Nov 6, 2009

Chess, Poetry and Homework

Something odd just arrived in my inbox. The sender's name I shall not disclose (anyway, I do not know her personally). It appears that she first sent the email to "" (QLRS is the acroynm for a literary journal in Singapore). After that, she forwarded the email to me.

The email is a little cryptic. The person made no attempt to introduce herself or explain why she had written to me. She didn't even say "Dear Gilbert" or "Hi there". She merely wrote:
    Discuss the effects of juxtaposition for the poem between the "old folks" and the "bright-eyed teenagers" or other examples of juxtaposition. Discuss the speaker's attitude towards such school trips, as evidenced in the poem, with regard to his tone and use of irony. Reply asap thanks.
Looks like a Literature essay question. And I even know which poem the question is referring to. It's one of my own poems, entitled Old Folks Home. Years ago, I gave permission to the Ministry of Education to reproduce the poem for teaching purposes. It appears that they're still using the poem. And it appears that the email sender is hoping that I'll do her homework for her, LOL. Anyway, this is the poem:
    Old Folks Home

    All day long they lie on the
    straight rows of white beds or sit
    in the heavy-duty wheelchairs
    pushed out into the breezy sunshine
    of the gardens.

    Resigned to the prisons
    of their own failing bodies,
    they drift in and out of the haze
    of senility, half-forgetting
    themselves in the patient wait
    for death.

    Still the bright-eyed teenagers come,
    on Saturday mornings, by the busloads,
    sent by their schools
    on compulsory excursions
    to learn the meaning
    of compassion
    as outlined in the ECA syllabus.

    They bring gifts of Khong Guan biscuits,
    they help to mow the lawns,
    they clap their hands performing happy songs
    and valiantly they attempt the old dialects
    trying to communicate.

    Later they will clamber noisily
    back up the departing school buses,
    and next week in class
    they will write startlingly
    similar essays
    on what a meaningful,
    memorable experience they had
    at the old folks' home
    last week.
I grow a little sentimental. I wrote this poem a long time ago. The term "ECA" betrays the poem's age, because no one says "ECA" any more. Nowadays the official term that the schools use is not "extra-curricular activities", but "co-curricular activities", or CCA.

The original seed of this poem - I still remember. At that time, I was about 13. I was visiting an old folks home, to play chess with the old folks. It was a volunteer trip, organised by a local chess club (I was a member then).

So there I was, having a nice quiet game of chess with a frail old man in a wheelchair. Then suddenly a big group of school students showed up. It was their school field trip. There were so many of them. Some of the big boys were playful and rowdy. A teacher started yelling at them to stand in line, keep quiet and behave themselves. Many of the students, I could tell, didn't even know what they were supposed to be doing there.

Most of the old folks looked either indifferent or annoyed, about the visiting school boys. As for my chess opponent, he was in a winning position. But suddenly he made two bad moves in a row, and lost. I felt bad, defeating him in that way. He complained bitterly that the school boys were making too much noise and he couldn't concentrate.

I told him that we could play again. He sighed and said, never mind. Then he brightened up and said in Mandarin, "One thing about those school boys, they often bring Khong Guan biscuits for us. I don't like the boys, but I like their Khong Guan biscuits. I hope they brought some Khong Guan biscuits today."

He went on and on about his Khong Guan biscuits. He wouldn't stop. Something in that moment really moved me. I put the chess pieces back into their box. I felt sorry for this wrinkled old man. He had so little left in his life to look forward. Even Khong Guan biscuits were a big deal for him. I wished I'd thought of bringing a big tin of Khong Guan biscuits, just for him.

Years passed. Somewhere along the way, I took up poetry. I also became a better and better chessplayer (in fact, I became the NUS chess champion and captain). One day, as I was analysing a chess position, I suddenly remembered the two bad moves. In my mind, I saw that frail old man, sitting in his wheelchair, shocked by his own blunder. So I stopped analysing, and started to write a poem instead. Old Folks Home came out.

You can't see the old man in the poem. But I can. Although he must be dead by now, I can still see him, and I can still hear him going on and on about his Khong Guan biscuits.


KAM said...

Hi Gilbert, I am not an expert on poetry, and in fact I did not like it since young because no one (esp the teachers) could positively influence me to like them.
Now tell me, why your poems do not rhyme one har?
TBH I try very hard to like them. I see them as little stories, often just laid out in poetic layout and nothing else.


