The Acid Tongue
Someone finally takes on Thumboo
Selected By Toh Hsien Min
I hadn't intended to write an Acid Tongue for this issue, but recently a blog post that was calling out for a call out landed in my inbox. In the wake of the shortlist announcement for the Singapore Literature Prize for English poetry, Koh Jee Leong's outrage over the inclusion of Edwin Thumboo's latest book, A Gathering of Themes, had prompted him to put together a real hatchet job on it. Now, this could well be notable just because later generations of Singapore poets no longer take reference from Edwin Thumboo but have generally stayed well clear of making any comment on his oeuvre. For instance, QLRS's attempts to find someone to objectively review the collection when it was first published had met with resolute stone walls; people seemed (to me) either wary of being honest about it or else afraid of not being honest about it. So Koh's stab at it is almost refreshing on that account, to the extent that one can find a real vein of poison refreshing.
Koh sets out his stall early, making sure that before you even have a sense of the book in question you first know what he thinks about "the latest tired poetic offerings of Singapore's unofficial 'poet laureate.'":
But not actually defining what is meant by a Thumbooism makes this literary criticism as college clique – you're either in the in-crowd or else you're not – and (which might be worse) makes this assertion immune to challenge, in this case because it isn't defined enough to challenge. The trouble is that the Jeeleongisms suffusing the whole attack-dog piece shuts down debate rather than opens it up. (See what I did there?)
Koh does at least delve a little into his nominated poem:
I've read 'Double Helix by the Promenade', and I do agree with Koh that it's not a great poem, to put it mildly. But attacking a poem for what it could have said rather than what it did in fact say and how it said that is less shooting fish in a barrel than drawing the bullseye around where the bullet lands. There can be no end to this mode of wish unfulfillment. One could just as well say that a poem whose title starts with 'Double Helix' fails because it has failed to discuss clusters of regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats and how the structure of nucleotide repeats and spacers helps guide the Cas9 protein in cutting both strands of the DNA double helix. Or if I may try some CRISPR/Cas9-style judgement-editing of my own:
This, of course, refers to Koh's own poem 'Block 39'. I could well go on and repurpose the rest of the piece ("most mundane language" anyone?), but that's not my object. Rather, it's to point out that although Koh tries to package an argument that it isn't his political beliefs getting in the way and that the poem "fails even on its own terms", he lets those beliefs slip out once more when he writes that "The poem even fails to pay tribute to the lives and sacrifices of economic migrants and refugees." Indeed, towards the end of the piece, Koh explicitly references electoral politics in criticising Thumboo the person, again for something the latter did not do.
Unlike Koh, I have come here neither to bury Thumboo nor to praise him (nor indeed to do either with Koh), only to observe that the mode of literary criticism that starts first with the respective political biases of writer and reader as the basis of passing judgement and only secondarily if at all looks at the writing means in this case that I have less of a sense of Thumboo's book from Koh's critique than of Koh's own political positions. Which means the absence of critically useful commentary about Thumboo's late writing sails on undented.QLRS Vol. 19 No. 3 Jul 2020