Driving force in poetry appreciation

Poet Ho Poh Fun taught at Raffles Junior College for 20 years and was known for her award-winning collection Katong And Other Poems (1994).
Poet Ho Poh Fun taught at Raffles Junior College for 20 years and was known for her award-winning collection Katong And Other Poems (1994).PHOTO: COURTESY OF ANDREW YEO

Singaporean poet and teacher Ho Poh Fun, who wrote of the "quiet obituaries, subtleties/ grace, strength, forbearance/ that life has to earn" in her poem Rain Tree, died on Monday, aged 71.

The cause of death has not yet been confirmed, although family members say it is likely to have been a heart attack.

She attended Tanjong Katong Girls' School and Raffles Institution, and later received a master's degree in English from the National University of Singapore. She was a teacher at Raffles Junior College (RJC) for 20 years.

Her short story, When The Tabebuia Bloomed At Soo Chow Gardens, first appeared in Tanjong Rhu And Other Stories (1986), a collection of four prize-winning entries from the 1982 Short Story Writing Competition organised by the former Ministry of Culture.

While her poetry is widely anthologised, she is most noted for her lone collection, Katong And Other Poems (1994).

The collection of 68 poems, ranging from the early work Sennett Road '66 to the titular Katong, records snapshots of experiences connected closely to places in Singapore. It won a Commendation Award in poetry at the 1996 National Book Development Council of Singapore's Book Awards.

We have lost a fine rememberer of the gradual change, of the in-between.

POET GWEE LI SUI on Ho Poh Fun's poetry

Many in the literary scene expressed sorrow at the news of her death.

Her long-time friend, poet Anne Lee Tzu Pheng, 71, said Ho had been the driving force behind RJC's Afternoon of Poetry programme, ensuring it took place annually for years without fail. "I think we owe Poh Fun a great debt for her quiet tenacity in ensuring that students experience the arts and I think she sometimes provided little prizes and tokens at her own expense just to enliven and reward effort and achievement."

Lee, who wrote the foreword for Katong, added: "I always felt she was too quick to put down her own writing. She had a fine sensibility and her poetry had a subtle power that sounded plain on first reading, but made its point sensitively without showiness."

Ho served as a Creative Arts Programme mentor to poets such as Aaron Maniam, 39, who said on Facebook that he would not be writing poetry today if not for her encouragement. "She pushed me when I was in Secondary 3 to be exacting with myself, to find new words and images for things, to never settle for imitation or mediocrity.

"Like the Yorkshire poet Ted Hughes, whom she loved, nature provided most of her inspiration, as she went about the tough, quiet, hunting business of capturing elusive snapshots of plants, the weather and the other ways the exterior world speaks to us."

Poet Gwee Li Sui, 47, who has lectured on Ho's poetry, described her collection Katong as filled with "a delicate poetry soaked in the images and emotions of Singaporean times and places".

He added: "We have lost a fine rememberer of the gradual change, of the in-between."

Ho, who was single, leaves behind a sister and two brothers, along with four nephews and nieces.

Her niece Chelsia Ho, 38, said she was an "active, independent" woman who lived alone and who doted on her grand-nieces and grand-nephew, taking them out for birthdays and Christmas and buying them books.

"It has been sudden and shocking to lose her," said Ms Ho, who works in communications. "But we are glad to know that as a teacher, she impacted so many. Whatever contributions we receive for the funeral will be put aside to support creative writing in Singapore as a way of remembering her."

Ho's cortege will depart Mount Vernon Parlour 1 at 1.20pm today for Mandai Crematorium Service Hall 2.

Her former students are organising an Afternoon of Poetry and Music as a tribute to her from noon to 3pm next Saturday.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 15, 2018, with the headline 'Driving force in poetry appreciation'. Subscribe