Mr Wang Says So said...

Hi there. I am probably not the best person to answer your question, because I really don't "get" rhyming poetry. I don't understand what's so special or important about having the last word of one line sound like the last word of the next line. If I read more rhyming poetry, i suppose I might come to understand. But it's hard to find that kind of poetry nowadays, because nobody in the english-speaking world writes like that anymore. To find that kind of poetry, i would have to go to the library, to look up long-deceased poets from at least 60 years ago. Then my problem is that their works won't be set in a modern, contemporary context, which is what I am interested in.

LYL said...

Hi Gilbert,

Your statement that only long-deceased poets (from at least 60 years ago) write rhyming poetry is patently untrue.

The current poet laureate of the United States, Kay Ryan-- a sample of whose oeuvre can be read here ( is known for poems that operate like sound-sculptures. Assonance, alliteration and rhyme are frequently deployed in her work.

Singapore's own Koh Jee Leong often operates within formal constraints as well; one of his most acclaimed poems, "Brother" (selected for the "Best New Poets 2007" anthology) features the use of rhyme.

Why, even in the one issue where you had 4 poems published, in QLRS (Apr 2002), at least three poems employ rhyme.

The ease with which you declare that "nobody in the English-speaking world writes like that anymore" calls into question how much of contemporary poetry you, a published poet, read.

Chris Hamilton-Emery from Salt, a U.K. publishing house, has offered this guideline for aspiring poets:

“Poets are not allowed to submit a new manuscript until they have read two hundred single-author volumes of poetry, published since 1980.”

this is taken from

The rationale behind this is that too many poems submitted to them these days, they find, are simply "too derivative."

May I humbly suggest that one reason why one certain reviewer has accused you of deploying clichés in your own poetry(and also why you may not be getting the criticism) might simply be your lack of acquaintance with the contemporaneous poets that matter.

veii said...

You know, in my limited encounters with younger Singaporeans, I tend to see the same kind of bluntness that your young correspondent displayed. While I appreciate the importance of being all-business, a short bit of niceties to begin a note, especially one that is in the form of a request for a favour, would be pleasant.

alf said...

A lot of traditional poetic rhyme was developed to assist the memorising of lines, since poems used to be recited in public a lot. Kinda like hip hop.

These days, poetry (and books in general) tend to be read silently in private and have become less public events, so memorising is less of an issue. Private silent reading has also altered the nature of writing across all literary fields, since even novels and stories used to be read aloud to an assembled town-hall or over the radio (back when literacy was limited, not so very long ago).

Other things have also happened in the 20th Century that make rhyming not only less necessary but even less desirable -- resemblance to commercial jingles, the rise of pop music as a substitute, the trauma of two World Wars which made traditional sweet neat rhymes seem as deceitful as government propaganda... All sorts of things have happened to poetry and literature since. Some modern poets still rhyme, but it is almost always qualified. (No one wants to be regarded as naive and old fashioned I guess). You have to have a good honest reason to rhyme nowadays, or people think you're trying to sell them something.

Gilbert, thanks for telling the poignant story about the origin of the poem. My question is this... if you were to write about it now, how would you do it?

Mr Wang Says So said...

LOL, LYL, well, thank you for your thoughts, but I think you're trying too hard to make your point.

Okay, some contemporary poets rhyme. Maybe about 2% of them. Of those 2%, on average they rhyme in about 5% of their poems.

I do write rhyming poetry too, you know. I write them for my kids (age 5 and 7). Beyond that, I seriously can't find much use for rhyme in my writing.

Assonance, alliteration, sure, I use those. Some of my poems are quite rich in sound features - try reading "Garden City" in QLRS itself.

But traditional rhyme and meter - nah, not for me.

yamizi said...


mrdes said...

Really, I don't think there are much poets nowaday sticking to "traditional rhyme and meter", judging from what I can get from the public libraries...not that I'm complaining about their poor collection. And I too don't see the point of rhyming when it don't mean that you are writing poems if your lines rhyme. I read in some guide-book on poetry writing how poetry is not suppose to differ too much from the way we talk day-to-day. So by that count, if we write something that rhymes, it could only be only "imitation" (of a different era of language or poets) - though by no means degrading, rather posthumously.

