Thursday, September 07, 2006

Poetry and the Renaissance Machine in Singapore

Note: Please read Gwee's response to this post in the comments.

I read Gwee Li Sui's essay on Singaporean poetry (Harvard Asia Quarterly, Volume IX, Nos. 1 & 2. Winter/Spring 2005) in Cyril Wong's blog. The essay attempts to explain the lack of major Singaporean poets between Edwin Thumboo and Alvin Pang by analyzing poetry's withdrawal from the national sphere during the desert years. In his analysis, the interim poets disengaged from a national culture increasingly bureaucratic and economically-minded, and thus limited their artistic ambitions and impaired their poetic strength. Besides Lee Tzu Pheng, Gwee cites Boey Kim Cheng as another example of this impaired poetry:


We speak therefore of how poetry had only reassumed its pure space of freedom in the general failure of a stable sense of self and home to arrive distinct from infrastructural and economic concerns. We also assert that the catalytic conflict was indeed the key to its own mediation: what the politicising of art in a ban provoked was precisely an artistic response that would be as good as an agreement to the larger redrawing of boundaries. With this new relationship, poetry would be as free to pursue its own concerns as the state would be to fashion a whole national culture that could ignore its relevance through a top-down commandeering of language. The absolute social defeat poetry had suffered was converted internally into absolute self-sufficiency, a truth we must now re-expose through a different confessing voice, that of Boey Kim Cheng. This one-time protege of Lee established with "Somewhere-Bound" (1989) a fiercely intense pursuit of writing and reading that would lead him at length to choose an Australian citizenship in 2003. His early "“Cloud of Unknowing," in fact, shows an impotent wish to be revenged on the realigned world of social usefulness:

We never had
the architect's foresight, never knew
how to be useful, never had
the inclination to consult
the guides to happiness.
We strayed off the road
with books like On The Road.

Around us the smiling successes,
the stories of the rich and famous,
geniuses who are doctors and the like
from the moment of conception.
We remain incurable procrastinators,
waiting for our cloud's dispersal,
or the disappearance
of these useful people,
leaving us
the only successful survivors
on this planet.

The clue to a lot of Boey's contemplations is his neurosis, depicted here as being "“on the verge / Of something state." In his characterisation of "“useful people," we imagine Thumboo's nation-makers--folks like his academic, civil servant, and city planner--but are struck by the further complicity of the poets Thumboo and Lee as citizens. The former's role is straightforward while the latter can now be construed as a beacon for others cast out by an imagination at odds with or untouched by the official social vision. The decisive question emerges: where then can a late-arriving poet go if he or she simply has no wish to stand outside inside and still yearns for a communal space to posit or propose a personal identity? Boey's poems are launched almost fixatedly to tear rootlessness out of uselessness; they throw themselves nervously into an assortment of locales around the world where, in some makeshift humanity, he sees himself more at home than in either Singapore or poetry. His devotion to place even recalls Thumboo's but is without their common origin, its strange exclusion foiling his own attempt to pass through a love of many peoples, cultures, and spiritual traditions into the universal. This is the price of exilic internalised poetry: its kind of poet's ungrounded and deformed sense of "country" must become the impediment to the full execution of his or her intense exploratory vision. A leap from Lee to Boey--a child of the annus mirabilis 1965--appears impulsive, but there has been no major poet born in the 1950s and few youthful voices that could convey the inner life of the 1980s. The silence itself spoke damningly through the first to break it, Boey.

Jee Leong:

I am disturbed by Gwee's idea that major poetry must be socially engaged, even, more narrowly, nationally engaged. Sure, Whitman's poetry celebrates America and much of Yeats cannot be read without understanding his politics. But what about Dickinson, Eliot, Stevens, and late Auden? Boey rejects national entanglements, and Gwee casts his poetic enterprise in the language of physical and mental ailments: impotent, neurosis, fixatedly, nervously, deformed, impediment. Gwee's rhetoric in the extract shifts to a higher gear, a possible sign of a writer's consciousness (semi-consciousness?) of a weakness in his argument. Why should changing one's citizenship lead to a "deformed sense of "country'", and why does that deformity (if it should be that) disqualify one from writing major poetry? Gwee does not answer these questions, but assumes their answers.

One may also question Gwee's evaluation of which Singaporean poets are "major" and which, presumably, though he diplomatically avoids the term, "minor." Though the Thumboo extract Gwee quotes supports his argument, it is poetically uninteresting. Arthur Yap is dismissed, with a single sentence, as a follower of Modernism. Surely it is too hasty to come out for Alvin Pang as a major poet when he has published only two collections. Alfian Sa'at, another example of Gwee's major poets, has turned to play-writing after publishing two slim poetry books. On the other hand, Cyril Wong, who has published five collections, is only mentioned in the essay as the dedicatee of a Sa'at poem; presumably he is not major because his subjects, eros, love and loss, are irredeemably private.

