Writing Poetry

Acceptance speech for the 2003 Achmad Bakrie Award for Literature – Jakarta, 14 August 2003


A simple question a poet finds difficult to answer is why he or she writes poetry. Of course it is not appropriate to answer this question in a flippant manner, for instance by saying that one does not know or one does not care – although it is very possible that this is in fact the honest answer. After writing for decades, I have not fully, as a poet, been able to overcome the difficulty this poses, and because nobody wants to blame themselves, the tendency is to lay the blame elsewhere, for instance on the poems one writes. One suspects that poetry is perhaps a cultural artifact of no particular use, as, amongst other things, it’s not east to explain why and for whom or for what it is written. The poet is not at fault if he or she is unable to answer these questions, because poetry is not written as an answer.

However, poetry does become a kind of answer after all, conceived to overcome the difficulties of answering these kinds of question. And in trying to formulate an answer to the best of my abilities, I am reminded of an incident. One particular night, a young boy, ten years old, sits in the middle of the front yard of his home after playing line-tag. The child usually spends most of his time playing outside and only comes into the house if he has to eat, sleep, and sometimes study. His friends have gone home to their own houses and thus the clamour of that afternoon has suddenly turned to stillness. In the middle of his grandmother’s wide yard, he looks up and wonders what there is beyond the sky, and what there is beyond the outer sky too. Perhaps these questions came up because he is educated by a community that, besides believing in the existence of limits, has created the expression “limitless sky” – and of course he can not fathom these two definitions which seemed to be in opposition.

In 1971, more than twenty years after experiencing this “incident” he writes the following poem. 

He comes down from his bed then tiptoes and opens the windows then looks at the stars while wondering what there is outside the universe and what there is outside the outer universe and of course he waits because of a feeling that something will come to tell him of this and he keeps wondering until finally he hears the rooster crowing three times and when he turns mother appears already standing behind him saying “Let me close this window and you should go to sleep now after staying up all night long besides the night air is full of hidden danger.” 

The twenty-year period has forced him to place some distance between the past, so he can package it as a ‘different’ incident — and this happens because no other approach can transform him back into a ten-year-old child. The question that once emerged in his mind in fact remains within him at the age of thirty-one, and he still cannot answer it even now while writing this. The question is obstinate and thus it has continued to insist on an answer. The difference that perhaps exists between the ten-year-old and the 31-year-old is that the man now begins to sense the impossibility of understanding the limitless, despite his community teaching him to be certain that everything must have its limits. The boy, however, does not feel this way and can be happy because there is no demand placed on him to answer the question. 

Like the question, he is also obstinate: always trying to answer, although fully aware of the impossibility of doing so. The poem he has written, like his other poems, is a kind of answer, which in fact poses questions. Unlike when he was still ten years old, only with such a stance can he now have the right to be happy, have the right to feel that the life he is living is not fully futile. 

Every question requires words. Perhaps that is why the boy could feel happy without either posing or answering the questions – he did not worry about words, and we can suspect that he also did not feel a need for them. As adults, our main problem seems to be with words; when we were children, everything around us became signs and symbols that had to be interpreted. 

But are we not all raised amongst words? Are we not educated by our community about how to face the world with words? Once upon a time, in trying to understand all the things that exist and appear around them, while striving to find their place amidst all that, our ancestors created words. They asked why this exists and why that happens; why this grows but then must die. Tales – more boldly called myths – are the outcome of such endeavour, the purpose of which is none other than to answer questions formed from words, or questions evoked by the supreme word. So important was the word to them, and also now to us, it is not unheard of for the word to be written with a capital W. 

And the word that was created was spread so it could grow and be harvested for us to use later in the best way we can to solve so many problems – in the hope that our lives can be better. The word was bent, straightened, folded, extended, shortened, shaken – all for one purpose, to solve problems. And because problems don’t exist simply to be solved, the word is repeated in such a way that it cannot become other than worn and torn; no longer suitable for use because it contains no more meaning. The Word that was once created so that we could comprehend ourselves has, in its evolution, turned into directives that repel every effort to exit and enter into the core of our being. 

