Quarterly Literary Review Singapore
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Vol. 1 No. 3 Apr 2002

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Stand up and be counted

By Toh Hsien Min

A couple of issues ago, I wrote an editorial in which I suggested that the events of one morning in September had the kind of horror that makes words pitiful, the kind that brought Hill first and then Adorno to comment on the possibility of poetry after Auschwitz.

In January I received a reply. “At first I completely agreed with your October editorial,” the writer said. “The lyric poem could only prettify. Now, as an American and a New Yorker, I think the situation is completely other: into our silence has come a new horror, the bombing of Afghanistan. Accordingly... I’d like to convince you that words can speak to these horrors.”

Attached was a long poem entitled ‘The New Babel’ - a powerful poem, weaving Whitman in with the better parts of mid-to-late 20th century American avant garde, and doing so with the sense of a human’s inspiration. I’ve selected it as the headlining poem for this issue, because the issues it raises are important. September has been seized upon as the excuse for a new wave of repressions of freedom, for unilateral muscle-flexing and reactionary/nationalistic politics.

Now that the immediate trauma is behind us, the Bush administration has embarked a series of outrageous policies and actions, of which the Afghan war is only the overt manifestation. Who cannot be discomfited by the threats of for-the-hell-of-it invasions of Iraq and Somalia? Who cannot be disturbed by the leaked policy on nuclear weapons that states the Bush administration’s eagerness to use them? More insidiously, the USA is impinging on freedoms that are not within its right to do; it recently ‘requested’ Vietnam and attempted to ‘request’ China to restrict entry into their territories from Malaysian and Indonesian nationals. Even the Bush administration’s domestic policies are being felt abroad, as its own civil liberties restrictions encourage other governments to ‘crack down’ on ethnic minorities.

So let me return you to Leonard Schwartz, the poet of ‘The New Babel’, who sums up the quandary facing writers thus: “I'm not a political poet by design - I agree with your statement that poetry and politics in effect don't mix - but at this point words are the only acceptable weapon. But propoganda isn't the solution either. How to write an anti-war poetry that isn't just a slogan and a bullhorn, since a slogan and a bullhorn is always just that?”

Perhaps it’s not coincidence that much of the poetry submitted for and published in the current issue has a distinctly postmodern slant.


What are journals for, if not to allow its constituencies to voice their urgent positions, such as the one above? Yet, because of this, there will always be tensions. I’m reminded of Charles Péguy, who in 1900 started the Cahiers de la Quinzaine (Fortnightly Notebooks), a journal that he ran until his death and in which he published most of his work. “A review only continues to have life,” wrote Péguy, “if each issue annoys at least one-fifth of its readers.”

In that case, QLRS may still have some way to go yet – we don’t annoy nearly as many people – but its sporadically-blossoming Forum might qualify. At time of writing, there’s a sharp debate going on about recent decisions made by one of Singapore’s top young writers, Alfian Sa’at. Alfian’s position, bluntly put, is that the fact of the Chinese majority in Singapore makes him a victim. Without spending paragraphs on what constitutes a victim, my own position may be stated as such: that Alfian certainly has enough ability to stand up, beat whatever obstacles are in his way and thereby be counted. If he chooses not to do so, that would be the real loss.

One other point that arose in the course of the above thread was a reader’s praise for QLRS being an open forum. We thank him/her for the comment, and would like to reiterate that. Our Forum is not moderated other than for spam and stuff that could land us in legal hot water; it is public-access and public-post, though it would be nice if more people would use their own names (stand up and...). And the journal itself is similarly open to anything well-written / well-argued, regardless of the positions being taken. So pick up your pens and take advantage of this.

Can words make a difference? Should QLRS be more annoying? Are Alfian's choices the best ones he can make? Discuss in the Forum.

QLRS Vol. 1 No. 3 Apr 2002


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  Related Links

The New Babel

Bush administration's official statements on nuclear weapons policy
External link to the Carnegie Non-Proliferation Project

External link.

Charles Péguy
External link to the New Criterion.

Cahiers de la Quinzaine
External link to the French Ministry of Culture.

Alfian Sa'at interviewed
External link to the National University of Singapore.

QLRS Forum


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