Life

Sapardi's words pull in
new generations


Evi Mariani, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

Veteran poet Sapardi Djoko Damono is as cool right now as he was 10, 20 and 30 years ago.

Earlier this month on the night of the launch of his latest book, Before Dawn, the young and sexy actress, Cornelia Agatha, asked if she could pose with him for a picture. But the starlet, who usually has throngs of fans wanting to stand next to her, had to wait her turn -- Sapardi had a long line of well-wishers.

And his fans include the bestselling popular novelist, Fira Basuki, who was invited by Sapardi to officiate the event.

""He called me himself to ask me to open the ceremony. Sapardi himself. I was touched. Of course I would; I felt honored,"" Fira said.

Perhaps the most popular poet in the country, Sapardi's fame partly owes to the successful way his words have been put to music.

One of the song versions of his poem Aku Ingin (I Want) was so popular in the 1990s that it has become common addition to wedding invitations

Still more years ago, a soap opera on a private TV station made a teaser in which the star Bella Saphira made an ungainly and inaccurate recitation of the poem.

""They did not tell me that they had used my poem as the teaser. They also did not mention my name as the poet,"" said Sapardi, 65, a father of two and the husband of Wardiningsih.

Sapardi stressed, however, that he did not mind if his poems were used for non-commercial purposes.

Love poems, as simple personal expressions, can in the wrong hands easily become mawkish or melodramatic. But written by Sapardi, they can mist the eyes of the hardest-hearted readers.

For those who have never heard or read it, the English translation of I Want by Sapardi's friend, John H. McGlynn, goes like this:

I Want

I want to love you simply, in words not spoken: tinder to the flame which transforms it to ash

I want to love you simply, in signs not expressed: clouds to the rain which make them evanesce

The man who made that the poem known throughout the country was AGS Arya Dwipayana, a theater worker in the French literature department of University Indonesia in the 1980s.

Arya, better known by his nickname Aji, was one of several students who accepted a task from then minister of education and culture Fuad Hasan to put some poems to music; the idea being to make them easier for high school students to appreciate.

I Want's treatment captured the public imagination and two years later, Sapardi asked Aji and his friends to write music for his other poems.

Still later there was the album, Hujan dalam Komposisi (Rain in Composition), which contained more than a dozen songs.

Over time, the poems on the album won the hearts of the young and became fashionable. The effect was similar to the impact teen film Ada Apa Dengan Cinta had on Syumandjaya's book Aku, which became trendy after teenagers saw actor Nicholas Saputra's character carrying the book everywhere in the movie.

""Reading Sapardi's poems, which can also be imaginative lyrics, I always have tunes playing in my head,"" Aji said.

Because his poems are lyrical and sometimes a little abstract, many readers fail to grasp their meaning.

Sapardi's works are seldom didactic and are not driven by broad social causes or revolutionary urges. Instead they are more focused on the human condition, aiming to evoke emotions with simple, yet-poignant words.

Many readers find One Morning evokes a sad feeling they cannot easily express.

""And so one morning he wanted very much to cry while walking head down through the alley. That morning he wanted the rain to be dripping down and the alley empty so that he could walk alone while crying and no one would ask why.

He didn't want to scream or cry out wildly or break windows or burn the bed. He wanted only to weep softly while walking alone in the dripping rain in the empty alley that morning (translated by McGlynn).""

In the translator's note in Before Dawn, McGlynn describes Sapardi's poetry:

""With an elegance and a clarity few other poets possess, Sapardi puts into words emotions which every reader must surely face -- yet may not be able to express, at least in words so fine.""

Sapardi has written poetry since he was in high school in Surakarta, where his family moved in 1957 to a new suburb.

In the author profile of his book Ayat-ayat Api, the publisher wrote that the new place Sapardi lived did not yet have electricity and had a village ambience, with birds singing and bamboo plantations.

His first book of poems, dukaMu abadi (Your Eternal Sorrow), was published in 1969 thanks to the financial support from Sapardi's friend, now-famous painter Jeihan Sukmantoro.

So far he has published 12 poetry compilations, including the English translations of his works by John McGlynn Suddenly the Night and Before Dawn; along with two works of fiction and another eight non-fiction books.

In 1998/1999, during the political turmoil surrounding the downfall of the New Order regime, Sapardi was tempted and succumbed to writing about the social turbulence here, resulting in the book Ayat-ayat Api (Verses of Fire), which some critics receied negatively.

Many prefer Sapardi to write about what they believe he does best: Feelings, the rain, getting old, death, God, and love.

Sapardi admitted that Ayat-ayat Api stood out from the rest of his poetry.

He said that he had a principle, which was never to write a poem in an angry manner.

""Angry literature, like some of that created in 1966 (during the fall of the Sukarno administration), usually fails to survive the passage of time. It is soon forgotten,"" he told The Jakarta Post.

After writing Ayat-ayat Api, he said in the book that he had tried to be not angry despite the frustrating situation between 1996 and 1999.

""My endeavor not to be angry of course was not always successful as is perhaps shown in some of the poems in the book.""

His most popular poetry book, Hujan Bulan Juni (A June Rain), was published by one of the country's large publishers, Grasindo, in 1994. Containing 95 poems, the book is a kind of ""greatest hits"" of Sapardi; with a selection of his poems from 1964 to 1992.

