• Jen Webb, with Edwin Thumboo

Jen Webb met Edwin Thumboo at LASALLE College of the Arts, Singapore, in October 2013, to discuss his work as a poet as part of an ARC-funded project into poetry and creativity (DP130100402). Their conversation explored the responsibility of the poet and of poetry in the construction of a sense of community, and the impact of language, metaphor, imagery and myth.


Section 1: Setting the stage

Jen Webb: I first came across your poetry over a decade ago, when I was part of the team convening the triennial conference of the Association of Commonwealth Literature and Language Studies. That meant you seemed, to me, first a Commonwealth writer, and by extension a global writer; but you are also entirely Singaporean. Can you talk about your sense of identity as a writer?

Edwin Thumboo: Well, from one point of view Singapore is being generalised into a kind of global citizenry, but at the same time there is an insistence on individuality and identity, for nation as well as individual. These are very complex matters for ex-colonies, for new nations. I suggest that the first thing we have to look at is the space, by which I mean the physical space — the country itself; and then we need to look at the history of that space. And that changes: for Singapore there is history before colonialism, history during colonialism, and history after colonialism. Those who know the island before and after would have felt the sustained intensity, comprehensiveness and pace of our growth. We moved remarkably from Third to First World in less than 50 years. A Great Leap Forward.1

Jen: Do you identify Singapore as a postcolonial state, or Singaporean poetry as postcolonial literature?

Edwin: I dislike the phrase postcolonial because the limiting point in philosophy is that your conclusions cannot exceed your premises; in fact your conclusions are dictated by your premises.  This is why I once suggested that perhaps we should call Britain a post-Roman society. Once you are named ‘postcolonial’, then everything about you — your parameters, your discussions, your assumptions — is dictated by ‘colonial’. In fact it’s the old colonial powers who are actually postcolonial, if anybody is. They are postcolonial, but we are national.

Jen: Of course Paul Virilio says there’s no such thing as postcoloniality, we all only ever have neocolonialism, and we keep re-inventing those negative relationships.

Edwin: Absolutely. The classic institutions here would be the British Council, and the various institutions set up by the Commonwealth Office, et cetera, et cetera. But to go back to Singapore. You have the space, the history of that space, and the content of that history. The space is the physical island, which is small; and its history includes a colonial history. But it is also a history of tribes, of people who came here, from other parts of Southeast Asia, China, India and in smaller numbers, from Europe and the Middle East.

Some of the new nations are relatively homogeneous; others have at least two ethnicities. In that context, a person considered literary must be bilingual in perception at least. If you have a monolingual, that is to say, a homogeneous society, change will be more like evolution than revolution. But if not, if you live in a society that has been created artificially, as was Singapore by British colonialism, the emergence of a shared national identity is paradoxically more complex: arduous yet all the more urgent. Only ten to fifteen per cent of Singapore’s population are Malay, (people) who are indigenous to the area.2 Then there are the Chinese, who make up 77% of the population, whose ancestral centre is outside Singapore; and it’s the same with the Indians, who are about 8% of the population: their ancestral centres are outside Singapore. (I’m part-Indian, part-Chinese, so I have an inside view, as it were.)

As long as a space is a colony, it’s not a problem, because the coloniser holds political power, and not the people. But after independence, power comes to the people, and then all the tensions begin to rise. One of those tensions comes from racial prejudice, which I see as being inevitable and even natural, because of the comfort factor. Racial prejudice is not just about ethnicity, or skin colour, or whether the hair is straight or curled; these things count, yes, but ultimately it’s a comfort factor, and you’re most comfortable with your own kind because being with people like you cuts down on explanation, on difference, and that cuts down on friction. This poem is a recent experience I had. Its brevity is in inverse proportion to the pain, the disappointment, all the more acute as our Government has always pushed for a multiracial Singapore.

Lot 1 — Bench

I sat down between two shoulders.

The right moved away pointedly
Re-crossed whitish legs; stared into vacancy.
The left, brownish, turned, smiled ‘Hello’
Left our geography unrevised.

For years I taught their children, equally;
Never gazed into space unless hunting for a

Again, that ancient pain, and One People, One
Nation bugged till sunset worked a cleansing.

The majority always call the shots. And the majority, you know, always constitutes a certain kind of tyranny. In Singapore the majority of people, some 77%, are Chinese, and psychologically this is interesting because of the history of the Chinese in Southeast Asia after independence. They have had a hard time. In Indonesia at one point, after 1965, you couldn’t even have any Chinese script, or import medicines with labels that had Chinese characters. And look at what happened in Thailand: they’re being absorbed; they’ve changed their names. Indonesia the same thing, and you see what’s happened in Malaysia. So Singapore is the only place where the Chinese were in the majority.

But there’s another factor: almost all areas which use the English language and which are not Anglo Saxon — namely, the ex-colonies in Africa, the Caribbean, Asia, Southeast Asia — are in the process of modernising themselves. In a satu society, a homogeneous society, generational change is less harassing, less rapid, because you are evolving rather than rapidly changing. But once you get independence you are developing and re-developing, you’re recovering and making: constantly changing, all the time. So, coming back to my first formulation of space, history and content, there’s another modelling factor: pace, or the speed at which things happen. Things happen so rapidly in Singapore since independence, and that means the space has a much faster pace, and even greater density than before: greater density of ideas, of emotions, of change, of difference. So you have generational themes, especially in a new country, and especially in Singapore.