An evaluation of a national poetry will have its ideal National Poet (implicit or explicit, imaginary or real) who set the standards by which other poets are judged. Some of these standards have more to do with nationalism than with poetry, an unfortunate imposition, I think. What Singaporean poets need from critics is not more nationalism, but a thorough and critical explication of their poetry. Before the history of a country's poetry can be written, full-length works on individual poets should come first, works that aim to understand the poet's context, enterprise, methods and success. If the poetry is worthwhile, the critical effort will be passionate. From a postcolonial perspective, one must avoid the trap of defending a poet based on his national or regional origin, i.e. "Walcott is a great Caribbean poet," instead of "Walcott is a great poet," period. If it has not been done already, I would like to see an essay on one Singaporean poet written by a Singaporean critic published in the Harvard Asian Quarterly, with no mention of the nationality of either poet or critic.


Anonymous said...

Dear Jee Leong --

Here's a pleasant surprise: I was googling for some other link I lost and chanced upon your thoughts! I'm Gwee -- he who wrote the piece -- and, in short, having read your comments, I think you have less to worry in me, in the piece, than you think! Here are a few quick reasons why:

[1] The essay does not attempt "to explain the lack of major Singaporean poets between Edwin Thumboo and Alvin Pang" if, by "lack", you seem to mean "absence". Read it again: the only radical break I acknowledge, in terms of major writing, is between Lee Tzu Pheng and Boey Kim Cheng, and that's also what the excerpt you cited says! It is strange too to assume that major poets (eg. Boey) may not be read differently -- in this case, psychoanalytically -- other than what they want said and, if read in this other manner, must have been deemed minor.

[2] The essay does not ignore Cyril Wong (although the number of published volumes, in abstract, should not be a measure of greatness). In fact, Wong has been cited very generously a few times and lengthily too and not, as you claimed, "only mentioned in the essay as the dedicatee of a Sa'at poem".

[3] The essay is not saying that, unless one writes national poetry, one isn't writing relevant or good poetry. Read it again: what it precisely rejects is that socialised dichotomy in Singaporean culture between "useful" nationalist art and "useless" personal art. The current poetic revolution embodies that rejection in refusing to be forced into that old limited either/or context. It is an attempt to radicalise the platform on which poetry ought to be treated by a general cynical public.

[4] Harvard Asian Quarterly is dedicated to observing trends in current affairs in Asia: this isn't a journal for studying personal literary aesthetics. Also, to talk about just one writer with such a scope here is precisely to play down and dislocate the collective excitement of the current literary force in Singapore, the reason the journal is drawn to the subject in the first place. Take a look at the other articles in this journal and you'll appreciate better what the editors have already done.

In fact, having tried to gasp the values underlying your judgements, I fail to see how, at heart, we aren't believing in the same thing. Jee Leong, you may be looking at the wrong person for an aesthetic enemy; a poet is the last person this essay is meant to alienate. The reason I am writing this too is in the hope that you realise what some academic essays are fighting for by "speaking the truth" socio-historically and not to let old failures become haunting ones still for poets -- who want to do more and do something else -- for the sake of art's essence and health.

Best Regards,

Anonymous said...


Firstly, I have a confession to make. I'm an ex-student of you (Mr. Koh!), and also of Dr. Gwee. =)
I read your blog post with great interest for I've always had an interest in Singapore literature and also because I had to do a collection of Boey Kim Cheng's poems for my A levels. Something compelled me to write down my personal reactions, so here it is:

I’ve yet to read Dr. Gwee’s piece (I’ll try to get my hands on it) but I do know that there has always been a debate in Singapore about the uses of art, or in this case specifically, poetry. As Gwee mentioned, there is such a “socialised dichotomy in Singaporean culture”. It’s not surprising that such tensions exist. A nation like Singapore would be concerned mainly with the lower order needs and not the higher levels like ‘self-actualisation’ and so on. Thus, as a result, poets focusing on personal issues would be shunned and deemed as practising a selfish art by the government. (sorry for repeating stuff that you guys may already know…:) I would agree that poets are trying to break free of that either/or situation. In my opinion, Sa’at and Boey are a pretty good examples of the struggle to resist categorisation. Both poets have published stuff that simply blurs the boundaries between the individual and the state. I mean, just look at One Fierce Hour and Another Place.

Your post also made me question my ideas of
1. what exactly makes a poet great and
2. if it is the case that greatness is largely defined on nationalistic terms, how can we break out of it?

I have to admit that perhaps there will never be a consensus on the defining characteristic(s) of greatness, and that perhaps I’ll never find the answer to these questions. But nevertheless, thanks for giving me the much-needed break away from my brainless- surfing of the Internet.


p.s. Mr.Koh, I'm glad to know that you're nicely settled in NY. I must say you did fuel my love for literature. =)

Jee Leong Koh said...

