Beyond Colloquial Prowesses
Singapore-Australia anthology let down by lack of dialogue between cultures
By Gwee Li Sui
Over There: Poems from Singapore and Australia
Slipped into Samuel Taylor Coleridge's Biographia Literaria is a little discussed account of his year-long visit with the Wordsworths to Germany from the autumn of 1798. This tour had begun just after the publication of the Lyrical Ballads, and it included among its highlights a call on the great German poet, Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock. The rare meeting should have inspired much, but it ended up spiralling from abstract reverence into unease, frustration, and righteous anger. Klopstock was the first to surprise by claiming that Richard Glover's blank verse was far superior to that of John Milton. He also revealed his own preference for Popean rhymes over John Dryden's, William Collins's odes over Thomas Gray's and his complete ignorance of William Cowper. When the conversation turned to German literature, William Wordsworth took the chance to challenge his view of Gotthold Ephraim Lessing as the foremost German dramatist. He struggled with the doyen's choice of the sentimental novel The Sorrows of Young Werther as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's best work and his critique of Friedrich Schiller's style as too Shakespearean. The highest praise Klopstock had was reserved for Christoph Martin Wieland, but Wordsworth found him to lack both artistic stamina and sublimity.
What catastrophes like this expose is the naivety intrinsic to encounters that operate primarily by assuming that all good poets are automatic kindred spirits. The confusion Wordsworth and Coleridge felt leading the latter to mock Klopstock's "colloquial prowess" should teach us all that poetic universality works best as a romantic theme or the goal of some systematic thought. On its own, it is no pre-existing principle that can, without a willingness to address real differences, bridge cultures and their individuals' deep self-exploration through language. The point is recently rediscovered too by some lovers of Australian verse who read John Kinsella's Peripheral Light, a volume with poems selected by the American academic giant Harold Bloom and published by W. W. Norton in 2004. Bloom had outrageously chosen in such a way that affirmed an Anglo-American tradition of the lyric at the expense of Kinsella, left shorn of his avant-gardism, politics, and link to Australian greats such as Kenneth Slessor, Les Murray, and John Tranter. In Singapore, the lesson was differently learnt through Love Gathers All: The Philippines-Singapore Anthology of Love Poetry, which Ethos Books published with Manila's Anvil Publishing in 2002, having Alvin Pang and Aaron Lee co-edit with Filipinos Ramσn Sunico and Alfred A. Yuson. The theme might have been the grandest and oldest of poetic subjects, a metaphor for the exchange between the two countries itself, but readers soon queried where that mutual ground truly was. In the presence of an unexpected absence, these found themselves polarised anew ironically along lines of old provincial values.
Over There: Poems from Singapore and Australia is the third major anthology under the imprint of Ethos Books, one of only two bold and exciting literary publishers in twenty-first-century Singapore. Its two editors, Kinsella and Pang, are undoubtedly among the few most innovative and watched in this line of work on their own Pacific-separated shores. At forty-five, with over twenty books of poetry, the fiercely prolific Kinsella could have brought with him a wealth of creative experiences, a sharp mind in comprehending the meaning of artistic range, and an awareness of trans-cultural expectations. The younger Pang may have a more modest catalogue of two solo volumes, but he numbers among a respected handful of Singaporean voices who stalk a thin line between acute social insight and constant aesthetic renewal. The collaboration therefore seems impossible not to succeed on at least a level of an envisioned dialogue between spaces which, as both admit, "need to communicate more deeply." Its nation-building value is also flaunted through the editorial reminder in the Introduction that such work will become key documents as "political desire in both Australia and Singapore to constitute nation as 'history' increases." All these pronouncements sound good and noble, but a reader's gradual realisation that speaking is always easy should be cause enough for stronger reflection.
To be sure, the volume's flaws have very little to do with the quality of the chosen poets and their poems themselves. Reading any selection of Australian verse with Peter Porter, Alan Gould, Judith Bishop, Sarah Day, and Kevin Hart within a few pages' reach is indeed a tremendous experience. The singular most exhilarating aspect in the first half is the homage paid to ethnic cross-fertilisation: we hear Yahia al-Samawy's Arabic verse translated into sensual English and feel the allure of Filipino Merlinda Bobis, Chinese Ouyang Yu, Fijian Sudesh Mishra, and indigenous writers, Lionel Fogarty and Charmaine Papertalk-Green. Meanwhile, the poetry of Singapore returns in yet another guise for intelligent canon-shaping whose order from Edwin Thumboo through Robert Yeo, Lee Tzu Pheng, and Paul Tan to Cyril Wong and Aaron Maniam is simply jumbled up here. Stripped of an overt chronology, we meet an intriguingly dominant sameness, from which Pang's introductory differentiation between Toh Hsien Min's "formalist instinct" and Yeow Kai Chai's "flamboyant word-floods" only momentarily distracts us. With the exception of Ng Yi-Sheng and Chinese poet Enoch Ng Kwang Cheng, the Singaporeans almost all write striking grammatical poetry that does not inhere essences and is linguistically more conservative than its counterpart. The two competent halves are bridged by not one, as the contents page wants to suggest, but two Australians raised in Singapore: Miriam Wei Wei Lo and the supple Boey Kim Cheng.
