Chairil Anwar: Poet of a Generation
by Tinuk Yampolsky

Chairil Anwar: every Indonesian schoolchild knows his name. For this poet was  one of the famed figures of the “1945 Generation,” that group of luminaries who brought heat and light to Indonesian literature in the formative years of the new nation.

Through his poetry, Chairil Anwar succeeded in infusing Indonesian verse with a new spirit and bringing a new enthusiasm to Indonesia’s cultural arena. He also provided friends and acquaintances with never-ending tales to tell of his personal eccentricities, including his hobby of stealing books from the shops, his tendency to plagiarize from foreign poets, his many lovers, his numerous ailments, and his bohemian lifestyle. 

Born on July 22, 1922 in Medan, North Sumara, Chairil attended the Hollands Inlandsche School (HIS), a Dutch elementary school for “natives.” He then continued his education at the Meer Uitgebreid Lager Onderwijs, a Dutch junior high school, but he dropped out before graduating. At the age of nineteen, after the divorce of his parents, Chairil moved with his mother to Jakarta where he came in contact with the literary world. Despite his unfinished education, Chairil had an active command of English, Dutch and German, and he filled his hours by reading an international selection of authors, including Rainer M. Rilke, W.H. Auden, Archibald MacLeish, H. Marsman, J. Slaurhoff and Edgar du Perron. These writers became his references, directly influencing his own poetry and later helping him shift the gaze of Indonesian literature to fall upon Europe. This westward turn was one of the major differences between Chairil’s “1945 Generation” peers and the previous cohort of Indonesian writers, the “New Authors Generation” of the 1930s, who were more oriented toward traditional verse forms. Chairil’s poetry was not only topically fresh, it struggled with individual and existential issues, in contrast to the writers of the “New Authors Generation” who were more concerned with giving voice to nationalist enthusiasm. 

Chairil began to gain recognition as a poet with the publication of “Nisan” (“Gravestone”) in 1942. At that time, he was only twenty years old. He had apparently been shocked by the death of his grandmother, which awakened him to the fact that death could at any moment tear one away from life. Most of the poems he wrote after this point referred, at least implicitly, to this awareness of death. All of his poems—the originals, the adaptations and those suspected of being plagiarisms—have been collected in three books: Deru Campur Debu (“Roar Mixed with Dust,” 1949); Kerikil Tajam Yang Terampas dan Yang Putus (“Sharp Pebbles The Seized and the Severed,” 1949); and Tiga Menguak Takdir (“Three Tear Open Fate,” 1950, a collection of poems with Asrul Sani and Rivai Apin).

Chairil’s poetic vitality was never in balance with his physical condition, which grew weaker as a result of his chaotic lifestyle. Before he could turn twenty-seven, he had  already contracted a number of illnesses. In the last days of his life, he wrote a poem that read thus:

                            The Seized and the Severed

                            the darkness and passing wind overtake me
                            and the room where the one I long for shivers
                            with night’s penetration; trees stand like dead memorials

                            but in Karet, yes, Karet Cemetery – my future locale – there, the wind howls, too

                            I put my room in order, and myself as well, in the chance that you might come
                            and I may once again unleash a new story for you;
                            but now it’s only my hands that move, emptily

                            my body is still and alone, as frozen stories and events pass by

  On April 28, 1949, Chairil Anwar passed away at the CBZ Hospital (now R.S. Ciptomangunkusomo) in Jakarta. And indeed, he was buried at Karet Cemetery the next day. In memory of the words he left behind, April 28th is now celebrated as Literature Day in Indonesia.

                            POEMS OF CHAIRIL ANWAR 

                            My Friend And I
                            For L.K. Bohang 

                            We share the same path, late at night
                            with the fog, penetrating 
                            and the rain, drenching our bodies.

                            Ships freeze in the harbor.

                            My blood curdles. My mind congeals.

                            Who is it that speaks?
                            My friend is but a skeleton
                            scourged of his strength.

                            He asks the time!

                            It is so late.
                            All meaning has sunk and drowned
                            and motion has no purpose.


                            No, Woman!

                            No, woman! What lives in me
                            still easily evades your fevered and dark embrace,
                            intent on finding the greenness of another sea,
                            to be again on the ship where we first met,
                            surrendering the rudder to the wind,
                            our eyes fixed on waiting stars.
                            Something flapping its wings, again conveys
                            Tai Po and the secret of the Ambonese Sea.
                            Such is woman! A single vague line
                            is all I can write
                            in my flight towards her enigmatic smile.



                             To dictate is not my intent,
                            Fate is separate loneliness-es.
                            I choose you from among the rest, but
                            in a moment we are snared by loneliness once more.
                            There was a time I truly wanted you,
                            to be as children in crowning darkness,
                            and we kissed and fondled, not tiring.
                            I did not want to ever let you go.
                            Do not unite your life with mine,
                            for I cannot be with anyone for very long
                            I write now on a ship, in some nameless sea.


                            Pines in the Distance

                            Pines scatter in the distance,
                            as day becomes night, 
                            branches slap weakly at the window, 
                            pushed by a sultry wind.

                            I’m now a person who can survive,
                            so long ago I left childhood behind, 
                            though once there was something, 
                            that now counts for nothing at all.

                            Life is but postponement of defeat,
                            a growing estrangement from youth’s unfettered love
                            a knowing there’s always something left unsaid,
                            before we finally acquiesce.


Tinuk Yampolsky is Managing Editor of the Lontar Foundation, a non-profit organization devoted to
translating and promoting Indonesian literature overseas. All the poems of Chairil Anwar reprinted here were
translated by John H. McGlynn. All of them, with the exception of “The Seized and the Severed,” were first
published in similar version in Menagerie I by the Lontar Foundation in 1992.