The Enchanted Island
Leonard Ng calls for a tempest in Singapore's poetry teacup
By Leonard Ng
It's been nearly a decade now since Landmark and Ethos launched the poetry-publishing frenzy that marked the arrival of the Third Generation. The last ten years have seen more poetry being published than any other period in Singapore's history. In spite of the unprecedented number of new poets, however, a good deal of the work being produced has tended to be remarkably homogenous; and much of it, perhaps unfortunately, can give the casual reader (in Cyril Wong's memorable formulation) this sense that people have nothing to say. The results can be disheartening. After all, as Wong puts it,
Cyril Wong has never been one to mince words; but I'm going to try to be a little kinder today. Maybe the problem isn't so much that people have nothing to say. Maybe the real issue is more a matter of people not having anything particularly unique or individual to put forward. Should we really blame them for that? The degree of fluency in the English language required for a person to write even moderately decent verse has always, in this country, been inescapably tied to certain markers of class and education; it is a degree of fluency restricted to a very narrow spectrum of people. Individuals within this narrow band, constrained as they are by the mores of this country, are almost predestined from birth to become yuppies. And surely it's not entirely fair to blame yuppies for having well yuppie concerns.
One could, of course, argue that people who have nothing new to contribute really ought to keep their mouths shut. But none of us, after all, ever truly believes that what we have to say is neither interesting nor important; all of our perceptions are skewed, and almost always in our own favour. The problem is exacerbated, of course, by our current contemporary-urban-globalised emphasis on the self. One of the most interesting trends in the history of Singapore poetry has been the shift from the public personas of the 1950s and 60s to the intensely personal voices of today; the movement from a world of intense engagement with the public sphere to a world where the most important word appears to be "I".
But I digress. What I am trying to say is that the Singaporean poet in this day and age has very little in common with the wild-eyed Romantic stereotype of the poet as independent articulator of Truth. The dominant paradigm, instead, appears to be that of the Chinese dynastic elite, in a world where the writing of poetry is one of the educated arts. The result of this for us, as was also the case in imperial China, is that the vast majority of our poets seem to speak as a collective voice, rather than as readily distinguishable individuals. And nowhere has this been more apparent than in the ought-to-become-classic early Third Generation anthology, No Other City.
The editors of No Other City Alvin Pang and Aaron Lee consciously set out to choose new poems from established writers, as well as unpublished work from new writers. That decision alone makes No Other City a very useful point of reference when discussing third-generation Singapore poetry. The poems in that anthology blend almost seamlessly into one another, due in some measure to clever editing, but also because much of what they articulate is essentially the same. These voices of the educated elite, in their turn-of-the-millennium moment in time, present a collective portrayal of Singapore as a cruelly mechanical, viciously efficient city, steeped in transience; a place with little to hold on to, and where landscapes can (and often do) change overnight. There are exceptions, of course Teng Xian Qi's "Happiness" is a wonderful example, with its joyful declaration "I want nothing more/than this" but such poems are relatively rare. The poets in this volume, by and large, portray a fairly bleak, meaningless city. They are, for want of a better word, disenchanted.
So today I want to talk about precisely the same city, but seen from a somewhat different perspective. I want to talk about a city that never lost its magic. I want to talk about Singapore as seen from the point of view of Jonathan Lim's new book, Our Supernatural Skyline: Between Gods and Ghosts.
