Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Poetry in Singapore

Ever wondered why the poets in Singapore generally outnumber the island state's prose writers?

Here comes an explanation from none other than Dr K K Seet, the Singapore Literary Prize's (SLP) chief judge. Dr Seet, an academic with the National University of Singapore's English Literature and Language Department, has been judging the prize since 1992.

He says: "While I don't believe poetry will become the de facto literary form here, I do discern that there's a richer tradition of poetry here and more practitioners in that genre. The reasons (and I'm merely speculating), is that historically, we've had many more mentors, role-models and authorial antecedents in poetry, that is, Edwin Thumboo, Arthur Yap, Lee Tzu Pheng, Robert Yeo, Leong Liew Geok etc.

"Secondly, poetry represents the crystallisation of an idea, insight or epiphanic moment and agrees with the Singapore literary psyche more than prose, which demands a sustained narrative and drawn-out perspective.

"Perhaps this has to do with time and the way Singaporeans deal with time. One can be inspired to write and complete a poem very quickly. Though the product can be (and usually is) subjected to endless refining and polishing, there's still a complete, organic first draft.

"Prose, particularly a novel, demands a much larger template and a long view, so to speak. There is invariably more references and by extension, more research needed. There's something about a poem being concise and self-contained that's in accord with the stress-ridden Singaporean who is always engaged in a perennial, cosmic struggle with time, schedule and deadlines."

Interesting observation there. Perhaps in our over-crowded lives, poetry provides instant satiation, and I am speaking from a reader's point of view.

Also, for the first time in 11 years, Singapore literary prize has gone to two poets. More details here.

8 comments:

Sharanya Manivannan said...

That's an interesting theory, although I think it's a little too romantic -- the notion of the city and the psyche. Personally, I feel that it's easier in some ways to publish or otherwise share poetry, especially when working within a small and dedicated community of writers. And the gratification for the writer is more instant. The Novel, on the other hand, seems more distant, more intimidating. And perhaps I speak only for myself, but poetry for me is a way of circling the novel I'm working on, avoiding it in certain ways while approaching it in others. Poetry is allowed to be self-indulgently personal, to be abstract, to be craftless even. Novels, generally, are not. Which is why I think that, particularly where writing communities are smaller (and by default, there is more need to "keep up" with the community), the poetic form is more popular. The same can be said of Malaysia, especially in the last five years, but Singapore is still light years ahead in terms of literature.

bibliobibuli said...

thanks for this. it's something i ponder often.

Zafar Anjum said...

Thanks Sharanya for your thoughtful note. Your perspective is important as it comes from a poet/novelist. As I had shared with you, I live with the duality of relishing Urdu poetry and English prose. Reading poetry for me, say of Iqbal and Ghalib, is an act of intellectual electrification and spiritual upligtment. Novels, those I like reading and there are not many of them, suck me into their world for weeks and months and then I come out of it to delve into another world, whereas a good poem stays with me forever like a nugget of wisdom.

Zafar Anjum said...

Thanks Sharon. Yes, it is an issue worth pondering about--same as I keep wondering about short stories and novels. But more on that some other time...

bibliobibuli said...

please do ponder about short stories and novels. i really want to read that!

Zafar Anjum said...

Sure Sharon, will write about it soon. Cheers

Anonymous said...

Interesting post. Some philistines say its easier to write poems than prose, but nobody ever wants to read other folks' poems. Can't comment, since I'm the msot prosaic old lady.

dreamer idiot said...

I think what Dr.K.K.Seet is quite true, and would beg to differ from Sharanya, though she has a valid point both as a writer/poet and one is also familiar with the importance and perhaps 'self-begetting' nature of a close-knit writing community.

Poetry, as more 'spoken word' than a novel, is an 'assessible' way for one to express oneself, hence very much part of a literary psyche, as Dr.KK.Seet termed it, where the regimentation of life and strictures of a city-state makes poetry an 'open' space for the private self, as well as between the private and the larger public of S'pore social issues and politics - something evidenced by how the private and public gets intertwined in S'pore poetry (not that I read much)