An Open Prison
Anthology of formal Singapore poetry ranges far and wide
By Edward Goh
What is Singaporean poetry? Given the apparent lack of a well-known Singaporean canon, chances are the question will draw a blank with many of us. True to form (pun intended), UnFree Verse: Singapore Poetry in Form offers a comprehensive selection of formal poetry and represents an unprecedented attempt to plug the gap where Singaporean formal poetry is concerned.
Edited by established local poets Joshua Ip, Tse Hao Guang, and Theophilus Kwek, UnFree Verse draws its material from a vast literary storehouse. It covers 80 years of print and online material and some 16 poetry forms, ranging from the archaic to the modern, Western to Asian. Ambitious in its scope and aim, the collection, armed with the unfamiliar notion of Singaporean formal poetry, hopes to demolish existing conceptions of Singapore poetry. However, rather than an attempt at canon-making, its editors insist that the text is an attempt at canon-breaking, meant to provide eye-opening possibilities for Singaporean readers and writers to consider.
One manner in which it presents this eye-opening possibility is in the blurb's question: "Might these constraints be fertile soil for creativity in Singapore?" Similar to my opening question, the question surprises readers, inviting one to ask: "What is formal poetry and its constraints?" Blank and free verse have very specific definitions, but formal poetry has only a broad, working definition; that is: "Poetry that overtly uses the effects of metre, rhyme and form". This explains the generous selection of works that was available to the editors. At this juncture, another interesting aspect of the book presents itself: In line with the editors' aim at raising awareness of Singaporean formal poetry and the forms utilized, the end of the book contains a 'Glossary of Short Forms'. The purpose of this section is clearly educational and informative, tracing the characteristics and geographic origin of each form, much as the material in the book is arranged chronologically to trace the literary history of Singaporean formal poetry.
What catches my attention, then, is the association of formal poetry with constraint, and the editors' seemingly paradoxical dream of fostering creativity amid constraint. Given that the defining characteristic of formal poetry lies in its defining characteristics, it seems counter-intuitive that any room for creativity may be found. However, I share the editors' belief that an increased exposure to the forms utilized in Singapore poetry present an eye-opening opportunity. Viewed by the creative mind, the forms which appear to constitute constraint suddenly become meaningful tools which the writer may use to enhance the message in his poetry. As a result, knowledge of formal poetry offers budding writers the tools to express themselves in more creative manners.
Regarding form being a tool more than constraint, I turn to a poem in the collection, Alvin Pang's 'Night Manoeuvres', written in 2002. Pang's poem invokes Dante's Inferno, canto I. Below, I compare Pang's opening three lines:
with the opening three lines of Dante's Inferno, canto I:
It is immediately apparent that 'Night Manoeuvres' parallels and borrows from Dante's Inferno. Pang's homage to Dante is further apparent in the use of the classical Italian form terza rima, an interlocking three-line rhyme scheme credited to Dante. 'Night Manoeuvres' employs terza rima to great effect, using the interlocking rhyme scheme to create a breathlessness and disorientation connecting each stanza, which mimics the military exercises many a Singaporean son has gone through. Aided by this breathlessness, readers are taken for a disorienting ride through a medley of sensations that accompany the march. The sensory images fluidly and rapidly shift from stumbling through rain to the hard knocks of canteens to slippery mud and stiff roots. With terza rima, Pang pays homage to the disorientation of Dante's Virgil in Inferno, transposing it onto a common Singaporean experience. Subsequently, the disorientation ends abruptly when the objective presents itself, a distinct touch Pang adds to the borrowed elements from Dante and Inferno. Thus, Pang's 'Night Manoeuvres' demonstrates the very manner in which local writers may utilize the characteristics of existing forms to creatively enhance the message of their poetry.
The answer to the question posed ("Might these constraints be fertile soil for creativity in Singapore?") then seems to be a resounding "yes". Dabbling in the formal mode has an effect wherein one does not merely resort to blank/free verse to escape from the constraints of form, but uses the formal structure itself as a tool of creative expression. UnFree Verse represents fertile ground for budding writers and Singaporeans, wherein the discovery of new literary forms and constraints pushes at the boundaries of one's literary consciousness and creates more imaginative room, empowering future creative expression.
The vision of UnFree Verse's editors – as well as the countless contributors whose works give form to that vision of creativity amid constraint – calls to mind a particular poem I once encountered. I find it particularly appropriate here, given that the rebellious streak of striving for creativity despite constraint in UnFree Verse is shared by the Romantic poet William Wordsworth. Taken from his poem 'Nuns Fret Not At Their Convent's Narrow Room', composed in 1807, Wordsworth writes: "In truth the prison, into which we doom/Ourselves, no prison is" in praise of the sonnet form, which he similarly utilized creatively despite its constraints. Rather, he would be "pleased if some souls [...] Who have felt the weight of too much liberty/Should find brief solace there".
Like Wordsworth, should Singaporean poetry and poets not endeavour to achieve literary freedom within the seeming prison of formal poetics? If you think so, UnFree Verse is a definite addition to your list of Singlit must-reads.QLRS Vol. 17 No. 3 Jul 2018