Wednesday, August 26, 2009

What Are Poets For in a Post Po-Mo Society?

Published in Manila Bulletin

"Lumapos kaw. Ya tapos. Di kaw mauno."
(You will succeed. You will finish. Nothing bad will happen to you.)
– Mandaya Panawagtawag Ritual

In a far-flung village of Davao Oriental in a remote town called Cateel, there used to live a native guardian of “mangmang” (bamboo instrument). He was called the “Bamboo Beater”, whose task, in his entire life, was to wake up the villagers before sunrise by beating the bamboo instrument.

At exactly 4 o’clock in the morning, he would thump the “mangmang’ in a harsh manner and then, the sound would slowly ebb away with melodic beats. The rhythmic vanishing sound would serve as a reminder to the villagers that their endeavors should be fruitful and meaningful at the end of the day.


Poets today are like Bamboo Beaters, they rouse people’s consciousness from indifference and complacency. Most often, poets create a discordant sound reflective of social reality and stir up the society’s conscience toward commitment and responsibility.

Poets are preordained to speak up the “Truth” and the “Summum Bonum” (highest good). When poets create, they reveal something that is not yet revealed before, but has already been happening within the lives of people in a particular society. This revelatory process is the disclosure or unveiling of “Truth” because poetry, like philosophy, is the embodiment of metaphysical realities, which are the Truth, the Good, and the Beautiful.

No poetry is created outside its own reality because it is an anathema to its ontological meaning as the precursor of “Truth”. In like manner, Poets as the guardians of “Truth”, have a moral responsibility to bring the ideals of “Truth” to be pondered upon by the members of society.

As thinkers and guardians of “Truth”, poets should make poetry accessible to the people as the primary recipient of their musings. They should not alienate their readers with lofty linguistic expressions, or confuse them with otherworldly imageries and symbols, because poetry, as a product of creative freedom, is neither self-conscious nor rigidly conventional. As the highest form of language, poetry is supposed to reach out and touch the human lives with dignity and meaning.

For instance, the poetry of an Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore or the Japanese poet Akiko Yosano spoke the language and sentiments of its people based on their social realities, beliefs, and culture. Tagore and Yosano had woven their sensuous experience of language by speaking from their own native tongue, in such a way that the people in their respective milieus could identify as though the written or spoken verses were their own.

Conversely, in a ‘post po-mo society’ (Post Post-Modern Society), it is not the conventional form or structure of poetry that is consequential, but how accessible it is to the people, how it addresses their concrete realities with urgency, and how it represents their “voice” within the particular conditions of their society.

In the same manner, as the revelation of truth, poetry seeks to establish a dialogue with people; it converses in their intimate moments with gentleness and compassion, rousing their souls to experience the transcendent amid their convoluted world, so to say.

As a dialogic encounter, poetry reveals realities that matter to the people’s lives rather than that of the poets. Even if poets were to write in a confessional or autobiographical manner, they can still address or respond to the people’s reality, as an eloquent representation of the latter’s “voice” or sentiment.

In the end, poetry is not about poets who write about poems, but it is about people living within a historical society. Poets dissect society and its historicity as the terminus aquo and terminus ad quem in their linguistic discourses about the “Truth.”

Poetry, therefore, can only be meaningful if it is conceived based on the concrete realities of a historical society, nurtured by the richness of its own language, and delivered with poignancy to be experienced and reflected upon by the members of the same society.


The recently launched “Crowns and Oranges: Works by Young Philippine Poets”, edited by Dr. Cirilo F. Bautista and Ken Ishikawa, is a compilation of carefully, if not arbitrarily, selected poems by young Filipino poets. Some of them are recipients of Palanca Awards and other award-giving bodies – both local and abroad.

Noticeable in the entire collection is the “binary perception” in the psyche of the young poets, mimicking the Western dichotomy of the world (e.g. individual vs. society, black vs. white, literal vs. figurative). The “I” or the poetic voice is generally distant, similar to the protagonist of Albert Camus’s novel “L'Étranger”; other elements apart from the “I” are mere subsidiaries within the content of the poem.

Apparently, the shifting of reality among the young generation of Filipino poets is imminent and the gap from the older generation, like Gémino Abad, Virgilio Almario, Cirilo Bautista, Marjorie Evasco, Edith Tiempo, Emmanuel Torres, and Alfred Yuson, among others, is cavernous.

As a point of comparison, the poetry of the older generation possesses rhythm, logical flow of thoughts, and didactic resolutions at the end of poetic narrative. Their perception of the world echoes the “I and Thou” phenomenology of a Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, which is identifying the world as another “I”, not a thing or “I and It”. The young poets, on the other hand, trudge on existential angst where the “I” is the center and the world is a drab picture to be conquered and understood in relation to the “I”.

At times, their voices can be sardonic, bold, or harsh yet, they offer no resolution at the end of their creative outputs, but an open-ended statement to be deciphered by the readers. They have demonstrated an exceptional skill, though, in creating an element of unpredictability in their respective poetic narratives. Perhaps, this is where creative freedom works best, the ability of these young poets to create texture and tension based on their own perception of reality.

In “Persona”, for example, Joel Toledo poignantly confesses at the end of his poem, “Allow me to introduce you to my other selves.” The line is tinged with cynicism and self-indulgence. Arkaye Kierulf delivers a strong ironic statement in his poem about pain and death, “For example: A Flower / is the most beautiful lie.”

Ramil Digal Gulle caught the attention of his reader in “Brassier Speak.” Call it dark humor; his introductory line lures the reader to read further, “The very first bra in China arrived in 1920.” And it moves on and on entertaining the reader with the poet’s tête-à-tête. Another element of unpredictability in the poem is the “quotability” of lines. Angelo Suarez writes a lingering phrase in his poem “At the Train Station,” which says, “Something in the mouth, like language, / breaks beneath the weight of a flower.”

Generally, the poetry in “Crowns and Oranges” is poignantly bleak, cynical, and melancholic – devoid of quixotic perception of the world – but effacingly grounded on the poets respective realities. It is awe-inspiring, though, how these brilliant young poets mastered the creative techniques and nuances of English language. However, it is also lamentable how little did these poets write in their own respective regional languages.

Famous poets who wrote in their own native tongues, like Tagore, Neruda, and Yosano, conquer the English-speaking world by asserting their own language. In our local literary scene, however, with the exception of a handful, like Virgilio Almario, Vim Nadera, and Sonny Villafania, to name a few, Filipino poets assert their own world by conquering the English language.

To sum, editing an anthology of poems from young generation of poets is parallel to the gathering of fruits in the orchard. The choice is not whether the fruits are good or bad, but the choice has to be made based on the degree of ripeness. Are the fruits ripe enough to be eaten or will they need more time until they are ready to be picked up or harvested? One has to make a critical choice and decide which poem or poet is worthy of inclusion and which one is not.

In like manner, the editor(s) is compelled to follow a paradigmatic pattern, not only to consider the poet’s achievements and body of works, but also to dissect the relevance of literary output in relation to the theme and structure of the book.

Dr. Cirilo F. Bautista and Ken Ishikawa have done an exemplary job in “Crowns and Oranges” which, in itself, is a work of art. It may not be a comprehensive anthology of the entire generation of young Filipino poets. Even so, its ambitious attempt to represent the “voice” of the post po-mo poets in Philippine literature is a long stride worthy of adulation.
© Danny Castillones Sillada

Sillada, Danny Castillones. “What Are Poets For in a Post Po-Mo Society?” Manila Bulletin 7 September 2009: E 1-3. Print.