For the first generation, what do you do? Look at the situation we were in. The Malays have a lovely phrase: satu bangsar (one race), satu agama (one religion), satu bahasa (one language). But for us, it was many languages, many religions; but one vision, a vision of multiracial equality, and making sure that we try to promote our values, basic values. In our case, that was also about making a multiracial society.

At the same time, because we are also a dislocated diaspora, we want roots. There’s an important point here: every country has a hinterland of two kinds — the physical one and the intellectual one. Singapore has no physical hinterland, so we have to manufacture one, and we have to manufacture one that’s not physical, but is emotional, intellectual, historical. And we can do that, because we have an Ur-history: an early history, which is Hindu, and then a Muslim one, and now we have a multiracial one.

But we didn’t have time to consolidate the identity. If you look at the history of Germany: it was a lot of small states, but they had one language, then they consolidated. With smart people this might work. I mean look at Dante, and what he did to the Italian language through the Divine Comedy. Now, in Italy they had time to do all that. They had time to develop the philosophy, the verbal structures, the grammar, the metaphors, the sense of ‘us’. Because the us basically had always been Roman. (Okay, you had the Etruscans, but that problematic was long ago.) But for us, we started with division, difference. We had to convert that difference into an increasing singularity. We are a hyphenated people. We had to move from Chinese-Singaporeans and Indian-Singaporeans into Singaporean-Chinese, Singaporean-Indians. The hyphen had to be inverted, slowly.

What we need in a multiracial place like Singapore is a common set of symbols, of metaphors, of descriptions. This is why I wrote a poem, ‘Ulysses by the Merlion’,3 where I talk about the naga,4 I talk about the land, I talk about dragons: these are different symbols from all our cultures. I did that because I needed to create an intellectual hinterland, one that had a past, that has a present, to make it ours, make it Singaporean. It had to have our tone, our rhythm. In other words, we had to colonise our emerging culture in Singaporean terms. Make it Singaporean. You have to put in as much as you can of your life, your past, your present, your hopes, and your future. And if you’re writing in English you want to write as a Singaporean poet, so you’ve got to de-colonise, or re-colonise the language. Touch it up here and there.

Jen: Are you making Singaporean culture more Anglophone?

Edwin: No. That’s a good point, but no. You see, ‘Anglophone’ is loaded.

Jen: Do you mean the term Anglophone is a colonising term? Because it removes the speaker from their actual physical and generational location?

Edwin: Yes. That’s why I talk about literatures in world Englishes, not literature in English. And that is an important point to make. We put in our own images, our own metaphors, and the language is made into your own.

Jen: I’ve lived in five countries, all of them English-speaking countries, and in every one, when I first go there I’m a foreigner and I don’t know what they’re saying and they don’t know what I’m saying. It’s not just the accent, it’s also the phrases, it’s how you use words, and it’s the syntax, how you construct a sentence. In 1976 [Australian poet] Les Murray published a collection of poems called The Vernacular Republic where I think he practiced what he later described, in his review of the first (1981) edition of The Macquarie Dictionary, ‘Centering the Language’, that it shows ‘how much larger and richer our dialect is than many had thought, in part by gently but firmly shifting our linguistic perception, so that our entire language is henceforth centred for us, not thousands of miles away, but here where we live’.

Edwin: Yes. Look at what Donald Horne said in his ‘Foreword: Making English Australian’ to The Macquarie Dictionary. He makes the point that we need our own lexicon. Which is an obvious point. Webster did the same thing, and Whitman made the same point, more than once. You have to have your own.

So for me then there are all these things to do. First generation, it’s in your roots. Second generation, it’s less, because you always start with enormous problems, but the proportion between problems and solutions decreases when the government is successful in building the nation. When you find solutions, and bit by bit we have more pluses, the minus part of the balance gets lighter, and the pluses get heavier.

That is about building the nation, but a lot depends on the individual. A person like me, half-Indian, half-Chinese, and English-speaking — or English-using, rather. Because I also write English, I had to write myself into the centre, into relevance. The classic case of this journey is [South African] Bessie Head’s. She is the ultimate example of marginalisation because she was illegitimate, and half-black, half-white — and in this instance the father was black, the mother was white: the ultimate shame, degradation; deadlier than had her father been white. You can’t be more marginalised than that. And because of politics, she had to leave South Africa, and she went to Botswana, where she was a complete outsider.5 Then she writes herself into her first book; she starts thinking of equality, and in all her other works you can see she’s writing herself into relevance. And now if you go to Botswana, she’s their national writer. She adopted the country; and when she became important as a writer, they adopted her. In all the ex-colonies, we have to recover, make and re-make ourselves, and then re-adjust and so on and so on.


Section 2: Learning to write

Jen: Were you conscious of all this, as a young man writing poetry?

Edwin: Ah! Consciousness comes very gradually. Knowing about difference came early because I used to be called names, being part-Indian, part-Chinese. Don’t forget I was born in 1933, and before the war inter-marriages were not common. I was very unusual; in fact at that time among the Chinese you didn’t even marry out of your dialect group. So I was aware of difference, but gradually, gradually the politics, the need to have one country, Malaya: that triggered me. At university I was called half-caste by one student — you know, a hazing. But the other students said no, he’s the first of the Malayans.6 There were quite a few of us at university, enough of us to form a little group, and we called each other countrymen. And we were pretty bright as a group. I’m not saying we’re more intelligent, but being underdogs, we worked harder, we produced better results. I went in when I was about 18, 19, and at school I was already beginning to get it.

