The Acid Tongue
Poetry In Slow Motion
Selected By Cyril Wong
In the Sunday Times LifeStyle of Sept 18 2005, journalist and poet Kristina Tom decided to do a review of Gilbert Koh's poem that – submitted together with a bunch of other poems – earned him the Golden Point Award given by the National Arts Council in 2005.
The poem in its entirety is included in her review, and as a point of critical review, we re-cite it here:
My Father Takes My Son For A Walk
Small waves sing and sigh and run to the shore,
Push and pull at their ankles, as they walk hand-in-hand
Along the edge of the sea.
My father is white-haired now, his shoulders stoop.
With each slow step he approaches the end of his life
Although in this moment he does not think of it.
My son is a small child. Shells and boats excite him.
His world is young and new. In his mind, the old man
Will one day become an uncertain memory.
I have my own journey. I am watching them,
As if from a very great distance, as if I were a wave
Travelling out into the endless sea.
Tom starts off on an encouraging note:
At his best, Koh is deceptively simple yet evocative in his choice of subject and diction. Laid out carefully like shells picked off the beach, many of his poems present quiet and unassuming scenes.
Whether from space-constraints or from a burning need to say it as it is, Tom jumps to the point:
This titular poem of his award-winning Golden Point crop is, however, banal. The problem begins with the title, My Father Takes My Son For A Walk. It might have worked if something surprising or interesting had developed later in the poem - which unfortunately does not happen…
The clichéd personification of the waves, simple monosyllabic words and obvious alliteration all open the scene on much too precious a note. The emotional tenor - one of quiet reflection - is appropriate … but the poem crosses the line into sentimentality.
Stock images, such as the 'endless sea' and the 'white-haired' old man, do not help matters - which is a shame, because Koh does have an eye for detail…
The trick is to write simply without being simplistic, but the poem doesn't quite achieve that balance.
It would have been a more entertaining review if Tom had also discussed why the poem had won the Golden Point Award in the first place. The judges themselves – Lee Tzu Pheng, Leong Liew Geok and Ouyang Yu – could have had to come under her critical fire too.
Tom only focuses on Koh's poem and ends on a poetic-cum-bitchy note:
QLRS Vol. 5 No. 2 Jan 2006
One can be spare and understated, but not to the exclusion of creative rhythms, words and images. The syntax is equally unimaginative. The short declarative sentences and plain old subject-verb-object word order…lend unbearably slow pacing to the poem.
It is a quiet, sensitive snapshot of a moment, but Koh's writing is too spare. Any emotional resonance soon fades with the final vague image of receding waves.
Did Gilbert Koh deserve to win the Golden Point? Discuss this in the Forum!
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Return to Vol. 5 No. 2 Jan 2006