A Poem in Its Becoming . . .

Goenawan Mohamad’s opening speech at the World Poetry Festival – Kuala Lumpur, 17 August 2004


I would like to thank you for having me here, in this extraordinary gathering of poets, and for giving me the honour to begin our conversation.

However, I must confess my nervousness; I know that each time poets get together they become acutely self-conscious of their peculiar trade, especially in today’s world. When words relentlessly multiply, like they do nowadays, the verbal deluge makes us wonder what will happen next to the hidden side of language, which is silence.

I hope you understand my hesitation. From this rostrum I will be speaking about silence, yet I cannot help using so many words.

But could I have chosen a more appropriate subject? We are living in a time when language moves like the horse in the ancient Indian ritual of Ashvamedha. Like the sacrificial horse, it is the powers-that-be who decide that language has to be seen as free as possible to roam. In practice, however, a host of officials follow it and claim whatever territory it enters. At the end of the day, language, like the horse, is slaughtered to enhance the mystic of the throne and the pulpit.

Oftentimes, the state, the religious authorities, and the high priests of the media create a ritual for the dead language, solidified in a single book with a secured meaning and commanding content. Without claiming to be original, I would call it the Book of the Father, meaning any text held up by a prevailing linguistic and social order that imposes its authority on truth and falsity.

At this juncture, language becomes an intimidating presence, (Roland Barthes called it “fascist”), and we are left with no other possibility but to perpetuate the ideology of the symbolic order. It is the ideology that generates a false belief that language, with all of its pleasing vowels and compelling consonants, is quite capable of adequately representing everything that happens in the unarticulated life-world. But we know that it is not the case. An Indonesian poet, Toto Sudarto Bachtiar, put it succinctly: “karena kata tak cukup buat berkata” – “since words are not an adequate means with which to speak”.

Yet the ideology of the symbolic order transforms a human into a cognitive centre. In no time, an overriding drive for truth prevails. It was such a drive that brought Plato, the ancient Greek philosopher, to launch a polemic against rhetoric and design a Republic without Poets.

The Platonic temper is to belittle the poet’s use of words, insisting that he or she does not speak or write for truth.

Such a frame of mind persists. In fact, it is more pronounced in our time. This is an era shaped by two seemingly contradictory forces, i.e. the compulsion of modernity and the return of the absolute faith that take poetry as a suspect.

“The poets lie too much,” says Nietzsche’s Zarathustra. But let me add that Zarathustra, himself a poet, seems to understand that there is a problem with the easy notion of lying, just as there is a problem with the easy notion of truth.

We all remember the famous tale by Hans Christian Andersen about an emperor whose only ambition is to be well dressed. His passion for clothes was such that one day two swindlers succeeded in befooling him, promising to create an extraordinary outfit for a parade. The dress, so they told the emperor, was made by material invisible to any body unfit for his office or anyone unforgivably stupid.

The clothes were, of course, non-existent. But for fear of being called stupid, everybody, from the emperor down to the city’s commoners watching the parade, insisted that the royal outfit was truly magnificent. Only a child in the crowd saw what happened, and shouted, “The emperor has nothing on at all!”

On hearing the child’s words, the entire crowd realised how untruthful they had been to each other and to themselves. They decided to yell, “The emperor has nothing on at all!”

His Majesty was, of course, not deaf to the clamour. But Andersen ends his story by describing how the emperor decided to continue the parade until its scheduled end. Obviously he was determined to show that the crowd failed to grasp “the truth”.

As I see it, the emperor’s final act is to defy the idea that “truth” is what you see. “Truth”, for the sovereign, is nothing to do with the senses.

Andersen’s tale, written in 1837, is probably a commentary of his rationalist time, when the ruling idea wrote off the body as a site where truth could take place.

It is no coincidence that in the story it is the child who sees the truth differently. Put as a caveat, the child does not signify a human subject with a powerful claim that he can dismiss his own senses, set his own body aside, and by doing it, produce something out of nothingness. In other words, the child is closer to the realm of the senses, a being-in-the-world unschooled by the Cartesian doubt pondering the existence of the body and the physical world.

The language of the poet is like the child’s voice. It is marked by what Julia Kristeva calls le semiotique, where the body connects with the word, where rhythm, pulse, tone, and motion, all the physical attributes of language, are born. That’s why the language of the poet is shaped more by sounds and images than by concepts and ideas. In fact, poetry can expel concepts and meaning from the words.

