Mon, Aug 10, 2009
The Straits Times
One people, one nation in poems

By Edwin Thumboo

EVERY nation has poetry, as old as itself, as new as itself.

The Americans, for instance, instituted a National Poetry Month as recently as 1996. Historically, a nation's formation and key historic moments inspire poems, often before they enter into the general consciousness.

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For instance, the relationship between individual and nation which Walt Whitman sums up in Democratic Vistas (1871) had been expressed poetically, most notably in Song Of Myself (1855):

My tongue, every atom of my blood, form'd

from this soil, this air,

Born here of parents born here from parents

the same, and their parents the same

Whitman had hoped his poem, in 52 sections, would reunite America and thus avert a devastating civil war. Interestingly enough, the title in the 1856 edition was Poem Of Walt Whitman, An American.

As we can expect, nationalist sentiments entered the poetry of all former South Asian, Caribbean, African, South-east Asian, and Pacific Ocean British and American colonies.

Initially, the anti-colonial poems were in various national and regional languages. Their themes ranged from the yearning for freedom, to restoring their way of life and the reassertion of their core identity.

As English - the ex-colonial language - got indigenised and thus enlisted, the link between poetry, the individual and national life was established, then consolidated as it followed the vision and evolution of the nation.

As I wrote in a poem published in this newspaper on May 30, my own interests grew out of concern for Singapore and her tryst with destiny.

We all write with the muscle, sinew, the blood, the reflexes and spirit of our nation that moves in us. We continue to envision our nation, but a great deal that has passed, as well as what surrounds us, has been internalised.

Given our history, we write as hyphenated persons: Chinese-, Malay-, Indian-, Eurasian-Singaporeans.

But the more we enter into our life here, backed by what history we lived, what hopes of the future we share, the terms of the hyphen are transposed, so that the emphasis is increasingly Singaporean.

Our ethnicity remains. It will always be there, essential but not disruptively dominant. It is this Singaporeanness that is our common shared inheritance.

For me, the combination of a Tamil-Teochew inheritance from my father and mother made me especially aware of bringing cultures and their ways of life together. The process teaches understanding, sensitivity, awareness of differences that we appreciate, accept rather than reject, and where possible bring into a single moment of experience which is thus enriched.

To some extent, what I went through was a microcosm of the Singapore experience. It allowed me to look more broadly across cultures to see the possibilities, to permutate and combine life and context.

One of my earliest poems, written in 1952, was about a boy from the slums, deprived of school and cigarette-smoking.

Apart from poems of social consciousness, there are those dealing with changes in the landscape and in our economic life, land reclamation and mushrooming HDB flats.

Some celebrated the works of artists such as Liu Kang, Iskandar Jalil, Thomas Yeo and Ho Chee Lick, who put their Singapore-inspired landscapes into memorable paintings or the miracle of ceramics; others, the national library and the evolution of our universities into national institutions.

The names of places - each containing a particular experience - entered the poetry: Batok Town, Bras Basah Road, Smith Street, Orchard Road, Outram Park, Marina Barrage.

And there are poems that deal with colonialism such as Alphonso At Tea or May 1954, and Ulysses By The Merlion, which has led to a brace of other merlion poems.

An anthology of Singapore poetry is vital because our history, our geography, our ordinary life, is put into language closer to both the rhythms of our speech and our understanding.

Students can study the poems, visit their locations and, in many instances, invite the poet along.

All these will make the study of literature that much more alive, both more inclusive and total. I am thinking of what can be done with a poem like 1959 + Fifty, the poem I wrote for this newspaper's commemoration of Singapore's 50 years of self-government.

While we should continue reading and studying poems from all habitats of the English language, in the World Englishes whose standard forms are mutually intelligible, we should tap the accumulation of our poems, especially as they relate directly to the Singapore experience.

So write Singapore; read Singapore.

This article was first published in The Straits Times.

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