Words that multiplied and lost track of their origins are now verbalised and written by holy men, priests, lawyers, members of parliament, teachers, scientists, journalists, and – of course – poets. We arrange words to plan and broadcast a network of rules and prohibitions so that one thing becomes righteous and another becomes forbidden. We also use words to create time, an abstract understanding that limits the space of our movements from birth to death. Words are used to solve problems because we can only feel safe if we live in a community that is certain that every problem must end with a solution. And the urgent thing is that the Word has been violently enchained in the super-strong intent to support power. In the classroom, on the dais, and within all kinds of media, words have become arrogant because they feel they are an institution able to carry out their tasks to perfection. 

Far from the main intent of their creation, words are losing their impetus to voice questions. And amongst the development of such word-use everything a poet does becomes odd. The poet’s efforts to use and create words so he can put forward questions is accepted as an effort which in essence is superfluous, particularly because the answer to those questions – according to himself – is also a question. The justification of this matter is of course considered to be an excess. But the poet, who learns from the little boy, is fully certain that there are pressing things to be read – and because of it he must create new methods. I would like to borrow an expression by Nirwan Dewanto who says that poets “can change the world only by fighting – also playing – with medium, with form”. Perhaps “changing the world” is not part of a poet’s agenda, although – as I once conveyed in 1986 when I accepted the SEA Write Award – he exists constantly within the spectrum between play and giving advice, within the tug and pull between the world of children and the calling of prophets. To answer questions by asking more questions, poets must indeed simultaneously fight and play with words. 

As a question, poetry is open to interpretation. Although a relationship between the poet and us as the reader may exist, the poet has no right to interfere with the reader’s efforts at interpretation. The relationship between readers and poetry is the same as the relationship between the poet and the source of his or her questions. This kind of arrangement makes it democratic, but we must note that a conception of democracy should be removed as far as possible from the notion of the rule of the majority, and rather brought as close as possible to the idea of the freedom of individuals to interpret and to determine their choice in accordance with their beliefs. 

In this urgent state of conscience, the poet now speaking likes to compare the act of writing with a particular scene in the wayang shadow puppetry known as Perang Kembang, or War of Flowers. When his path through the forest was blocked by a horde of giants, the warrior Arjuna would answer each question from the giant Gendingcaluring, or Cakil, with another question. The poet also likes to remember the final verses of Goenawan Mohamad’s Gatoloco. In a situation that forces one to understand the I with a capital I, the lowercase i exists within an amusing conundrum, because questions emerging from any direction are answered by the same questions.

No longer able to raise (your) voice from seminar to seminar,
making Me victorious, like a lawyer. For you are merely
a traveller, who measures the journey’s distance, fatigued but
arrogant with your two-way ticket.

For I am merely a tourist, and nothing more than that?
Lord, move on from here. Truly You have made a mockery
of the tears in my eyes.

Unlike the child who merely “opens the windows then looks at the stars while wondering”, the poet realises that not only the stars, but also the trees, animals, stones, clouds and humans, as well as everything he has created, are symbols that demand reading and interpretation. The relationships between all of this form a structure that, besides being a never ending source of questions, includes the poet as one of its elements. The poet does not offer a way to overcome the problem, let alone delineate an edict or determining policy, because he is neither a scientist, member of parliament, lawyer, clairvoyant, teacher, nor holy man. The poet merely attempts to reveal the source of questions; thus each poem written is none other than an experiment with words. He is aware that his course of action has for a long time been his source of happiness, the outcome of which he hopes will also be a source of happiness for all of us, the readers.

© Sapardi Djoko Damono (Translated by Kadek Krishna Adidharma)  
• Editor (Indonesia)
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