Sutardji Calzoum Bachri, one of the most innovative writers in the Indonesian literature, is a poet with such a belief. He claims that the words of his poetry can “create their own selves, play with themselves”, unburdened by meaning or concepts. Let me read an extract from his poetry:

siapa sungai yang paling derai siapa langit yang paling rumit siapa laut yang paling larut siapa tanah yang paling pijak siapa burung yang paling sayap siapa ayah yang paling tunggal siapa tahu yang paling tidak siapa Kau yang paling aku kalau tak aku yang paling rindu?

The sounds and the cadence, repetitive and yet intense, and the fleeting images, mournful and yet sprightly, all seem to strive towards a fascinating, indefinable, and probably sacred presence that is, at the same time, absent. Not governed by the need to be symbolic, the poem sounds like an echo – “das Gedunkelte Splitterecho”, the “darkling splintered echo” of Paul Celan.

It is the darkling side of a poetry that makes it a suspect, or an alienated pursuit, in an era driven by the technological need for clarity and the politics of religious and ethnic purity.

Many see this alienation a loss, and there have been attempts to redress the “problem”. One of them is to draw poetry out from its marginality and push it back into the (Platonic) Republic, to adopt the language of knowledge and laws, and to play a role moulded by the Book of the Father. In the process, poetry becomes a story of knowledge, power and geniuses, in which the poet can claim, without the slightest embarrassment, that he/she is the “legislator of the world”. Poetry will thus work to meet the common desire for any kind of finality. It is incited by linguistic and cultural systems which constantly propose themselves as possessing the ultimate quality of truth.

But of course, at the end, no authority possesses the truth: what it can offer us are merely words which are bound to defer the meaning ever onwards.

For that reason, I am more inclined to follow a different path – the one taken by Amir Hamzah, the lyric poet celebrated in different parts of the Malay world.

He, as you may well know, was the one who defied the Book of the Father. One of his prose poems of the 1930s recounts an exciting journey to a place “cursed by all the holy books in the world”, “dikutuk segala kitab suci di dunia”. But his heart, he wrote, “has its own text” – “tapi kau, hatiku, punya kitab sendiri”.

Amir Hamzah’s way was a “nyanyi sunyi”, a “song of solitude” – the words he used to sum up his own poetry. It signifies his refusal to be part of the symbolic order’s politics of meaning, in which language is largely moulded by the society’s drive for nothing but the truth. He opted for silence, for sunyi. It is, however, a silence that is not the antithesis of language, but the unrecognised part of it. Poetry’s silence is the kind of muteness that is also an intimation of being. In the famous lines of Ars Poetica, Archibald MacLeish believes that

A poem should be palpable and mute
As a globed fruit,

As old medallions to the thumb,

Silent as the sleeve-worn stone
Of casement ledges where the moss has grown—

A poem should be wordless
As the flight of birds

In a sense, silence is poetry’s alter ego. In the silence of poetry lies a poetic language that circumvents the repetitive noise of verbal exchanges. In poetry’s silence, truth is a happening before language is regulated by a social and cultural order. It is truth experienced as an event. It takes place when language is no longer signs alluding to something already given, and yet something emerges in our consciousness.

In such a moment of truth, like in Amir Hamzah’s poetry, one can regain what silence, the unrecognised part of language, opens to us, i.e. a world of unpredictable differences.

This is not merely an aesthetic argument. It is primarily an ethical position. By adopting a “language without words”, as Emmanuel Lévinas puts it, by not trying to grasp and sculpt the Other using my verbal cast, I will always be able to encounter the irreducible face of the Other as the undying Other.

For that reason, recognising silence as the dark, hidden part of language is also an act of humility. Words will always confront their own limits. That’s why in the life of a poem, the most important part is not its closure, but its becoming.“Sebuah sajak yang menjadi adalah sebuah dunia”, “a poem in its becoming is a world”, goes one of the famous aphorisms of Chairil Anwar.

In its becoming, in being “a world”, poetry cannot but attend as well as engage the revealed and the obscure, the sacred and the profane, the sinful and the pious, truth and un-truth. All are a constellation of surprises. There is no way I can apprehend and forge them into an identifiable entity under my control.

Hence a poem in its becoming is a witness, that there is a site where I fail, you fail, even the Book of the Father fails. It is a site where freedom begins as a gift and ends as a demand.

Thank you.

© Goenawan Mohamad  
• Editor (Indonesia)
• poems with audio • articles with audio

Subscribe to the newsletter

follow us on facebook follow us on twitter Follow us (international)  

follow us on facebook follow us on twitter Follow us (Dutch)