I had an uncle from China who was communist, and he taught me a great deal about the nature of colonialism. You see, British colonialism is very cunning, very clever. You know how they made the Indians sacrifice their lives for them during the First and Second World War? They converted things into abstractions — ‘loyalty’ for instance. And also they established special schools for the princes in the princely states; and so on and so on. If you’re going to be a colonial power, you’d better be the most cunning, the most clever. Why should you be a second-class colonial power? But when all is said and done, they left us a precious legacy, English. The sun has set on the British Empire, but it hasn’t set on the language. In fact, the day is lit by Englishes, almost anywhere.

So your first question, we start from the assumption any poet is connected to the world: you can see how complicated the connections would be for a Singaporean. But for me, my connections really would be the history, and then my family, education and job. Publishers, hardly at all, because our literature’s too small for publishers to take us seriously.

Jen: It is hard for people in small countries; I mean even Australia, which has a tiny population: you don’t find Australian poets being read in England or America, but we all read English and Americans. Australian literature doesn’t travel any more than Singaporean literature travels, very much. But can you expand that a bit: what has sustained you in your writing life?

Edwin: These are the things that have sustained me: the national vision, and themes like — what makes our society; what constructs everyone; what vision do we want? My little place in it; like any Singaporean of my generation: we knew we had to build, we knew we had to contribute.

And also the understanding of self. You see, I’ve never been divided. I’ve never been hampered by the fact that I’m half-Indian, half-Chinese. I’ve always been operational. They say, don’t you get confused? and I said no, don’t foist confusion upon me. I’m not confused at all. I can function easily: converse in one, then in the other language, so there is no separation. It’s the same mind, though it’s different words, different language, different grammar. It’s the fascination with words: that is very important.

What else: roots, tradition, and then also the emerging identity of Singapore and what it is going to be. It’s fascinating to watch the changes that are going on: the social engineering, the change in the physical environment, and the movement from uncertainty — from economic uncertainty, whole seas of uncertainties into the constructed miracle that is Singapore today.

Jen: Yes. And so you watched Singapore emerge? I suppose, born when you were, you saw the war in Singapore, the communist threat afterward, and the war in the Malaya peninsula?

Edwin: Yes. War after war after war. They’re quite bloody, you know; wars are never polite, war is cruel. And the racial riots: I saw the Maria Hertogh riots,7 and after that I saw the racial riots that led to Singapore’s separation from Malaysia, and then in May 1969 there were riots that started in Malaysia. I saw these things. And don’t forget, my Chinese side remembered the brutalisation of the Chinese by the Japanese army. You know, these things remain in your mind.

So the themes then are what sustained my writing. But above all it was the gradual realisation we needed our own literature. I wanted to write it in English. It’s not my mother tongue, but it’s my main language. I realised, between Victoria School and University, in early 1953, that we needed our own literature. This is from a 1953 issue of Youth, the magazine of the combined secondary schools of colonial Singapore:

Malaya provides a wealth of subjects of interest for budding writers. The modes of living of its many races, their varied reactions to the impact of Western culture, and their living harmoniously together: these are no mean subjects for essays.

“YOUTH” therefore appeals to you, the young men and women of this country, to help to STIMULATE INTEREST IN CREATION OF A GENUINELY ORIGINAL MALAYAN LITERATURE. This is specially urgent in view of the efforts being made towards the creation of a MALAYAN NATION. Or, are we to be a nation without our own literature?8

I was the editor. In the next issue my Editorial was ‘All Art Is A Collaboration’.

And I always knew that literature is fundamental to the life of nations, and that every great nation has a thriving, vibrant literature. Look at Elizabethan and Jacobean drama, look at the poetry of the period: they were nationalistic. Shakespeare’s an absurdly nationalist guy. Think of his history plays, and his views on race in Othello, or Merchant of Venice … Shakespeare is a complete educator. You know, you just need to do Shakespeare, and you’ve got everything you need, from politics to the ways of love.

Jen: So these are the things that sustain you. How do you like to be described; for example, do you describe yourself as a poet, or as a Singaporean poet?

Edwin: I would say I’m a Singaporean poet, formed by and responding to life and contacts. Shaped by these things; energised by the life around me, by all these changes, and also by the vision which we all had — and which the government has consistently pushed — of a multiracial society, where everybody’s equal, with equal opportunities. Where there’s religious freedom, and intellectual freedom. But freedom with responsibility. Untrammelled freedom is the most dangerous thing, and freedom mustn’t grant itself a licence.

Jen: That’s very Greek; that is, very related to a period in ancient Greek thought.

Edwin: True.

Jen: You’ve talked a great deal about the work of building the nation of Singapore. Clearly it is threaded through your poetry. But when you move house, or travel out of the country, does that change of location affect your writing?

Edwin: No. Because Singapore’s so small. You know, you can move anywhere, and you’re still within the same space, you’re still within the same history, you’re still within the same sets of interests. I carry Singapore with me.

Jen: How about when you travel overseas – for instance, when you go to Grahamstown or Durban; do you find your sense of writing shifts?

Edwin: No and yes. The instinct behind your question is right. I went to Durban and I have a poem from then, because the bloke there said write a poem and I worked at it, and I produced a poem and found we had faced the same issues and challenges.

