A Broad Sweep
An anthology targeted at adolescents also offers insights for more sophisticated readers
By Chloe Lim
Poetry Moves: An Anthology of Poetry
The challenge of putting together an anthology of poetry for young people is, very rarely do young people actively seek out, purchase, or borrow poetry on their own. Often, poetry is introduced into the adolescent's world by teachers, parents, or other similarly invested adults. Poetry Moves addresses these adults directly from the beginning, explaining that the editors aimed "to compile a range of poems that would appeal to adolescent readers and enlarge their views of Singapore and the world". What is implied is a type of double vision: such an anthology should select poems that speak to young people, but also be sufficiently appealing and clear in its sales pitch towards adults.
In this way, Poetry Moves is the latest in a reliable line of Ethos Books anthologies that are essential resources for students and teachers, following the likes of Little Things (2013), Lines Spark Code (2017), and UnFree Verse (2017). Where Little Things gave us poetry for younger adolescents, and the latter two anthologies focused on Singaporean poetry, Poetry Moves plugs a gap by providing the reader with a wide range of poetry suitable for the early to late teen reader, while placing poetry by Singaporeans in dialogue with poems from around the world.
The collection is an ambitious and wide-ranging one, collecting over 100 poems from Singapore, Asia, and further afield. More than half the poems are local, interacting with their counterparts within five broad sections. The first section, "Words and Things", explores the individual's relationship with words and language, written and spoken. The second, "Spaces and Places", dwells on the interaction between people and places. These broad categories are then followed by "Connections" (with poems about interpersonal relationships), "Crossings" (poems on travel and migration), and finally "Origins" (origin stories and myths shared by families and/or cultures).
Such section headings perhaps overpromise on their suggestion of a clarity of focus, with this vagueness felt particularly in the earlier half of the collection. This is in part a result of the open, loose boundaries of the five sections. Because the editors have cast a wide net in their search for poetry, accepting poetry from Singapore and elsewhere, addressing a wide range of thematic concerns, it is difficult to pinpoint what would disqualify a poem (length and accessibility to adolescent readers aside) from residing in at least one of the five sections.
Take "Spaces and Places". The section opens with Kirpal Singh's "Australian Landscape" before turning to nostalgic longing for past spaces in "Kampong Bahru, 1975" by Wong May and Heng Siok Tian's "Sayang Airwell". A longer argument, revolving around place-based identity construction and the tension of culture clashing with urban renewal, is built with Margaret Atwood's "City Planners" and Gilbert Koh's "Garden City". The arrangement of poems within the section begins to appear awkward with the intrusion of the more personal and introspective "An Institute of Education, 2014" (Ann Ang) and "Bridal Party at the Botanics" (Anne Lee Tzu Pheng), before a return to the design of place and space with ko ko thett's "urban renewal". Obvious pairings such as Janice Heng's "said the urban planner to the heritage lover" with earlier poems on the preservation of memory-laden places, are undercut by the appearance of poems like "In Pine Bluff, Arkansas" by Kristin Chang, reflecting on diaspora and third-culture identities. All of these poems are relevant to the editorial mission, to "invite readers to reconsider how locales and language can bring us home as well as alienate" – but one wonders if the poems of this section could be rearranged to more clearly enhance the interactions between the multiple thematic possibilities of "Spaces and Places".
That being said, Poetry Moves shines best when it executes its aims of placing Singaporean poetry in dialogue with work from elsewhere. Take Jean Sprackland's "The Girl Who Ate Books", describing a girl with a bad habit of literally eating up books. What begins with probable boredom "in school assembly" becomes a method of physically interacting, digesting her "favourite page". Just as a reader gains an intellectual taste (ha!) for tougher, more advanced reading material, she grows "insatiable, even for thicker / rough-cut stuff". Robert Yeo's "A Poem as a Fan" immediately follows, featuring "Elaine" who uses a printout of "Rupert Brooke and Wilfred Owen" to fan herself, prompting the speaker's musing, "What passing poems for those who feel the heat?" Individually, these are vivid, dynamic poems. Together, they make a surprising pair that compel the reader to consider the relationship between a person and the physical page.
This polyphonic quality of poems speaking to and interacting with each other is further enhanced by the editors' selection of poems from various cultures. In the section "Connections", British-Iranian poet Mimi Khalvani's "Ghazal: In Silence" uses the Arabic form to compose an elegy for her late mother. The theme of mother-child relationships is extended with Anitha Devi Pillai's "That Kiss on Your Forehead", a mother's experience of her child growing up and getting older, told through the first-person voice of the speaker. We then return to the too-soon loss of a family member in Aaron Lee's "Sonnet", the speaker observing a mother in mourning for her late son, "an immovable/centre of grief" as she takes in the foreign surroundings of his wake. Taken together, these poems demonstrate the shared experience of familial love and loss, intensely felt in families spanning borders, generations, and cultures. In this way, "connections" are made between people(s) and poems, encouraging the reader to consider the many manifestations of the human condition beyond their part of the world.
The collection is thus generously inclusive, incorporating five translated poems, and poetry from various communities across the Anglophone world. There is an ethical, pluralist slant to the editors' selections as well, encouraging reading that is "cosmopolitan, appreciative of differences and most importantly, kind to the stranger in our midst". This resonates with research done by Professor Angelia Poon (one of the editors) and Professor Suzanne Choo on the potential of Literature education in Singapore to teach responsibility towards the Other.
There are several poems, particularly in the section "Crossings", that have deep potential to engage students in and act as a primer for ethical criticism. Poems such as "Kissing in Vietnamese" by Ocean Vuong and "He Comes for the Jewish Family, 1942" can be used to introduce historical contexts, of war and the abuse of power, to adolescents who may not know of these events. Beyond exposure, however, such poems have the potential to develop empathy for the specific, localised experiences of trauma, depicted at the micro-level in these poems. The cosmopolitan reader of Poetry Moves is not simply a tourist-observer of Otherness, but is called to reflect on the responsibility that they have towards others unlike themselves, and other dispossessed persons of the modern world. Topical poems such as Md Mukul Hossine's "Expatriate Dream" and Lydia Kwa's "A Chorus of Thrushes" serve as a trigger for such discussions. Read with the final section, "Origins", the collection asks readers to consider questions of where we have come from and how we will engage with the world next.
Ultimately, there is much to peruse and return to in Poetry Moves. On a practical level, Poetry Moves is a valuable teacher's resource with plenty of poetry appropriate in length, vocabulary, and theme, for teaching and assessment. Anne Sexton's "Words", for example, could lead a class on similes and metaphors, and Madeleine Lee's "smoke free" could generate fruitful discussion on setting and imagery. Because poems do not exist in isolation in this collection, pairs or trios could be easily selected for more mature readers who are learning to compare poems.
More generally, Poetry Moves has plenty to offer not just for adolescent readers, but also for older readers looking for a wide-ranging introduction to new poems, and experienced readers interested in seeing familiar reads in new contexts. The collection's breadth is both its key strength and weakness, moving us to respond to a wide range of thematic concerns, moving across geographical space and time.QLRS Vol. 19 No. 4 Oct 2020