The ‘Modernist’ poetry movement started in Singapore in the late 1950s, with key figures such as Chen Ruixian, Du Nanfa etc. Initially viewed as an off-shoot of its Taiwanese counterpart, it soon became an indigenous literary campaign, extending its reach as far as Malaysia. It is distinctive in its particular emphasis on aesthetics and modernity with a deep-seated Singaporean flavor given its rise after the formation of the nation-state, Singapore, significant as earlier poetry tends to be centred on a more Malayan identity; stylistically, it somewhat ‘rescued’ local poetry from domination by leftwing ideologues advocating political art and social realism. A poetry enthusiast myself, I think the movement epitomizes the very best of the baby-boomer generation, one typified by imaginations of utopia, modernization and rapid social change. Lin Fang, founder and chairman of the May Flower Poetry Society, shares his life-long experience in the modernist poetry movement.
In a maze of concrete, nondescript high-rise HDB (public housing) flats in eastern Singapore, I cruised down the avenues of Bedok New Town in search of the home of a local literary pioneer. A stately old man sporting a flowing Batik (Indonesian-style) shirt, greets me with a disarming smile and an air of old world genteelness, ushers me into his flat, a unit in an HDB point block (referring to a particular type of high-rise public housing in the form of a squarish tower, rather than a row). Rare calligraphies of renowned writers such as Xu Beihong and Yu Dafu adorn the walls of an otherwise ascetic apartment.
Modernist poet Lin Fang was a thorny upstart in his younger, firebrand days. “We were the modernists, the rebels in the local literary scene. We were labeled ‘poisonous weeds’ by the literary establishment, swore and spat upon”. Pitched in endless pen battles with Leftist heavyweights in the local dailies, Lin Fang was then an odd-ball, a pain in the eyes of mainstay Gorkian proponents.
“We wrote poetry that was unintelligible, obscure and symbolic. We tortured the Chinese language, introducing European syntax, juxtaposed with classical styles and the vernacular. We celebrated Arts for Arts’ sake, inventing a new aesthetic. We wanted poetry that was analytical, thinking, considered. We emphasized form and method, it was like calligraphy, how you wrote the words, the brushstrokes, the shades of the ink, those were equally important, if not more important, than the meanings of the words themselves. We were the infidels, traitors of the New Culture movement (which originated in China in 1919). The-then mainstream writers were subsumed by utopian sensibilities and Left-wing politics, utterly fired up by new Red China, student and labour strife engulfing Singapore in the post-war years. Those were difficult times, if you didn’t write poetry in a bland, slogan-sounding way trumpeting the underbellies of society, you’ll be lambasted as some kind of an escapist, morally-bankrupt lackey of the idle classes. But as things got better, we thought it was only sensible to practice proper art, proper poetry.”
I pressed further on what exactly it meant to be a ‘Modernist’ poet.
“Modernism began in the west with the likes of writers such as T.S. Eliot and James Joyce, but really, the spirit of modernism can also be found in classical Chinese poetry, for instance, of the Tang dynasty era, from which the modernist pioneer, Eza Pound borrowed heavily through Japanese interpretations. The modernist spirit, in my opinion, emphasizes the aesthetic of form, as much as, if not greater than, content. There is also the aspect of Renaissance-style neo-classicalism, revering the classics and the traditions, but in a modern way. For instance, the poetry of Bai Juyi, born 772 A.D. during China’s Tang dynasty, is very much modernist in spirit, in terms of the way words are beautifully arranged, the emphasis on symbolism etc. Take for example, his poem “As if a flower, yet not one”:
(As if a flower, yet not one)
(As if a fog, yet not so)
(Appears in the middle of the night)
(Away at the break of dawn)
(It comes like a fleeting spring dream)
(Vanishes with the morning clouds, nowhere to be found)
“This poem is beautifully written, and is very much open to interpretation. It could be about anything, a dream, the moon, a lover; that’s the beauty of it. So you see, we went back to the classics in search of poetic inspiration. And we combined it with our modern predicament, our modern anxieties. In a way, we rescued poetry from the brutalization of the Leftists; we relied on a new-found confidence as Singapore modernized, as well as our strong foundations in classical Chinese culture. Of course, we were under the influence of the Taiwanese modernists. A variant of modernism spread to Singapore from Taiwan, where political émigrés fleeing the Chinese civil war furthered their avant garde experimentations in a new-found solace, while the mainland underwent the dark ages, crashing and burning. In 1959, I chanced upon a correspondence-based creative writing course conducted by the famous Taiwanese writer Qin Zihao and the rest was history. I believe I was among the first few locals who wrote modernist poetry in the late 1950s. In Singapore, we continued the experimentation in poetic syntax, but with a local twist – we were at the confluence of the East and the West, the ideological fractures of the Cold War, and most importantly, years of mixing between different peoples on a tiny tropical island produced a curious fusion of culture unique to this part of the world–all these served as excellent fodder to fire off a new literary movement, a modernist poetry movement of a Singaporean variant. For instance, then we were really into Malay pantuns (four-line verse), take for example, the following:
Dari mana punai melayang
(From where do the wild pigeons fly)
Dari paya turun ke padi
(From the swamps to the paddy fields)
Dari mana datangnya sayang
(From where does my lover come)
Dari mata turun ke hati
(From the eyes down to the heart)
The folk tradition of Malay poetry and its heavy reliance on symbolism really appealed to us. We are very familiar with this sort of style, for the first major Chinese poetry anthology, the Book of Songs (500 B.C.) was precisely of this tradition. Many of our generation, that of the post-war baby boomers, were fluent in Malay, so it was easy for us to access each other’s literary traditions. I’m not sure if that’s still the case today with the younger generations.”
“So what’s left of “Modernist” movement now?”
“The May Flower Poetry Society, a grouping of ‘Modernist’ poets, was founded in the late 1960s and produced its seminal anthology “New Poems by 15 Singapore Poets” in 1970. The ‘modernist’ style gradually gained acceptance, as Leftist politics waned in line with the advent of prosperity, or put it this way, people demanded more creativity and originality; you have the Nanyang University poetry society, which later popularized the combination of music and poetry. This eventually led to the Xinyao movement (local folk music) in the early 1980s. I’m not sure what’s happening outside right now, I’m retired and hardly left my flat for the past five years.”
“Thank you Mr. Lin for the illuminating insights into local poetry and your exciting life!”
As I left Lin Fang’s flat, I wondered how many hidden gems are out there in many of our plain-looking housing estates. I remember the lines of a local Modernist poet, Xia Zhifang (one of the 15 Singapore Poets), aptly comparing Singaporeans living in HDB flats to pearls stashed away in caves:
(“Mani”, sanskrit for pearl)
(How many weeping pearl-hunters)
(Searching in vain, sinking sinking)
(Guess where do I live, in this jungle of steel, in this myriad of caves)
Chiu Wei Li, a.k.a. Tao Zongwang, 32, is a poet currently residing in Singapore. He read Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford, and used to work as a currency trader in a local government-linked company. His third poetry collection, “Tyre Puncture” (2009) was recently published by Firstfruit Publications.