Trial and Error in Malayan Poetry

Wang Gungwu

From The Malayan Undergrad, Vol 9 No 5 July 1958

When I was a schoolboy a little more than ten years ago, no one talked of such a thing as Malayan poetry. It was not even known if there was any poetry written by people who lived in Malaya.

For myself, poetry was something written very long ago or very far away. I knew of Malay pantuns and of elaborate Chinese lyrics and eventually even of English sonnets and I still remember how I thought of the pantuns as nursery rhymes and the Chinese lyrics as very hard work which my father imposed on me.

The last, the English sonnets, no one taught me. This was very fortunate, for I think that is why I have liked them best.

But all three, pantuns, sonnets and Chinese lyrics, were to be read silently or to be recited or sung aloud. The questions of writing them myself never occurred to me. It would also have surprised me if any one of my friends wrote a line or two.

I certainly did not think that poetry had anything to do with the country around me and the Malaya I lived in. Thus if someone had suggested to me then, in 1946, that there will be such a thing as Malayan poetry in the not too distant future, I might well have laughed.

I was, of course, to be terribly wrong. Within a few years, there grew at Raffles College and then the University of Malaya a small group of young men who began to be conscious of poetry as a possible, if not necessary, means of expression.

Their interest in poetry was heightened first by a consciousness of Malaya as their country and then by the great variety in Malayan life and landscape. One of the earliest of their poems illustrates frank wonder.

It began,

Multiplicity of cultures,
of cosmopolitan art –
Their fragments lie about the world,
Fallen pieces of pottery,
Because the painter could not keep
His vision whole.

I was indeed terribly wrong, for the year this poem was written in 1949 I had myself become a member of this group. We all shared the romanticism of someone who thought he had made a great discovery and we all wanted to try our hand at poetry and especially at something we could point to as Malayan.

That same year, I made my first try, my first poem in English. These were the opening lines:

The moon, impure as ever, like tea leaves.
Coffee- dregs, on a cup of cream, cleaves
On to drooping leaves of rubber trees,
Scatters bright thieves to steal the keys
That open to memories of home.

There they were, conventional lines and images with the rubber trees tentatively brought into the moonlight. All very cautious and uncertain, the barest modification of a poem which could have been written anywhere in the world.

But we continued to be self-consciously Malayan and puzzled about the Malayan idiom, especially about the way people in Malaya used the English language. We observed the words which have been accepted into the English language, noticing one of our professors saying, without batting an eyelid, “When the towkay goes into the kampong”. There was no problem there.

What floored us was the illegitimate mixing of various languages; our stock example of this was “Itu stamp ta’ ada gum ta’ boleh stick-lah”.

What can we make of that? We could not even decide whether that was Malay with a few English words or English with a Malay syntax.

The last months of 1949 were an intensive period of experiment. We tried our lines on our friends and sympathisers. A few lines were considered great fun; most of them were spat back at us.

For a time there was the danger of our never emerging from a game of cross-word puzzles in three or four languages. We were only saved from this unpromising game by deciding to write with English as base – at least to try it.

By the end of 1949, I wrote the following short poem on a consciously Malayan subject; called “Ahmad was educated”. It went,

Ahmad was educated.
He never liked his masters,
but he was
He can be a clerk, all thought.
But in his heart he had stirrings for Cam,
Where his Head had been, who was so clever
His wife with child again!
Three times had he fasted,
And puasa was coming round once more.
One hundred to start with – a good scheme;
Quarters, too.
With a room for his two little girls –
Kampong Batu was dirty!
Thoughts of Camford fading,
Contentment creeping in.
Allah had been kind;
Orang puteh has been kind.
Only yesterday his brother said,
“Can get lagi satu wife, lah!”
Ahmad was educated,
His education was complete.

Somehow the Malayan idiom had been worked in, more successfully, we thought, than had ever been done before:

Only yesterday his brother said,
“Can get lagi satu wife, lah!”

But where was this going to lead us to? Was this really the Malayan poetry written in English we wanted so much to write or was it only English poetry written in Malaya?

Perhaps there was no point distinguishing between the two at that stage and perhaps, and this we were not ready to think then, there was no point in making any kind of distinction at all except between good and bad poetry.

We persisted, however, not so much for the art of poetry as for the ideal of the new Malayan consciousness. The emphasis in our search for “Malayan poetry” was in the word, “Malayan”.

In our many trials, we were moving away from the poetry to the political assumptions behind it. Some of us thought we had things to say of political significance which we could say in poetry.

What it was that we called “Malayan” was no less difficult to determine then as it was now. Most of the time we were merely hopeful that the three major communities would throw up from their native or imported civilisations the material for a new synthesis.

This synthetic product would then be infused with the stuff of European poetry and bound firmly in the English language. This was cosmopolitan art and we had come round to thinking that Malayan poetry would have to be cosmopolitan.

We were hopeful and we were not and then we were hopeful again. While we looked around, I was led early the next year in 1950, to write the following lines:

We are the audience
Of the three camps.
We are the campsters, too.
We rush around
To see the others,
But the mirror is a prism blue

It struck me years afterwards that here was when we had begun to chase our own tails, but at the time several of us thought this was leading us somewhere. We took heart and recovered, some of us finding our second wind.

