Lee Tzu Pheng
wolfnotes, a firstfruits exhibition
We owe a considerable debt to Enoch for his trust and vision, his belief in the art of literature, which is what we are celebrating in this exhibition, wolfnotes. I see in this exhibition a way of affirming that literature’s roots are in the other arts even as its fruits may nourish the other arts. We are reminded of the natural connections among the arts and – one would hope – among artists, whatever their medium. Every art exists in an environment of awareness of the other arts, though each interprets experience in a language related to the senses that are dominant in that art. It is literature that calls all together, in how it invokes the imagination to replicate all the senses.
This exhibition is exciting because it affirms the connectivity among the arts, the basis of the community of artists. Human communities being what they are, however, we know that they are often divided within themselves; yet, to my thinking, an artistic community actually has the greater potential not to be divided, but to thrive upon an inner connectedness, if we could only recognize it.
Writing clearly owes a debt to the other arts. It may acknowledge this explicitly or implicitly. In my own practice, I am constantly aware of my debt to the other arts: to music, painting, even architecture, which in late years has enlarged my understanding of what is going on in poems. The bearing that other creative works may have on one’s own sense of what is pleasing or not in what one tries to create, is incalculable; and may involve strange elements. Let me give an example from my own life.
When I was quite young, I was very drawn to the poetry of that most English of English poets, Alfred Tennyson. I gradually grew more critical of his work, but I have to admit that he was a large formative force in my writing life, both in my attraction to his work as well as my reaction and rebellion. For better or worse, he has been part of the soil of my own writing. I remember his poem, “The Lady of Shalott”, which I still enjoy, though not for the reasons I enjoyed it when I was younger. But there is a line in that poem which completely enabled me to distance myself from its mournful lyricism from the start. It was a line that still stays with me, in all its curious, odd, even somewhat comic nuance – the line about the doughty knight Sir Lancelot singing “tirra lirra” by the river! Later, I discovered the Pre-Raphaelite painters, who had a wonderful crop of “Lady of Shalott” paintings – I especially like the John Waterhouse ones – but I do miss, somewhat perversely, the tirra lirra element which has been integral to my experience of this profoundly enigmatic, tragic story.
My “Lady of Shalott” experience came from other artists, from poetry and painting, and, may I say, programmed into me an appreciation of balance and the potential power of opposites at work, of the mysterious pleasure of art.
So what in the world am I trying to say? (I often ask myself this!) I think it is that we are seldom in control, we seldom have a choice, of what life throws at us. Art is our way of coping. At any moment it can be an instrument to help us make our peace with life. Because art is such a complex expression of our psyche, we must trust that whatever moves us, good or bad, pleasing or disgusting, can be subject to the transforming power of re-creation, if we harness it to the particular medium we work in.
If I may cite that often-quoted half-filled glass: do we see it as half empty or half full? The self-help gurus urge on us the virtue of seeing it as half full. But why can we not simply accept that however we may view it, both halves are part of the one entity? So also the line between opposites is often a shifting line. We are continually moving in and out of opposite areas – lack and fulfilment, disappointment and satisfaction. And these areas are often themselves morphing. Keats has a line which holds this wonderfully for me: “Then glut thy sorrow on a morning rose, / Or on the rainbow of the salt sand-wave” (Ode on Melancholy).
In the same way, traditional Chinese landscape painting often invokes in me at one and the same moment this sense of both the fulness and emptiness that are a part of our spiritual awareness. Typically, in such paintings, we see large masses of rock that seem to be floating in a void; there is a lot of empty space countering the massiveness. And if there are human figures present, they are invariably tiny, dwarfed as much by the solid mountains around them as by the space in their surroundings.
We are all figures in such landscapes, and writing can give us this experience of the duality in ourselves, our responsiveness to the complexity of our inner lives. The art we produce, the poem or novel, is a performance of that complexity. And art changes as we change; at any moment a performance means different things to us at different stages of our lives. Every work of art lives as performance, be it an interactive installation, a painting, piece of music, dance, sculpture, architecture – they affect us in real time but resonate beyond that, as we change.
So the 12 years of firstfruits we celebrate, are probably more than that for many of us, in ways that matter. I am sure Enoch is aware that the years of support he has given writers cannot be calculated in terms of real time. So, Enoch, congratulations, and thank you.
Dr Lee Tzu Pheng is one of Singapore’s most distinguished poets. A retired university lecturer, she is an award-winning poet who has published in anthologies and journals internationally. Her most famous poem, My Country and My People (1976), was once banned from being read over the national radio. Some 20 years later, Alfian Sa’at wrote Singapore You Are Not My Country (1998) as a response.