Some of the poems were written during a one-year period of study at the University of Hawaii in Honolulu in the early 1970s.

Sapardi had earlier finished his undergraduate study at the English Department at Gadjah Mada University, Yogyakarta in the early 1960s. He later earned a doctoral degree from UI, where he now works as a professor.

These days, supervising graduates in their doctoral studies has means he keeps up with the latest trends in poetry and literature.

While some people think changes in the language are a form of abuse, Sapardi, who always speaks in Javanese to his Javanese friends, thinks it is a good sign.

""I have read 'chick lit' because one of the doctoral candidates at UI is writing a dissertation on it,"" he said.

""Some people lament the fact that some teen books use slang and not 'proper' Indonesian. But I think it's good. It shows that Indonesian is an evolving language. It has not vanished, people still use it.""

Once Sapardi received a short message from one of his students: ""When will we see you in class again? We are sakaw (craving) for your lectures.""

""What was sakaw? I didn't know,"" Sapardi said, laughing.

He later found out that sakaw was drug-related slang.

Sapardi is similarly unruffled that his poem Aku Ingin has adorned wedding invitations, T-shirts and has been recited in soap operas, mostly without his consent.

In an author profile written for Ayat-ayat Api Sapardi said even this piracy made him feel his efforts to write in Indonesian had not been in vain.

In 1987, he, along with his friends McGlynn and poet Subagio Sastrowardojo, author and professor the late Umar Kayam, and writer Goenawan Mohammad, established the Lontar Foundation, which aimed to ""foster a greater appreciation of Indonesian literature and culture.""

Lontar's inaugural publication in 1988 was Suddenly the Night, McGlynn's translation of Sapardi's works.

Lontar has become Sapardi's second workplace whenever classes at UI are in recess.

The Post found him one day there. Seated in a comfortable room at a stylish Apple iBook G4, Sapardi was working on one of his translation jobs.

""John has an in-house flair for design. He arranged this office to make it attractive,"" Sapardi said.

One of Sapardi's most famous translations was Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea.

""Learning English makes your Indonesian better,"" Sapardi said. ""When you write in English, you employ different ways of thinking, which is later useful when you write in Indonesian.""

But when translating his poems into English, he prefers to employ others and is grateful to McGlynn, whom he says has done a tremendous job.

""With John, I could discuss his selection of words. But most of the times I agreed with him, he did a really good translation.""

McGlynn has noted that while Sapardi's poems in 1988's Suddenly the Night spoke of life, love and children, the poems in 2005's Before Dawn focused more on the end of life.

""Sapardi is no longer the young Muslim boy who cried outside the church door as his classmates celebrated Christmas...,"" McGlynn writes in the introduction to ""Before Dawn"".

""No, at the age of sixty five, Sapardi is -- no escaping it -- an older man, whose concerns are mental and physical frailty and, of course, death.

""He doesn't like to talk about his glasses/ which he sometimes forgets where he's placed/ about his silver hair/ about his empty house/ no longer occupied by wife or children...,"" McGlynn says, quoting the 2001 poem, Before Dawn.

In Ada Berita Apa Hari Ini, Den Sastro? (What's the News Today, Den Sastro?), published in 2002, Sapardi felt the urge to write a special introduction.

""Suddenly, tonight, I feel that this book of poems, all of which were written in 2001, will be the last,"" he wrote.

""This is mushy, perhaps. Or perhaps it is because I feel I do not need to write poems any more. Hopefully, not both.""

Sapardi facts:

Born in Surakarta, March 20, 1960 Publications: Poetry: 1969 Duka-Mu Abadi (Your Eternal Sorrow) 1974 Akuarium (Aquarium) 1982 Mata Pisau (Blade) 1983 Perahu Kertas (Paper Boat) 1984 Sihir Hujan (Rain Doctor) 1988 Suddenly the Night 1994 Hujan Bulan Juni (A June Rain) 1998 Arloji (Wristwatch) 2000 Ayat-ayat Api (Verses of Fire) 2001 Mata Jendela (The Window's Eye) 2002 Ada Berita Apa Hari Ini, Den Sastro? (What's the News Today, Den Sastro?) 2005 Before Dawn

Fiction: 2001 Pengarang Telah Mati (The Author is Dead) 2004 Membunuh Orang Gila (To Kill a Madman)

Non Fiction 1977 Sosiologi Sastra: Sebuah pengantar ringkas (A Brief Introduction to the Sociology of Literature) 1982 Sastra Indonesia Modern: Beberapa Catatan (Modern Indonesian Literature: Scattered Notes) 1999 Politik, Ideologi dan Sastra Hibrida (Politics, Ideology and Hybrid Literature) 1999 Sihir Rendra: Permainan Makna (Rendra the Magician: The Play of Meaning) 2000 Priayi Abangan (The Lapsed Bourgeois) 2004 Puisi Indonesia Sebelum Kemerdekaan (Indonesian Poetry Before Independence) 2005 Jejak Realisme dalam Sastra Indonesia (Traces of Realism in Indonesian Literature)

Awards: Achmad Bakrie Award, 2003 Anugrah Puisi Poetra Malaysia (Malaysian Poetry Award), 1996 SEA Write, Bangkok, 1986 Jakarta Arts Council Honorary Certificate, 1983

From the Lontar Foundation and other sources

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