We were not sure that there had been any error; we felt that the trails were worth makingand that we should try again.

But already we were feeling the smallness of the group and the closeness of our surroundings. We were treading on each other’s ideas whether in our monastic cells in the University or in the smallest drinking- shop in Albert Street. The little encouragement and interest from others could hardly pay for our beer.

Our later attempts were sadder for we became less certain of our purpose. We were saved from futility by extensive travelling along the west cost of Malaya, but we could not find our own place in the Malaya to come.

We were confident at the start that we knew what was Malayan and what was not. By 1953, almost carrying inversely with the political consciousness of other people in Malaya, we had lost our earlier vision.

But this did not mar our poetry. Our poems did not suffer much from the doubts and the humility we now experienced. I still find one of the poems I wrote about this time most memorable. This was called. ”This gold land Malacca”; and it went like this:

The betel village in Mataram,
I tell you, but could have been one Sukadana
Fish-bandar, or in the shadow of the Lord
At Borobodur: it does not matter now
Where I came from, or does it?
This gold land Malacca had taken me;
And I will have the many limbed Krishna battling
The anachronic Iskander with the music
Of a thousand sinic gongs.
It’s pagan,
Allah, I know, but you keep many roads
Open for me, and this pilgrimage
With your younger sons of Melayu repays,
Surely, my debt of anonymity;
And I vouch the orchids are blossoming there.

So far I have spoken only of the trails. The poem I have just read was one of last attempts to find my Malayan identity before I left for my studies in England. While in England, I had plenty of time to think about our errors.

Most of the errors, however, had been obvious to us for some time. Curiously enough, the most serious error was the one we realised earliest and the one we were most reluctant to admit.

This was the contradiction between our search for Malayan poetry and our decision to base that search on the English verse forms. The decision to use English was not an error in taste. It was even quite sensible. It was certainly the line of least resistance for ourselves and there was our primary error.

We had, in fact, decided on using English for the wrong reasons. We used it not because we thought it did not really matter what language we used nor because we thought English was the most appropriate or the best medium.

We used English because it was convenient and because were in a hurry. We were impatient to write Malayan poetry which we thought needed only to consist of Malayan images and sentiments.

We were off our mark so quickly we did not need any starters and had no time to wonder if we were wrong.

It wasn’t long before we sensed that all was far from well. We had galloped off in all directions on an old steed that had never been tropicalised. It was to be expected that we would soon be slowing down in the wilderness.

Those of use who had started all the running had gone too far. As for those who wished to join us, we did best to keep them from the unmarked course.

As the Malayan poetry we hoped to write became unfeasible, there remained little purpose in the poems written afterwards. For three years after 1953, there was a trickle of poetry, neither self-conscious nor conscious of anything in particular. Only last year in 1957, has there been new interest and new purpose.

Both the interest and the purpose had been inspired by the best poet we have ever known here, Edward Thumboo. He along among us never mixed poetry with social criticism and he alone was never balked by the political implications of a Malayan identity and the English language.

With the following lines, he set the tone for the late revival of purpose:

You can never know
When that nameless pain.
The sages call illusion
Will resurrect again.
You can never know
When the erstwhile hidden eye
Will uncover the expected act to tabulate a lie
You can never know
If eyes you pass in a street
Are extensions of your own
Floating to a safe retreat

This reaction from the attempt to Malayanise the English language is evidence that some have learnt from an earlier error.

It is a worthwhile reaction that can produce a little gem like the poem on “Beauty” written by our most promising poet, Oliver Seet. It consists of seven short lines, thus:

Through the wrong end of a telescope
Beauty is succinct.
Converging eyes
That pry into detail
Will see the acne of the surfaces
Beauty is sublime in summary

The reaction reminds me of another of our serious errors of 1949. We had promoted a didactic approach to poetry in Malaya and our moral and political attitude to Malaya distracted us from the poetry. We were so impatient for results that we could not see a truth that I can see now.

This is that when the Malayans appear, there will be Malayan poetry. Until then good poetry is all we need.

We have tried and we have erred, but not all of us were wrong beyond recovery. I for one have no regrets about all our tries. I only regret what is about to be tried, the reaction against our social consciousness that Edwin Thumboo has inspired and Oliver Seet had justified.

I regret it not because it is wrong or undesirable, but only because it so reminds me of the calcified purpose of poets practising in English today. And that purpose I myself had tried when I was in England and I am certain that I erred there more seriously than I had ever erred before.

I realised the mistake while I was still in England and I was led back on reflection to the trails and errors of my own brand of Malayan poetry. I was willing to try again – in Malaya.

And late in 1955, I wrote this poem, “Among words in England”:

Fallen among words, I can at last see
The day lost in the furtherance of words.
I find the night here darker, far as I am
From the day’s men and the day’s deeds,
And I know I must return to the tree –
Lined swamps and the casuarina branches,
Only when I hear the axes singing
In the clearings can I fell the high-pitched words
That deafen this land.
The jungle cry can I sound my own voice.

This may not take me any nearer to Malayan poetry but it has taken me very far from the time when I thought pantuns, sonnets and Chinese lyrics were things merely to be read or recited.

Professor Wang Gungwu is the Chairman of the East Asian Institute and University Professor, National University of Singapore. He is also Emeritus Professor of the Australian National University.