Edwin Thumboo and the Public Responsibilities of Poetry

Part 3.1 of Poetry in English from Singapore and Malaysia

Rajeev S. Patke, DPhil (Oxon.) Department of English Language and Literature, National University of Singapore

Adapted from Post-Colonial Literatures in English, ed. Rajeev S. Patke, 1998, by George P. Landow, Professor of English and Art History, Brown University; Distinguished Visiting Professor, NUS, 1998-99.

Edwin Thumboo has been the most prominent presence on the local literary scene, though his poetic output is not large: the first slim volume Rib of Earth (1956) was followed two decades later by Gods Can Die (1977) and Ulysses by the Merlion (1979), and then, after a long gap, by The Third Map (1993). What his fellow-practitioners Shirley Lim and Ee Tiang Hong have to say about his work is instructive. Lim finds that Thumboo's 'urbane poetics' acquires 'greater public presence' after his first volume, but at the cost of `spontaneity, naturalness, simplicity, and private emotions' (Lim, 1989b, p.42). She is aware of how he has created a public self by revising positions, so that claims on behalf of the universality of western symbols, or for the importance to the Asian poet of the British literary canon, have been tempered over the years by the value found in a correspondence between the self and the nation.

Stylistically, Thumboo's affiliations to a relatively traditional style and diction are noted, as also the expository manner he has developed through a stylised grammar: 'The poem grows by extension of a main idea; phrases are placed in apposition to the main idea. Conflict is controlled or diminished when the syntax itself avoids subordination and assertion of causal relations' (Lim, 1993, p.113). According to her, ambivalence also characterises another feature of his poetry: the uncertainty about whether a word, phrase, line, stanza or entire poem is to be read as deliberately or unintentionally ironic. Nevertheless, for Lim, Thumboo's primary virtues remain 'a vital sensibility, an intelligent ambition'; and his principal accomplishments are 'as intellectual, activist and social apologist' (Lim, 1993, p.129). Ee Tiang Hong gives credit to the concrete and down to earth quality of his later poetry. Ee assesses Thumboo's achievement, within the context of Singapore's history and multiracial society, in terms of its 'accommodation and commitment to nation', and in how Thumboo's own roots in both Indian and Chinese cultures have enabled him to circumvent racial pride and passion, 'muted, or sublimated, redirected' their energy in the service of nation (Ee, 1997, p.71).

Main Web Page Singapore Literrature Next Bibliography