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,
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.
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.