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What local poetry does that Shakespeare cannot

Foreign poetry opens doors to the wider world, but Singapore verse shows me the way home

The first time I encountered a Singapore poem in an examination paper, I flunked the test.

I was in Secondary 3, sitting what was known as the "unseen" paper - a section of the English literature exam in which you must analyse a poem you may never have seen before. And indeed I had seen nothing like this poem. It was by a local poet - this much I gathered from the surname, which was Hokkien, like mine.

Other than that, I might as well have been regarding an alien life form. As precious minutes ticked by, it became clear there was no way I could dissect this creature for its organs when I could not even tell where the skin began.

When I saw my abysmal grade, my first reaction was indignation. How could this have happened to me, I fumed. I, who had wrangled with William Shakespeare and George Bernard Shaw, who had scored nearly full marks for an essay on Lord Of The Flies?

I had mastered so well the system, with its classic texts plucked from the Western canon. How dare they change the game?

It is with this same trepidation that many junior college students will no doubt approach next year's A-level Literature in English exam.

In March, The Straits Times broke the news that the Ministry of Education was revising the syllabus to require students to analyse a local poem in at least one question of the exam's poetry section.

An unseen paper is arguably the truest test of one's critical skills. One should be able to go head to head with a poem cold, whether it was written by someone who died 500 years ago or was born last century on the same island as you.

Local poetry can be daunting, however, for those unfamiliar with it, as many students are.

Trying to tackle this are campaigns that keep the spotlight fixed on home-grown works, from the ongoing Read! Fest by the National Library Board, to the industry-led #BuySingLit movement, which had its first iteration in February and will return next year.

Predictably, like the "kiasu" student I was, I decided such failure could not be allowed to happen again. This was how I ended up hanging out in the section of Bishan Public Library reserved for Singapore literature.

A year before the exam, I had begun copying poems into little notebooks, which I bought for $2 at Popular bookstore. I favoured them because each page had 14 lines, perfect for copying sonnets if you made your handwriting really tiny.

These pages had been filled by the likes of T.S. Eliot, Sylvia Plath and e e cummings, but now they were joined by Cyril Wong, Alfian Sa'at and Teng Qian Xi.

I tore through local anthologies such as Aaron Lee and Alvin Pang's No Other City: The Ethos Anthology Of Urban Poetry, copying furiously until I gave myself carpal tunnel. I discovered a whole new spectrum of voices about the only country I had known all my life.

When I was 19, the notebooks came with me to London, where I was to study literature at university. I struggled with the cold and the vastness of the literary canon, more immense than I had ever imagined. One thing was comforting in its universality, however - the unseen paper.

For an unseen poetry class, we were each told to take along a poem of our choice for discussion. I chose one of my favourite local poems, Shirt, from Ng Yi-Sheng's Singapore Literature Prize-winning collection Last Boy (2006).

In it, he experiments with different versions of the fairy tale of a girl whose brothers were turned into swans by her stepmother. To break the curse, she must weave them shirts out of stinging nettles, and she must not speak until her task is complete, or her brothers will die.

I waited as we introduced and analysed the other poems, excited to show my class this slice of my side of the world. When it was my turn, I began in halting, nervous tones to talk about Asian interpretations of Western tales, of multiple perspectives, of suppressed voices.

The lecturer cut me off. "Who is this poet, Sheng? I'm not familiar with his work."

"Ng is Singaporean," I said. "Like me."

"Ah," said the lecturer, as if this explained everything. She looked vaguely disappointed - perhaps at how un-exotic the poem was, free as it was of Merlions or illicit chewing gum. "Well, thank you so much for bringing this to class. It's so very different." She moved on to another poem, this one about the Great Fire of London, which the class dissected at length.

The emphasis she put on "different" made my cheeks burn. What makes it different? I wanted to ask. Do we not discuss things that are different, even in the unseen paper?

But I found I could not speak, like the girl in the poem, only burn soundlessly.

I experienced this burning speechlessness repeatedly over the years I spent in Britain, often during the countless episodes where my English turned out to be better than people expected.

"How come your English is so good?" they would exclaim, ignorant of the fact that it was the working language of much of my country.

I did, in fact, know a lot of English. But it would never matter to them that I could read the mediaeval verse of Geoffrey Chaucer or translate 10th-century Anglo-Saxon, that I knew Shakespeare like the back of my hand.

These words did not belong to me. I had to know them to move in this other world, and certainly I had been taught to love them, but I was reminded over and over that I had no claim to them. My claim was to a small and unknown canon that people fell over themselves to get away from in the unseen paper.

After three years in London, I moved to Edinburgh to do my master's in postmodern literature. This was where I learnt "dreich", a word specially invented to convey the utter dreariness of Scottish weather, which disagreed greatly with my equatorial constitution.

One particularly "dreich" day, I ducked, numb and homesick, into a strange building to get out of the freezing rain. It turned out to be the Scottish Poetry Library. Browsing its shelves, I was startled to find a familiar steel grey volume - No Other City, that Ethos anthology from so long ago.

Leafing through its pages, I found that I was crying. There was no other city, I realised. For the longest time, I had seen this as a lack of an alternative. Now, dripping rain and tears on the carpet of a foreign library, I realised how intricately its words had mapped it onto my heart.

Foreign poetry has opened doors for me to the rest of the world, and for that I am grateful to the world. But it is local poetry that shows me the way home, every time.

• #opinionoftheday is a column for younger writers in the newsroom to write about issues that matter to them and their peers.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on June 25, 2017, with the headline 'What local poetry does that Shakespeare cannot'. Print Edition | Subscribe