Nov 2, 2009

Poetry and Politics and PhDs

Sometimes my poems travel to slightly odd places, and it takes me a while to find out.

Just discovered that a few years ago, a certain Simon Benjamin Obendorf discussed a poem of mine in his PhD dissertation. Obendorf was then pursuing his Doctor of Philosophy degree, at the University of Melbourne, and is now a lecturer at the University of Lincoln.

The appearance of my poem in a dissertation wouldn't be that unusual, if it were an English Literature dissertation. However, Dr Obendorf's area of academic interest is actually political science and international relations.

His 287-page dissertation is entitled Sexing Up The International, and somewhere around page 41, he begins to discuss my poem. The relevant passage is below:
      I had a small part in a
      Big show of a great little nation.
      My uniformed mates and I were
      To march out, swing left,
      Turn twice, and get off the grounds
      In twenty seconds flat.
      Meanwhile the music boomed,
      The lasers splashed,
      And the darkened crowds hit
      A new high of pre-planned,
      Programmed excitement.
      Later at home, my mother replayed
      The video tape five times
      But couldn't tell her tiny toy-
      Soldier son from any of the rest.
      "That one is me," I said,
      Pointing at the screen.
      I couldn't be sure.
      Still, we laughed and clapped
      Our hands like children,
      Knowing that it was not
      Supposed to matter.

    Gilbert Koh's poem, "National Day Parade" depicts the thoughts of a young Singaporean national serviceman regarding his participation, as part of a military unit, in one of Singapore's spectacular independence day parades. These parades are held annually, either at the historically significant Padang (field) near Singapore's colonial City Hall and Supreme Court buildings or at the National Stadium. The presentation of the parades has been identified as a strategy by political elites in Singapore to both craft appropriate national identities and to strengthen popular support for government ideologies and the political status quo. Indeed, the Parade organisers are extremely open about this aspect of the Parade's raison d'etre. On the official National Day parade website for 2004, one feature essayist writes that "there is a need for the rituals of patriotism, so as to galvanise an entire nation into remembering our past, to celebrate the present, and to remind us that the future is yet to be." Commenting on the tendency for the Parade to highlight or refer to key moments in Singapore's history, she goes on to exert that "by writing history in this manner, the idea of nationality is made definitive and official." While commentators have, in recent years, identified a shift in the visible role played by the military in these parades (from one of demonstrating military might through the parading of armoured vehicles and weaponry to one of emphasising the combat skills and professional discipline of military personnel through demonstrations such as skydiving, parachuting and choreographed bayonet drills) the Parade, both in its presentation and its organisation, remains a thoroughly military affair.

    .... Kong and Yeoh have explored the ways in which national identities that are consumed in, and constructed through, the staging of this elaborate national ritual are marked by "an acute awareness of the need to survive in a neighbourhood of regional hostility". This gives rise, they argue, to the "military flavour of the parades, asserting the capabilities of a small island in defence." This aspect of the parade has perhaps been captured best by Devasahayam, who argues that the National Day parade, held annually on 9 August (the date of Singapore's expulsion from the Malaysian Federation in 1965) is a symbolic dialogue with Malaysia in which Singapore, in an overt display of sabre-rattling, demonstrates its military might both to Malaysia and to other regional powers.

    Koh's poem - with its references to the author and his "uniformed mates" marching in the "big show of a great little nation" - captures much of the tenor of these analyses but it is also a deeply personal response to the enforced homogeneity of military and national identities as well as a comment on the ways nationalist propaganda serves the ends of social control in, and for, the modern state. This personal response is informed not only by the author's participation in the conceptions of identity reinforced and celebrated by the parade, but also by a critical personal reflection on those identity formations and the methods used to compel adherence to them. References to "toy soldiers", to the submersion of the self in both the military unit and the nation, and to the crowd reaching new heights of "pre-planned, programmed excitement" suggest a mode of reading Singapore's preoccupations with domestic social control and international vulnerability that begins not with the state, but starts with, and works out from, the individual.

    The fact that these insights can be derived through critical reading of a piece of contemporary Singapore poetry demonstrates the nexus between literature and personal responses to the international. Philip Darby has argued that "many facets of the relations between societies can be related to lived experience" and further that "literature's concentration on the personal can be a corrective to international relations' preoccupations with aggregates, its mechanistic presumptions about international processes and its positivist approach to outcomes." Allied to these opportunities are the benefits that might flow from the application, to real events and to everyday life, of modes of enquiry drawn from textual analysis. Gender analysis comes immediately to the fore, here. Scholars working in postcolonial literary studies have long drawn on literary materials to illustrate the ways in which external and internal exercises of power and hegemony have acted to shape gendered subjectivities within postcolonial polities ....

    ... the parade's significance is not merely due to its position as a state scripted ritual. As a reading of Koh's poem suggests, the parade references idealised, state-endorsed visions of everyday life and gendered subjectivity. Yet it is also a space in which Singaporeans participate in and consume such identities and messages. And it is such a dialogue between the elite and the everyday - marked by processes of resistance, cooption and volunteerism - that acts to shape the nature and contours of Singaporean everyday life. What I am interested in exploring here is how, or to what extent, everyday life might stand as a productive site of analysis for those interested in unpacking, or gaining new perspectives, on the penetration of international issues into Singaporean everyday life, on the ways in which the international concerns of the Singapore state are reflected, consumed and played out both in domestic policies and in everyday settings; and the ways in which the international can be theorised not merely from the familiar analytical standpoints of state and nation but in ways that build out from individuals, subjectivities and the processes of everyday life ...
I feel somewhat pleased with my little poem, for making it into a political science dissertation. I like crossing walls and borders.

In fact, it's a little ironic that it takes a political scientist like Obendorf to point out the connection between literature and the real world, at the personal level. Good poetry is all about that connection - it's all about real people, real events, real life. Good poetry has a soul.

In contrast, I'm often bored by the likes of, you know, some typical young smart-ass undergrad Lit student from NUS, attempting to comment on my works. I shouldn't generalise, but they tend to be oh so literary, oh so clever, and oh so hopelessly trapped within the formal framework of their own academic discipline.

When they try writing poetry themselves, aaaaack. They are so eager to impress with their "craft" that they cram every line with big words, flowery phrases or some original and entirely ill-fitting metaphor. "See, look at me, I'm so clever" is what they're trying to say with their poetry.

In the end, their poems feel like a model answer to a 10-year-series math question. Technically correct, occasionally even technically excellent. But also inauthentic, pretentious and quite lacking any genuine insight.

I shouldn't be mean. Maybe they are just young and immature.


Anonymous said...

you sound awfully bitter about NUS English undergrads.

Gilbert Koh aka Mr Wang said...

Nah. It's not their fault. They're just products of our system.

The way they approach literature is no different from the way civil servants approach their KPIs in the government ministries;

or the way schools assess students by counting the number of their A1s.

Anonymous said...

i like your poems. especially this one. It brings back memories of my own ns days. Involved in the ndp as well. love the description, 'toy soldiers' and 'big show in little nation'.
perfect engineered ndp as usual.

Anonymous said...

