The Philosophical, the Political, the Tongue-in-cheek
By Crispin Rodrigues
This Floating World
The haiku has changed a lot since the time of Basho and Shiki to Ezra Pound's famous haiku-like 'In a Station of the Metro' and the works of the Beat poets, like Jack Kerouac's Mexico City Blues. Unlike its Japanese counterpart, the English haiku is clunkier, in part owing to its multisyllabic words that require a rigid syntactical structure. So how does the Singapore (the name itself a metonymy for efficiency) haiku hold up against the economy of the form?
The haiku in Singapore seems to capture the nation's efficient idealism. After all, why bore with too many words where 5-7-5 will do? The connotation of these three numbered lines even seemingly conveys the ruled allocation of time between sleep, work and play (OK, so it's 17 syllables, but you get the point). But in recent years it has also come to signify a tired act of poetry making. The (in)famous advent of Singapore Poetry Writing Month (SingPoWriMo) often sees haikus as a #copout response to poetry prompts or towards the end of the month when participants are at the end of the creative tether. Poets such as Marc Nair and Christina Sng have also been adept at taking haikus and combining them with photography and horror respectively. So, to put together a collection of haiku is perfectly representative of the Singaporean creative psyche mired in the actualities of tight scheduling and over-efficiency, even more so during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Firstly, this isn't Gwee's first collection of haikus. His first collection, Haikuku (Landmark Books, 2017), was a celebration of all things Singaporean, from Singlish to MRT breakdowns to the Hungry Ghost Festival to repealing 377A. And part of it was the masterful employment of his knowledge of the Singaporean context that gave the haikus a lived reality. Gwee himself is no stranger to the act of translation. The doyen of Singlish not only has a guide to speaking Singlish in Spiaking Singlish (Marshall Cavendish, 2017), but he also has his own Singlish translation of The Little Prince, entitled The Leeter Tunku (Edition Tintenfaß, 2019). The Floating World is somehow both part of this act of translation and yet a departure in a style that is familiar to Gwee.
At first, the presentation of the book is quite daring. Minimalist in nature, the cover title and author's name read like a haiku, until you turn to the back of the book and see no synopsis, only a haiku conversation between Basho, Buson and Issa, and a label telling you of the antimicrobial properties of the cover, which itself reads like a haiku. The poem featuring the three Japanese poets acknowledges the collection's legacy stemming from these haiku poets, implying that it aims to toy with that rich history. All at once, you get the sense of play that Gwee is noted for even before starting to read the haikus. Inside, you have barely any words per page. Each haiku is not presented with its title (the titles are located in an index at the back) and there's only one to two haikus per page. Heck, there are no page numbers. It is minimalism at its best, until you get to the haikus.
The poems in This Floating World can mainly be categorised into three groups: the philosophical haiku (which I will term as the "philku"), the political haiku (shortened to "polku") and haikus about the poet's own bugbears, told in Gwee's tongue-in-cheek manner (which I will call "trollku"). These three haiku types are distributed evenly throughout the book.
The philkus resemble classic haikus the most in their tone and structure. Take haiku 187 ('New Year's Haiku') for example:
This is reminiscent of the Japanese form, with its focus on seasons and nature. Sure, there is some luxury of words (the tiny monosyllabic words "the", "is", "to be" feel more like filler than minimalism), but the shifting season connotes hopefulness as the "…morning rain / wait to be rippled" with the start of sunrise. There is a philosophical undertone of questioning the arbitrariness of New Year's Day. Is it really a day created for epic change after a season of rain or simple another day in which the sun rises and puddles are to be jumped into? This haiku, like the Japanese ones by Basho and Issa, does not seek to give an answer but instead just is, and leaves the reader to infer its connotations and sense its meaning.
The polkus and trollkus, on the other hand, detract from any attempt at minimalism at all, perhaps as a way to poke fun at Singaporeans' love for complaining. These poems are not always localised. There are poems about Donald Trump and bushfires in the United States/Australia, and anything that was in the news during the Trump presidency. The political leanings of the poems are firmly moderate, but the use of the haiku form can be quite precarious at times, as can be seen in haiku 279 ('Section 377A Haiku'):
As a poem, I find that the narrator sits on a middle ground and uses humour as a means to avoid taking a political stance. I get the first line break to suggest a form of secrecy. The second line struggles to stand alone as a fragment, and the line break after "Whose" seems strange and abrupt. While I do understand the tongue-in-cheek humour in the third line by beginning with "pen is", the overall haiku feels very on the nose and put together just to adhere to the 5-7-5 format. The trollkus also tend to follow a similar format, as can be seen from haiku 306 ('Vitamin D Haiku'):
There are moments of subversion going on such as the line break in the first line, such that it reads "Every day I drink", which immediately points towards alcoholism, and then it gets subverted in the second line with "fresh milk" and the image of standing in the sun for 30 minutes is quite humorous, but the overall haiku reads quite (again) on the nose. As such, spliced between some of the deeper and more philosophical haikus, the inconsistency of the polkus and trollkus at times takes away from the humour, especially when bombarded with quite a number of similarly witted haikus within close proximity of each other.
I did also wonder if more extensive Singlish could be used to convey even more compression in the poems. There are few poems that employ Singlish in the collection, and I feel that this is a detriment to the overall theme of minimalism and a poetic interpretation of daily interactions, especially given Gwee's background in translating material into Singlish. In one such Singlish haiku, haiku 92 ('Po Mata Haiku'), Gwee employs a circularity to the poem:
While the Singlish helps to create humour through the familiar syntax of "Here / got" and "anyhow", the humour of the "ownself-call-ownself" seems to fade out rather quickly, especially after reading it a second time and finding the comma in the first line a bit of a stuffy call-back to formal English grammar. The daringness to use a mixture of languages also only manifests in the title, which is found in the index at the back of the book.
However, this does not detract too much from the overall enjoyment of the collection. Gwee's haikus are satirical quips on society just as any Singaporean has the propensity to complain on a daily basis. The poems express the richness of daily life, where one can shift from jokes to being reflective in an instant, and it does feel like a poetic reinterpretation of the political season, from Donald Trump to Thum Ping Tjin to Greta Thunberg. There were times where the seeming randomness of the issues felt jarring to me, although most haikus seemed to be written with levity in mind. While This Floating World is a spiritual successor to Haikuku, I am not so sure if it is better than the earlier collection since it feels more like collected poems rather than one with a coherent theme other than just the use of the haiku form. Overall, did I laugh while reading the collection? Kinda. But it was more of a chuckle than a guffaw.QLRS Vol. 21 No. 2 Apr 2022