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Sapardi Djoko Damono:
70 … and still kicking

JP/P.J.LEO

He is too famous and too important as a living legend and poet for authoritative critics not to mention his name whenever they discuss Indonesian contemporary literature.

Sapardi Djoko Damono is the perfect idol for his students at the University of Indonesia’s (UI) School of Cultural Studies. Most have devoured his works, such as the collections of poems DukaMu Abadi (Your Eternal Sorrow, 1969), Mata Pisau (Blade, 1974) and Hujan Bulan Juni (June Rain, 1994). You couldn’t consider yourself one of his disciples if you hadn’t memorized his poems verbatim.

Many of his students have even taken to kissing his hand, just like followers of Nahdlatul Ulama traditional Muslim organization would kiss their kyai’s (ulema) hand or Catholics would indulge the Pope’s hand.

Sapardi’s maqam (position) deserves the kind of recognition given to Indonesia’s great poets Amir Hamzah and Chairil Anwar.

And there is no shortage of people quoting – perhaps without permission – his poems for sentimental reasons.

“Every time I read his poems, I am always reminded of my first date, when I was in college,” a friend recalls.

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 (Aku Ingin (I Want) translated by John H. McGlynn).

At that time, the friend had declared his undying love for his flame by sending the verses of the poem in a letter. Nowadays, his famous verses “I want to love you simply” still find their way into people’s hearts, with youngsters posting his words in SMS, facebook or Twitter.

His close aides threw him a party to celebrate his 70th birthday at Salihara community theater in South Jakarta last Friday.

This was not a cliché soirée with cake and candle blowing, but a celebration featuring respected critic Nirwan Dewanto – who discussed Sapardi’s works, actresses Happy Salma and Niniek L. Karim, poet Sitok Srengenge who read his poems and short stories, the university’s Paragita Choir, and noted guitarist Jubing Kristianto who adapted his poems into music.

Hundreds of people, old and young, brought the Salihara blackbox theater alive on Friday night, with singing, raucous laughter, giving performers a huge round of applause after each performance.

Sapardi is the Slank of pop culture, whose devout fans shout loudly until the end of the show and remember every lyric.

The show’s master of ceremony (MC), Debra Yatim, even asked attendees not to sit in the passageway, to prevent the tier of seats from collapsing.

“I have never seen so many people attending poetry reading, except in Russia during the communist era,” said poet Goenawan Mohamad (GM).

Goenawan noted that people nowadays still flocked to poetry reading sessions to find a truth that didn’t appear in mass media.

Sapardi is incredible, he added, still writing at the age of 70.

“70 years old… edan tenan [it’s damn crazy],” were the first words that came out of the poet’s mouth when he was asked to make a speech. Sapardi was probably the oldest person in the theater that night. Goenawan is almost 69.

“The toughest question I am always asked, is ‘what will I do next?’. I have my past but…,” Sapardi went on.

In his impromptu, he alluded to an ancient Chinese poem, still relevant nowadays although it was written hundreds years ago – which perhaps many of the attendees had not heard about.

But they certainly knew Sapardi, roughly 1.65 meter tall – a medium size for the average Indonesian – and thin like his poetry books. Who is not familiar with the poet renowned for wearing a barrette hat and a khaki corduroy jacket?

And they would have noticed the poet nowadays is inseparable from his digital camera that dangles over his shoulder. (Sapardi took pictures of his aides drinking beer, juice and smoking at Salihara Café after the show, probably unwind after preparing the celebration).

Most of them know Sapardi was born on March 20, 1940, in Surakarta, Central Java. He studied Western literature at the Yogyakarta-based Gadjah Mada University, University of Hawaii and UI.
Now a professor at UI, he lives in a modest house at the housing complex for UI lecturers in Ciputat, South Jakarta, and is blessed with two children from his marriage to Mardiningsih.

Many might also remember his poems were translated into English by Lontar Foundation, in two books: Suddenly the Night (1988) and Before Dawn (2005).

In 1987, along with GM, McGlynn and other authors, he established the foundation aiming to promote Indonesian literary works to English readers.

Sapardi’s works collected national and international awards, including the South East Asia Literary Award in 1986 in Bangkok.

Besides writing poems and short stories, Sapardi also translated the literary works of T.S. Elliot, Khalil

Gibran and Jalaludin Rumi into Indonesian. His translation of Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea is considered Indonesia’s best.

Indonesia’s international-acclaimed pianist Ananda Sukarlan created compositions based on Sapardi’s poems. Several singers, mostly his UI students, have released albums using his poetry: Hujan Bulan Juni (1990), Hujan Dalam Komposisi or Rain in Composition (1990) Gadis Kecil or Little Girl (2006) and Becoming Dew (2007).

Musician Dwiki Dharmawan rearranged Sapardi’s Aku Ingin into a soundtrack for Garin Nugroho’s film Cinta dalam Sepotong Roti (Love in A Slice of Bread) in 1991.

Sapardi’s creations stand between two extreme forms of poems: those that are either loud and carry a blatant message or those that are so obscure they simply cannot be understood.

“Sapardi’s poems are poems we want to love simply,” critic Nirwan Dewanto said, adding that they didn’t speak loud like (political) pamphlets, “which sacrificed many parts of themselves.” The poems are grammatically and semantically complete, he concluded.

Sapardi’s poems are humble like the man who wrote them. And poems do not necessarily have to reflect the life of their author.

“A poet is sometimes like a prophet who wants to mend the morals of society. But sometimes, I just want to play with words [without any purpose],” Sapardi said.

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