Durban: Poetry Festival 20039

You asked for a poem amidst continental
Omen, prophecy, crisp tribal theologies,
At loggerhead, prospering wars, drought,
Famine, crude corruption, young nostrils
Plagued by flies, while distended bellies
Mark our days, unhinge our world. Justice
Is maimed, at times cleverly imprisoned
Between definitions. In times when truth
Is force, and force a crocked heaven, we try
Steady uncoiling dialogue, partly Englishes.

Yours and mine, as we draw and validate all
We think, write and speak, cajole our Earth
And Air, re-marking every phoneme into ours.

Gathering in Durban, race, tribe and discourse,

Commanding tongue asserts history; burnish
Such provinces of life, renewing promises.
Peter Rovnick’s may-winter conclave started
Slowly. Heard mood and tense decolonise,
Make new conjunctions. Mandated by ancestral
Ways, they propel the secrets of our utterance.
So stretch each word to drink the same feeding
Pigment; re-move their imperial themes. Subdue
Their echoes. Ignore post-colonial patronage,
In-judicious, hurtful judgements of the past.
Then leap beyond any questioning. Name wind,
Trees, wounds fractures by blood that gallops

           Through the heart of words.

And the Word I came with is now multiplied,
Because I heard you and you sing, move, make
Far more total; shake pain or joy, despair or hope.
You whispered, shouted, changed gears, clearing
Throats for new vowels, the drift of Drakensberg
Among cloud as the buffalo horns gradually close. 
And that mist in the valley of the kings. uSuthu.
The grumbling gravel of the road, smooth rainbows,
Varying utterance from one culture to the next
As the measured phrase opens into orality, gesture,
Breaking into Slam and Joop’s language, masterly
Neighbours. Words will never be the same again.

There are more doors to open, to disclose, adjust,
Through which to take our dreams. To float and fly;
Hear truly. The poets private sunshine gets revealed,
Home of his words, the laughter of his tribe, Cho Cho
Ke Ke murmuring walking through sunshine, shadow,
Sharing bone and marrow, while cleaving to our flanks.

          I have new sounds to wake up dreams


The response is different because it is a different space, in a different history. The solutions were different.

Jen: So you’re like a tortoise: you take your culture and your issues with you where you go?

Edwin: Absolutely. It’s both a burden and a liberation. It’s something that holds you back and at the same time pushes you forward. It sounds paradoxical, but that’s it. But the place of composition of a poem emerges in the writing because in the same space there’s so much changing, so many new combinations going on all the time. That’s always reflected in both the poems I write and the criticism I write. Because when writing poems and writing criticism, it is the same mind at work but with different aims. Different aims in terms of what you’re producing. But ultimately the aims are the same: both are about literature. They have different audiences, different purposes, different intentions, but it’s still all about literature. Whether you write a poem or write criticism, you’re writing literature.

Jen: Where did you first come across poetry — or, more generally, literature?

Edwin: Oh, well it starts probably with nursery rhymes at home. I had the advantage of nursery rhymes in Teochew and English. And with nursery rhymes one has a sense of not only of rhythm, but of movement, of words being larger than themselves, of words occupying you, making you move. That literary realisation came later. At that time I just enjoyed it, but later, when you started thinking, what did I get from it? then these other, broader insights come.

Jen: So first it was just about naïve pleasure, but later it moved you into a thinking space, a generative space.

Edwin: Absolutely. But gradually. You learn a little bit when you go to secondary school — chiefly narrative poems. We read Henry Newbolt’s anthology of longer poems.10 They didn’t teach you much about poetry: they taught you about what goes into poetry. They didn’t teach you poetry as such. But gradually I absorbed a little. In my home we had Palgrave’s Golden Treasury,11 and that was a real repository. So I read: right from ‘Take, oh take those lips away, that so sweetly were forsworn,’12 or even ‘Full fathom five thy father lies, Of his bones are coral made, Those are pearlset cetera,13 the whole lot. Right up to ‘Solitary Reaper’,14 and the Lucy poems;15and that (supplemented the thing) was crucial instruction.

Jen: And you read Chinese poems as well?

Edwin: Ah, Chinese poems came a bit later. I read Chinese poems when I was in secondary school, doing the School Certificate, because at that time we had classmates who studied English in the morning and Chinese in the afternoon. Their Chinese was very strong, so they introduced me to the poems. And then I discovered Arthur Waley.16 First, his 170 Chinese Poems.17 And then the next one I discovered was his translation of Japanese poems, The Uta.18 It taught me two things. Firstly, it gave me a vocabulary; it gave me a discourse if you will. Secondly, it taught me how to say more with less. That is very important in poetry.

Jen: And Japanese poetry is an exemplar of that.

Edwin: Oh, absolutely. When you think of the haiku and so on. And then I gradually discovered Korean poetry — sijos.19

Now, these interests stay with you. But remember, we are all part-time poets; which is sad in a way. My generation had three jobs. First, your job — as a teacher, it’s what you’re doing. Then within the university you’ve got administration. That’s the second one. The third one is, you serve on government committees.

Jen: So all academics in Singapore served on government committees?

Edwin: Oh, not all. But many did. I recently worked out that I served on the Street Safe Committee for 30-odd years without realising it …

Jen: Time goes by.

Edwin: I know. When I resigned they gave me a little doo-dah, and that’s when I discovered it was from 1968 to 1992. So you see, you had three things to do. Sadly, I neglected my family.

Jen: I think we all neglect our families.

