“Bravery is on the horizon and struggle is the work of words” — W.S. Rendra
Today I will be speaking about a man who is considered to be the most famous poet that Indonesia has ever produced, a man I have heard described as criminally unknown in the West — W.S. Rendra. I would hazard a guess and say that many of you wouldn’t have heard of him. His work isn’t studied in Australian high schools and outside of Bahasa Indonesia or Asian Studies courses, as far as I know, is not a staple of university literature courses. Much is made about how Australians are uneasy and lacking in knowledge about our nearest, most populous neighbour to the north, outside of the collective vulgarity on Kuta Beach or shadowy executioners. This must change. It is not just a matter of economic or diplomatic necessity, it is that we as Australians are missing out on a rich, textured, multi-layered culture and history that would enrich us. And what better way to get access to a country than through its artists, its poets.
I was lucky enough to meet Rendra when he was on a tour in Australia in the early Nineties. Already in his sixties then, he still had his famous flowing black hair and a swagger that earned him the nickname of “Burung Merak” or “The Peacock” in the Indonesian press. When my parents introduced me to him, they said “this man is a poet. But when he reads his poetry, he performs it with his whole body, he performs it to crowds of thousands, in stadiums with rock bands, to poor people, at political rallies.” What my parents told me affected me greatly and this idea, that poetry was not boring and dusty, that it lived and breathed, that it could be dangerous and provocative, and this idea one day led me to hip hop. I am not an academic or expert, but I will try to give you an overview of his life and works. But first, I will read from a poem named “The Song of the Cigar.”
“The Song of the Cigar”
As I smoke my cigar,
I watch Indonesia
and hear 130 million people.
In the sky
a couple of carpetbaggers squat
and shit on their heads.
The sun rises.
I can see
Eight million children
who will not go to school today.
I ask why,
and my questions bounces
against the idle desks of the bureaucrats
and the empty blackboards of their teachers.
No one gives a damn.
Eight million children
facing a long road,
with no alternatives,
trees, resting places,
As I breathe
the deodorised air,
I see unemployed graduates
labouring in the streets;
I see prostitutes queuing for their pensions.
In the sky
the technocrats tell us
that we’re the lazy race,
that we ought to be more advanced,
that we ought to be upgraded,
that we have to be adjusted to the new technology.
The mountains stretch
into the multicoloured evening sky.
I can see men burying their resentment under their beds.
I ask why,
and my questions bounce
against the pulpits of the salon poets,
as they sing of wine and the moon,
ignoring the injustices around them
and the eight million children who won’t be going to school,
who kneel adoringly
before the goddess of art.
(Bunga bunga bangsa tahun depan
ber-kunang kunang pandang matanya,
dibawah iklan berlampu neon.
Ber-juta juta harapan ibu dan bapa
menjadi gelbalau suara yang kacau,
menjadi karang dibawah muka samodra.)
The hungry children,
flowers of the future,
can barely see,
despite the brightly lit billboards.
The hopes of millions of parents
turn into a confused jumble of voices,
turn into underwater coral.
We must stop importing foreign methodologies.
Rote learning gives only empty formulae.
We must learn to describe our own world.
We must go out into the streets,
out into the villages,
write down the symptoms we see
and define the real problems.
These are my poems.
A pamphlet for a state of emergency.
Art is meaningless
when it is separated from the suffering of society.
Thought it meaningless
when it is separated from the problems of life.
This poem is taken from a famous book of poetry named “A State of Emergency,” which Rendra described as a collection of “pamphlets”, designed to be easily understood, polemical, direct and declarative. When I think of injustices going on in our own country, and the strange balance between sloganeering and bureaucratic jargon in public discourse, I think of what a necessity this type of urgent, critical speech is.
W.S. Rendra was born Willibrodus Surendra Rendra in Solo, Central Java, in November 1935. His mother was a singer and his father was a high school teacher. He was educated in Catholic schools in Solo and Jogjakarta (both important cultural centres) and then in the English department of the University Gajah Mada. He travelled to Russia with a student group from that university in 1957. He also spent three years in America, 1964 to 1967, at the American Academy of Dramatic Art, New York. In the 1960s he was putting on his own plays, many of them experimental and based on Western theatre, employing the use of onomatopoeic sounds.
He was committed to a life of art and poetry, and believed whole-heartedly in its ability to change society for the better. In order to do this, he believed he had to be self-reliant. In his own words, he said, “to be an artist in a developing country like Indonesia means to live a life without infrastructure. You are driven only by the nature of histrionic impulse, by talent. You have to nurture yourself.” Rendra saw himself as someone separate from the power structures of society, a necessary outsider, often quoting a Javanese proverb about how a sage must be “in the wind,” compared to a court performer, who lived to please and entertain the ruler. He saw the Indonesian language and its national literature as a way to unify disparate people. Many of his plays were banned because they were critical of the Suharto regime.
