In the current political frenzy, just weeks before Indonesia’s simultaneous presidential and legislative elections, World Poetry Day on March 21 came and went with little fanfare. Yet Indonesian poetry, with its pantun and puisi (or syair and sajak), has withstood the test of time. Poems are the earliest manifestation of literary work in the Malay/Indonesian archipelago and, for more than a thousand years, have been used in religious sermons, to relate historical events, and to convey philosophical thoughts and new ideas. But, and not surprisingly, the most enduring them of Indonesian poetry is love.
Indonesians love to make up and recite their own poems, never mind how silly or unsophisticated they may sound. Public speakers often end or begin their oratory by reciting poems related to the theme of their speech; poems are also often the entertainment during traditional ceremonies such as weddings and birthdays. Even some airlines, after their safe landing, have their crews burst out into a simple pantun – a quatrain with a poetical a-b-a-b scheme – to express their appreciation of the passengers’ patronage.
A week ago in Jakarta, 26 renowned Indonesian poets staged a musical titled Cinta Tak Pernah Sederhana (Love is Never Simple), in which the dialogue was derived from poems such as Chairil Anwar’s Aku (I), Goenawan Mohamad’s Pada Sebuah Pantai (On a Beach) and many others.
People still recall a time when discontent against the New Order regime manifested itself in poetry, the most memorable being those composed and recited in a mesmerizing manner by WS Rendra. Today, a younger generation of poets have emerged, among them Joko Pinurbo, whose poems are widely read throughout the country. He has published eight poetry collections and won numerous awards, including the Lontar Literary Award in 2011.
Two years ago, Lontar published The Lontar Anthology of Indonesian Poetry, the first comprehensive attempt to translate the many and varied ways that Indonesian poets have continued to represent and interrogate these tensions in their multiple and evolving forms. The book contains a selection of some of the best examples of Indonesian poetry written in the 20th century. There have been other anthologies of Indonesian poetry, but with more than 320 poems by more than 180 authors, Lontar’s work is by far the most comprehensive and representative.
As with other works by Lontar, the above anthology aims to give voice to Indonesian authors on the international stage and to introduce foreign readers to the events and ideas that have influenced and shaped both the development of Indonesian literature and the nation as a whole. In that way, it builds a greater understanding of Indonesia abroad.