Sure, ad hominem attacks which do not address the fundamental weaknesses in your writing. Pretty cunning, opening with the O-WOW-PHD-CITATION!!! PHD LEHHHHHHH!!!!!!! SEE! I'M SO GOODDDDDDD! WOW PEOPLE SURE IMPRESSED!!! NO HORSE RUN LAH THIS ONE!!!

... Sure, that definitely qualifies your poem. Oh! And before I forget! That hint you dropped for people to remember your ill-deserved GPA award. In case you didn't know, you became the laughing stock of the scene.

Anonymous said...

Your poetry is really remarkable. You write so simply, using everyday language, and describing common, ordinary things. Yet there's something in the way you put it all together ... the poem just "clicks" beautifully and offers so much depth & insight to the attentive reader.

P.S I was at your book launch and really enjoyed listening to you read your poem "A Nothing Kind of Job".

Anonymous said...

mr wang, im not an admirer of poems, although i must congratulate u on ur achievements.

that said, dont let success get into ur head. u might have a bitter experience or two with NUS lit undergrads, but that does not means everyone is that way. plus why single out NUS...every universities have students like this who are trapped in the formal framework of their subject. u think studying in UK or USA automatically makes people
Elliot? theres something called academic inbreeding...sometimes when u learning sth as a formal academic sub...its unavoidable when u begin to write in a certain manner because of the way things were imparted to you etc...

so wow i congratulte u, i ask that you show respect to nus lit undergrad...u sound more cynical than sincerely trying to point out flaws and adviced on how to correct it.

- don

Teng Qian Xi said...

Those who want to see for themselves the negative review that has been dismissed in this post, you can go to

It's also worth noting that the cause of dismissal here is on the educational background of the reviewer, and his own poetry. None of the criticisms that were made in the actual review have been addressed here. I'm not convinced the immature one here is actually the reviewer.

Laremy said...

Anonymous at 11.12pm sounds rather chipper.

Trebuchet said...

Yeah, Mr Wang, I had exactly the same feeling as you when reading Wordsworth. Totally inappropriate fixation with dead girls, flowers, birds, and other nonsense; way too enamoured with the pentameter shit.

Gwee Li Sui said...

Gilbert --

Some time back, I wrote a rather critical review, also in QLRS, of Alvin Pang and John Kinsella's Singaporean-Australian anthology. It led us 3 into a long impassioned email discussion. Alvin and John then went on to use an interview with Australia's Mascara to counter my criticism point by point.

I like to think that, as a result, we have all learnt something and changed a little for the better. Alvin's editing has certainly developed in a wonderful direction, and I feel that I have come to understand him more as a friend and an artist in Singapore.

For a mature arts scene to develop here, we really should go beyond seeing anyone who loves our writings as necessarily a friend and those who attack us as necessarily enemies. I do hope that, once you're calmer, you too will consider issuing an engaged response to Nicholas's review, which, to be sure, does carry some good points.

Take care!

Anonymous said...

totally agree with you on NUS graduate, but more in the general sense of people studying English at uni level, they seem to be trapped in their academic framework and acting oh so smart.

Just look thru those ST forum topics on Singlish/English. A few smart alec there. LOL

Anonymous said...

I've been a longtime reader but in all honesty, this post reeks of unwanted arrogance. I'm no Lit graduate from NUS and there is probably some truth to what you say about their rigidity in approaching literature. But you, as someone who has had more experience publishing and writing poems, you could have tempered your comments to be more nurturing, encouraging or constructive, especially when these people bothered to spend time exploring your poems.


Anonymous said...

The background is that an NUS student reviewed Mr Wang's book on a website and gave extremely negative comments.

I strongly believe that reviewers are entitled to express their own opinions. Still, to me, this review was really way off. I was very, very surprised by how one-sided it was. In fact, I got the distinct feeling that the reviewer has some personal grudge against Mr Wang. Just my guess.

Personally, I liked Mr Wang's book a lot. I've read most of the local poets, and Two Baby Hands is definitely one of my all-time favourites. Very insightful and touching. And some of the poems, like "Terminal" and "Hong Lim Park", will stick in my mind for a long, long time.

Guess I just wanted to let you know that, Mr Wang. KEEP WRITING!!

Anonymous said...

"References to "toy soldiers", to the submersion of the self in both the military unit and the nation, and to the crowd reaching new heights of "pre-planned, programmed excitement" suggest a mode of reading Singapore's preoccupations with domestic social control and international vulnerability that begins not with the state, but starts with, and works out from, the individual."

Obendorf could also have discussed the "mother" in the poem, and how she knew that "it was not supposed to matter".

It's a reflection of the acquiescence of the general population (not just the SAF personnel) to the state's efforts to control them.

Nicholas said...

Since this blog post doesn't go beyond "My poems don't suck! Your poems are the ones that suck!", I have no response to it.

I do need to answer this comment, though, from Anonymous at 2.12pm, Nov 3rd:

"I strongly believe that reviewers are entitled to express their own opinions. Still, to me, this review was really way off. I was very, very surprised by how one-sided it was. In fact, I got the distinct feeling that the reviewer has some personal grudge against Mr Wang. Just my guess."

This is absolutely untrue. I don't know Gilbert Koh from Adam. In fact, the only thing he has ever said about me before this was that I had written some decent love poems, and that was some years back.

Sometimes people simply disagree. Note how I do not accuse the anon above of defending Koh because s/he owes him a favour or is otherwise beholden to him. I can accept that someone out there may simply like and dislike different things than I do. Fancy that!

Gilbert Koh aka Mr Wang said...

Hi Gwee:

Thanks for dropping by. Am a bit surprised by the sudden & simultaneous appearance of Singapore writers like you, Laremy and Qianxi, on my blog. Are you guys lurking around here all the time? :D

My post was really about my discovery last night of Obendorf's dissertation. The comments about NUS lit students were a somewhat irrelevant afterthought. In the near future, and in a separate post, I might well discuss the QLRS review (in greater detail) on this blog.

At this point, I'd just say that IMO, the QLRS review was very badly written.

It's one thing to read a book, "get it", and then form an opinion that the book is lousy. That's quite alright.

However, Nick's review indicates to me that he did not even "get" the book. He misread the book, misread the poetry, and based on his misguided misreadings, gave a negative review.

(You might also sense Toh Hsien Min's doubts and misgivings about Nick's review - see HM's editorial in the same issue).

One example - just one, at this point - to show what I mean. Nick wrote:

"Consider the poem, "Apples," from which the book derives its title. You've read this poem, or one very like it: a word or phrase is spoken (by a child, in this case) and, before you know it, a sub-Saussurean meditation on representation and the phenomenal world has begun. We are supposed to sigh and leave wiser, reconsidering what it means to write. The urge to write this sort of poem is both noble and apparently endemic in poets, and most have given in to it at some point. Alvin Pang's first collection coasted on poems like these, executed well; more recently, Ng Yi-Sheng's Last Boy provided a tolerable example or two. My point is two-fold. One, the formula is proven—attempts at this sort of sub rosa poem-about-poetry can still result in fine work—and two, it is universally known, and thus it is (as in most poems) down to execution to make the thing worth reading ..."