Dear Gwee,
sorry for my tardy reply. Thanks very much for your thoughtful and detailed response. After reading your essay again, I realized I was wrong about Cyril Wong not being quoted. What led me to think (wrongly) that you did not consider Lee Tzu Pheng a major poet was your analysis of her poetry as a re-drawing of the boundary between state and self (disengaging with the official national vision, and carving out an autonomous, but isolated, space for her voice). I thought you were comparing her unfavorably with Thumboo, and holding her responsible for Singapore poetry's "quick obsolescence" after him. In your comments on Boey's poetry, the medical language still strikes me as odd because it is applied to just one poet among the many in your analysis, the only poet who chose to give up his Singaporean citizenship. Thanks for clarifying your argument, and for correcting my misunderstanding.

Dear Rubin,
what a pleasure to hear from you! I'm so pleased to learn that you continue to love literature, Singaporean or otherwise. I guess I am suspicious of attempts to put poetry to any social use. The only social use of poetry I like is reading it aloud among friends. Thanks for writing down your thoughts here.

Jee Leong

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

Hi Jee Leong

LY and I are in Virginia for the 2006-2007 year... give us a buzz at perhaps we can meet up in NYC?

Anonymous said...

Hi Jee Leong

LY and I are in Virginia for the 2006-2007 year... give us a buzz at perhaps we can meet up in NYC?

alvin pang

Anonymous said...

Hi Jee Leong --

Sorry that it's taking me a while to reply; I really like your new poems, especially "Honesty and Pride"! In quick response, I don't think that the essay intends to distinguish who is major or who is not at all; it simply sites poems as they stand (as examples of more) in poetry's relationship to politics in Singapore. Of course, one is always welcome to see art as existing really in itself, disinterested in society, nation, and all; that may work better in the minds of poets as they write than in the world to which their writing is then given, where it will get read, interpreted, co-opted, dismissed, or selected and thus "thematised". When I say "art" or "poetry", I mean it in that latter direct space, where art already offers another meaning as a quiet worldly thing.

In fact, in the case of Kim Cheng, there is a general curious impression among post-1997 poets that he belongs among them, a big brother in essence for his style and themes; meanwhile, the institutional reading still sees him (where he stands in 80s and 90s literature) as a promising lesser -- being uncelebratable -- poet because of his "evasiveness". I take neither position, to be clear: Kim Cheng belongs to no party and has no aesthetic peer in his time and no comparable sufferer in ours. He began writing in an age that misunderstood him and is now cut down ironically by writers who want to believe that he only worked for our sake, in abstract interest's name.

It's, after all, not that simple: there were a Kim Cheng and a Singapore in the late 80s and early 90s that could explain each other and the directions they took. Think of all the writers in both prose and poetry at a time and then remember Kim Cheng: the complexities of association should emerge in some vague but honest shape. I don't adhere to the school of thought that insists that what has not been said has little or plain speculative value -- or else I would have learnt nothing from Kafka and Beckett. By the same token, I cannot go on to assume that that world has been the same as ours: Kim Cheng did suffer, but we must enter his world to understand fully what that must have entailed.

As such, academics shouldn't just read for possible meanings in poems only but for real meanings that are not named between poems and their worlds too: such meanings may well be the best kinds I feel I can offer my readers. Let someone else do the other thing, which can be done by anyone in any sector of the world; I, on the other hand, feel that some things must be recorded before their contexts disappear (they already are in this case) and before we forget how they could have been read ethically.

Take care!

Jee Leong Koh said...

Hi Gwee,
thanks for your thoughts on reading Boey. I remember wandering into a Times bookshop, picking up his book "Days of No Name," not expecting very much after repeated disappointments with Singaporean poetry, and thinking, this guy is the real stuff. Are you working on a book on Singaporean poets? I'll be interested to hear more about your critical writing.

Jee Leong

Rui said...

i was lucky in that Boey Kim Cheng's poetry was the first poetry by a (at-the-time) singaporean i came across. it made me feel hopeful. after that good start the subsequent disappointments didn't sting as much. :)

and he seems like such a nice unassuming person in real life!

has there been any serious academic study of his work?

- Another member of the fanclub.

Jee Leong Koh said...

Not that I am aware of, though I am a poor informer in this. I don't remember any essay on him from the literary criticism series published by Firstfruits.

Gilbert Koh said...

I do believe that Kirpal Singh wrote something about him in the literary criticism published by Ethos.

Jee Leong Koh said...

Thanks for the head-up, Gilbert.

Jee Leong

alf said...

This is an old post, but I wonder if the new anthology will change opinions expressed here, even (or especially) of the old guard.