The Struggle of Poetry

by Tse Hao Guang

There’s a paradox in today’s poetry that, at least for me, won’t go away.

It seems most people who are interested in poetry view it as a writer's attempt to bring a singular thing to the world, through the most accessible medium of written or spoken language. No expensive musical instrument, canvas, ballet shoe, or actor is needed beyond this language; at the most, you’d need paper and pen, or a functioning throat.

Going further, a good poet isn’t necessarily a linguist or someone with a large vocabulary and impeccable grammar. Although it might help, we don’t require poets to be technical masters of language to be good. We like to think a poet can be anyone, even someone like Yu Xiuhua, who never completed formal education but used the Internet to teach herself how to write poetry, including her now-famous piece “Crossing half the country to sleep with you”. (Some would go further to say that anyone can be a poet).

Yet, clearly, not everything is poetry. We prize uniqueness; plagiarism, imitation, doggerel, and cliché is usually seen as antithetical to it. Even in places where appropriation is the point, it is really—if you think about it—the singular that readers look out for.

In erasure, we see how the poet has transformed an old text. In parody, the poet celebrates the distinctive “voice” of the figure she imitates, to humorous, poignant, or satirical effect. Certain kinds of conceptual poetry, like Kenneth Goldsmith’s “Uncreative Writing”, are controversial and open to attack precisely because they aim for other goals besides uniqueness.

For the most part, poetry seems required to fill dual opposing roles. On one hand, poetry seems to assume a social, almost universal function—this recalls the earliest forms of poetry, the utterances of the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Jewish holy writings, the Sumerian priestess Enheduanna. In these, the beliefs and worldview of an entire people is articulated and made sacred; the work presumes to speak for everyone. Closer to home, this tendency manifests as nationalistic poetry, where the need to create a Singaporean identity drives much cultural production post-independence, and continues in every appeal to ‘Singlit’ as important because it tells Singaporean stories to Singaporeans.

On the other hand, in the wake of Romanticism and the rise of the lyric, the conceptual, and the swing towards playing with language itself, readers also demand from poetry an asocial, even antisocial function, where the poet’s “voice” or “process” or “point of view” is valued for its inimitable or groundbreaking or marginal nature. The poet could care less about a national mythos; she speaks only to herself.

This paradox is recognised and fully exploited in the best poetry. 

One way to understand the paradox is through formal poetry. Traditional form (say, haiku) may be used as a way to invoke a widely understood set of assumptions (short, imagistic, nature, cutting word, 5-7-5), while content may then assert the genius of a poet who makes new things in spite or because of formal restrictions. Here is Angeline Yap’s take:

Newel of a stair,
Your emptiness is central
And extends (UnFree Verse, p. 80)

The final reduced line is interesting precisely because we know the rules of the haiku (three, not five syllables!). It becomes meaningful when we sense the poem speaking of a certain nothingness that is nonetheless at the core of things. The poem stops at the word “extends”, spitting in the face of its shortening.

Another aspect of this is English-language use in a context like Singapore’s. English originated from a faraway place, and become a colonial, then world language, accessed by billions. At the same time, it seems possible to speak of specifically Singaporean or Malayan situations in such a language, with some writers challenging Standard English doing so. Here’s how Hamid Roslan ends his “Mak Kau Punya Manifesto”:

[ … ] Use your brain. If got formula
we sure export already lah bodoh. Kan dah
kena bodoh. Don’t ask me for footnote. When
you read English you look up. They always
tell you speak up boy, speak up. Now I speak up. (OF ZOOS 5.1)

UnFree Verse is concerned with both formal poetry and Singlit in English, and this is partly the reason why I embarked on such a long and laborious project. Looking for poems which exemplified the tensions laid out above was my way of struggling through the paradox in my own writing. I asked: how have others struggled too?

UnFree Verse edited by Tse Hao Guang, Joshua Ip, and Theophilus Kwek

I believe the struggle is significant only because it parallels an aspect of the human condition. That is, humans are social creatures, bound by society’s attendant assumptions and limitations. Yet, part of being human is being individual, and reconciling this is a force that propels us through life.

This is, in general, why I think a good poem should give both the shock of surprise but also the profound stillness of inevitability, and why reading such poetry indirectly gives us, human beings, some insight into what it means to be us. I hope UnFree Verse does that, even if imperfectly.


Read next: Selected poems from UnFree Verse.

Tse Hao Guang was assembled with parts from Hong Kong and Malaysia. His first full-length poetry collection, Deeds of Light (Math Paper Press, 2015), was shortlisted for the 2016 Singapore Literature Prize. He co-edits the cross-genre, collaborative journal OF ZOOS, and serves as the critical essays editor of He is a 2016 fellow of the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program.