language, but the language is simple and communicative; the theme is a social issue (a fact) that affects the general public, and this social issue is conveyed via the perspective of people who have already been victimized by injustice or discrimination. The issue in an essay poem is transmitted to the reader through a highly emotive fictional narrative, whose connection to reality needs to be substantiated through footnotes which serve a legal obligation. The footnotes are an inseparable feature of the “essay poem”. Through these footnotes, the writer is obliged to provide satisfactory explanations concerning the realistic context and setting of the fictional narrative. In this manner, the fiction is replete with facts.
Questions have arisen regarding the appropriateness of the term “essay poetry” for describing the special characteristics of this new genre of poetry, which was invented by Denny JA. It appears that this term needs to be signified as “essayistic poetry” or some sort of combination between poetry and essay. Is it persuasive to use the term “essay”? Is it apropos in order to explain that within “essay poems” it is essential that a connection be established with fact as is routinely done in essays? It seems there will never be a reader who, upon first glance, receives an impression that Denny JA’s poems appear to be either essays or “essayistic” in nature. To the reader, these works of literature manifest themselves as narrative poetry accompanied by footnotes.
In an editorial (in Jurnal Sajak, #3, 2012), Agus R. Sarjono writes that he does not feel the need “to question the exactitude of the term ‘essay poem’” and that he is “more interested in the spirit that is conveyed by essay poetry”.
I believe that Sarjono’s view is an appropriate opinion to hold. Literary science employs so many terms, even names for genres, that are not compelling, e.g. noveau roman (“a new novel”) and contextual literature. There will, of course, always be a new novel sporting a new writing style, and it is clear that no work of literature is uncontextualized. Furthermore, according to Nietzsche, “a word that is similar to handkerchief, anything could be inserted within it”. Ultimately, language and terminology are based on convention. It would be mischievous if we are too strict and critical regarding a certain term whose usage is just beginning to be used and accepted widely. Therefore, with magnanimity, I will no longer use quotation marks when mentioning essay poems. Indeed, I am willing to call it a genre, not a “genre”.
Essay poetry, according to Denny JA— the architect of this genre— possesses several characteristics and unique qualities which— are not merely and furthermore just a combination— distinguish it from any other literary genre, namely:
Among these three compulsory elements, the matter of easily understood language is not an exceptional factor. Language found in “pure poetry” is also expected to employ phrasing that is intelligible. Every text at a basic level is expected to be communicative. Forms of communication within poetry certainly occur within multiple strata, and these may apply their own logic, a kind of logic with which many readers may occasionally lack familiarity. It appears that an essay poem writer is obligated to use “easily understood language”, so the author is being reminded not to engage in linguistic experiments but rather to convey a conventional narrative. The important concept here is that using simple language does not negate the possibility of creating a poetic text.
The matter of “the obligation to choose a certain theme” is considerably more relevant. As discussed earlier, the theme for an essay poem must represent a social issue (or fact) affecting the general public that is conveyed through the perspective of a person who has suffered injustice or discrimination. Due to this requirement, essay poetry clearly represents an involved type of poetry, i.e. poetry that is concerned and rooted in public issues in a manner that sides with victims of injustice. Within the context of the development of essay poetry, there are noticeable examples of authors of essay poetry who have clearly “gone off the rails”. An example is a poem, entitled “Saini KM”, which was written by a young talented poet named Mahwi Air Tawar. This essay poem, whose theme considers the life and accomplishments of an author, does not raise any social problems or issues even to the least extent. Of course, essay poetry, if this genre is signified specifically as long narrative poetry accompanied by footnotes, could conceivably and fundamentally encompass any topic. However, in my opinion, the special quality of essay poetry as involved or humanistic poetry should not be sacrificed. Isn’t this involvement in social issues the essential message and purpose of essay poems and their authors?
The most important attribute of essay poems is their footnotes. This feature has already caused some misconceptions – and this is true among a group of literary critics who disapprove of essay poetry as a new genre-- because these critics claim that essay poetry is not innovative in the sense that narrative poems featuring footnotes have appeared previously. The issue that is overlooked here is that the uniqueness of essay poetry lies specifically in the obligation to use footnotes. They have forgotten that footnotes truly represent an essential aspect of essay poetry which distinguish it from every other poetic genre and even, generally speaking, from every literary genre.
In the final section of this article, I will write with special emphasis, though briefly, concerning the matter of footnotes in essay poems. The pretext for raising this issue is connected to a certain incident that was reported to me by my colleagues, who are fellow editors at Jurnal Sajak. Several weeks ago, we happened to discuss the problem of the deficiency of many essay poems (which were sent to the editorial staff at Jurnal Sajak), specifically related to the use of footnotes. It seemed that not all essay poem writers were aware of the function and role of footnotes in this new genre. There was, for example, a footnote whose only purpose was to explain the abbreviation NU (= Nahdlatul Ulama); this is certainly not the function of footnotes in an essay poem. Or, someone wrote a long narrative poem and then devised some footnotes so that the poem would be considered an essay poem. This type of attitude undoubtedly represents an obstacle to the future evolution of essay poetry.