[To Be Continued]

Gilbert Koh aka Mr Wang said...

Nick's comments are grossly mistaken.

Firstly, he thinks that my intention, as the poet, was to get the reader to "sigh and leave wiser, reconsidering what it means to write".

Secondly, he thinks that the poem is a "poem about poetry".

Thirdly he thinks that there is some "formula" to be applied to writing such a poem, and he goes on to elaborate why I didn't apply the "formula" well. To illustrate where I've misapplied the "formula", he writes: ""if sentimentality could kill, the image of a child burbling and raising his/her hands to the clouds would surely be a WMD" ..... the situation is not at all improved by Koh's choice of shorthand for the phenomenal world: birds, rain, clouds, the sky. A longer poem might well have added sunsets, rivers, and adorable kittens. Need I add that for Koh, declaration must be solemn and freshness sweet?"

Nick got nothing right. If Nick were a student writing an essay on my poem, I'd have to fail him, for completely misreading it. Whether he likes the poem or not is a separate question - but he has to be failed, for misreading it.

Firstly, this was not a "poem about poetry".

Secondly, I did not intend for readers to "sigh and leave wiser, reconsidering what it means to write". (The poem is not about writing at all, and I'm startled that Nick somehow managed to get that idea).

Thirdly, I do not write poetry by applying any "formula".

Instead the poem was simply about one afternoon in my life, when my baby son learning to speak. All the poem sought to do was recreate the essence of that experience - a child learning to speak; his absorption with playing with a new word in his mouth. That was it.

In the poem, I mentioned "birds, rain, clouds, the sky" because these were the things that my baby son really mouthed his new word to.

I did not mention "sunsets, rivers, and adorable kittens", for the simple reason that there are no rivers, sunsets or kittens in my HDB flat.

I mentioned the boy raising two hands to the clouds, because that is what he really did. At age 1.5 to 2 years, that is just how little children behave.

Thus in writing this poem, I simply sought, as I often do in my poetry, to be true to the essence of the subject matter.

Meanwhile, Nick thought that I'm applying a "formula". And that I have applied it badly.

I find his remark rather distasteful, not because of the "badly" part, but because in the first place, I do not believe in using any "formula" for writing poetry. I find the suggestion quite insulting actually.

Poetry is not a 10-year-series math question.

Anyone who writes poetry in that way will only produce poetry that is inauthentic, pretentious and quite lacking any genuine insight.

And anyone who reads poetry in that way will simply miss its point.

chalice said...

gilbert, where does the reviewer state a belief that all poems should be written according to the "formula"?

stating that one way of writing poetry is common, well-regarded and noble is different from stating that that way is the one and only way that all poetry should be written.

Nicholas said...

Meanwhile, Nick thought that I'm applying a "formula". And that I have applied it badly.

Just so!

Reread, Gilbert, and consider: is my essay arguing that good poetry ought to be formulaic, or that I find your poetry formulaic, and that I think you go on to compound the problem by failing to apply the formula in a new way?

Really, if you can't see that my references to Alvin and Yi-Sheng's collections are not compliments, I don't think you're in any position to accuse others or misreading. The point I was making is that formulas are bad, but that if you're going to write according to formula, at least do it well. I think I made that clear enough.

I find his remark rather distasteful, not because of the "badly" part, but because in the first place, I do not believe in using any "formula" for writing poetry. I find the suggestion quite insulting actually.

You are quite right to feel insulted, since I am in fact insulting you--that is, if you choose to read negative appraisals of one's merits as insults rather than criticism.

As for what "Apples" was "really" about, it may surprise you to discover that intention and effect do not always coincide. You may not have intended "Apples" to be an ars poetica, or to look like it was written by a poet applying the conventions of that tradition, but that was the way it turned out.

Also, I don't know if you heard, but you are not in fact the first person in history to father a child. "Be true to the essence of the subject matter"--anyone would think you were Adam himself! The fact is that like it or not, other people have lived and loved and died, writing about the experience as they did so. If you don't bring anything new to the table, you can express whatever it is as exactly as you like, but the poem will still be inert to the reader who has read many, many, many such poems before. Simply put, the "I was just telling it as it is!" excuse does not make a bad poem better.

Anonymous said...

That one was a good poem, Gilbert. But I have to admit that before I became a mother myself, I would most likely have judged the poem to be overly sentimental & sweet.

It's only NOW, when I have a child, that I can really appreciate the sincerity and beauty of your poem. Children really DO have that kind of innocence, and you captured it very well.

To be fair, you really cannot expect NUS undergrads to appreciate this kind of poem (unless they spend a lot of time with their little nephews or nieces).

chrysalis said...

I guess I need to change my sex to male and father a child in order to appreciate the poem then.

Our Singaporean O-level students should also become fairies in order to take an exam about A Midsummer Night's Dream, and go back in time to experience racism in America in the early 20th century to properly appreciate To Kill A Mockingbird.

Anonymous said...

Sorry to say this, but I find a lot of this discussion very childish.

If you like Mr Wang's poems, then buy the book. If you don't like the poems, then don't buy. Simple as that.

Many months ago, Mr Wang already started posting his poems on this blog. Everyone can read them and decide whether they like his poems or not.

Now it's already November ...then the book review comes out?? Sorry lah, that's damned slow. And useless. As the Hokkiens like to say, jin liao kang.

Also, the review is too long-winded and convoluted. Instead of reading the review, you might as well read the book itself. You can finish half the book in the same time and it would be much more fun.

As for Mr Wang, sorry to say this, but you also sound too defensive to me. Why so insecure? You should have more confidence in yourself. You have won awards, published many poems and so many people have told you that they really love your writing (remember the Reader's Eye?).

No, you will never please everyone, but why should you. Be happy that there are already many people who appreciate your work.

Artxy said...

@chrysalis: i believe that 'anonymous november 3 6:26'was simply pointing out that our individual experiences colour our interpretations of poems and that not everyone could relate to this poem.

besides, i have a feeling that people tend to over-analyse. paintings, like poetry, are dissected by critics such that they eventually lose their appeal and the joy that they may otherwise bring.

could it be that nicholas was over-analysing instead of mrwang failing to bring his intended message across?

Anonymous said...

I think that personal experiences do shape & colour one's views of a specific text.

And yes, for example, if the reader had personally experienced racism, then no doubt he or she would have a better, sharper appreciation of a novel like To Kill A Mockingbird.

小肥与阿宝 said...

If the poem touches me, I would think it to be a good one.

Phil Bay said...

You have always been condescending in most of your posts and I find your current attack on NUS lit students extremely distasteful.

Now I do not bore any personal grudges against you but I really do not enjoy your poetry. My issues with your poems isnt that they are formulaic. It's that they end off without the reader become richer by the experience; they don't get any hidden insight on life in general. Many of your poems are shaped-up political prose and I find a certain disregrd for rhythm, rhyme and structure.

But then, I'm just a Singapore-bred citizen who has no idea of what good poetry is. Or at least, that's what you'll dismiss me as.

Anonymous said...

The only thing worth reading in this post:

"For a mature arts scene to develop here, we really should go beyond seeing anyone who loves our writings as necessarily a friend and those who attack us as necessarily enemies."

