Indonesian poetry: Revealing
the truth that lies beneath

Lie Hua, Contributor, Jakarta

Secrets Need Words: Indonesian Poetry 1966-1998; Edited and translated by Harry Aveling; Ohio University Center for International Studies South-East Asia Series No. 105, Athens, Ohio, 2001; xiv + 375 pp; Rp 364,000

Harry Aveling is not a new name in Indonesian literary research and translation. He is notable for having translated some important Indonesian literary works into English and conducted a series of research projects on the development of Indonesian literature.

This time he has come out with quite a comprehensive study of Indonesian poetry written during the New Order regime in the country. This is, perhaps, the first serious study of the period ever undertaken. Even in Indonesian, such a study is rare, especially because literary criticism is still not considered a serious job.

A study of a particular period in literature is important when we recognize that a literary work is the product of the society in which it exists. There is always an interrelationship between a writer and his society. It is through this dialog that a literary work is produced. Therefore, a study of the sociological and political background of certain periods in literary creation will give an insight into the mind-set of the writers and, indirectly, into the works themselves.

It is in this light that Aveling's book is of great importance to Indonesian literary studies.

He begins his study with the advent of the New Order regime under Soeharto, that ostensibly sought to cleanse Indonesia of the corrupt elements of the Old Order under Sukarno. For the new regime, what was important was stability, even at the expense of individual freedom.

Aveling divides the period spanning 1966 and 1998 into two sub-periods: The Generation of 1966 and the Post-Indonesian Generation.

The period coming right after the inception of the New Order regime is called, in Indonesian literature, the 1966 Generation, a name introduced by the late HB Jassin, one of Indonesia's foremost literary archivists. Poems in this period describe the anguish of the students protesting against the Old Order and the hope that the fledgling New Order brought with it.

Then, as stability began to settle in the country, a kind of new romanticism in poetry was introduced, in which nature played a dominant role in the works by Goenawan Mohammad, Sapardi Djoko Damono and Abdul Hadi WW. These poets make heavy use of imagery and many of their poems are considered to be imagist poems, like those of the American Ezra Pound.

As the ruling Golkar political grouping and the military consolidated their rule over the country, there was little room for social comment. Any criticism of the government would surely land the critic in jail. Hence, the poets turned to absurdism. In this period, there was the emergence of poets such as Sutardji Calzoum Bachri, many of whose works are reminiscent of those of E.E. Cummings.

The world was turned upside down. Logic was lost in the play of words. Sound became predominant. This, upon closer reading, was nothing but a form of protest. Because language is basically sound with a particular meaning, even when sound is loosely used it could be interpreted in terms of human language. By breaking conventions, the poets seemed to invite the public to see through to the crux of the matter: the loss of freedom.

In the 1980s, the situation at home became more stifled than ever. Fear was everywhere because the government became more authoritarian. Disenchantment with the New Order developed and it was expressed in poems when poets tackled domestic themes (i.e. marital relationships), and sprinkled their works with their own regional dialects as a form of protest against the totalitarian regime which demanded total conformity

The second part of the book dwells on poems that reflect sufism, or the poets' enchantment with Islamic teaching and on poetic works created following the collapse of the New Order in mid 1998 following massive student' protests.

While the study of the social and political background of the poems is interesting to read, Aveling's choice of poets to be included in each chapter is sometimes questionable, particularly as there is no mention about the criteria of the poets to be included in this book.

Another disturbing thing is that there are some seriously mistranslated expressions. It would be better if an Indonesian native-speaker well-versed in English and poetry writing were hired as a consultant to avoid mistranslation. Nevertheless, the publication of this book deserves a thumbs-up and must be followed by similar studies in prose and drama.

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