The first installment in a series of three, Lim's book gives a general introduction to the supernatural in Singapore, relates the stories and traditions of the Chinese majority, explores a few theories regarding the supernatural world, and retells some pretty decent ghost stories. It's something of a local approximation of Pu Songling's Strange Tales of Liaozhai. Part sociological survey, part collection of tales, it's a hugely enjoyable read, and a surprisingly informative one too. Lim's Singapore and the Singapore of his informants is a world where the human and the supernatural exist side by side; it's a world of little red altars and mysterious shrines, where inexplicable creatures reside in HDB flats, and where our carefully constructed landscapes of hotels, schools and (of course) army camps are populated by a mindboggling array of apparitions. It's not so far off from the world we know: a world where CBD buildings are constructed based on fengshui principles, where Catholics and non-Catholics alike ask for Mary's intercession at Novena Church, and where seventh-month ashes are a commonplace sight at the foot of every block. Our world, where tourists walk grinning around Suntec's fountain of wealth, where we make jokes about National Service as an initiation ritual, and where the Merlion can exist as a perfectly viable hybrid of (only) two different animals. No, it's not so far off. A sense of the numinous, of myth and of mystery, is omnipresent in this country; all we need is the inclination to see it.
But Singapore poetry ambles on, apparently oblivious. Singapore theatre's dealt with the issue often enough, and, in prose, novels like Yen Chung's Clarence Plays the Numbers and Catherine Lim's Following the Wrong God Home have been written (not to mention Lim's earlier They Do Return but gently lead them back and Russell Lee's phenomenally successful ghost stories). But even in a fairly broad-based anthology like No Other City hardly anything of this nature manifests itself in the writing or images used. One wonders why.
Perhaps and I am only speculating here one reason for the non-appearance of the uncanny in contemporary Singapore poetry is this: an awareness of the supernatural requires a sense of otherness, of that-which-is-other-than-human; it requires one to come face-to-face, on a regular basis, with animals, or vegetation, or the prospect of death, or the more popular forms of religion. And the urban professional class in Singapore tends, more than others, to be insulated from these things. Its members are relatively unlikely to feed stray cats in the street, or to do very much gardening; where religion is concerned, they tend (if they are religious at all) to gravitate towards scriptural texts and officially sanctioned practices, rather than relying on hearsay and superstition. They lead sheltered, urban, comfortable lives. And while theatre practitioners are traditionally superstitious and novelists will take a good story wherever they find it, lyric poets tend to look to their own lives for inspiration. And there isn't a whole lot of magic to be found in the self-contained yuppie world.
I think it was Alvin Pang and I may, of course, be remembering this incorrectly who once said to me that he couldn't imagine nature poetry in this country as an authentic mode of expression. And therein lies the problem: our white-collar urban world is simply all too human, too manufactured, too controlled. But nature finds a way, and so do the spirits: tiny plants grow in the cracks of buildings, and every other person seems to know a "true" ghost story. There is another world right here among us, which, in itself, is also our own. The only trouble is that, far too often, we simply aren't paying attention.
And that, I think, is a great pity. Because I think this lack of awareness of the world beyond what we've built exacerbates, to some degree, the rootlessness and alienation that so often accompany a hyperdeveloped landscape. This, of course, is nothing new to us: it goes back as far, I think, as Goh Poh Seng, who left for Tahiti to chase a dream he couldn't find in Singapore, the dream of a richer, more authentic life. Similar sentiments can be found in the poems of Boey Kim Cheng and Eddie Tay (who, from what I've heard, are now currently resident in Australia and Hong Kong). Something, we feel, is missing here; and, in spite of ourselves, we want not just a wider but a deeper world.
And so if I may be excused the suggestion this might be one way to find it: to treat the supernatural (and for that matter, the natural world) not as something far away and long ago, not as something alien to our everyday experience, but instead as something alive and active now, operating in parallel to our own constructed environment. I am not advocating that work in the current mode ought to be abandoned altogether, or that we should all start writing ghost stories. But I am suggesting that a greater awareness of the sheer otherness within our own city may give greater depth and resonance to our poetry and our lives. Perhaps it's time we started trying to learn a little more about our city not just about its politics and economics and financial structures, but its lore, its mythology, its archaeology, its superstitions, the names and qualities of its plants and birds and trees. We have, after all, something special here a world that has somehow managed to be simultaneously mechanised and magical and perhaps, for the poets of this country, exploring those aspects of it might just prove worthwhile.QLRS Vol. 5 No. 3 Apr 2006