Take a bow, Li Siu.

a friend of gilbert's, but I try to be objective :P said...

Hi, I just read the review. (It's a good thing I bought the book before I read the review, because otherwise I wouldn't have bought the book).

I disagree with the review mainly because it doesn't give any credit for what I feel are the important strengths of this collection.

One of its strengths is its exploration of socio-political themes in Singapore. Apart from Alfian Saat (and the older generation of Thumboos), most local poets are still too wrapped up in their own interior worlds and personal interests, doing the self navel-gazing thing.

Gilbert's book strikes a good balance, because his personal poems are very personal, and his public poems are very public, and the public poems reflect on a commendably broad range of important social issues. (Guess we should not be surprised, he IS Mr Wang after all).

I'm quickly flipping through the book now, to demonstrate with examples. I mean poems like

The Couple Next Door (family violence)
Paddy Chew's Last Show (AIDS awareness)
Garden City (LKY's control over the state)
In Our Schools (streaming in the education system)
The Execution of Nguyen Tuong Van (capital punishment)
National Leadership (elitism in Singapore)
Chiang's Heatstroke (abuse in the SAF)
Hong Lim Park (freedom of expression in Singapore).

I think Gilbert deserves some points, for the social awareness in his poems.

I also invite Nicholas to relook the last poem in that list (Hong Lim Park). This poem is very short, but a real gem and to me, it epitomises Gilbert's poetry at its best. At first glance, the poem looks very simple, almost casual, but actually it's packed and loaded with meaning. With nine lines it says more, than another poem might say with 30 lines. Its brevity itself is a reflection on its own theme.

This is one aspect of Gilbert's poetic craft which you (Nicholas Liu) didn't discuss. I agree with you that Gilbert doesn't usually startle his readers with striking metaphors or vivid images. Oddly enough, he often doesn't have to. At his best, he has this ability to string together very simple, very plain words & images, such that they somehow add up, connect and transform into a very excellent poem.

Anonymous said...

mr wang

i have no issue with your poems but i really think you should justify the statement on NUS lit students..i think its highly unfair and you need to address this. it really doesnt help if our own people keep dissing our local stuff. cynicism only worsens the problem, if there is one, instead of solving it....its like me picking up your book in kino and going..'hmmm...local author confirm no good one lar' and proceeding to dismiss your poems. its not fair to you rite?

just my 2 cents

Anonymous said...

>>>Apart from Alfian Saat (and the older generation of Thumboos), most local poets are still too wrapped up in their own interior worlds and personal interests, doing the self navel-gazing thing.

-- Beg to differ. There are plenty of Singapore poets (English but also the other languages) who are socially aware and engaged in their writing. As I'm sure you will find if you read more widely. Even Cyril Wong's (in)famous "Confessional" poetry is in fact socially engaged by staking a claim for the personal in the political.

alf said...

FWIW, I do think there are a couple of "child" poems that are particularly poignant to parents. Not all poems need to aspire to further the art in order to be worthwhile.

But I also agree that editing would have helped (but then as an editor I'd say that of any book)

What I find personally disturbing is the slew of "don't read this book -- take my word for it that it's not worth your while" comments. Smacks of censorship, doesn't it?

Nicholas has offered a way of reading the book that is unflattering, to be sure, but I don't think he is saying to not read it at all.

At least he didn't say "something worse than learning nothing is now in print" :p

Form your own opinions, people.

Ruihe said...

Let's just say, it looks like this debate is really about what poetry ought to be, what it ought to do, who it ought to be written for. Obviously Gilbert and Nick have very different answers to these questions.

It's a long-running debate that has been going on for years. Interesting that it's come up in the S'pore context though. Someone should write an essay about it. :)

LYL said...

"If we expect our work to survive our death even by a single day, we should stop defending it this minute, that it might sooner learn its self-sufficiency." ~ Don Paterson

Anonymous said...

Mr Wang:

Told you long ago not to bother with poetry, and to concentrate your efforts on this blog instead.

How many people read poetry anyway? But this blog is where you can make a real difference to Singapore, if you keep writing here and if you keep caring. You know WHO reads your blog, don't you.

Poetry is for the people in the ivory towers lah. The ones who live in their own world and make love to pentameters, trope, trochees and other such nonsense.

Gwee Li Sui said...

Gilbert --

It's Mr Wang's blog: we all drop by once in a while! But, when I saw the QLRS review, I was curious about how you would respond (as many of us were curious about Hsien Min's when we saw Yi-Sheng's review).

As you can tell from Alvin's post, he still hasn't forgotten, nor will he let me forget, what I said about his book years back. I have to live with it, and, in this case, not just you but Nicholas too will have to live with this. It's what makes saying harsh but, to oneself, honest things so hard. It's also why so many reviews (especially in one newspaper) are happy-clappily bland. One can only count on readers NOT to treat the word as final but to go check out for themselves. One further hopes that the writer understands this point and the limits of a review.

Nicholas's review does not come across as one where he didn't do his homework or rushed out in 15 mins. His concern is about how deep an awareness of language -- both of its power and its betrayal -- is in your verse. Your concern seems to be about recording the ordinary and sentimental in the external world. This isn't a simple interior-vs-exterior, "ivory tower"-vs-"real world" divide. That is the kind of device some readers and even academics use in order not to have to do more.

Give Nicholas a chance; see what you can learn from his thoughts. If there's nothing there, at least you are prepared when more of such criticism come. Where you feel he needs to be corrected, write to tell us all what it is you are doing and what writing means to you. But you can also choose not to bother -- in which case this will just be an awkward episode. You're more than this, even your book of poems.


Gilbert Koh aka Mr Wang said...

"Your concern seems to be about recording the ordinary and sentimental in the external world."

My concern is not only about recording, but also exploring, the world as I see it. Sometimes that means recording and exploring the ordinary/sentimental, and sometimes not. The world has plenty of variety in it.

Either way, real life then becomes the main driver of my writing. I frankly pay no attention to whether other poets might already have written about the same topic; or how they went about writing it; or in what ways my poem accidentally sounds similar or different to their formulae or structures.

To put it another way, when I am actually in the process of writing a poem, I care very much about its subject matter; but I do not care about other poets' poems or other poets' ideas.

For example, if I were to write a poem about participating in the NDP, I would want to explore and capture what participating in the NDP feels and means to me. If I were to write a poem about my son learning to speak, I would want to capture the essence of his experience of learning to speak.

I would not care about what Alfian Saat or Yong Shu Hoong might have previously written about the NDP, or what Alvin Pang or Ng Yi-Sheng might have previously written about what they heard other children say.

I don't care about any of that, because I am writing MY own stuff. I am not setting out to imitate Alfian, or to surpass Shu Hoong; or to purposely say something that Alvin hadn't said; or to comment on what Yi-Sheng might have already said.


Gilbert Koh aka Mr Wang said...

Because my writing is reality-driven (that is to say, it is honest and authentic), I am not apt to embellish or exaggerate the details, for "art's sake".

I'm really not interested in using bold, colourful, smack-in-your-face, slam-dunk, madly inventive or wildly innovative language (whether metaphors or similes or images or whatever)

... UNLESS I feel that the reality of the subject-matter of the poem calls for it.

