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Vol. 2 No. 1 Oct 2002

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dowhile doodah
Opportunism leads to poetry lite

By Koh Jee Leong

Yong Shu Hoong
Firstfruits Publications (2002) / 78 pages / SGD 12.00

Having read and enjoyed Isaac, I was looking forward to Yong Shu Hoong's second poetry collection. The qualities that drew me to the first book were poetic virtues I admire: acute observations rendered in evocative language, the ability to convey empathy without condescension, and a direct and honest manner of address.

A few poems in dowhile achieve similar effects. In 'Blueprint For An Afterlife', the humorous abstract proposition, that there is a kind of heavenly junkyard for “displaced architecture”, introduces a “concrete” observation:

Each retired building
with its foundation upturned,
rusted roots outreaching

Towards a higher sky
like the seared arms
of questioning trees.

The girders in “rusted roots” become simultaneously organic and metallic. The metaphor evokes both the sadness of roots torn from the ground and that of machines neglected and abandoned. It suggests the despairing state of disrepair in the souls of the inhabitants of this cityscape of dying buildings.

In Isaac, Yong also communicates sociological empathy in economical language. Read again his description of retired Americans on their “little trips” as they prepare for their final journey, in 'Retirees'. In 'Retail Therapy' in dowhile, in the face of the dot.com bust and retrenchment, Yong describes coping mechanisms in a penetrating way:

Different people grieved differently:
Someone had a strange urge
to shuffle stationery; another hunched
over his wastebasket, ceremoniously
casting away scraps of everything.

The rest continued with their shopping
sprees, unabated. A bracelet
did wonders for the office manager
while the bookkeeper bought a watch
                    (water resistant to a hundred metres).

I knew I just had to smell different
                    by the end of the day.

The lines ring true not just because of the careful observations of shuffling, hunching, casting and shopping, they also bear the authenticity of personal witness, "I knew ...".

Where I am again convinced by the earned authenticity of the lines is when Yong turns his attention on himself, describing his placid satisfaction at the launch of his book though friends expected a more ecstatic response:

        My answer: I am not capable of great happiness,
only gentle laps of joy in measurable doses. Could this
the result of my prolonged accommodation in perpetual
My friends simply assumed I was being Singaporean, or
                                                            too modest
to speak my thoughts. As if contentment is a lesser


The honest self-evaluation in the first three lines quoted makes palatable the ethical judgement on the friends in the last line, that they should know better that contentment is a great reward.

However, such moments of authentic art are few and far in between in dowhile. Most of the poems smack of an easy complacency, the belief that “perhaps there's really / nothing to think about – / being fresh and full of life / and innately happy” ('Dreaming of Birth and Apparatus'). It is such unthinking optimism that makes the treatment of 9/11 and embassy attacks, economic upheaval and recession, so troublingly superficial.

The 9/11 poem, 'A New War', focuses on the responses of Singaporeans to the “toppling of New York's Twin Towers”. Despite the disclaimer of “Standard reactions aside”, the poem proceeds to list stereotypical Singaporean reactions, from “many queued at 4D outlets” to “TV viewers switched to CNN instead”. The poem ends anticlimactically with “After several days, a poet thought of a different perspective.”

The next poem offers the 'Different Perspective', which consists of a story of a bus driver crashing a busload of school children into a pregnant woman, killing her unborn child who “in 50 years' time would have designed skyscrapers on a calmer planet”. This naive hope for a “calmer planet” is the poet's different perspective? One is left feeling led up the garden path to arrive at nothing.

Such slackness in thought is accompanied by a carelessness in art. There are far too many poems in dowhile that employs prosy and uninspired language. 'Doctrine', for example, shows all the signs of its origin: an article on the biking pastor written for a men's mag. Lines such as

I was told to wait while he
wrapped up his conversation
on his handphone. (So
he's a businessman too,
I thought. Maybe we have
more interests in common.)

are so cliched and trite that they do not even make for good prose, let alone poetry.

Then, there is a slew of poems as slight as throwaway remarks:

My pastor says
Jesus couldn't have
ridden a Harley.

('Doctrine II')

That was not an extract; it was a whole poem. Other such sound-bytes are 'E-Commerce', 'Switching Places', 'Six Days', 'Trouble', 'Job Security', 'To the Consultants', 'Happiness', 'Home', 'Merlion (Snapshot #5)' and 'Inescapable' – 11 out of 45 poems in the entire collection. This is poetry lite.

There is perhaps a clue in 'Why Poetry' as to why such self-indulgence is permitted. The poem is Yong's answer to the question posed in the title. In 'Why Poetry', Yong offers a “truer version” of why he writes poetry: he remembers chancing upon Jim Morrison's verses and realising: “"how easy! how profound!"”. The poems in dowhile confuse ease with profundity, that because it is easily done, it is therefore profound.

Alexander Pope, not the most fashionable of critics, still chides:

True ease in writing comes from art, not chance.

In writing poetry, Yong aims “to find out what I could get away with”. Such opportunism, however lightly mocked, weakens the poetry and abuses the poetic vocation. That is why I am disappointed by this effort from the poet who gave us those most moving lines in Isaac, on a Cherokee marine about to be sacrificed on the altar of war:

But looking at how delicately
this freshly shaven head
was pivoted on the beef-fed torso
I thought instead about how young he really was
and how he could very possibly die
lying in the foam of his own blood
while half-dreaming about a wife
he could only remember
touching once or twice

These lines reassure me, once again, of the power of poetry to create imaginative empathy. They are still urgent and poignant lines to remember as the world waits for America's devastation of Iraq.

QLRS Vol. 2 No. 1 Oct 2002


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  Other Criticism in this Issue

Packing Quite A Punch
Chia Yueh Chin reviews last three women.

Good Intentions Point to Critical Needs
Rajeev Patke reviews Singapore Literature: A Critical Reader.

Coming to Terms with Terror
Jeremy Samuel reviews September 11 and Political Freedoms.

But Some Are More Free Than Others
Toh Hsien Min reviews Why Do People Hate America?.

Art Pitted Against Travel
Barnard Turner reviews The Art of Travel.

Related Links

Yong Shu Hoong webpage
External link.

Yong Shu Hoong overview
External link to the National University of Singapore.


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