Edwin: There you are. And so I learnt; and even before I went to university I had some contact with those who were there. I had a book of modern poetry. I discovered Auden, Spender, C Day Lewis. And then I discovered Pound (the shorter Pound, not the long Pound). Eliot, not so much. My education was absolutely relevant to my poetry. My first really good friend was my old teacher, Seamus Fraser. He was an Oxford wallah from New College, and he taught us literature instead of preparing us for exams, so our exam results were disastrous.

Jen: But you all knew literature. (laughs)

Edwin: And we all loved literature. His favourite poets were Edgar Allan Poe, Beddoes (a very minor poet; Death’s Jest Book and so on),20 and Emily Brontë. These are all dark poets in some ways, especially Beddoes. He also liked Coleridge, but the Coleridge of Christabel. ‘The lovely lady, Christabel, Whom her father loved so well’ … 21 He taught me a great deal, and he is the one who introduced me to poetry. And he wrote poems himself. So he was terrific really. When I went to university of course we had to do ‘Introduction to English Poetry’, and then I discovered Eliot, Pound, Yeats; Yeats, of course, for me is the great influence.

Jen: And he was struggling with some of the same things wasn’t he, with the issue of Irish nationalism?

Edwin: Yes. But that part of Yeats was kept away from us. We got the sanitised Yeats. The closest we went to was the death of the Irish airman.22 And this is why if you look at the Yeats published by Macmillan, it is the safe Yeats. The real Yeats is ‘I am of Ireland’,23 and his uncollected essays, two volumes that came out much later. That is the real Yeats, that is the Yeats who ceased to be Anglo-Irish, who became Irish. But he was kept away from us.

And look at the history we were taught. Nothing but European expansion. But it stood me in good stead when I had to argue with them, because I knew the history better than they did. Britain, 55BC, Julius Caesar’s first invasion, the building of Hadrian’s Wall, the work of Julius Agricola, the whole lot. My own history, the Asian history, I read after I graduated, when I was in the civil service. For ten years I read that. I read into mythology, Asian history, Egyptian history, Greek history.

Jen: All that was just ignored when you were at university.

Edwin: Oh yes, because it was nothing but European expansion overseas. Colonialism: Spanish, Portuguese, British, Dutch, French, that’s it.

Jen: And Belgian?

Edwin: We never quite did Belgium. We didn’t even do Germany in East Africa, West Africa and Micronesia: we never did that.

Jen: The Belgian history was too embarrassing, I guess, after what they did to the Congo. The Germans didn’t go far enough beyond Africa, did they?

Edwin: No, they didn’t touch our area. And they never competed seriously against the British. The others, the Dutch and the British would fight, the French and the British would fight, but the Germans were only in East and West Africa; and in Micronesia (though hardly anything).

So coming back to this, on the education: yes, importantly, it introduces us to the need for any poetry to have a tradition. And for me the most important lesson, apart from techniques, was that it reconfirmed my feeling that we needed a tradition — in this case a tradition in literature. Eliot’s essay, ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’ was an eye-opener, a kind of reconfirmation. He made tradition literary, he defined it in literary terms; so the influence was there. But the influence … at one point Eliot sat on one shoulder, Yeats on the other shoulder and Pound was somewhere in between. I had to come to terms with them gradually. I had to absorb. Eliot is the less potent influence. Yeats was the one, because Yeats has that rhythm:

And I declare my faith:
I mock Plotinus’ thought
And cry in Plato’s teeth, 
Death and life were not
Till man made up the whole,
Made lock, stock and barrel
Out of his bitter soul.24

Jen: And it makes a strong point that. I heard a recording of him being interviewed and he said ‘it takes me a great deal of trouble to get my words into this order and I will have them said in this order’.25

Edwin: There you are. It’s important, very important.

Jen: Before we leave Yeats, you know how Auden says in his elegy for Yeats, ‘Ireland hurt you’.26 Do you think Ireland did actually ruin Yeats, or did it make him?

Edwin: I think Ireland made Yeats.

Jen: Auden was being very English then, perhaps?

Edwin: No. There’s a nasty side to Auden, you know; he dismissed culture east of the Mediterranean completely. I mean he did great things like rescuing Thomas Mann’s daughter; we’re not judging him; but he’s pretty nasty in that other sense. Yet there is the Auden of:

Lay your sleeping head, my love,
Human on my faithless arm;
Time and fevers burn away
Individual beauty from
Thoughtful children, and the grave
Proves the child ephemeral:
But in my arms till break of day
Let the living creature lie,
Mortal, guilty, but to me
The entirely beautiful.27

Jen: Very much a person of his age.

Edwin: That’s it. And Leavis did the same thing. I used to tell detractors, look we had a classical literature before you even existed as a nation. Think of the great Chinese and Indian epics, and the philosophical systems, the complexity of ideas. But we made one mistake, a costly mistake. We went into metaphysics rather than physics. Instead of astronomy we went into astrology. Instead of chemistry, we went into alchemy. So we made many discoveries, but we didn’t pursue them.

Jen: And you didn’t have the empirical evidence that counts, post-Enlightenment, for knowledge. It stays in a dream world.

Edwin: Yes. And in a monolithic situation there’s less competition, and less inventiveness. Think of the city-states. They have to fight each other, outdo each other, to survive. But if you’re China, Middle Kingdom, and you’re big and strong, there’s order running through the whole society. So maybe that’s one reason we progressed the way we did in in Singapore, by resolving our many problems.

Jen: Can you talk a little about your relationships with other poets?

Edwin: Well, I mentioned Yeats, Pound, Eliot, Shakespeare: the dead poets.

Jen: And how about your contemporaries, and the young poets now?