And if the essence of what I am writing about is best conveyed by a simple line, then I will use that simple line. In the poem "My Father Growing Old", for example, Nicholas criticises my use of the line:

"these are things which I may never learn to say"

which I frankly think is a rather absurd criticism - there is nothing wrong whatsoever with the line.

I will tell you that once upon a time, I received an email from a woman who informed me that after she read that poem, she was very moved, and she cried, and the poem drove her to contact her own father, from whom she had been estranged for years, and to whom she had not spoken for years.

I am very glad that my poem can do things like that. No doubt Nicholas will say that oh the poem is oh so saccharine, or oh so sentimental, and my account of that woman is also oh so saccharine and oh so disgustingly sentimental. But the fact is - the poem is real; the woman is real; the poem touched her; and what she did after reading the poem is also real. And the poem must have real power, if it makes people do things like that.


Alfian Sa'at said...

Just for the record, I never wrote any poems about the NDP, although I *did* write this year's NDP!


Gilbert Koh aka Mr Wang said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

I think good writing comes from the heart. And you don't have to possess a PhD in literature to achieve that. The last time I was moved to tears, it was from the words of a child. All it took was one sentence stung in simple words, for me to feel her pain.

Good writing has the ability to move and provoke. As human beings, we should always question what we see, hear, think and feel. Similarly in writing, I believe writers should question themselves why do they write whatever they're writing. To impress the readers / show off your flair for writing? Or because there is something inside that you truly wish to share, and want people to experience and understand for themselves another perspective.

Anyway, Mr Wang, glad to know that one of your poems moved a woman to contact her father. Curious, is this more rewarding then say, receiving a literary prize?

Gilbert Koh aka Mr Wang said...

Since Ruihe has dropped in to visit this blog too, I am going to quote something she once wrote in QLRS, about my poetry.

In her article, Ruihe was actually commenting on one specific poem of mine (Chiang's Heatstroke), but parts of her comment, I feel, are also relevant to the current discussion about my writing in general. Ruihe wrote:

"In Gilbert Koh’s quietly masterful ‘Chiang’s Heatstroke’, the memory of the blatant cruelty of a platoon commander draws a repeated ‘lousy bastard’ from the ex-soldier, even after the passing of time has allowed other aspects of army life to become fondly remembered. By allowing the reader access to Chiang’s thoughts while sketching the anonymous platoon commander with the quickest of strokes, Koh contrasts the individual’s suffering with the anonymous face of authority. The poet’s greatest achievement here, though, is not profundity or originality of thought or expression, but the creation of a distinctly Singaporean diction with nary a ‘lah’ or ‘meh’ in sight – quite a feat considering some of the other, less successful attempts in this anthology. It is difficult to pin down, but one need only read the poem aloud to appreciate the very local flavour right from the opening lines. Even the most penetrating psychological insights are expressed in the most casually Singaporean way:

Someone said “Don’t worry, you’ll
Be all right,” so many times
He was sure he wasn’t going to be all right.

Simple, unsophisticated even, but familiar and hence evocative. Not many poems can claim as much."

What's happening here? Firstly, the poem definitely impresses Ruihe - she finds it "quietly masterful".

However, she is slightly puzzled as to why the poem impresses her - she feels that the exact reasons are "difficult to pin down".

It's clear to her that the strengths of the poem are not its "profundity or originality of thought or expression". In fact, she realises that the poem could even be criticised for being "simple, unsophisticated".

Ruihe thinks that maybe the poem is good because the conversation, the voices, in the poem sound so authentically Singaporean. But she wonders how this authenticity could have been achieved, when the entire poem is written "with nary a ‘lah’ or ‘meh’ in sight".

Ruihe feels that the poem succeeds in expressing "the most penetrating psychological insights". More than that, she is slightly startled by how the poem manages to express those insights in the "most casually Singaporean way".

She goes on to quote the relevant lines:

Someone said “Don’t worry, you’ll
Be all right,” so many times
He was sure he wasn’t going to be all right.

.... which are exactly the kind of lines that Nicholas would pounce on, and harp about, and miss the point of, and say "oh so bland, so bland".

But why does this poem work so well (for Ruihe, if not Nick)?

If this poem isn't profound; if it is neither original in thought, nor original in expression; if it is simple; if it is unsophisticated; and if its lines are so "casually Singaporean" ....

... then HOW does the poem work? How can the poem work? What is its secret?

Well, here's the answer. The poem works, because it's real. It's authentic. It's honest.

Chiang the soldier is a real person; the PC is a real person; the entire incident is genuine; and in writing the poem, I sought to be true to the essence, the spirit, of all these people and events.

The reader can sense that, you see. The reader is moved, because he senses that the poem is honest. That's why the poem works.

And that, in general, is how my poetry works.

Gwee Li Sui said...

Gilbert --

Thanks for your lengthy clarification! I don't think anyone doubts that there are, and will be, people moved by your poems. I personally enjoyed a few of your poems long before they are collected and published here. For such reasons, you should really take this beyond the question of self-validation.

I have written to the Editor of QLRS and ask if he will consider a rejoinder from you or perhaps an interview. It's up to Hsien Min and his team to decide in relation to their journal's best interests, and so we shall see. In any case, it's always up to the readers themselves, not finally Nicholas or even you, to decide what to think. Reviews shouldn't be treated as a shorthand to actual reading.

Have a good evening!

jun said...

Anonymous at November 3, 2009 11:39 AM:

there is a difference between studying english language and english literature at nus, you know!

Agagooga said...

I see you've finally come out for real. Congrats :P

Hsien Min said...

Gilbert absolutely has the right of reply on QLRS in January, although we'd need to have a think about how to fit it in. In the meantime, the discussions here and in Facebook are much more involved and timely!

Anonymous said...

As a NUS lit undergrad, I find this discussion extremely amusing. Gilbert, have you considered turning the criticism that you receive into a "poem"?


Gilbert Koh aka Mr Wang said...


Let's recap. Ruihe reads a poem of mine, and she likes it very much. But when she puts on her cap as "literary critic", she actually becomes mystified as to why she likes it. She's very sure she likes the poem, but she just isn't sure why. Finally Ruihe finds a reason - it's the diction, she says, which creates a distinctly Singaporean flavour - yet at the same time, she wonders how this was achieved, when the poet didn't employ any Singlish at all - no lah, lor, aiyah or other such expressions were used.

I have explained that the power of the poem lies in the way it has honoured the truth of its subject-matter. The reader senses that, and is moved, is convinced by the poem.

But is my craft merely a simple matter of writing about real events? No, of course not. Otherwise the news on TV would be poetic every day.

What I do is choose my subject matter, and probe it, explore it, feel it, really get to know it. When I write about Chiang's heatstroke, I want to get inside his head, feel what he feels, think what he thinks, share his experience. And if I am successful, all of that will find a way to somehow translate into the poem.

