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'MISERABLE SOUL': J.M. Aziz's poems inspired many, including politicians and policymakers, to do a bit of soul-searching
TEN years ago our literary fraternity mourned the death of one of the best poets the country has ever known -- J.M. Aziz.
He was a dashing young man whose world came crashing down in 1965 after being told he was inflicted with leprosy. He was then with the auxiliary police. He had to resign and was incarcerated at the Sungai Buloh Leprosy Centre for many years, shunned by friends and relatives.
Life was tough for his wife, having to raise seven children. He was blind and very much deformed when he came back. He never wallowed in self-pity. He lived in poverty but he persevered. In those dark years he realised he had a talent -- he could write poetry.
He had been known for reciting syair and pantun since he was a boy but he had the opportunity to perfect the art of poetry writing when he was at Sungai Buloh.
When he was not able to write, his children would write for him. They would read him poems written by his idols, Usman Awang and A. Samad Said. Both inspired him to write, a motivation he put to good use. He was a simple man who wrote from his heart.
His words were elementary yet powerful and effective. He was never bombastic nor was he pretentious. He wrote some of the best and the most remembered poems the country has ever known. Penantian was immortalised by the legendary group, Harmoni, led by the late Zubir Ali.
Sudirman Arshad based his popular song on the signature Penyu Menangis. The same poem was adapted by Nordin Hassan for a stage play, renamed Malam Ini Penyu Menangis, which he directed in June 1994. His other well-known poems are Pengantin Laut, Berlabuh dan Berkayuh and Nasi Ayam Lauk Sepinggan.
Poverty in Seberang Takir, just across from Kuala Terengganu, was legendary. It was just one of many fishing villages dotting the east coast. Villages like these became the object of research and discourse by, among others, Za'ba, Royal Professor Ungku Aziz and Professor Shamsul Amri Baharuddin.
Thanks to J.M. Aziz's poems, Seberang Takir suddenly became part of the lexicon of poverty. In fact, he introduced Sebarang Takir to national consciousness.
His poems opened the eyes of politicians, policymakers and bureaucrats. His works reverberated along the corridors of power, resulting in a lot of soul-searching. He was never afraid to tell the truth, and in the case of poverty, the truth hurt.
His home, which he named Rumah Puisi (home of poetry), was frequented by almost everyone who mattered. He was poor but he was a proud man. He accommodated everyone. He will recite his poems, most of which he memorised, some 2,000 that he had written. He spoke about his hopes for a better Seberang Takir. Back then, despite its proximity to Kuala Terengganu, it was largely forgotten. There was no bridge to cross the river.
I visited him often, listening to him reading his poetry or reciting syair and pantun. With J.M. Aziz one has to be patient. He had lots of stories to tell. Reading a poem is one thing, he will regale you with the background and the creative process.
When Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka (DBP) decided to publish his fourth anthology, Kembang Selaut, I was entrusted to discuss with him the terms and conditions since I was heading a publishing division in 1988. With the help of his children, we went through hundreds of poems. DBP published two of his collections (the other is Kuntum Kedua) but it was Pengantin Laut (published by Amir Enterprise) that was considered his best.
J.M Aziz died of old age on March 16, 2002. Seberang Takir is a different place now. Things are changing for the better. The debilitating poverty that was once synonymous with the village is almost a thing of the past. I am glad to hear the state representative for Seberang Takir, Ahmad Razif A. Rahman, whom I met at the Jom Heboh carnival in Kuala Terengganu last week, is committed to building a museum in memory of the great poet.
J.M. stands for jiwa merana (literally "miserable soul") perhaps a fitting pseudonym for a tragic poet like Aziz. His soul will be blessed knowing his poems had helped change the destiny of the village he loved so much.