With his flamboyant performance style, he continued to be one of few people to openly criticise the Suharto regime. He could draw crowds of thousands of people to his poetry readings. In 1979, during a poetry reading in the Ismail Marzuki Art Center in Jakarta, Suharto’s military intelligence agents threw ammonia bombs on to the stage and arrested him. He was imprisoned in the notorious Guntur military prison for nine months after that.
Rendra’s poetry brims with an incandescent, performative anger. Harry Aveling, a pre-eminent scholar of Rendra’s works, says that they are meant for the stage — they judge, they appeal to the audience to change, they set characters in dramatic situations. They focus on the plight of poor Indonesians and government corruption. However, the poet in Rendra tempers direct and declarative statements with beautiful images and a great humanism. Aveling says that his poetic work in the 1960s started by telling vivid, colourful stories about “the little people” — peasants, outlaws, rebels, women who suffered. It was always stories or ballads about people who were suffering government injustice or social injustice.
Rendra then moved on from writing about country life to diligently observing lower class urban life. Aveling believes that something often brushed over about Rendra’s life is that he was in fact an aristocrat, which might go some way to explaining his ardent belief that he was “responsible for the condition of society”. Rendra himself says, “to write a social poem is not part of my artistic credo. It’s a result of my responsiveness to life and social and political life is a factor of life that I don’t consider taboo for me as a poet to write about.”
Aveling says that “a simple moral philosophy underpins Rendra’s social verse… that all are human and that crime and respectability are social attributes rather than personal ones.” He says that sometimes this philosophy is applied one-sidedly, showing the outsiders are victims of their situations without agency. He goes on to say that there are two types of people in Rendra’s poems — men and women, the men aggressive doers and women passive receivers. A.H. Johns says that at times he was unabashedly chauvinist and unashamedly preoccupied with sex. Indeed, he left behind eleven children from three marriages.
Another preoccupation of Rendra’s is the destruction of the natural world. You would have seen that forest fires are burning in Sumatra and Kalimantan, so this is still a massive concern. Let me read another poem, where he again blends the personal and the political.
The world we are building is an iron world of glass and howling holes,
the dreams we chase are dreams of shining platinum.
Tomorrow’s world is no longer virginal
but mined and open to all…
the world we walk is a world of poverty.
The situation which imprisons us
is the gaping jaw of a jackal.
Our fate flies like a cloud,
opposing and mocking us, becoming mist in the sleep of night
and sun in the work of day. We will die in the middle of our fate,
hands arrogant and clenched,
hands which rebel and ache,
hands which tear at the sacred envelope
which holds the hollow letter written in difficult characters which we cannot read.
We shall die in the middle of our fate.
There is a seam of melancholy that runs through many of the poems, but also an exhibitionist playfulness. The rhythms of ritual play a large part in his poems, perhaps in part informed by his Catholic childhood (he later converted to Islam). One of his well known poems is about a preacher who is devoured by his congregation. It is impossible not to see parallels with a corrupt politician and an increasingly angry and frustrated mob. Refrains like “bang-bing-bong”, “tra-la-la” and “cha cha cha” run throughout the poem.
Excerpt from “Khotbah” (“Sermon”)
“They roared like animals.
They stole the window panes.
They took everything in the church.
The candelabra. The curtains. The carpets.
Then they chopped his body to bits.
Everyone ate his flesh. Cha-cha-cha.
They feasted in the strength of their unity.
They drank his blood.
They sucked the marrow from his bones.
Until they had eaten everything
and there was nothing left.
You may have seen in the news that censorship has again reared its ugly head in Indonesia. Indonesian authorities have forced the organisers of the country’s biggest literary festival, the Ubud Writers and Writers Festival, to cancel events about the mass killings of communists fifty years ago. This type of wilful historical amnesia is present in every country to varying degrees, but it is always incredibly dangerous.
A few years ago, I found out that I would sharing the bill with Rendra at the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival in Bali in 2009 (I was much lower on the bill, of course). I was very excited that I would be able to meet him nearly twenty years after that first time, and that I would be able to tell him how important he had been in my life, how pivotal that meeting had been for me. Sadly, he passed away several weeks before the festival. I was not able to meet him for a second time, but I what I can do is pass on something of his inspiring legacy to you. I will by once again using some of the great man’s words.
“I’m tired but I’m not ready to die.
I’m standing at the crossroads.
I can feel myself turning into a dog.
But something in me still wants to write poetry,
like a human being.”