Nov 6, 2009

How To Read The People In The Poetry

Over the years, I've met many writers in Singapore, but I spend little time with them. In a year, I attend no more than two or three literary events. Still, at these events, there are always a few writers who talk to me as if they know me very well. I also talk to them, as if I know them very well.

Actually, we do know each other very well. The reason is that we've read each other's works. Obviously, the details of a writer's personal life do seep into his writing. In fact, if you read, say, Cyril Wong's poetry, you don't just meet Cyril Wong - you also meet his father, mother, sister, boyfriend etc. Cyril will even slice them open and show you the insides of their heads.

Beyond the biographical details, a writer's works give you a peek into his inner world. If you're a sensitive reader, you can feel the writer's personality. You can sense his mind and soul. You may not be able to describe it with words, but you feel it nonetheless. It's the vibes.

Gwee Li Sui commented on an earlier post, saying that I am a person of "sentiment and reflection". Actually he is very right. Oddly, many people who do meet me regularly in real life would never know that. They see only the Aggressive Investment Banking Lawyer side of me. But Li Sui, whom I think I've met only once before, was able to pinpoint a deeper side of me, simply by having read a number of my poems.

David Fedo is an expat working in Singapore, and also a poet. I'm now re-reading his book, Carrots, which was published this year. I like David Fedo. In real life, I've only met him, and his wife Susan, twice. Both of them are warm, kind, honest, sincere people. I pick up the same vibes in David's poems. It's a psychic thing. David is a good man, the kind that eventually goes to heaven, if heaven exists.

For those reasons, I keep coming back to his book. David feels like an old friend, somebody I'd meet over coffee to talk about old times. It's an odd thing for me to say, because as I had mentioned, I've only met him twice - we have no "old times" to talk about. But that's poetry for you. That's what poetry does.

I see clearly in David's poetry the advantage of age. The older you are, the more you've lived. The more you've lived, the greater the wealth of personal experiences and memories you can tap, for the purposes of creating poetry. The continual passage of time itself creates new perspectives in the writing. Here's one poem that I like:

      Unknown Poets, Unremembered People

      The shaggy-haired young man from Ohio,
      stanzas dancing in his head,
      and some even on paper -
      dead long ago in Vietnam.
      Years later
      a sister, wondering, sends me his photograph
      and some of his work.
      It is handwritten,
      untidy, a bit unformed -
      quite wonderful.
      I write back, saying inadequately,
      "Thanks for sharing this with me."

      Another poet, a decade ago,
      so prolific in the established journals -
      those short-lined insinuating lyrics,
      so much promise,
      images that might even stamp an age -
      what happened to her?
      Then one day a colleague tells me
      she's been dead for three years -
      a stroke, he thinks, someplace in Virginia.
      The poet disappears, then the poetry.

      Like my cousin,
      not a poet,
      killed thirty years ago
      when his plane lost an engine,
      hit a mountain.
      In my mind I never see Dennis not smiling:
      his special genius was to be happy.
      Now I am of a vastly diminishing number
      who even remember him or the broad smile
      or who know (for example)
      what happened to Weldon Kees,
      who was a poet,
      or who ever think
      of my three talented and unknown uncles,
      all strangely dead early of heart disease.

      The dead and forgotten,
      the living and unknown,
      the stones on an Artic shore,
      have their own lonely histories.
      Of course one might say
      that all histories,
      even for Hart Crane and Anne Sexton
      and the other famous and remembered,
      are lonely and vanishing too.
Poetry is subjective, of course. But David's style has all the elements that appeal to me. Firstly, the poem is not a trivial one, but tackles a significant, heavyweight theme (life, and death, and the deeply human desire to remember, and be remembered). Next, based on that theme, the poem proceeds to tell a story. The story is simple and moving. The poem finishes, takes a bow and makes a quiet, dignified exit.

No theatrics, no histrionics, no self-indulgence. No techno-beats or disco lights. No attempt to execute any attention-grabbing "Look, Ma, no hands, I'm so clever" type of literary devices. The poem is honest and heartfelt. It respects its own theme. It remembers, respects and honours all the people and places in it.

Some people would say, "But what about the craft?". Craft refers to the poet's technical writing skills. When we talk about a poet's craft, we usually talk how inventive and original he is with language, whether he uses innovative images or striking metaphors, and perhaps whether he arranges his line-breaks into interesting shapes etc.

But there is another kind of craft. David's poem demonstrates it. This aspect of craft is subtle, unobtrusive, largely invisible. Most readers will feel its effects, without ever being able to put a name to it. It is the ability to say a lot, with very few words. David also has the ability to say it so smoothly that the reader swallows the poem, digests it whole, with nary a hiccup. Look at the poem again:

    The shaggy-haired young man from Ohio,
    stanzas dancing in his head,
    and some even on paper -
    dead long ago in Vietnam.
    Years later
    a sister, wondering, sends me his photograph
    and some of his work.
    It is handwritten,
    untidy, a bit unformed -
    quite wonderful.
    I write back, saying inadequately,
    "Thanks for sharing this with me."
How easily the poem flows. But an inadequate critic would not appreciate this. If you approach the above stanza mechanically, as if you were marking the answer to a 10-year-series exam question, then the stanza looks like a poetic failure. After all, out of 12 lines, arguably only one line possesses a "poetic" attribute - that would be Line 2, with the image of stanzas "dancing" in a person's head. Every other line is just "prose" pretending to be "poetry".

