Not Yet Ideal
Sunday afternoon read is also a missed opportunity
By Leonard Ng
idea to ideal: 12 singapore poets on the writing of their poems
idea to ideal is a short anthology of essays by twelve Singapore poets. In each essay, each of the twelve talks about one of their poems and the creative process that led to its final form. It’s a simple concept, and a simple book. It works, though. Each of the twelve poets in this anthology “reflects and refracts” (to take a phrase from the introduction) their experience in a different way, and collectively they span three generations of Singapore poets, beginning with Goh Poh Seng (b. 1936) and ending with Cyril Wong (b. 1977). It makes for interesting reading, and isn’t a bad way to spend an afternoon; the juxtaposition of the poets’ varied opinions and styles of writing keeps the book from getting stale. However, that very juxtaposition – coupled with the book’s overall simplicity – is also the book’s primary weakness: beyond the main concept, there is little else to tie the book together, and the restriction of these essays to the development of single poems prevents them from achieving a depth they might otherwise have had.
Perhaps, in making that statement, I am criticising this book for not being something it was never intended to be. This anthology, after all, doesn’t claim to do much more than to “open up a pinhole, a view finder through which we can observe the writers as themselves, a life wholly lived and real rather than as names hovering just below the title of their books”, as Felix Cheong writes in his Introduction. In that it succeeds, and succeeds very well I think. But I can’t help coming away from this book with the feeling that here lies another opportunity lost.
There is a need, in this country, for careful, sustained meditation – especially on the part of our poets – on what poetry is, why they write, and the nature of their personal poetics. I believe much of it actually does go on, but little to none of it has been published (though Ethos Books’s Interlogue series has done something, in recent years, to help fill the void.) That gap in the literary culture of this country is best expressed, ironically, by Felix Cheong’s introduction to this volume. Talking about what poetry is and how poets write, Cheong cites a steady stream of Anglo-American writers: T. S. Eliot. Ted Hughes. Howard Moss. Philip Larkin. Robert Frost. Geoffrey Grigson. Wallace Stevens. Lawrence Lipking. Anne Sexton. That’s a very long list for a three-and-a-half page introduction, and one would think that – if he was going to take the trouble to hunt down what other people had said about poetry – he might have included a couple of local names in the list. He does not do so, I can only surmise, because local equivalents simply aren’t there. And this book could have been the one to fill that gap, if only the brief to the poets had been broader: if they had been asked to write essays detailing their personal poetics, without the restriction of only being able to talk about one poem (which in all likelihood isn’t sufficiently representative), much more could have been said, and this book could have had far more substance.
But that opportunity was missed. And the poets in this volume, where they address the issue of their personal poetics at all, generally confine it to a few short remarks at the beginning of each essay before moving on to the drafts of their poems. I personally believe that any remarks from, say, Kirpal Singh and Boey Kim Cheng on their poetry (or even just Poetry) as a whole would have been far more valuable than the anecdotes they recount as having provided the genesis for their respective poems. This volume, unfortunately, never really goes that far. And so what we get is a book that, at best, functions as little more than an easy entry point into the world of Singapore poetry: an afternoon’s light reading, perfect with tea and biscuits. It is hardly, as the introduction claims, “a long overdue companion to our growing body of work”. There is nothing wrong with what it is, but it could have been so much more!
There is only one quote from a Singapore writer in the introduction that does not appear elsewhere in the book. That quote comes from a 1984 essay of Kirpal Singh’s, and boldly proclaims: “Singapore poetry in English has definitely come of age and can offer a viable body of work to the universal reader”. The only problem, unfortunately, is that that was probably the one quote that should not have come from a Singapore writer, much less one featured in the book. Has Singapore poetry in English definitely come of age? Maybe when I see an anthology like the one this could have been, I’ll believe it.QLRS Vol. 4 No. 2 Jan 2005