Edwin: I’m an old man. You tend to learn from older people. And I’m going to say this: the range of interests the older poets have is wider than the range of the younger poets. And you need a wide range to teach.

Jen: Why do you think that is? Because young poets haven’t lived long enough?

Edwin: No. It’s not that. They’re international now; they’re global now. That is part of present-day Singapore. The contentious issues have changed: they’re not survival issues, they are issues that come from comfort, from enormous progress and wealth. Look at Facebook, how some criticise this, criticise that.

Jen: So it’s first world problems.

Edwin: First world problems and not only that, first world/small space problems. Always trying to get out of the small space. And these are the things you do to get out of the space. We have defined the space, preserved the space, and made the space thrive, so now we can think of other things. A little red dot enlarging space, the sense of space, a feel of the global through travel. We have become travellers.


Section 3: The compositional process

Jen: Let’s talk about the writing sector. You said earlier that publishers haven’t been relevant to you. But how about the community of poets? Do you have an ideal reader in your mind?

Edwin: I had a reader in my mind, Shamus Fraser, till about 15 years ago. Every time I read a poem it was his voice. My poem, but his voice. He was reading my poem for me: he was the voice. All my poems in my head were his voice. And when he really died was when he ceased to be there, to be part of me.

But a community of poets? No, I don’t really belong. We’re too individualistic, too small and there’s not enough of us to form a community. And there are the differences in generational interests and pre-occupations. We do have common interests, shared interests: like for instance, the Merlion theme.28 I mentored a number of poets such as Heng Siok Tian, most now in their sixties, started the Creative Arts Programme with the Gifted Programme, Ministry of Education, in 1990, and offered a creative writing in poetry module some years ago.

But when I was at university, the poets all learnt from each other. I learned chiefly from Ee Tiang Hong, and from Wong Phui Nam to some extent. One good critic was Lloyd Fernando. So we learnt from each other and we helped each other. I always take suggestions without hesitation, if they are good. And you know whether it’s good or not. Immediately.

Jen: You can hear the shift in the line.

Edwin: Absolutely. There’s no hesitation. Then after university, I’d send work to a few friends. But I noticed the comments were getting fewer and fewer. That worried me in two ways. Firstly, it’s because you’re comfortable, thinking I’m doing okay! But then you wonder, am I doing okay? In the end, I depend on myself. This is why when I write I sometimes have 15, 20, 25 drafts, and I never finish. I tamper with the thing years later. Because when it comes to composition there are two stages: the main doing, and after that the tinkering. The tinkering never stops, never stops. Except for those poems which are abandoned. Some don’t survive. We don’t know exactly why we write, why we do what we do; but we know generally, and that’s enough. And the sources are quite simple: it’s your vocabulary, your grammar, your syntax, and the symbols in your inherited culture.

Jen: How consistent is that, do you think? For example, what differences are there between you in the act of writing a poem, and during the times between poems?

Edwin: None. You’re always the same person, because a poet never is off duty. A poet is on duty all the time: even when he’s sleeping he dreams. We are part-time in the actual writing, but always fulltime in thinking. And when I say part-time it means: you’ve got your job, you’ve got things to do, all those tremendous distractions. I never was able to say, When I get up in the morning I smoke cheap cigarettes and write poems. That’s what Eliot did. For me what happens is a conjunction of various things. If you’re thinking about a poem, and you happen to have a bit of time, then something triggers you; sometimes it’s guilt, or just thinking time to get going on that poem. So inspiration is really a conjunction of factors that gets you going, at that time.

Jen: You know the fantasy of the muse who comes and touches us: so many cultures do have that. I think there might be something in it, and suspect it is that if you’re always thinking of poetry and its possibilities, and paying attention, that’s when you get the gift of the poem.

Edwin: Sure. ‘The muse’ is the poet’s name for that conjunction, which is the title of this poem:


Sometimes, when the sun is twice itself
With light that quietly breaches certainty,
You feel the distaff side grow warm glow.
Pores of colour erupt: something is to happen,
Un-alerted, beyond intimation, context free.
Perhaps a visit that starts a high-road journey.

Not into the desert, but that familiar thing: a sudden
Squall within, though now its eye moves hidden.
Perhaps it inspects secrecies; even a preached word,
Somewhat unreleased, unleavened, leaving language
Lame these many years, with neither fret nor fever.
Perhaps now a downward curve whose end will rise,
                      May take us up.

Words begin to feel a somehow finger touch their
Shoulders. Then congenial, down the spine, making
Conjunctions; laying energy behind eye and ear; then
Tongue-tip, tasting darkness. Then a burst of light on
Grandpa’s final face, as he lay wrapped in love, reveals.
This time memory finds the door and turns a key.

                     At another,
Surely that eternal Thought which made the universe,
Takes you into a world of dew, or a shooting star’s
Brief statement; or the moon gathering golden evenings
Before appearing. For some, grammar in a sacred word
That meditates on them, then leaps, unlocking as she goes,
Disclosing small infinities. One who knew meaning
In light and darkness, and the shades between, said
           Words alone are certain good …
           The wandering earth herself may be
           Only a sudden flaming word.

                    So, at times
The uncertainty principle settles clear, and certain.
Stabilised into moments just long enough to do its work.
Thereafter, we return to what we know, the ordinary;
Breathe familiar fantasies. For the day has no alarms;
All is usual. Once more the world has four safe corners; 
Morning its middle earth; night its usual count of rings ...
At least till when the sun descends in double-self.