Then again, I am still learning...from Mark Strand, Brian Patten, Gilbert Koh, Cyril Wong, Charles Simic (award-winning, but I have no idea what is he writing, seriously.) etc...but it all started with Gilbert's blog:)

Note to KAM: get some from the library, you will understand what I mean...I too hate the poetry taught in school:P

Anonymous said...

Speaking of questionable famous poets...I really wonder why Nick Liu has to say about

Anonymous said...

After reading everything thta has been said, I'm just going say that there's probably a reason why i like T.S Eliot and William Carlos Williams and e.e. cummings, and Koh if he has a taste of their poetry, probably wouldnt.

Yes, there is beauty in succinct sentences but then somehow I sense a certain distain that you have with poetry that exhibit "technical brilliance". Formulaic you say. A "look-ma-no-hands" mentality. But whatever you say, these poets are still recognised the best in the literary field.

Am interested to know what do you have against fragmentation, stream of consciousness, disregard for syntax and punctuation, etc all the fanciful things the rest of us play in.

Anonymous said...

Funny how you accuse other people of trying to hard to make a point :)

Mr Wang Says So said...

"Am interested to know what do you have against fragmentation, stream of consciousness, disregard for syntax and punctuation, etc all the fanciful things the rest of us play in."

I don't actually have anything against it, except when the form (I feel) starts to override the substance .... Or worse, when the form is used to hide a lack of substance.

Anonymous said...

“Readers are not allowed to submit an opinion about modern poetry until they have read two hundred single-author volumes of poetry, published since 1980.”

Gwee Li Sui said...

Hi --

I have a contrary view to Alvin's about rhyme, a device I deeply appreciate. To be sure, both rhyming and non-rhyming verse go way back; it's not like history is increasingly displacing one kind with the other. One just has to look a bit more carefully these days to see that rhyme is still very much alive in literary writing everywhere.

Also, rhyme has come to be misheard/dismissed PRECISELY because of commercial and propagandistic jiggles and the spread of pop music. It's neither less necessary nor less desirable because of them, any more than a strong metaphor or image -- also easier on the memory -- is so. If a poem calls for its use to realise its form, why not?

In fact, in many sophisticated pop songs, you'll find greater intelligence too in the rhyme scheme, showing that it's more than a manner of play. Like any device, eg. metaphor, rhythm, form, etc., rhyme just needs a depth of exposure for one to be able to tell whether it is deepening or destroying a poem. It needs an experienced ear to know when it is used to contemplate, feel, or make fun or simply lacks consciousness.


Anonymous said...

We grew up in the bygone era when a poem (sec school) had a rhythm (iambic pentameter or whatever) & the end words rhyme whether it be abba/cddc or ends with a couplet ee. So the best we cld come up with were silly limericks to entertain kids on car rides.
What is difference between prose and free-verse poetry?

LYL said...

I second what Gwee said. The poem as an aural object (the luscious sound of it!) is too often overlooked in the work of poets here.

Mr Wang Says So said...

I do think that aural quality is important. My idea of aural quality just doesn't involve traditional rhyme.

Rhythm, repetition, assonance, alliteration, the speed and movement of the language - these I consider important.

Some examples from my own poems include "Warning to a Lover"; "Without You"; "Chiang's Heatstroke"; and "The Death of Sergeant Ong Jia Hui".

The sergeant poem is available here.

Excerpt below:

Your son dies. Your only son dies.
Your soldier son dies, not in war,
but in peacetime, not in peace,
but at sea, drowned in a training accident,
an accident they say, but they don't
tell you why, they don't tell you
how it could have happened
when others were there, everywhere,
in the water, on the boat,
yet no one saw him sink,
no one saw him slip beneath the waves
the singing waves ...


For what it was worth -

Son, son, soldier son .... peace, peacetime ... accident, accident ... there, everywhere ... sing, slip, waves, the singing waves ...

But really I am not keen on form dictating the substance. To give a simple example, if the word "nervous" is the best word to convey my intended meaning, I'm not going to change it to "scared", just because "scared" rhymes with the last word of the previous line.

Anonymous said...

You didn't mention

"dies, dies, dies"

"they don't tell you why / they don't tell you how";

"no one saw / no one saw".

alf said...


I did say "-- resemblance to commercial jingles, the rise of pop music as a substitute" have made rhyming less desirable and people more suspicious of it. Of course it can be used well, but is it not true that there is a certain wariness about it? Free verse of course is way overdue for correction too.