Again, take Chiang's Heatstroke for example. Feel the rhythm of the poem - can you not sense in it the rhythm of the soldiers as they march on Pulau Tekong? Observe the flow of the language - can you see how it starts on a firm note, and then, as Chiang succumbs to heatstroke and the delirium sets in, the language starts breaking up, ever so slightly, to suggest his state of mind? At the end of the poem, when years have already passed and Chiang is well and just reminiscing about army days, do you see how the poem's language suddenly hardens back into clarity, and even the length of the line-breaks suddenly alters?

These are the subtler aspects of my craft. Readers may not consciously spot them - Nicholas probably wouldn't - but a sensitive reader will at least sense them, at some level (again Nicholas probably wouldn't). These aspects of my craft also cannot be revealed by just lifting out two or three lines of the poem in isolation, and saying "Oh, this was a nice metaphor" or "That was an interesting image". That can't be done, because these aspects are built into the entire body of the poem itself.

That is why Ruihe, while genuinely attempting to show the reader the positive aspects of my poem, could only excerpt these lines:

Someone said “Don’t worry, you’ll
Be all right,” so many times
He was sure he wasn’t going to be all right.

... which even I will admit look quite flat and bland (when viewed in isolation, after being surgically removed from the rest of the poem).


alf said...

@Gwee -- Actually I was working on my multi-cultural anthology immediately after releasing OVER THERE (and before the review), so it wasn't a case of being chided into a wonderful new direction :)

@GK and the world

The thing about criticism is that it's important to appreciate where the critic is coming from, and if it it is in good faith, as Gwee's always is (or so I believe). Same goes for the the critic on the writer, though.

So I can rib Gwee about his stabbing, because we all know we've grown past that already, and more important -- I know Gwee is as passionate about the health of Singapore writing as any of us. Passionate enough to lose his job over it, man. That guy has gonads.

In the same (albeit less tactful) vein, I really think Nicholas is really trying to write a good review, which doesn't happen to be a positive one. You both have raised valid points; I think the question of impact on readership is an important one, and you're both actually on common ground here.

Nick's interest is in relation to the "discerning reader" as he defines it. Clearly not your priority target. At the same time, I don't think you've gone out of your way to "dumb down" to an audience, nor is that Nick's accusation.

So it's a question of whether the right balance has been struck. Nick thinks not; other readers may disagree.

This is why I find any call to "not waste time reading the booking to find out" to be obnoxious, malicious and dangerous.

A book is a coherent product -- it's not the same as plucking random poems off the web. There may be a thematic thread that lends additional significance to individual poems. This was one of the factors I felt somewhat missing in Nick's review -- does TBH hang together as a book and is it greater than the sum of its parts?

One may not like GK's style of writing -- perfectly fine. But what if one isn't sure, and like some poems but not others? Readers frequently enjoy poems in collection that aren't the well known or publicly available ones. They also tend to be fresher pieces.

So it's always best to read and find out for yourself if you're really interested.

What we need are MORE opinions, not whether any one opinion is right and has to be taken as gospel. We're not on Page 73 are we?

(Perhaps that is that too much of an imperative, fascist, privileged perspective for some pundits?)

Gwee Li Sui said...

Hey Gilbert --

Believe it or not, I had to google "gonads". I'm not sure that I want a myth around why I'm out of NUS, but, from a poet to a poet, I know you will understand what I am going to say.

We all know that there is something larger and deeper than the fiction we are put through day after day, meeting after meeting. It is why we write, to reach that other side of truth. We may feel embattled, misunderstood, and always alone, but it's OK because that larger deeper world vindicates us. We don't know what it is about, and so we go -- to use a word you yourself call up -- exploring.

Explorers don't have to agree, but we don't need to demand others to see things the way we do. And we are entitled to keep our feelings -- rage, distrust, and all -- regardless of this failure to demand. Our feelings are ours, and they can change.

Alvin asks your readers to consider whether your book is more than the sum of its parts. I like you to consider -- you can correct me on its logic -- whether you are more than the sum of your poetry. Your verse shows you as a person of sentiment and reflection: is this consistent with the person who is now thinking aloud? Do our own writings make us each something more or something less?

I do mean to say that I believe that you are above all this. Take some time to let it sink; Hsien Min has graciously invited you to respond in QLRS January issue. (Thanks, Hsien Min! :) ) Use it as a platform to say what art means to you: go further, not lower. Aim not for vengeance or vindication but for knowledge for your readers?


PS. Alvin, I said "I like to think", and only you know how much your own decisions change thereafter. :)

Gilbert Koh aka Mr Wang said...

Boo!" Said The Critic.

Gilbert Koh aka Mr Wang said...

Thank you, Gwee .... You are very reasonable.

Anonymous said...

dr gwee left NUS becoz his mojo was too big for his gonads?? this is how rumours gets started...

Alfian Sa'at said...

Hey Gilbert,

I've had a little exchange with Nicholas on Facebook. I don't think I have the right to reproduce his responses to me without his permission, but I'd like to share some of the things I've said. They're going to sound a bit disconnected, since they were written at different times, but I hope it can give you an idea of what I was trying to communicate.

1) I think, Nick, considering that you're writing poetry yourself, your attack on Gilbert's does smack of an attempt to subdue the competition.

2) I just think Nicholas is reproducing the Cyril Wong school of literary criticism: the snide remark standing in for a point of view, an unpleasantness bordering on the vicious.

3) Nick, as an example, how necessary was it to opine: "To examine any more poems would be unnecessarily cruel to Koh, to the reader, and not least to myself."? It sounds like a glib potshot, rather than as assessment of the poetry itself. I gathered that you evaluated the writing as mediocre, sometimes maudlin, banal etc. That's fine with me.

But to suggest that an encounter with them will cause such universal suffering to reader and reviewer (in addition to the implication that you're already being magnanimous by pulling your punches--'unnecessarily cruel to Koh'--an admission I find a little intellectually dishonest) is a bit mean-spirited.

4) Nick: I have to share with you the fact that my response to your review is a situated one, that is informed by prior experiences. I know that to simply label it as 'mean-spirited' is ad hominem, and I think I ought to make further elaborations on why I think that considerations of 'tone' is problematic.

When I was 22, I wrote theatre reviews for Life!. At that time I didn't have a real playwriting career, so I think the paper decided there wouldn't be a conflict of interest. One of the plays I reviewed was a doublebill, consisting of Elangovan's 'Dogs' and Robert Yeo's 'Second Chance'. I enjoyed the former tremendously, but the latter I felt hopelessly dated. It felt more like a skit, and was a stilted relic from 80's theatre that certainly didn't deserve a revival.

So anyway, I bumped into Robert at a function hosted by the Goethe Institute a few months after, and I introduced myself. He refused to shake my hand, and remarked, 'you took a cheap shot at my play!'. I was taken aback, of course, and a bit indignant, as I stood by the idea that I was merely, in the review, expressing a point of view.

I re-read the review I had written, and then realised that perhaps some comments were unnecessary. There was a line that went something like 'I would rather swallow a ball of uranium than watch this play again', which wasn't even funny, and considering that I was a 'young playwright', implicated me in a kind of iconoclastic, kill-your-fathers posturing. I could (belatedly) sense how Robert might have felt--that I was using my position as a reviewer in a 'newspaper of record' as a kind of bully-pulpit.

