Thursday, May 06, 2010

Nicholas Liu reviews "Equal to the Earth"

I missed seeing this review when it first came out in April, in the Quarterly Literary Review of Singapore. It is a piece of intelligent criticism of my book. Though I disagree with several of his evaluations of phrase, line and poem, I find myself agreeing with a greater number than I am happy to admit. The comments on "The Grand Historian" and "Cold Pastoral" are particularly acute. I accept too that I am overdrawn at the Bank of Keats, as Liu so wittily puts it. He has a keen ear, and I am glad Singapore Literature has recruited an independent young critic.

Koh Jee Leong's debut collection — discounting his intriguing chapbook of sonnets, Payday Loans (Poets Wear Prada, 2007) — can fairly be described as overdue. Koh is no journeyman poet, and the best of these poems make important contributions to the Singapore lyric, such as it is. (One dares to dream that had this book been published sooner, we might even have been spared some of the past few years' more dismal entries in that overcrowded genre.) His liberal use of poem sequences and rigorous forms is also welcome, both being fairly thin on the ground here. Regrettably, the less accomplished of his poems lack grace as well as that beauty which comes with certain sorts of awkwardness. When technique fails in this way, there is very little to hold one's attention, for Koh's poetry, although highly literary, is not in any sense difficult. He speaks a language any experienced reader can understand; you can gobble up a poem of his in one go, which is all very well when the poem is good (which is often enough), but makes it all too clear when the poem is insubstantial. [Read more]

It is a relief, too, not to be discussed in terms of one's background, but simply to have it taken for granted.


WL said...

I'm not sure I agree with Liu about the comma. :-)

The role of punctuation in a reader's experience is important but not the same as the role of the words, especially when the poem's form helps the reader remember the words. I know the words of a few sonnets of Shakespeare and Frost by heart, but not the punctuation. (Modern editors of Shakespeare's sonnets don't pay much attention to his original punctuation, which doesn't seem to have been fastidious.)

For me, Frost's punctuation is like a composer's markings of tempo, dynamics, expression, etc. in a musical score: important, but not as essential as the notes. The composer and pianist Robert Helps said he always saw such markings as suggestions. (He did take the "suggestions" very seriously.)

Since punctuation has a less binding effect on silent and spoken readings than words do, arguably the richer choice is the one that suggests a reading other than the default. The comma in "O, Jack" doesn't seem extraneous to me. It has emotional and sexual texture, yet at the same time, a reader who prefers to hear the music the way that Liu does is free to do so.

Reviewing an early novel of Anne Tyler, John Updike wrote, "More than that it would be unkind to ask, did we not imagine, from the scope of the gift displayed, that something of that gift is still being withheld."

(The review was reprinted in Updike's collection Hugging the Shore, whose title is a metaphor for criticism.)

Jee Leong Koh said...

Thanks, WL, for the wise reflections on the comma and more.