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,
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.