What Can We Afford, if Not Poetry?
story | William Hoo, Staff Writer
photo | William Hoo
“Poetry is a luxury we cannot afford.”
Lee Kuan Yew’s famous remark in the 1960s still reverberates today. The sentiment perhaps deftly summed up the attitude of a Singapore far too concerned with material survival, where poetry was seen as a mere waste of time.
Yet after almost forty years, it seems that this remark has morphed into a call to arms for the Singaporean literary scene to prove that poetry is the furthest thing from something only crazy rich Asians can afford.
But is that really true? Can anyone write poetry? Instagram poets such as Rupi Kaur and our very own Nicole Choo have had salvos of literary and personal criticism publicly fired their way for the lack of depth in their creative work. One might think that it is necessary to have a certain innate disposition before writing poetry. I believe that this is a prescriptivist view that has taken root due to the stereotypes about poetry we’ve allowed ourselves to soak in.
The assumption that poetry is necessarily high-brow or Westernized and therefore not to be consumed or created by regular Singaporeans is manifestly wrong. This conflation perhaps can be traced to the greater stereotype of literature and poetry belonging to a separate realm of frivolousness, something that an entire older generation of Singaporeans perhaps have embraced with open arms.
The key is simply to explore the written word with an open mind.
As for myself, poetry feels like a small meandering path I serendipitously chanced upon. As a child, I was a voracious reader of prose. It was not until my teenage years that I started to gain exposure to poetry. Of course, I did not want to write it at first. Everyone remembers the poetry foisted on you in literature class by a teacher who seemed to be preternaturally disposed to deciphering sadness in the color of blue curtains. I was no exception. I remember being extremely frustrated by biblical references that made no sense, and metaphors that leapt over my head.
Yet I started to relish poetry as more of a challenge for me to interpret meaning where there was seemingly none to be found. The desire to understand then grew into a kind of love when I too began to see the beauty in rhythms and rhymes, the melody of the written word. There are a thousand ways to say something, but to truly communicate even one sentiment and bridge the lonely spaces between each and every one of us is terribly difficult. To put everything you feel into words can be a powerful tool of catharsis. I have found writing poetry to be a well of strength in my periods of grief and mourning during the loss of a loved one.
I dare say that anyone can be a poet. Literary merit, genuine feeling, good marketing, and bad verses aside, legitimacy comes from the very act of writing itself. If you’ve noticed, since the start of this April, the Yale-NUS College Library has set up a typewriter for the Yale-NUS community to participate in Singapore Poetry Writing Month (SingPoWriMo). First started as a Facebook group in 2014, the movement has grown over the years, with over 6,000 members now involved in the art of writing poetry. With daily writing prompts staggered across the month of April, the movement advocates for the democratization of poetry beyond all boundaries. Participation is open to everyone and with no obligations. This group presents a great welcome to anyone looking to start exploring their inner poet. What is stopping you from a little poetic indulgence yourself?
After all, what can we afford if not poetry?