Jun 23, 2024 Last Updated 4:39 AM, Jun 21, 2024

Taking poetry to the people

Taking poetry to the people
Published: Jul 02, 2010

Keith Foulcher

   Pamphlet Penyair Poet 1977
   Image courtesy of Burung Merak Press

On the night of 28 April 1978, a capacity crowd of mainly young people filled an auditorium in the Jakarta Arts Centre to hear a poetry reading by Rendra. This was a time when opposition to the New Order was focussed on the accusation that the regime's accelerating program of economic development was having a disastrous effect on Indonesia's environmental and cultural heritage and increasingly favouring wealthy urban elites at the expense of the poor. Rendra had become one of the most vocal proponents of this critique in the Indonesian arts community and since the mid 1970s he had been producing 'pamphlet poems', documents intended for widespread public distribution and consumption, under what he described as a national emergency.

Winning over the audience

That evening's reading began with one of the most famous of these 'pamphlet poems', the emblematic 'Sajak Mata-Mata' (Poem of Spies). Its opening lines gave the audience the charge they had come to expect from Rendra's poetry readings:

Ada suara bising di bawah tanah.
Ada suara gaduh di atas tanah,
Ada ucapan-ucapan kacau di antara rumah-rumah.
Ada tangis tak menentu di tengah sawah.
Dan, lho, ini di belakang saya,
ada tentara marah-marah.

There are whispers underground
There are noisy voices above ground
There are confused words going from one house to another
There is indistinct weeping out in the rice fields.
And look, right behind me,
There are angry soldiers too.

At this point, with the reading just barely underway, the audience erupted into spontaneous applause, laughter and shouts of encouragement. Rendra's evocation of a 'state of emergency' had hit its mark, with the half-comical, half-serious reference to angry soldiers (much more effective in Rendra's spoken Indonesian version than the English translation because of the insistently repeated 'a' vowels and the growing anger in his voice) saying the un-sayable: 'We are all fed up with military threats every time we utter a word of criticism.'

With his audience now running with him, Rendra proceeded with a rhythmic catalogue of impositions on free speech and lack of government accountability. The reduplication of words enabled by Indonesian grammar was employed as a device to drive home the urgency of the message. After every two or three lines, sometimes after just a single line, the audience responded with shouts and cheers. As the poem came to rest on a clever play of words centring on mata (eye) - which when doubled as mata-mata means spy - the audience's excitement reached fever pitch:

Mata Rakyat sudah dicabut.
Rakyat meraba-raba di dalam kasak-kusuk.
Mata pemerintah juga diancam bencana.
Mata pemerintah memakai kacamata hitam.
Terasing di belakang meja kekuasaan.
Mata pemerintah yang sejati
Sudah diganti mata-mata.

The people's eyes have been torn out.
They grope around among rumours and intrigues.
The government's eyes are also threatened with disaster.
The eyes of government wear dark glasses,
Isolated behind the desks of power.
The true eyes of government
Have all been replaced by spies.

Laughing first at the reference to 'dark glasses', the same kind of deflating of power holders as in the earlier 'angry soldiers', the audience went wild at Rendra's clever transition from 'eyes' to 'spies'. Never, it might be said, had the doubled form of a word, which can sometimes take on a new meaning, been used to greater rhetorical impact and political effect. By the time Rendra reached the final line, 'Mata yang bebas beredar hanyalah mata-mata' (The only eyes free to circulate are spies) the scene was set for a cultural event that was to figure on the political calendar of the day.

Provoking a disturbance

After another round of applause, Rendra moved to his second poem, 'Aku Tulis Pamplet Ini' (I Write This Pamphlet):

Aku tulis pamplet ini
karena lembaga pendapat umum
ditutupi jaring labah-labah.
Orang-orang bicara dalam kasak-kusuk,
dan ungkapan diri ditekan
menjadi peng - iya - an.