Jen: You mentioned that some poems are just abandoned; for those that aren’t abandoned, how do you know that it’s time to stop working on it?

Edwin: A poem is never finished. You return to it again and again. You stop revising when it exhausts you, and you feel you can’t do more to it. That is why for me:

The perfect poem is future tense. Meanwhile,
Neat incompletion must suffice. Life goes on.
Meditate on words for modern times, alive to
This surge, this minute, and the next, curving
Towards us, to reveal poet on poem’s calling.30

There are very few occasions where I can sit down and say okay, I’m going to do this poem. I did it for the long poem I wrote in that little book: I sat down, and in one and a half days I finished it.31 But then it had incubating inside. What I did was, I wanted to write the history of the place, Bukit Panjang, or my sense of its history. Bukit is ‘hill’, panjang is ‘long’. I suddenly realised that the place starts there, with bukit, and it ends up far south. From Bukit Panjang, from the hills through to Jurong, it’s continuous: it’s been broken by roads, that’s all. If you go right through, it goes up to Government House. And it struck me, that’s why it’s Bukit Panjang: or actually it’s Bukit Panjang Panjang Panjang! Long! Long! It’s almost from the north of the island to the south. I talk about its other history, its geology. And then I link it with the history of the place, from before the war, right up to the present. I included even the time when (this present government) the Urban Renewal Authority sort of methodised the place, which I don’t like. Too much order. You want things not to be so controlled, so organised. There must be a sweet disorder occasionally — as Herrick puts it.32 You need a little bit of that.

Composition has two bits: the big bit when you finish writing, and the fiddly bit. When you finish, it exhausts you; you might come back to it and say, look I’m writing at the limit of what I can do; and then you leave it. Years later you might come back and fiddle with one word or move a punctuation mark or something. You might do that. Or abandon it entirely, usually because it was a false start: I thought it was important but it wasn’t important. A poem that is important will have its own energy; it’ll move you; it’ll insist, in fact. If it doesn’t, then you abandon it. The same subject might intrigue somebody else, but it doesn’t intrigue you. A loss of interest. You could rescue it, but then it would be just verse, structure: it’s speaking but controlled, schooled, more craft than art. And the writing process should be that you master craft, and then you lift craft into art.

I craft as much as I can. I try to load every line with ore, as Keats said.33 That’s what we should do. Otherwise why write it? For me, poetry must have a long shelf life. There’s no such thing as disposable poetry. You cannot have, you know, like in art, installation art. There’s no such thing as installation poetry. I would sum it up thus: your poem should be able to speak without you. You put everything in there. When you write a poem you don’t have to be present when you’re finished it. You have to be a good critic, you apply your criticism most rigorously when you write, because your criticism is in aid of making, not of explaining. That’s the difference.

I want to get my readers to feel, to think, to dream: to start with my poem, but go, get beyond it. And I want them to get into themselves. They have to get into themselves and that should be the whole function of poetry. For me a good poem is part of a journey: a journey outside yourself as well as into yourself. A good poem must make you connect, not with the poem merely, but with life itself. It must do that.

Jen: So it’s a generative spark, for the reader, a machine for thinking?

Edwin: Yes, absolutely. And nicely put, nicely put. And you know what else? Poetry should liberate a person, and give the person new eyes, new ears, new speech: not your speech, but theirs. You don’t do things to them, you start helping them to do things to and for themselves. A good poem is a beginning, it’s not an end. But the reader has to be serious. And you’ll be sweating like mad, but hopefully the access is worth the effort. That’s the distinction between a poem that speaks and a poem that mutters.



1. The Great Leap Forward (1978–1985) was the name given to Singapore’s decision to compete more effectively in the regional economy through a combination of factors, not least through new educational initiatives and population management. See Christopher Tremewan, The political economy (1994). The term is also used more generally in Singapore to name new social and cultural initiatives.

2. The Malays comprise a cultural hinterland. Then there is a fiscal hinterland, because of the money belt in the centre of Singapore.

3. ‘Ulysses by the Merlion’ is considered one of the most important poems written in Singapore; the National Library Board of Singapore observes that it ‘has sparked many literary and academic responses to this day, attesting to its vast applications and ranging influence’ (2011). Originally published in a collection of the same name (Ulysses by the Merlion, 1979), the poem is also installed near the Merlion, on a plaque, and can be both read and heard at http://www.nus.edu.sg:80/NUSinfo/CFA/Prof's/poems/ulysses.html.

4. The naga is a mythical creature, in serpentine or dragon form, found in stories right across the Asian region.

5. Bessie Head was a South African born in 1937 to a white mother, and a black father. At the time this was unacceptable – a contravention of the Immorality Act 1927 – and, writes Huma Ibrahim, Head’s mother ‘was exiled out of an established social position and coaxed into insanity within an asylum; it has never been clear whether she did exhibit “mad” traits or just socially unacceptable ones’. See Huma Ibrahim, Bessie Head (1996), p. 159. Head was briefly involved with the Pan-African Congress, and was arrested because of her political activity; after her release from custody, she left South Africa to live permanently in Botswana. See Ide Marie Corley-Carmody, In the place of the father (2007), p. 164. She died in 1986 in Botswana; following the end of apartheid she was finally recognised in her native land: among other honours, in 2003 she was awarded the ‘Order of Ikhamanga in Gold’ for her ‘exceptional contribution to literature and the struggle for social change, freedom and peace’ (see ‘National Orders: Recipients’, The Presidency, Republic of South Africa website (2007),
http://web.archive.org/web/20070927050140/http://www.thepresidency.gov.za/orders_list.asp?show=172, (accessed 12 February 2014).