I'm not saying that all of this should spell out prescriptions for a kind of criticism that avoids injuring personal feelings. Of course there is no point in being diplomatic if one ends up hedging around what one really means to say. To your question of 'what is the harm in a snarky review', I can only say that one will tend to focus more on the snark than the critique. And then what happens is that it is likely that one will feel less a subject of the review than a target of the reviewer. It gets personal, as you can probably infer from GKoh's highly defensive rebuttals (and counter-attacks).


Anyway, I look forward to reading the collection! As you've said, it *is* a point of view, and in Singapore, I don't think any single reviewer has amassed enough clout to become real opinion-leaders. (That said, I do tend to trust Whang Yee-Ling's and Yeow Kai Chai's review film and music reviews respectively. : ))

alf said...

@Gwee - doesn't really matter where ideas come from; what's important is the life they lead thence.

At any rate it's good that there seems to be concurrence that exciting new ground appears to be finally opening up again (I say again because it's been happening sporadically in our literary history, since before Independence, frankly)

Despite the strain of SWF09, I have to confess to being quite moved by the range and responses of ordinary readers (Singaporeans and otherwise) -- there is a real hunger and genuine interest that I don't remember from past years. And it's not just reflected in booksales either. More a glint in the eye, a repeat visit, a desire to stay in touch, a promise to do more in class.

Writing (like many arts) has unaccountable effects, some of them invisible gains. Gilbert has encountered some of these. They keep us going when things get tough, when friends turn their backs on us, when the money dries up, when critics bark.

Gwee is right in the sense that the first (if not primary) beneficiary of our explorations is ourselves, that teasingly obscure star called wisdom. Sometimes we don't live up to our best selves, nor our work, nor our readers (goes for Nick too, as for all of us). But better to trip on occasion than to never have walked, I say. Or to stay silent in the face of what we consider to be wrong.

I would like to think that you, Nick, Gwee, everyone here, are engaged in the same enterprise -- of teasing out, fearlessly, what seems true and right to us. For which you have rightly earned the admiration of many, Mr Wang, GK the poet, my Ubin friend. For that sense of honesty, I sincerely applaud you all. This stuff takes time, sweat, risks offence, and doesn't pay. What else would move us to this, but love?

Let's look to what is next. Let's build.

Ruihe said...

Gosh, Gilbert, I must say I'm surprised, and very embarrassed, to see that review I wrote way back in 2003 (6 whole years and a metaphorical lifetime ago!) being quoted and analysed in such detail on this blog. I must say that if I were to review that book again today, it would be a very different review as I've become a very different person and reader. One of the perils of publication, I suppose: I feel like I've just been visited by the Ghost of Bad Reviews Past! I'm glad, though, that you found things in the review that resonated with what you try to do in your writing - I suppose the 'Ruihe' of 6 years ago proved herself to be at least a sympathetic reader in that sense.

For what it's worth, I think it's safe to say that the writers who have 'appeared' here also understand where you're coming from aesthetically. It's a position that's been taken and defended before, but I'm sure your readers, both fans and non-fans alike, would appreciate hearing your take on what poetry is for you, both as a reader and a writer.

Lastly, a word for Nick. He is probably as aware of the subtleties of poetic craft as he needs to be, if not more. Whatever one may think of him as a reviewer, and whatever one's view of his aesthetics, it's quite clear that he 'knows his stuff', to use the plain language of everyday discourse. Let's give him credit for that, at least.

Over and out. :)

Gwee Li Sui said...

And so all we once-young poets have grown older and wiser. How time passed for us! I can't find a single word in the advice of Alvin and Alfian to qualify, but, in all that is said, people will still choose to hear or pursue what they feel compelled to do. And why not?

We can't ultimately stop this cycle of events: everyone has his/her own learning curve, and every writer or reviewer writes through his or her own time. It is fairly useful to remember that everyone will be either some Robert Yeo's Alfian Sa'at or some Alfian Sa'at's Robert Yeo. We have to hope that, when the case arises for us, we have enough clarity of mind and courage to do what we now quietly feel each side should have done to or for the other.

I'm enjoying my virgin posts on Mr Wang's blog! I did love the spontaneous contributions everyone gave and the increasingly literary content of this comments list. Gilbert, I shall look forward to reading your reflections on poetry in January QLRS?

Take care!

Agagooga said...

"I would rather swallow a ball of uranium than watch this play again" - HAHAHAHA I think that's funny, and that's a redeeming factor.

Nic's review wasn't funny though.

Anonymous said...

I found it funny, but more importantly, I found myself agreeing with the review. Just goes to show how opinions may differ, and that anyone who loves what they do more than the attention it receives, should fight the only battle there is for a writer. The one withstanding the test of time.

Anonymous said...

I may not be a lit person, but from the viewpoint of a bystander, the review was way too biased.

As somebody has remarked, the review does look as if it was taking potshots at Koh rather than giving a genuine commentary. In fact, it was spewed and laden with adjectives that were meant to demean rather than critique constructively - Gwee mentioned learning from feedback, but I'm going to have to counter this point by saying that feedback is only worth learning from when it is given appropriately. In this case, Nicholas Liu's review was largely inappropriate, reeking of flavours of potshots and highly biased personal opinions enlarged into negative descriptions. I'm sure if I were to throw lots of negative adjectives at Liu's poems he's definitely going to deem it non-constructive criticism as well.

Take a look from Koh's viewpoint - the problem stems from Liu slamming his works too much that even I cannot help but be convinced that Liu has been too absorbed into and constrained by some system that promotes a "formula" for supposedly "good poetry". I do not know the workings of NUS lit, but Liu really needs to stand back and take a look at Koh's poetry from a different perspective separate from the realms of academia.

In defense of Koh, even though this is actually my absolute first time reading Mr Wang - as I said, I am not a lit person - Koh is a painter. You see, using words as text is one thing, using words to describe is one more thing, but Koh uses his words to paint a picture, to paint an image, to paint a story. I really loved the "Apples" poem, because I could feel the image (I'm a visual artist by some levels of nature and some levels of nurture) that Koh was painting.

The words were simple, and the beautiful image of a child learning his first words, reaching his hands to the sky, transcended the need for bombastic language and further descriptive adjectives. The image may not be seen - and it shouldn't be - it should be felt. I believe Koh has succeeded in painting the feelings that he has felt - and intends for his readers to feel - and this is something worth credit and merit.

Unfortunately, this feeling comes with age, comes with life's experiences, and is highly personal to whoever reads it. Like how Ruihe has said, when one graduates from a certain point in life, the experience from revisiting the same poem is different. I believe if she were to write a review on the same poem now, her use of adjectives may be vastly different from what she has said about it 6 years ago.

And somewhat a consequence of this is that a person like Liu, whom we may deem as "young" - not in physical age, but perhaps in life experiences - will not be able to see, to feel the images that Koh paints. I believe this is the reason for the negative review, and Koh's reason for the unavoidable labeling of Liu as "young" and "smart-assed".

I urge all to exercise discretion though - a review is but a review, an argument is but a person's viewpoint. Someone has said this before in this post, if you like the book, buy it. If you like the poems, read it. These things are inherently personal, and if you were to rely all the time on someone else telling you if you're going to like something or not (i.e. reviews), then you might as well surrender your life as it is, since there is no mind of your own.

