New anthology Unfree Verse explores the development of formal Singapore poetry

"In truth the prison, into which we doom/Ourselves, no prison is", wrote Romantic poet William Wordsworth in praise of the sonnet form, adding that he would be "pleased if some souls...Who have felt the weight of too much liberty/Should find brief solace there".

And indeed there can be great beauty found in playing by the rules, as this anthology of formal poetry in Singapore demonstrates.

Most will be familiar with the notion of local poetry as untrammelled free verse. Here, however, form is paramount, defined by the editors as "poetry that has a recognisable and repeatable structure, or that varies such structures for effect".

The anthology charts the growth of formal poetry in Singapore, from the late Francis P. Ng's 1937 epic F. M. S. R. to nascent forms of local origin, such as the two-column twin cinema.

In the section of poetry from 1937 to 1969, a postcolonial identity begins to emerge as Western rhyme schemes wrangle with local vernacular. There is a real delight when the two merge with sly success, as in Yin C. H.'s light-hearted 1959 rhyme Small Town Romance, in which a wealthy Peranakan man flirts with a pretty woman on her way to Muar, Malaysia: "But Baba Tan/ said come on lah/why you worry/I blanjah (treat)".

The array of forms within these pages is staggering. As expected, there is a wealth of sonnets on subjects from not only town-planning to heartbreak, but also pantuns, ghazals and sestinas. There are even, in the anthology's final and most adventurous section, concrete and experimental forms: abecedarians - an ancient poetic form guided by alphabetical order - zoetropes and poems shaped like stars or satellites.



    Edited by Tse Hao Guang, Joshua Ip and Theophilus Kwek

    Ethos Books/Paperback/324 pages/ $25/Books Kinokuniya, MPH, selected Times Bookstores and stars

Many of the poems are marked by a struggle between form and content, but it is especially satisfying to observe when some marry the two with success.

When Toh Hsien Min, in his 40s, exploring a child's struggle to grieve for his dead grandmother in Grandmother Thng, breaks the first stanza in half, then abruptly reconnects the rhyme scheme after a vivid flood of memories, the click of heartbreak is almost audible.

Academic Shirley Geok-lin Lim, 73, proves the anthology's MVP (most valuable player) both in sheer quantity of contributions - 17 poems in different forms, plus the epigraph - and in her precision of wordcraft, which earns her every spot.

The anthology has the potential to be a valuable educational resource, although it needs more annotations for that. There is a glossary, but it would have been useful to identify each poem's form on the page itself, for lay readers who cannot tell a venpa from a volta.

In a country where much comes with conditions, this is a testament to how art, even when challenged and circumscribed, can turn constraint into creation.

If you like this, read: Written Country edited by Gwee Li Sui (Landmark, 2016, $25.01, Books Kinokuniya), an anthology which reconstructs the history of Singapore in 50 defining moments from literary works.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 15, 2017, with the headline New anthology Unfree Verse explores the development of formal Singapore poetry. Subscribe