One's mixed reaction towards such a presentation can perhaps be explained from, among other angles, the history of Ethos anthologies itself. Pang's first editorial effort with Lee in 2000 remains this publisher's most radical and successful compilation to date. No Other City: The Ethos Anthology of Urban Poetry, collecting Singaporean verses on the theme of urban life, made the controversial move of detaching its contributors' names from their poems and stringing the latter together rhythmically. The result was an instant riot: one learned, for example, that a twenty-four-year-old poem by Goh Poh Seng could continue to be relevant, that, after more than a decade, Leong Liew Geok's style was still evolving, and that Ng Yi-Sheng, then without his own volume, was surely a name to watch. As re-readers (such as Australian D.J. Huppatz) soon began to notice too, there was a hauntingly critical sentiment that stretched across the selection, making talk of artistic diversity incidental and a revolution of poets actually visible. Refusing to beat the same path twice, Love Gathers All went beyond stylistic considerations to test the cultural boundaries of an old self-framing with Malaysia only. By working with Filipino poets, the volume created a magical discordance that felt like an ongoing drama, its readers being torn between finding Singaporean verse too intellectual and Filipino writing too maudlin. In fact, this reviewer himself idly speculated then that the effect could well be intended to help reveal the truths of stark real-life confrontations.
The dampening answer to that thought came six years later in short grim words: "Apparently not." Over There double the size of both earlier anthologies in terms of included poems should really have been two separate volumes of verse. Editorial experience is used here to kill boldness since there exists no unifying subject except the selections' mere framing beside each other, what now seems to be all the title means. As with poor town-planning, a sense of neighbourliness is not architecturally encouraged even if the inhabitants are innately friendly. The two editors have not communicated well, and it shows: although John Mateer's poems are generously all about the island-state, Kinsella declares that his own general principle is to exclude writings belonging to what he calls the "visit" genre. Yet, Pang blissfully includes such pieces, as his entries for Kirpal Singh, Colin Tan, and Yong Shu Hoong show, and even extends the space to Singaporean adventures in all parts of the globe. The editors' joint assurance that both poetic cultures are given equal attention itself conceals the fact that Kinsella has chosen range over depth while Pang makes the reverse decision. Multiculturalism may have been a feature through which the two could provoke ideas about how far their national identities actually intersected, but this was left unevenly pursued. Then, there are the cuts made on grounds of a partiality for new or recent poems, which is nonetheless happy to let a few old, very old, poems wander in.
The irregularities can thus be summed up as such: while one side gazes across and even everywhere, the other side seems to be doing something else wholly non-geographical. While one selection stresses creative variety, the other is focussed on credible representation. One editor claims to have thrown thematic constraints to the wind, but the other visibly agonises over every inch involving politics, humour, and deep difference. Both create their own exceptions and contradictions and appear to exercise no power over the other's choice and show no curiosity for doing so. All these disparities reveal an even more incriminating neglect: their agreement to disagree can only be made with both knowing full well of potential difficulties, obstacles, and quagmires and choosing rather not to face them. So the two editors keep to their own aesthetic beliefs, administer their own domains, and leave unshaken the internal relationship of their own national poetry. Nothing is learned through or of the Other because neither has dared to risk being outraged by his own findings like Wordsworth or Coleridge or judged for his own presumptions like Klopstock or Bloom. In a work that does nothing, every poetic spirit is left to think of itself and smile at another but knows no better at the end. Imagine the converse perversity of having Kinsella edit the Singaporean section and Pang the Australian and the explosion of full-blooded cultural insights that would follow! Less radically, one could wish that those poems on Singapore rejected by Kinsella had found their way in: a honest dialogue must begin, after all, by allowing space for potential misrecognition, however awkward or exoticising, to exist.
By thus preaching through a diversity of poets an accord which the editors neither practice nor believe, the project displays the obvious problem of letting the cart pull the horse and then calling whatever happens progress. Because, in the name of respectful ignorance, conservatism is being pursued, the volume's invitation to interact ends up ringing rather disingenuous. This feeling goes beyond a simple suspicion of why, for such a diplomatic exercise, the co-publisher with Ethos Books is Singapore's munificent National Arts Council only. A cold hard look would have revealed that many Singaporeans go South to go West, that, for some time now, Australia has become the new Malaysia for citizens seeking to peg their Westernised identity regionally. The anthology, however, conceals issues like this actively and treats its readers to bizarre logical twists that arise only because they want so desperately to believe that Singapore and Australia are indeed the same. Fantasies are accordingly fed by an assurance that the volume's "position of equality" is based on numerous favourable similarities, such as how the territories are "both islands." Yet, every schoolchild knows that Australia is not just an island but also a continent; it is nearly 11,000 times bigger than Singapore and has four and a half times more people. To reach Australia's range on an equal basis, Singapore will have to scrap the bottom of all its poetic barrels, and yet to respect the island's real limits will seriously under- or even misrepresent the nature of Australian writing. Bear this in mind because, in the name of equality, something far worse than learning nothing is now in print: with a false basis for equal representation, whatever gets deduced about at least one national poetry hereafter must be fundamentally wrong.QLRS Vol. 7 No. 2 Apr 2008