That's all I have to say, and good day.

moses said...

Phil Bay said...
Many of your poems are shaped-up political prose and I find a certain disregrd for rhythm, rhyme and structure.

Well, I think that's part of what the blog author had in mind when he criticised local Lit students.

Personally, I find nothing wrong with a "shaped-up political prose" that disregards rhythm, rhyme and structure. In fact, the notion of such a piece is much more refreshing that the notion of a piece that faithfully follows the literary conventions of the day.

But I'm a social sciences student, so what do I know?

Gilbert Koh aka Mr Wang said...

I understand Phil Bay's preferences in poetry. He's very traditional (Tennyson and Yeats etc).

So his dislike for my poetry is quite understandable. In the same vein, he also dislikes Ng Yi-Sheng, Felix Cheong etc etc, and SIngapore poetry in general.

If he reads more widely (ie beyond Singapore) he would see that he dislikes the vast majority of living poets (anywhere in the English-speaking world).

Basically Phil likes his rhymes and strict structures, the way that poetry used to be written 100 years ago. Nothing wrong with that. There won't be any poets today that he enjoys, but there are plenty of old books that he can go back to.

Gilbert Koh aka Mr Wang said...


The Alfian/Robert story is interesting. Thanks for sharing.

Coincidentally, Robert Yeo is reading my book now and promised to give feedback.

The said...

That review was too clever by half...

hugewhaleshark said...

MW, you shouldn't bother about Nicholas. Even a poetry ignoramus like me can see that the review loses credibility because of the cheap shots. Sorry but that's how I read things. If you're cheap you're not worth reading even if you have some valid points to make. Maybe I'm too conditioned, writing, and reading most of the time as I do w.r.t. the investment community.

The intent of your writing is clear to me, even without you reiterating it:

"Because my writing is reality-driven (that is to say, it is honest and authentic), I am not apt to embellish or exaggerate the details, for "art's sake".

And Alfian's points are also clear to me as I read Nicholas' review. Truth be told, I did not finish it. See above about cheap.

"Nick, as an example, how necessary was it to opine: "To examine any more poems would be unnecessarily cruel to Koh, to the reader, and not least to myself."? It sounds like a glib potshot, rather than as assessment of the poetry itself."

"I can only say that one will tend to focus more on the snark than the critique. And then what happens is that it is likely that one will feel less a subject of the review than a target of the reviewer."

milkred said...

This entire post is immature, childish and reeks of egotism. Actually, the whole debate between Nicholas and the author is exactly that - childish insults hurled at each other i.e.

'you're wrong!'
'no you're wrong!'
'you're stupid!'
'you're even dumber!'

Mr Wang, shut up and accept criticism gracefully. It makes you a better man. Not everyone will like you, nor will everyone hate you. You are simply just another human on this planet. Your arrogance is unjustified.

Nicholas, perhaps you should demostrate more tact in your review, being a mean evil lit. reviewer is yet another cliche that the literary world does not need.

bambang said...

hugewhaleshark is right. it is pretty arrogant to write a review in such a way as if it's the final word of judgment. people can see through all the clever words and make up their own minds. a more balanced review would be more intellectually honest and lend credibility to the review.

Anonymous said...

Mr Wang, your reply to the review and to the comments here remind me too much of my primary school self reacting against 'flamers' on the internet.

Do realise that reviews have never pretended to be more than the reviewer's opinion alone - something meant to provoke independent thought among people who are looking for perspectives on any work of art.

I really do not understand why you chose to react this way as it only reveals your unpleasant or immature side. Look - even acclaimed writers such as UK's poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy, accomplished and famous pianists Maksim and Lang Lang, singers such as Jay Chou cannot attest to having a national, let alone global fan base. And I really do not think that they would whine about being misunderstood by their detractors, as they probably realise that the value and judgement of art has always been subjective.

You also should come to terms with the fact that academics are a part of society and that they are not only products of our system, but a global one. They will have their own opinions which should be recognised as legitimate within their own academic basis and rigour. Individuals can then choose to follow or deviate from this judgement point.

To follow from an above example, classically-trained pianists would detest Maxsim, while he would mock them for not being able to earn as much money as him for half the effort and work.

Finally, if you really feel that the reviewer's interpretation of your poem is completely off, perhaps you really have to reflect on your own writing and the manner in which you convey your message to readers. If he could come up with such a supposedly inaccurate response, perhaps there's a fundamental flaw in your writing which you should search for and address, instead of spending your time criticising his powers of interpretation. After all, all artists (not only poets) have a fundamental duty to learn to speak proficiently to one's audience. Unless of course one is a complete narcissist - that would be another case altogether.

All the best in your future writing endeavours!

Anonymous said...

If he reads more widely (ie beyond Singapore) he would see that he dislikes the vast majority of living poets (anywhere in the English-speaking world).

Basically Phil likes his rhymes and strict structures, the way that poetry used to be written 100 years ago. Nothing wrong with that. There won't be any poets today that he enjoys, but there are plenty of old books that he can go back to.

Oh - I think this really reflects rather great ignorance on your part. Free verse and blank verse can also contain elements of rhythm, rhyme and structure which might not necessarily need to be strict. Please stop falling into the same trap as the reviewer by dismissing the author of the paper without any informed thought.

Also, I am sure that most Singaporean writers would readily agree that their poetry is far from ready for the international stage.

Anonymous said...

There are certain artistic qualities that make a poem a poem, that distinguish them from prose that is simply broken into lines, whether you like it or not. This is regardless of your motivation for writing poetry. Like Nicholas, I do not like your poems either - they are platitudinous, overrated and do not leave me enriched or enthralled. Your poems leave much to be desired, giving me the impression that you are just randomly chopping up sentences at intervals so that you can label them as 'poems'.

I do not know you personally and has no vendetta against you. Please don't think that anyone who doesn't appreciate your poems is your enemy.

Anonymous said...

"Also, I am sure that most Singaporean writers would readily agree that their poetry is far from ready for the international stage."

-- urm actually that's not really true lor. Many of our poets have been published and appreciated internationally. Far more than at home actually.

Anonymous said...

am I the only one who feels that an apology to lit students is in order? Gkoh was obviously lashing out because of his bad experience with a particular lit major. It's immature and unfair.

Anonymous said...

LOL, if it is obvious that Gkoh is lashing out at one particular Lit major, then why do you need an apology?

Cynical Watcher said...

I think Singapore writers as a whole deserve an apology from Anon.

Anonymous said...

"LOL, if it is obvious that Gkoh is lashing out at one particular Lit major, then why do you need an apology?"

I am baffled by the argument here. Yes it is very clear that he is attacking lit students because of his personal vendetta against a particular lit student. Why does that mean Koh doesn't have to apologise? In fact, I think that's the main reason he should apologise. It's the least he can do for his readers as an established poet.

Anonymous said...

ONE book makes GK an established poet? Does that make Cyril Wong ready for the Nobel Prize? You people are sad...

Gilbert Koh aka Mr Wang said...

Another review of Two Baby Hands is available here.