But to me, all 12 lines are not only poetic, but beautiful. The artistry lies in the way every word, every phrase works to bring out shades of meaning in every other word and phrase. The 12 lines operate as a highly united team. In 56 words, David creates three human beings so real you can almost reach out and touch them. You learn that there was a man, he was young, alive and vibrant with ideas, and then he got killed in a war. Years later, when the sharp edge of grief has long passed, you sense what his sister feels - she is wondering, hoping to learn more about the mystery of the man that her brother was, and she tentatively reaches out to a stranger for possible answers. And David is that stranger. You can feel his thoughts, as he holds the photo and the papers, his final connection to that shaggy-haired young man he once met, so many years ago.

(All this is achieved, in 56 words! Those of you who are unimpressed should do a little experiment yourself. Try writing a story, in 56 words - see how far you get).

Reading David's poem gives me the sense of travelling a vast distance. In its entirety, the poem is less than 2 printed pages long. But in that space, David has successfully compressed the life and times not of one person, but several different persons. These people - they lived, and died, and were almost forgotten, and then suddenly the poem, like magic, breathed life into their memory again.

That's no mean feat. I love this poem, and I love Fedo's book.

11 comments:

Gwee Li Sui said...

Thanks for your kind words, Gilbert. I too was from the NUS lit department, you know. :)

Gwee

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Gilbert, for this post. It was very well-written and I felt that I gained something valuable, from reading it.

alf said...

I've sent this "review" to David Fedo! I'm sure he'll appreciate it.

ericlow said...

hi gilbert,

i agree with what you said about a writer's work revealing his inner mind, i have never met you myself in person but from our (a long long time ago) correspondence i too feel as if we are acquainted. ^_^

but i differ in my sentiments on fedo's piece. in fact based on that one poem, i wouldnt buy his book at all!

i am of the mind that one can celebrate anything in poetry, even (esp) the ordinary but the poem must not be ordinary! (yes yes i watched too much dead poet's society on replay, bah) in my opinion, there's nothing wrong with his topic but fedo's poem needs heavy editing. i am not suggesting the addition of poetic phrases (cliche!) or bombastic words, just better phrasing! carver's poems are a good example, yes he over-reaches sometimes, but never like this. and he rarely go BOOMZ. (oh god i really RREEAally wanted to use that word!) afterall, isnt poetry the best choice of words in the best arrangement?

the accusation of being over sentimental also stands. as a reader, my rights are clear. i dont wan my feeling to be strung along, if i wanted to, i would be watching a korean drama! kooser wrote in his thingy abt poetry that one should skate along the fine line of appreciated sentimentality but fedo seems to have skated into the deep waters of being overtly sentimental.

i am not doubting fedo's goodness, hell no. but what has goodness got to do with writing/publishing good poetry? if every good person who think he can write poetry deserve airplay, then the airways machaim kena clogged to death and conversely i would be banned from writing.

you brought up honesty in poetry, that you believe that you have to be absolutely honest in your writing. i respect that, but your assessment that that is how you write works in reverse too. one of my fav poets (r.hugo) says, no states, that if the poem calls for the house to be green, but is actually yellow, then the house in the poem must be yellow. what matters is that you are honest to yourself and the sentiment will carry forth in the poetry, the absolute truth is subjective. i believe in that and i think it has improved my own stuff.

nevertheless what you think is what you think and you will have people in agreement but likewise also (a truckload) people who disagree. neither are necessarily wrong. meaning that neither you or nicholas are wrong, just 2 different opinions. both will gather its own followers and likewise detractors.

^_^

ericlow said...

eh paiseh. "that if the poem calls for the house to be green, but is actually yellow, then the house in the poem must be yellow." green! i meant green.. i shoot myself...

Mr Wang Says So said...

But I'm not really reviewing his poetry. Or as Alvin put it, I'm "reviewing" his poetry, with quotation marks.

This post is just a bit of rambling on my part. Sharing my thoughts about how you can "smell" a person in his writings, and also a bit about the kind of poetry that I like.

Anonymous said...

I propose a literary competition, right here on Mr Wang's blog! Let's see who can write the best poem, in 56 words or less.

mrdes said...

Gosh, after reading most of Cyril Wong's poety collections from the library...the questions on my mind...but I am not too sure all poets are like that...cultural differences do play a role.

Anonymous said...
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Mr Wang Says So said...

Two comments deleted.

Looks like spam from someone trying to promote his own poetry.