6. The notion of a ‘Malayan culture’ as opposed to Malay or Malaysia culture, is associated with the stance taken by Sinnathamby Rajaratnam, the first Singaporean Minister of Culture, whose insisted that nation-building depended on establishing a shared culture, where Malay, Chinese and Indian — and not only Malay — community values, beliefs and practices were incorporated and mutually appreciated. See See CJ Wan-ling Wee, Culture, empire (2003), pp. 204–5.

7. The Maria Hertogh Riots occurred in Singapore in December 1950. Maria was a Dutch Eurasian child who was baptised Catholic, but raised Muslim in Singapore by a foster mother as a result of the second world war and its dislocations of people. After the war, there was strong pressure brought to have Maria restored to her (Catholic) parents in the Netherlands and this, combined with other contemporary issues, was seen as an attempt by the old colonial powers to reassert control over the region, and to undermine Muslim values. Although the death toll from the riots was comparatively small, it was of huge political significance because it made apparent the vulnerability of the colonial powers. See Syed Muhd Khairudin Aljunied, Colonialism, violence and Muslims in Southeast Asia (2009).

8. Youth, 1953 vol 4, I.

9. ‘Durban: Poetry festival 2003’ is published in the Singapore Pioneer Poets series, The best of Edwin Thumboo (2012), p. 179.

10. Henry Newbolt (ed), An English anthology (1922).

11. Francis Turner Palgrave (ed), The Golden Treasury (1875).

12. From William Shakespeare, ‘Song’, in Measure for measure, Act IV, Scene i.

13. From William Shakespeare, ‘Ariel’s Song’, in The tempest, Act I, Scene ii.

14. William Wordsworth, ‘The solitary reaper’ (1807), in The collected poems (1994), p. 344.

15. William Wordsworth: the Lucy poems is a series of five poems published 1798–1801, with titles ‘Strange fits of passion have I known’, ‘She dwelt among the untrodden ways’, ‘I travelled among unknown men’, ‘Three years she grew in sun and shower’, and ‘A slumber did my spirit seal’.

16. Arthur Waley was a translator of Chinese and Japanese poetry into English in the first half of the 20th century. Though self-taught, he produced a remarkable body of work, and was instrumental in introducing this literature to the English-speaking worlds. See John de Gruchy, Orienting Arthur Waley (2003).

17. Arthur Waley, 170 Chinese Poems (1919).

18. Arthur Waley, The Uta (1919).

19. A sijo is a Korean form of poetry, similar to haiku, and traditionally presented in three lines of between 14 and 16 syllables each. A good introduction to the form, and a collection of sijo in English translation, if provided by Richard Rutt, The bamboo grove (1998).

20. Thomas Lovell Beddoes (1803–49); a minor English poet. His playscript Death’s Jest Book; or The Fool’s Tragedy (1850) was published posthumously.

21. See Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Christabel (1869).

22. WB Yeats, ‘An Irish airman foresees his death’, in The wild swans at Coole (1919), p. 9.

23. See WB Yeats, ‘I am of Ireland’ (1933), in The winding stair (2011). This is poem XX in the sequence Words for Music Perhaps.

24. WB Yeats, ‘The tower’ (1928), in The collected poems (2008), p. 164.


Works cited: 


Aljunied, SMK 2009 Colonialism, violence and Muslims in Southeast Asia: The Maria Hertogh controversy and its aftermath, Milton Park: Routledge

Beddoes, TL 1850 Death’s jest book; or The fool’s tragedy, London: William Pickering

Coleridge, ST 1869 Christabel, and the lyrical and imaginative poems of ST Coleridge, ed. Algernon Charles Swinburne, New York: Scribner, Welford and Co

Corley-Carmody, IM 2007 In the place of the father: Patriarchy, psychoanalysis and Pan-Africanism, PhD dissertation. Tufts University

de Gruchy, J 2003 Orienting Arthur Waley: Japonism, Orientalism, and the creation of Japanese literature in English, Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press

Ibrahim, H 1996 Bessie Head: Subversive identities in exile, Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia

Murray, L 1976 Selected poems: The vernacular republic, Melbourne: Angus & Robertson

Newbolt, H (ed) 1922 An English anthology of prose and poetry, London: JM Dent

Palgrave, FT (ed) 1875 The Golden Treasury of the best songs and lyrical poems in the English language, London: Macmillan

Rutt, R 1998 (ed and trans), The bamboo grove: An introduction to sijo, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press

Singapore Pioneer Poets series 2012 The best of Edwin Thumboo, Singapore: Epigram Books

Thumboo, E 1979 Ulysses by the Merlion, Singapore: Heinemann Educational Books

Tremewan, C 1994 The political economy of social control in Singapore, Basingstoke: Macmillan

Waley, A 1919 170 Chinese poems, New York: Alfred A Knopf

Waley, A 1919 The Uta, Oxford: Clarendon Press

Wee, CJW 2003 Culture, empire, and the question of being modern, Lanham: Lexington Books

Wordsworth, W 1994 The collected poems of William Wordsworth, London: Wordsworth Editions

Yeats, WB 1919 The wild swans at Coole, New York: Macmillan

Yeats, WB 2008 The collected poems of WB Yeats, London: Wordsworth Editions

Yeats, WB 2011 The winding stair and other poems, New York: Scribner