Culture Vulture

Poetry forms in fashion

Local poets are dabbling with new poetic forms and challenging themselves to create meaning in the face of limitations

Form, it seems, is in fashion - in local poetry, that is. We are quite accustomed to the idea of free verse as standard in contemporary poetry, but these days, it seems local poets are not only keen to try shackling themselves, but also opting for ever more creative forms of bondage.

Earlier this year, publisher Ethos Books put out Unfree Verse, an anthology that shines a light on formal poetry - "poetry that has a recognisable and repeatable structure, or that varies such structures for effect" - in Singapore. Now, at least three new anthologies, each revolving around a specific form, are hot off the press or in the works.

Home-grown poet Desmond Kon Zhicheng-Mingde has coined the term asingbol, a local variation on the Twitter poem (joining "twihaiku", "twaiku" and other existing online monikers for such micro-poetry).

A form well suited to the social media generation, the asingbol is composed of exactly 140 characters - the previous character limit of Twitter - including spaces, non-capitalised, written as a single clause and ending on a period.

Kon describes it as an homage to how Singapore itself has been called an improbable nation born out of impossible means. "Restraint occasionally nurtures a veering and whirl towards freedom," he says.

More than 100 of these poems were collected in Asingbol, an anthology edited by Kon and launched last month.

Kon and fellow local poet Eric Tinsay Valles are also co-editing an anthology, to be launched next year, on the anima methodi ("spirit of the method" in Latin), a 16-line form in two mirroring stanzas, with the last line of the first stanza moving seamlessly across the break into the first line of the second stanza. The rules of the anima methodi are too complex to expound upon here - think "meta-sensibility" and "dialectical play" - so let us just say that it is on the other end of the user-friendly spectrum from the asingbol.

A form that is growing in popularity is the twin cinema, which last month produced its first anthology, Twin Cities, a collection of more than 60 pieces by poets from Singapore and Hong Kong.

The twin cinema had its local inception by poet Yeow Kai Chai seven years ago in his poem Begone Dull Care, itself inspired by New York School poet John Ashbery's 70-page poem Litany (1979).

It is a poem written in two columns. Sometimes, the columns are meant to be read individually, running line by line in counterpoint.

But I find it at its most compelling when the poet achieves not just two, but three ways of reading it, not just top to bottom, but also across, a poem at once broken and unbroken, reaching across the gaps to put a new twist on opposing meanings.

In Twin Cities, edited by Joshua Ip and Tammy Ho Lai-Ming, poets yoke together countervailing perspectives on subjects that range from the personal to the political, from the films of Wong Kar Wai to the Lee family feud.

In poet Low Kian Seh's Job Less, for instance, the thoughts of an unemployed man swing from hopeful to suicidal, depending on which way you read the poem.

Poet Ng Yi-Sheng's Long Ya Men/ Batu Belayar pits two competing historical narratives of Singapore, the indigenous and the immigrant, against each other while simultaneously weaving them together.

What intrigues me most about the twin cinema is what it does with the notion of duality.

Singapore is a country fraught with division, for all that it would like to be thought as smooth and whole. There are people who shop at age-old flea markets and people who want them gone for the sake of progress. There are people who can speak only dialect and people who choose to erase dialect from their children's tongues. There are people who think certain family homes should be monuments and people who think they should be torn down.

The twin cinema offers an unusual way to read two conflicting perspectives at the same time and even to show how, together, they could be one and the same story.

There are those who will say form is stuffy and reeks of the traditional. It is associated with the conventions of the sonnet, the rigour of the heroic couplet, the meticulous strictures of the mediaeval sestina.

Yet there is, conversely, also a kind of freedom to be had in fixed verse. American poet Kate Light explores this in her poem How Sonnets Are Like Bungee Jumping, in which she argues that there is "safety in measure", that form is the rope that will catch us as we freefall into the nothing of creation. "Oh we jump in pieces;" she writes, "and some of us land whole."

If sonnets are like bungee jumping, then writing in a new poetic form may well be like bungee jumping with untested safety equipment. A lot of the time, it ends badly - and indeed, many of the attempts to popularise new forms produce doggerel - but sometimes, the risk pays off.

In the 1960s, a group of mostly French writers and mathematicians formed the Oulipo to explore what they called "potential literature" or "the seeking of new structures and patterns which may be used by writers in any way they enjoy".

The Oulipo saw constraint as a way of triggering creativity, which led to them doing outrageously difficult things such as writing novels without once using the letter "e" or recounting the same inconsequential episode 99 times in different ways. Such experimentation can be written off as mere avant-garde gimmicks, but it has the capacity to demonstrate not just technical cleverness, but depth and substance.

Oulipo writer Georges Perec's 1978 novel La Vie Mode d'Emploi (Life A User's Manual) is, for instance, built on a complicated system of constraints involving a chess game, jigsaw puzzles and sudoku-like lists. It is, at the same time, a dazzling look at life's complexity and human failure.

That Singapore poets are experimenting with new poetic forms, however tortuously trial and error this may be, is a welcome symptom of literary evolution.

We are all learning, every day, how to live within systems. These poets choose deliberately to set themselves in systems and twist meaning out of the confines in which they have been bound.

It fills one with the paradoxical hope that if one's hands are tied, one can still find ways to be free.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 12, 2017, with the headline 'Poetic freedom amid constraints'. Print Edition | Subscribe