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Denny JA: Social Criticism through Essay Poetry

Preface: Social Criticism through Essay Poetry

By Denny JA


"Memilih Bob Dylan untuk Nobel Sastra sama salahnya seperti memilih Donald Trump menjadi Presiden Amerika Serikat." In this manner did Tim Stanley criticize the selection of Bob Dylan as winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016. The foundations of the literary world were indeed shaken.


It is very rare for the Nobel Prize in Literature to be awarded to a literary figure that was neither prominent nor prolific as a writer. Bob Dylan has not written any novels, nor has he composed any books of poetry. Moreover, he has not arranged any drama scripts. Instead, he is a musician who has composed the lyrics to many songs of social protest.


I myself am truly glad that Bob Dylan was chosen. This figure has stayed in my memory since I was still a child.


Accompanied by my primary school friends in the 1970's, in Palembang, far away from the capital city of Jakarta, we learned to strum guitar chords while singing to Dylan's songs. In broken English, we memorized Blowing in the Wind. This was among the first songs I memorized when learning to play the guitar.


At that early age, I did not yet comprehend the meaning of the lyrics. However, after becoming a college student fifteen years later, and upon singing the song Blowing in the Wind once more, I felt its profound significance. I also felt aware of the social protest underlying the song's lyrics:


How many deaths will it take till he knows

That too many people have died

The answer my friend

Is blowing in the wind


This song was released in 1962. That era witnessed the rise of the protest movement among many young Americans who rejected the Vietnam War. During this period, many songs and poems were created due to the mounting numbers of deaths of American soldiers who were sent to fight in Vietnam.


Demonstrations and parades occurred in various places. The anti-war movement was also romanticized by various forms of artistic expression. Bob Dylan responded to the despair of that era through many of his songs. Recently, I began to listen once more to Bob Dylan's songs of social protest. Poetic expression and sharp social criticism are felt in various lyrics:


He went down to Oxford Town

Guns and clubs followed him down

All because his face was brown

(Oxford Town)


Well, I try my best

To be just like I am

But everybody wants you

To be just like them

They say sing while you slave and I just get bored

I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more.

(Maggie's Farm)


These lyrics were sung by Bob Dylan, often accompanied only by guitar and harmonica. There are not many melodies in Dylan's songs that I like. However, these assorted lyrics of social protest represent the testimony of his generation. Oxford Town and Maggie's Farm protested against abusive treatment of black- and brown-skinned people in the 1960's.


In contemporary America, in 2017, poetry with social content has become a world unto itself, possessing its own community, pursuing its own activities, and developing its own philosophy. The Academy of American Poets, for instance, has assembled a collection of approximately 7000 works, specifically connected to poems, that are teeming with social issues.


The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) regularly bestows a special annual award for the best poetry related to social issues. Furthermore, this organization has begun to integrate topics of poetry related to social justice into public school curricula.


Although the ADL has formed a stronger attachment to the Jewish community's efforts to protest the emergence of anti-Semitic (anti-Jewish) prejudice in the United States, there is an even larger collection of artists who dedicate themselves energetically to the cause of anti-discrimination although specifically for the benefit of the black community. The African-American author, Amiri Baraka, stands out in supporting these issues.


For this group of writers, poetry is not merely a means of expressing feelings of personal anguish; it also represents a record of this era's injustice, interpreting each instance of injustice from a personal perspective and publicizing these views within the public domain in order to forge a new social awareness.




The awareness, like that described above, had initially perched itself on me too: to make poetry fulfill its role as an element of social struggle. However, later on, I also felt the impetus of the creative process.


My first poetry book, Atas Nama Cinta (In the Name of Love), exhibits five love stories which are contextualized within various forms of discrimination in Indonesia. This book was first and foremost truly inspired and created as a result of social activism.


Similar to the objectives of many American authors in 2017, my intention is to make poetry fulfill its purpose as a medium that succeeds in touching the heart. However, its primary message is to encourage the public to pay more attention to discrimination in their surroundings.


My first book of poetry (Atas Nama Cinta) proceeded to become the subject of five short films, produced in cooperation with Hanung Bramantyo. These five short films, with a duration of 40 minutes, have repeatedly served to prompt a variety of public discussions. Social activists would display these short films to stimulate awareness before launching into training material.


However, the ensuing process of my creation of a new form of poetry had already evolved. In my view, writing poetry had become more crucial primarily as a personal necessity. It was no longer first and foremost intended as a component for instigating social change.


My creative process eventually began to resemble what is described by Jalaluddin Rumi: "Just sing like a chirping bird / You need not mind who hears you / Or what they think of you." Indeed, I just sang, chirping like a bird. And my poems flowed from this perspective.


What would be the contents of these poems? What would its format be? What current would I need to follow? It appeared that these ideas were not the impetus for what initially directed me to write new poems in my more recent books of poetry.


I simply take joy in expressing myself through poetry; though actually when considering the 24 books of poetry I have written, this satisfaction has been increasingly perceived as possessing its own unique qualities. The following are the six dominant colors that permeate my 24 books of poetry:

First, in general, my poems are a form of drama; it is like a short story that is written in a poetic style. There is a main character. There is a plot. The experience of reading my poetry is similar to reading a story.


