Sunday, April 08, 2012

Poem: Edwin Thumboo

I admit to being hard-pressed to name more than a few writers from Singapore, the city-state of 5 million people in southeast Asia that some might characterize as an economic and multicultural beacon and as a nanny-state cautionary tale.  Singapore's history as a colony dates back to 1819, and its independence came in two stages, first from Great Britain in 1963, and then, after a two-year merger with Malaysia, again in 1965, and it has produced a number of writers of skill and significance in each of its four official languages, English, Malay, Chinese, and Tamil, as well as in its unofficial ones.

Fortunately, though, one immediately comes to mind: Edwin Thumboo (1933-), who is one of its pioneering English-language poets, and the putative, though unofficial, Anglophone poet laureate.  Thumboo was a professor, department chair, dean and director of the Centre for the Arts at the National University of Singapore for nearly four decades, his research and teaching interests ranging widely, though one of his most important efforts was to introduce Commonwealth/New Literatures, which is to say, Anglophone literatures from across the globe, into the university curriculum.

Edwin Thumboo (from The Nation (Thailand))

Amidst this vital institutional and field-building work, Thumboo published five volumes of poetry, as well as anthologies of Singaporean and Malaysian Anglophone literature, essays and critical works, and other books, such as his 2005 edited collection of tributes to the Filipino novelist and poet Francisco Sionil José.  Although he's probably best known for his poems with nationalist themes, which helped to craft a multicultural, post-independence vision of Singapore, he also has written lyric poems like the one below that ruminate on language itself, asserting that human control, through literature, animates words, though I would counter that we increasingly know that they possess powers of their own. The language game is not just ours to play, or rather, we the rules aren't always in our hands, despite what we think. Nevertheless, in light of the new, emerging, polyglot society in which Thumboo is writing, the aesthetic and cultural work of art can and does create meaning: that is the essence of Thumboo's career, and of poets like him all over the world.

In case you want to learn a bit more about Edwin Thumboo, here is a 2005 interview from the Quarterly Literary Review Singapore that Felix Cheong conducted with Thumboo. And here is Manote Tripathi's very recent writeup of Thumboo in Thailand's The Nation.


Words are dangerous, especially
The simple kind you leave behind for others,
For undesirable relatives and assorted purposes.
They are understood simply, edited,
Taken with a kind of air, a careful disregard:
Their plainness complicates.

When you say Tell him please
That the anger has come to pass
That friendship is not maimed...or
Please do come but after the
Fever has been put aside...
When you mean to be polite,
Careful, explicit, considerate, circumspect,
Adopting the proper tone,
You are likely to be quoted as saying
He won't...

Words are neither valid, merciful nor bad,
In themselves, nothing unless used, urged,
Imported into dialogue,
Becoming part-anger, part-laughter, bruised,
Adding to the mood and gesture.

Words are words. Except for us
They are not personalities.
We make them into poems.

Copyright © Edwin Thumboo, "Words," from Gods Can Die, Singapore: Heinemann Educational Books (Asia) Ltd., 1977. All rights reserved.

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