August 30, 2008

Chairil Anwar's poems

Read Chairil Anwar's poems, love your country


It's not death, no, that stabs my heart
But your willingness to go
Nor do I know how high
You are, now, supreme over dust, over sorrow

(Chairil Anwar, October 1942. Edited and translated by Burton Raffel)

Poetry and nationalism. These are things that are definitely not on our daily, weekly or even monthly to think about list.

We barely have time to ourselves, let alone time to read classical poems and ponder what we can do for our country. We usually read poems when we are in love and we often talk about nationalism when Independence Day approaches.

"If you look people today, they no longer have that passionate love for their country," said poet Taufiq Ismail after speaking at a seminar on the works of Indonesia's most esteemed poet, Charil Anwar, at the Habibie Center on Tuesday.

"They don't have that passion Chairil had when he wrote his poetry," he said.

Amid a presumably declining sense of nationalism and interest in poetry, students and people in general are encouraged to develop their spirit of nationalism by reading Chairil Anwar's poems.

"His poems contain universal values and can be read anywhere, any time," said playwright Ikra Negara, who annually recited Chairil's poems when living in the United Sates.

Chairil was born in Medan, North Sumatra, on June 26, 1922. He moved to Jakarta at the age of 19, soon after his parents got divorced. There, able to read English, Dutch and German, he fell in love with books and literature.

In 1942, his poems were published in several publications in the city -- most of them were about death.

"Literary critics always highlight his attitude, which was based on the spirit of freedom, as he tried to break the boundaries of 'isms' and conventions," said Maman S. Mahayana, a University of Indonesia literature academic.

"His belief in freedom as the most fundamental element in the creative process can be seen in his repulsion of the political policies of the Japanese colonial administration," he said.

However, Chairil's health was not as vivacious as his poetry. He died before he was 27 and produced only 74 poems.

Taufiq Ismail said six of his poems excite a strong sense of nationalism -- "Diponegoro", "1943", "Siap Sedia" (We're Ready), "Persetujuan dengan Soekarno" (Agreement with Soekarno), "Prajurit Jaga Malam" (A Sentry at Night) and "Krawang Bekasi".

How do we relate the poems to contemporary Indonesia?

"We have to find its spirit. Krawang Bekasi, for instance, is a poem about sacrifice, which is a timeless value. It is something we now lack. Look at our people. How many of us want to sacrifice ourselves for our country?" Taufiq asked.

Ikra Negara said, however, about 20 poems by Chairil, including his personal ones, could be reinterpreted in the light nationalism of today.

"Nisan is one poem that emanates the spirit of nationalism, although it was originally dedicated to his passing grandmother," he said.

He considered Chairil a poet who was skillful at "aesthetical distance". His poems, he said, were never blunt, enabling different interpretations if read over and over again.

"This is the power of Chairil's poems. Many poets do not leave enough distance between their works and their meaning. Their poems have now become irrelevant," he said.

Some of Chairil's poems were dedicated to the women he adored, while some others expressed a strong sense of individualism. He also lived a bohemian way of life, leaving his job at the Statistics Office to follow his calling as a poet.

"He was an individual, but he could never detach himself from the society in which he lived," Taufiq said.

Ary Hermawan
Cited from The Jakarta Post, Tuesday, April 22, 2008