Second, my poems are generally packed with social issues. The vast majority, i.e. 23 of my 24 books, portray personal struggles within the context of social dilemmas. Only my most recent book, Cintai Manusia Saja (Just Love Mankind), also includes pure poetry regarding love and philosophies of life.



Third, my poetry is generally replete with data. Most, i.e. 23 of my 24 books of poetry, feature many footnotes. These poems, like a research draft, feature citations concerning true stories. Moreover, data and statistics are occasionally included.


Fourth, my poems are generally very long. The vast majority, 23 out of 24 books, contain long verse appropriate for a drama manuscript. Reading these poems occupies 8 to 30 minutes. Only the most recent book also features several short poems that consist merely of a few stanzas.


Fifth, all of my poems are composed in language that is especially easy to understand. Although many employ metaphor and other symbolic language, my poetry is consistently not "dark poetry," which is difficult to comprehend.


Sixth, anytime the opportunity presents itself, I am glad if my poetry is not limited to its original genre but can also be extended to become a theatrical text. Or if it is given sufficient theatrical standing to be animated and staged as a video production for social media. Some can also be packaged to become the subject of a film.


These six elements are increasingly perceived and manifested as characteristics of my poetry. I have tried to ponder why these particular qualities have appeared within my poems. What aspects of my experiences, personality, and choice of philosophy of life have influenced the establishment of these characteristics?


I am included among the fiercest fans of watching movies. I have my own film library. I have an archive of approximately 90% of Oscar-winning films dating back to the first year these awards were bestowed in 1929, as well as winners of the Cannes and Berlin film festivals. This is not to overlook the 100 best films for various genres selected by the AFI, which are also in my collection.


In any given week, I normally watch at least three movies at my own "mini theater." Being an aficionado of film also encourages me to cherish stories that are expressed through drama. Consequently, the poems I write also have a dramatic style and tend to be long in the number of stanzas.


I am also an analyst. Through the auspices of the LSI (Lingkaran Survei Indonesia), I have conducted thousands of surveys. These are all based on quantitative data. It is rather traditional to believe that this data has also influenced my poetry. After all, my poems have a lot of footnotes.


I am also an activist. Since attending college thirty years ago, I have felt the importance of citizens collaborating to improve their social and political environment, even to the smallest extent. This activism has also caused social issues to be a prominent focus in my poems.


I am also a newspaper columnist. Since my college days, I have financed my expenses by writing columns. I have written more than one-thousand columns for various national press and media outfits. If condensed, these columns could be converted into 22 books. The style used for writing newspaper columns has also affected my design for composing poetry. I choose simple language, which is both easy to understand and evasive of complex expression.


I am also an entrepreneur: I appreciate many innovative ideas. I prefer not to be confined by one paradigm or the routines of previous generations. This fresh approach has also influenced my poetic style. Thus, it's not just that I don't mind if my poetry consists of poems or essays; I also don't mind when my poems are converted to videos, for if so they may still be poems or they may have been transformed to theatre or film.


My perception and sensation reflects my desire to chirp like a bird. Just expressing whatever I feel in my heart. I just want to direct contemplations that have been sitting in my mind for a long time. I just want to declare my anxiety in observing my environment.




It hardly feels like five years of fruitful literary achievement have passed by. This was in addition to my busy schedule accompanying a presidential candidate, a dozen gubernatorial candidates, and scores of regency and mayoral candidates who aspired to attain control of their respective jurisdiction.


This was also in addition to my busy schedule leading / controlling a dozen businesses that operate in diverse fields, such as political consultancy, real estate, food and beverage, and mining.


Praise God that I still managed to write 24 books of poetry, produce two films for the big screen, five short films, 44 pieces of digital artwork, one song, and tens of opinion videos within tens of discussions related to social issues. I also managed to write several research-based books regarding political topics and psychology.


Composing poetry actually represents a small fraction of the many activities I pursue, whose scope is multi-dimensional. Truly only a small part, but it provides a different type of beauty. I will always immerse myself in poetry.


Because of this, I appreciate the realization of Temu Sastrawan Asia Tenggara's (Conference of Southeast Asian Authors) discussion of Social Issues within the context of the 24 books of poetry I have written. When I wrote poetry for the first time, I never imagined that my poetry books would one day be discussed by authors throughout Southeast Asia.


I would like to extend my utmost gratitude to Jasni Matlani. She is the recipient of the SEA Write Award (2015), a Malaysian citizen, who lives in Sabah (Borneo); she took the initiative to become the head of the panel for this conference. I would also like to thank Fatin Hamama, who as a liaison, has represented me through numerous communications with Jasni Matlani.


I would like to express my thanks to all the speakers, coordinators, and attendees who participated in the conference, whose contributions are appreciated, though I am unable to name and acknowledge them individually.


With regard to the specific aspects of how social issues should be treated and expressed through poetry, I have left that to be expounded by the conference speakers. I need not reiterate their ideas.


Virginia Woolf once said, “In order to heal personal wounds, some people look for advice from a minister or religious cleric. But others seek the answers to their plight through poetry.”


Since each era witnesses people who experience personal pain and sorrow, there will always be individuals who either search for or write poetry.

Karya : Denny JA