Footnotes within essay poems are in fact a form of metatext (meta (Greek) meaning “with” or “alongside”), which are basically autonomous or relatively independent. It is an adjunct that serves a supplementary function in poems that have a fictional narrative form. It is a fact that clarifies a fictional setting. It represents a scientific aspect in an essay poem, and because of this, it is appropriate for it to be written according to scientific conventions. Since social problems (discrimination and similar phenomena) represent a starting point for an essay poem, the composition of an essay poem must begin with investigation of a specific social issue. Within essay poetry, fact, and now “Fiction as an alias for fact” is surpassing fiction. From the findings of this investigative research, information is obtained that can be cited in footnotes, and, of course, these findings can also be used to write a fictive narrative concerning a certain social issue. The essay poem (consisting of narration) and an issue or dilemma (related to society) is individualized through fictional characters (victims who are afflicted by a certain social ill). The text of the poem and the footnotes essentially collaborate and accompany each other; they are both autonomous yet connected. At a basic level, there is no hierarchical relationship between these two elements, although from the angle of the initial phase of the creative process, it may be surmised that the research (which yields footnotes) precedes the composition of the text.
The idea of using footnotes as a form of metatext (also called a “paratext”) approximates Denny JA’s original approach when he launched essay poetry as a new poetic genre. In contemplating the essence of essay poetry, it occurred to me that there is actually a possibility for developing this idea; i.e. the development of the metatext to function as a hypertext (hyper in Greek meaning “above” and/or “across”).
So what does this mean?
I perceive the possibility that the role of the text within the footnotes in an essay poem can be expanded beyond a text whose function is limited to providing supporting facts in a scientific manner; rather the footnotes can serve the purpose of a text that can be seen as “hovering above” the narrative text of the poem. Footnotes can be situated in a higher dimension. This can be achieved by letting footnotes fulfill an additional function whose form would depend on the writer’s creativity. Using footnotes as a kind of “hypertext”, for example, the writer could convey arguments or reasons explaining why a certain theme was chosen and could also demonstrate his or her creative flair. In this manner, the writer could present himself, in effect saying, “I am a lyricist”. The writer could also draft a dialogue with himself or with the character in the fictional narrative. It is even possible to present the characters in the hypertext, involving not only the victim but also the perpetrators of social discrimination. Each of these opposing characters could be given the opportunity to express his or her attitude by commenting on the events that occur within the fictional narrative of that specific essay poem.
Consequently, essay poetry in its entire manifestations represents a dialectic discourse, consisting of a thesis and an antithesis. Thus, the prospects for using footnotes within essay poems are not at all constrained since they can be used to express irony (or self-directed mockery), parody, and other purposes. In this manner, a dialogue between two texts can be facilitated. It is certain that footnotes possessing the properties of a hypertext will function as a literary text as well. Essay poetry is destined to become a multidimensional type of literary work. Anything can be envisaged, depending on the fantasy, imagination, and creativity of the writer. You, too, are welcome to write your own.
Nonetheless, footnotes (that fulfill their purpose) as an inseparable feature within a fictional narrative have now become an essential part of an essay poem, a unique genre that is in a class of its own.
If only essay poetry could be incarnated as a creature with a soul that could reflect upon itself, it might be happy to find that it has two parents. The essay poem is unlike most of its fellow genres, such as ballads and pantun, whose parentage and date of birth are vague and uncertain. The essay poem might also be glad to know that it is included within a group of genres that were not just born spontaneously but were specifically conceived. The essay poem would certainly be proud that it had become famous and appreciated in such a short period of time, even more so because this rarely occurs with other new genres. The essay poem would certainly be stunned when it is vehemently rejected but smile when it is deliberately disregarded. Its future is uncertain. It may be forgotten, or it may develop brilliantly; it is also possible that the essay poem may undergo some changes in the process of maturation.
And what about the creator who conceived and developed essay poetry? It appears that the destiny of this man will be difficult for him to control. This man will wander alone in the jungle of literature, in a manner similar to a work of literature itself. Once it is written, it is in the hands of the reader and in the hands of the public at large. Because of this, it has been said that “the author has already died”. The fate of the person who ignites and conceives new ideas is likely not very different from the fate of any writer.
This is a translation of Berthold Damshäuser's essay in Indonesian language with the title "Puisi Esai" - Kemana Sanggup Ia Berkembang, published in Damshäuser's book Ini dan Itu Indonesia. Pandangan Seorang Jerman, Komodo Books 2015.