I write this pamphlet
because the institutions of public opinion
are covered in cobwebs.
People talk in whispers,
and self-expression is suppressed
ending up as mere acquiescence.

Again, the picture painted by the poem is of a denial of free speech and an absence of critical debate. There is a call for a healthy exchange of views:

Aku tidak melihat alasan
kenapa harus diam tertekan dan termangu.
Aku ingin secara wajar kita bertukar pikiran.

I see no reason
why we should sit here in enforced stupor.
I would like us to engage in a fair exchange of views.

At this point, as though on cue, a disturbance broke out in the audienceand Rendra faltered in his reading. Scuffles ensued. There was shouting and the sound of whistles being blown. At some point, three ammonia bombs were thrown near the stage. (A recording made in the audience on a simple portable device by the Australian academic, Doug Miles, preserved these details for future generations.)

Twice Rendra repeated amid the uproar, 'Aku ingin...' (I would like...), before he finally abandoned the poem and addressed his audience with the words, 'Saudara-saudara, saya tidak mundur! Saya bertanya, apakah saudara-saudara akan mundur?' (Brothers and sisters, I will not stand down! I ask you, will you stand down?). A defiant roar from the audience greeted him in reply.

After more scuffles and shouting, order was gradually restored, and the poetry reading proceeded to its planned conclusion. However a few days later, in accordance with the aberrant logic of the New Order legal system, Rendra himself was arrested for having staged a 'provocative' event, the culmination of 'attitudes and activities' that were decreed harmful to public order and security. He was held in detention for just over five months.

Bearing witness

The events at the Jakarta Arts Centre on that night in April 1978 are testimony to the significant role which Rendra's poetry played in the politics of the New Order period. In his hands, poetry helped sustain a spirit of resistance and sense of solidarity among a youthful opposition movement confronting the unchecked exercise of power.

This was possible because, unlike in western countries, where the performance of poetry is now confined largely to the private space of weddings and funerals or the semi-public arena of creative writing classes and writers' groups, poetry reading is still very much an aspect of public culture in Indonesia. The writing, reading and publishing of poetry is widespread, and poetry declamation (deklamasi) is a familiar part of Indonesian life. It is the subject of competitions between schoolchildren, it forms part of ceremonial occasions and it appears in expressions of popular culture, like the soundtracks of films for a teenage audience.

At times of political unrest, including the rise to power of the New Order in 1966, the public performance of poetry has figured in street demonstrations, giving voice to political grievances and demands for change. Rendra himself once described how poems he wrote from New York in support of the attacks on Sukarno's regime in 1966 were recorded on tape and played at the mass student demonstrations that helped bring down the Sukarno government and install the military-backed New Order regime in its place.

Rendra was renowned for his skills as a dramatist and an actor, and it was his talents as a performer that gave him the ability to tap into the full potential of the Indonesian language as a rhetorical device, a way of using words that entertained, provoked and inspired an audience.

As the examples from this 1978 reading show, Rendra's political poetry tended not to open up new political perspectives, but to build on what his audience already knew, or felt, to be the case. His genius lay not in political insights, but in the same love of words, and the play of sound and meaning they evoked, that first led him to write poetry, as he said, 'on blotting paper', when he was bored with high school maths lessons in the early 1950s.

As his political conscience grew in the wake of his experiences overseas and his observations of injustice and corruption in 1970s Indonesia, Rendra turned that love of words into a tool for raising awareness, and - in his own words - 'bearing witness'. Generations of young Indonesians responded, finding in his poetry not experiments with thought and language that had to be contemplated in private, but immediately understood evocations of their own experience in new and surprising ways.

More than any other writer of his time or since, Rendra made his poetry the voice of political conscience, an integral part of the culture of opposition in Suharto's Indonesia.

Keith Foulcher (Keith.Foulcher@usyd.edu.au) is an Honorary Associate of the Department of Indonesian Studies at the University of Sydney and a member of the Inside Indonesia editorial team.

Inside Indonesia 101: Jul-Sep 2010

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