My father had his surgery, to remove the tumour, and he survived. However, the doctors explained that in the next few years, the risk of recurrence would be high. I felt that I should spend more time with my father. I also wanted my children to spend more time with him. It was entirely possible that there wouldn't be much time left.
Soon after my father was discharged from hospital, I took him and my family on a holiday. This was the first time I had ever taken my father on a holiday anywhere. As he was still recuperating, we opted for a quiet, peaceful holiday at a Bintan beach resort.
While at Bintan, we spent a lot of time just lazing around the beach. I would park myself on a beach chair with a book, while my father took my son to play by the sea. I would just watch them from a distance - this was their special time together. Out of this holiday, the following poem emerged:
My Father Takes My Son For A Walk
Small waves sing and sigh and run to the shore,
Push and pull at their ankles, as they walk hand-in-hand
Along the edge of the sea.
My father is white-haired now, his shoulders stoop.
With each step he is approaching the end of his life
Altthough in this moment he does not think of it.
My son is a young child. Shells and boats excite him.
In the years ahead, the old man beside him will
Become for him an uncertain memory.
I have my own journey. I am watching them,
As if from a very great distance, as if I were a wave
Travelling out into the endless sea.
This poem has attracted very mixed reactions from readers. Those who liked it, really loved it. But apparently, those who didn't like it, quite detested it. First, let's take a look at the positive feedback:
"Very effective. The perspective of three generations in a few lines."
"Simple, yet so effective. He's "a wave travelling out into the endless sea." One day he will be the grandfather taking his grandson for a walk along the edge of the sea, and his son will be the one watching. Gilbert, great images. Thanks."
... In particular, I love this poem. It strikes a chord in my soul and evokes much tenderness."
"How lovely. Your detail for things that move the heart is very special. I have pictures of my mother and my son when he was young. Oh how I miss her!"
"It's lovely. I love the ambiguity of the last line, a sense of movement and loneliness. Nice."
".... reading it now, I still feel the emotions rushing towards me. I feel especially touched by the line 'In the years ahead, the old man beside him will/Become for him an uncertain memory.' How true these words are."
What about the readers who hated the poem? One of them, an SPH journalist, disliked it enough to write an entire article about it. An excerpt from her article:
The cliched personification of the waves, simple monosyllabic words and obvious alliteration all open the scene on much too precious a note. The emotional tenor - one of quiet reflection - is appropriate ... but the poem crosses the line into sentimentality.
Stock images, such as the `endless sea' and the `white-haired' old man, do not help matters - which is a shame, because Koh does have an eye for detail.
The trick is to write simply without being simplistic, but the poem doesn't quite achieve that balance.
.... The syntax is equally unimaginative. The short declarative sentences and plain old subject-verb-object word order ... lend unbearably slow pacing to the poem.
It is a quiet, sensitive snapshot a moment, but Koh's writing is too spare. Any emotional resonance soon fades with the final vague image of receding waves.
In the past, I've asked a number of experienced poets to give me frank feedback on my poems. Every now and then, the feedback on the exact same poem would return in sharply different forms. For example, a poem might thoroughly impress Felix Cheong, but receive a ho-hum response from Cyril Wong. Conversely, Cyril might praise a poem enthusiastically, but Felix would just say, "Errrr, this one doesn't work for me at all."
As I look back now on My Father Takes My Son For A Walk, I find myself no longer interested in discussing the merits or weaknesses of the poem. What interests me is another kind of question - the extent to which poets should write for themselves, or for others.
When I first wrote My Father Takes My Son For A Walk, I never intended to show it to anybody. It was a highly personal poem, written just for myself. The first draft of the poem I completed in less than 15 minutes, literally while I was on Bintan's beach watching my father and children.
But a year later, I felt ready to show the world the poem. First, as usual, I had to edit the poem. But this time I found it really difficult. I knew that some words and phrases arguably didn't work so well. I experimented with deleting them, changing them, shifting them around. I also came up with one or two new ideas to incorporate into the text. Finally I produced a revised version that I felt would be more satisfying to a critical reader.
The only problem was that the emotional tenor of the poem had changed. It no longer quite captured what had happened that day, on the beach. The old man had become slightly larger than life; the sea less placid, a little more hostile; and as for the protagonist, he was still reflective but somewhat more certain and assured. Yes, the revised poem was still a snapshot of that same day, but it was like a doctored photo, Photoshopped with special effects. It was no longer the real thing. No one would ever know, of course, but me.
After some consideration, I threw away the revised version. And went back to the original version (or something very, very close to it).