Where does Singapore poetry begin?

Theophilus Kwek, one of the editors of UnFree Verse, traces the roads leading to formal verse in Singapore and why it’s time to dissociate it with the establishment, colonial or otherwise.

When I was last in Singapore a year ago, the room I’m sitting in now didn’t exist. In its place, a cluster of low buildings – including the old Thomson Road Post Office (which opened in 1958), and several three-storey bungalows – lined the road up a lightly-wooded hill, overlooking the shophouses and eateries below.

The address itself holds a mystery. ‘Bright Hill Drive’ stops short over the crest of its slope, tantalizingly close to where Ethos Books is based today. Petering to a footpath, flanked by a metal fence and plucky tufts of grass, it reappears inexplicably some distance away, as a tributary of the meandering Sin Ming Avenue.

As it turns out, it matters how far back you look. In 1921, around the time my grandma’s grandma made her cramped voyage to Nanyang, an itinerant missionary (who was, like her, from Fujian) founded the Kong Meng San Phor Kark See Monastery on land donated by a wealthy businessman. Though newer blocks now truncate the old thoroughfare, Kong Meng San – “Bright Hill” – remains the largest Buddhist temple in Singapore; a significant landmark in lived experience, and no doubt a source of local pride. 

So often, the streets themselves remind us of what lies beneath the simple topography of an online map, or road atlases updated year-by-year. In much the same way, putting together the manuscript for UnFree Verse demanded that we run our hands carefully over a familiar, too-flat city plan, if only to feel for the rough edges of another Singaporean landscape.

Too many brochures and book-jackets present what one might call the ‘Visitor’s Guide’ view of Singapore literature: as a neat trajectory taking shape from a wave of ‘new writing’ in the last ten or twenty years. Some look, more circumspectly, into the era before Ethos (or at least BooksActually), but rarely venture beyond the political milestones of the 1960s.

Drawing a map

When we began thinking about UnFree Verse, It was clear to us that another history needed to be pieced together, and one that traced a slightly different story.

We wanted to assemble a biography of formal verse in Singapore, a genre that has received some bad press in relation to its counterpart (and erstwhile nemesis) free verse. But neither is it the underdog of Singapore poetry. Often associated too easily with the establishment, colonial or otherwise, formal verse – in all its shape-shifting permutations – deserved to have its own tale told.

And what a tale it was. Across the decades, formal poetry appeared in the writings of dissidents and diplomats, professors and Presidents from all backgrounds and persuasions. It was also a strikingly global story: many of these forms are rooted in traditions from elsewhere, but live on in the voices of Singapore’s immigrants and exiles alike, blurring the line between our proverbial ‘stayers’ and ‘quitters’.

Many beginnings

A first, natural milestone is 'FMSR', a book-length poem published by Francis P. Ng (alias Teo Poh Leng) in 1937. We’ve chosen four sections of this visionary work, which can best be described as a rich palimpsest layered over a single train journey on the old Federated Malay States Railway, to open our anthology; its memorable opening lines (‘Millionaires from the New World with nothing else to do / Wander the Old World…’) speak directly to the unaffordable luxuries of the poet’s interwar context as well as our own. 

But even 'FMSR' is, by most measures, far too late a starting-point. Structure travels with speech, and formal poetry has arguably been part of the cadences of these parts since before the 14th Century royals of Singapura held court. With the East India Company’s signature cocktail of trade and conquest in the early 19th Century came another potent mix: the mongrel heritage of the English language, filtered through Europe’s past.

One poem that gestures to this earlier inheritance is Shirley Lim's 'Ah Ma' (pp 143-144), written in 1998. Its plainspoken opening lines ('Grandmother was smaller / than me at eight. Had she / been child forever?') come across as stiff – almost stilted – in comparison with FMSR's dynamic stanzas, but serve to ease us into a delicate terza rima, full of feminine endings and half-rhymes ('all / girl', 'young / sarong').

This form, in which the first and third lines of every tercet are rhyming, was famously pioneered by the medieval Italian poet Dante in his masterpiece The Divine Comedy (not long before Parameswara fled this island stronghold to re-establish his court at Malacca), and first used in English by Geoffrey Chaucer, who also wrote the Canterbury Tales. Lim uses it to frame this intimate portrait of a grandma against the same tradition, an epic of the everyday. Perhaps we should look to real-life ‘grandmother stories’ for our heroines.

Treading new paths

Other formal adaptations, such as Alfian Sa’at’s ‘The Electric Ghazals’ (extracted on pp 201-203), look even further back, to traditions originating across the Mediterranean from classical Europe. The ghazal, with rhyming couplets sharing the same ending refrain, has pre-Islamic roots, and flourished during the heyday of Sufism in the 12th Century – during which it crossed linguistic borders into South Asian traditions.

In his long poem, Alfian borrows the form into English, adding a tender twist: each ghazal in the sequence is both dedicated (in its epigraph) to someone else, and addressed (in the text) to Alfian himself. Each becomes a dialogue, held in the quiet symmetry of its couplets, while the whole poem is a conversation of many voices.

Such processes of adaptation and cross-pollination, of course, involve bending age-old conventions. But there’s no reason why these forms of poetry should be static: poets in Singapore, after all, are occasionally best known for breaking rules as well as lines. As Alfian writes to Alfian: 

Alfian, how wantonly you break the rules of the ghazal.    
But if it makes you happy to call this one, then be happy.

The few pieces mentioned here are by no means an exhaustive survey of a new, quirky history of Singapore literature that, we hope, will find a place on your bookshelves (and in your hands). But the greater hope is this: that the oft-misunderstood story of formal verse in Singapore can – like other untold histories, like Bright Hill Drive – resurface to claim its place as part of a steadily expanding canon.

It is, after all, part of the road we know well; a landscape we live and make new.   



Read next: Selected poems from UnFree Verse.

Theophilus Kwek has published four volumes of poetry: They Speak Only Our Mother Tongue (2011), Circle Line (2014, shortlisted for the Singapore Literature Prize), Giving Ground (2016), and The First Five Storms (2017, winner of the New Poets’ Prize). He
recently won the Berfrois Poetry Prize, and was placed Second in the Stephen Spender Prize for Poetry in Translation; his work has also been widely published in international journals and anthologies. He served as President of the Oxford University Poetry Society, and is currently Co-Editor of both Oxford Poetry and The Kindling. He is the Chief Executive Assistant at Asymptote, a journal for world literature.