Tue, 28 Jan 2003

In memoriam: Agam Wispi was a true political poet

Nur Zain Hae, Amsterdam

Agam Wispi passed away on Jan. 1 in a nursing home in Amsterdam. His was another death that immortalized an old premise: le poete maudit. He was solitary, quiet and wasted thousands of miles from his homeland. The ultimate exile.

He was one of the most important Indonesian poets of the 1960s. It was Wispi who invented the charming combination of art and politics, a never-ending source of argumentation in literature, which was once a heated subject in the field of Indonesian literature.

He was idolized by the young poets of his time. He internalized communism and was involved in the communist People's Cultural Institution (Lekra) as the secretary of the literature section.

Wispi was born in Pangkalan Susu, North Sumatra, on Dec. 31, 1930. He began writing in the 1950s, and wrote short stories, plays and essays. His works were published in newspapers, such as Pendorong, Kerakjatan, Indonesia, Budaja, the Sunday Courier, Zaman Baru, and Harian Rakjat. He was the arts editor at Harian Rakjat.

One of his most popular poems during the 1950s was Death of a Peasant (1953). The poem succeeded in matching the intensity of esthetics and ideology, one of Lekra's criteria of quality art. The peasants' resistance was pacified by a military regime at the time yet it didn't stop them from their course of action. The poem was written in a very concise and precise language, with a nuance of pantun (rhyme), which gave it a musical effect when it was read.

As both a poet and a journalist, Agam absorbed everything that went on around him and turned it into poetry without losing its poetical touch. His efforts in turning everyday reality into poetical reality" seldom escaped the objectives of propaganda from his party, the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI).

Yet he found numerous ways to dodge the burden, and he claimed he enjoyed the freedom to apply what he called politics in art.

"How he applies it is totally up to him. It couldn't be directed, neither could it be defined. And it couldn't be judged just like that," said Alex Supartono and Lisabona Rahman from the research team on Indonesian exile literature in 2000.

He wanted to return it all to mankind. His lyrical poems always juxtaposed human beings against the world. The outside world could be tyrannical, destructive, exclusive or another form of repression and exploitation. There would always be the optimism to resist, although in reality the resistance could fail.

The energy of resistance was something he tried to maintain. Far before Wiji Thukul cried: "Hanya ada satu kata: Lawan!" (There's only one word: Resist!), Wispi warned that every poet had to keep aware of his surroundings. Poetry had to stay free to resist: In the world of thievery even poetry is stolen/silenced by the police or consumed by taxes/or poetry is dulled and pacified/care not whether the sky is gray or blue: Resist! (Quoted from Bukan Alat Jinak/Not a passive tool)

The same spirit was inspired by the struggle of the Vietnamese against the U.S. and France. He toured Vietnam from May 1965 to August 1965 as a reporter for the Harian Rakjat and wrote his book War Poems (1970). He turned his journalistic reports into a collection of poems that he called "a small contribution to the solidarity of people around the world for the struggle of the Vietnamese".

From Vietnam he went on to China, but failed to return to Indonesia after the attempted 1965 coup d'etat. He stayed in Nanking for five years. This period is marked as one of the most painful periods in the history of Indonesian exiles. The days of isolation from the outside world, being obliged to study the thoughts of Mao Tse Tung every day, drove some of them to the brink of insanity.

He wrote On Top of the Ruins (1971) during that time. Besides portraying the pain of Indonesian exiles longing to return, his poems were also inspired by Chinese communism. Mao Tse Tung and the Vietnamese leader, Ho Chi Minh, kept surfacing in his works, with praises scattered throughout them.

His exile to Germany and the Netherlands was the longest and most uncertain periods of his life. The hope of returning to his homeland vaporized again, and the waiting game continued. Wispi tried hard to absorb, live and mingle within the society around him. The alienation remained, as if it was growing thicker in his poems. He wrote several poems titled Exile and used the same title for one of his manuscripts in 1988.

Memories of the homeland consumed the exiles when alienation became too much to bear. The people, the wives and children they left behind! Yet what was there to remember about the New Order regime that forced them into exile? Developmentalism, political tragedy, mindless old men. These were the main themes of their works, including Wispi's.

It is in this poetry that Wispi failed to control the sound of his poems. The anger and the urge to curse -- the cynicism -- kept emerging from his works. The words were too lucid and straightforward. Metaphors and diction vanished. His recent poems had lost their brightness, an aesthetical downturn compared to Death of a Peasant.

Thirty years of being an exile had completely changed Wispi's life. In 1996 and 1998 he visited Indonesia. One of the main reasons was to settle legal matters with his ex-wife -- and some say he had had someone visiting him regularly when he was in Amsterdam.

He also began to criticize concepts, such as ideology leads, which had been Lekra's main principle in the past. "Politics had been hit, and writers too, were hit. Down to nothing! They were the generals, we were the soldiers. I don't like it. This is not right, putting artists as second class citizens."

To him, a poet, just like any other human being, deserves a prominent place and poetry became his final destination. His home. That was what had made him a mature humanistic poet who went far beyond his ideological background, which had once devoured him in the past.

-- Nur Zain Hae is a poet and member of the research team on Indonesian exile literature. Translated by Lisabona Rahman.