Review of the poetry sections of The Likhaan Book of Poetry and Fiction: 1996, ed by Ricardo M. de Ungria, 1997, ed by Gemino H. Abad, 1998, ed by J. Neil C. Garcia, 1999, ed by Ricardo M. de Ungria, 2000, ed by J. Neil C. Garcia
If poetry-literate people tend to be competitive—and here let the term encompass the full range of ambition, diligence and envy—perhaps it’s because at the core of this art, far from the business of the careers it spawned, we know that there is no competition, and the absence of a prize vaguely commensurate to what poetry can demand and exact from us seems to call for the illusion that there is. The art itself does not require it. No matter how you would describe the voice that a poem carries, what the poem wants is a readership through time attuned to its voice—not a prize, if they are not the same and they are not. With neither evidence of a readership or a prize—and there lies a description of the basic condition of any literary scene with a small vocabulary for attentive appreciation such as ours—no object helps more to sustain these illusions of success of the poet and also, perhaps, of the collective he or she belongs to, than anthologies of poetry.
Certainly some illusions survive, we attach to their sturdiness the notion that they are true. The fact remains though that the judgement of poems is provisional, has always been so, and I think that a similar provisionality extends to all poetry, whether we are contemporaneous with them or not: it seems to me that Shakespeare and the informing spirit of the Bible are still alive precisely because so long as the mind has the capacity to test doctrine, the question of their work’s value is not dead. All to reiterate the obvious: that literary values don’t stay still (because what gets measured against them don’t), that the matter of judgement is a problem (one especially more problematic when the critical eye is turned towards the output of its own time), and that reviewing an anthology of contemporary poetry is awkward, awkward work. When we talk about poetry far outside the field of its instances, no values can be erected that cannot or will not be challenged eventually.
Now, should the focus of a review’s ultimately evaluative kind of attention—as I sense is generally demanded—fall exclusively on the poems that compose an anthology, the task is impossible to do without early on feeling off the mark, a mark that doesn’t even exist. We know from the outset that any appraisal of a selection, no matter how vigorous and justified in its defense, provides answers only to the uninteresting issue of whether the reader’s understanding of what poems are meant to do coincides with the anthologist’s ideas. As far as choices are concerned, agreement is often scarce—and this is favorable: serious reckoning of epithetic terms like “best” or “mastery of form,” used so often with a slackness with articulation that helps no one, might begin. Potentially, we stand to gain via honest disagreement and the thinking called up by it, the enlargement of what we can perceive as beautiful and an occasion to decide which biases we care to keep or ought to. Also, maybe (one hopes): greater precision in recognizing the instances (poems) that, in different ways, embody or practice or make possible, ideals which might apparently be shared.
Each year since 1995, the University of the Philippines’ Creative Writing Center, through the U.P. Press, has been publishing The Likhaan Book of Poetry and Fiction. Its careful title does not declare that these volumes intend to “collect the best  poems...in English...published each year in magazines, journals or newspapers” (disregarding for this review the fiction, and the poems in Filipino that appear in a separate volume). Hardly can we use the word “culling” to describe what gets accomplished because we have, approximately, only about 15 venues for poetry publication; so few poems get published each year that a selected bibliography actually appears at the back pages of each Likhaan Book. One might think that because of the relatively generous selection, the issues of exclusion and marginalization are here dispensable. But that—disregarding for now the fact of the irrelevance of those issues in Philippine literature in English—can be said only if the project were born out of a spirit of inclusiveness, of appreciation, a matter left unsettled since the rationale for the project is mentioned nowhere: the situation meant to be addressed by the publication of these books remains unnamed. Be that as it may, these anthologies do not compel that part of the mind suited for policing—because despite some acts of omission and some embarrassing inclusions here and there (and this in a scenario where no allegiances based on aesthetics-poetics really operate), these books have no sting.
How unfortunate, because what suffers is what I think the Likhaan Book services. Not Filipino poets, who would have profited as poets or as Filipinos from having a book with poems in English and in Filipino side by side, nor literature’s imaginary friend, the marketplace’s “general reader,” to whose attention the book isn’t brought. What I think suffers in this case is the notion of “the best,” a notion that becomes useful and crucial, to poets and non-poets both, when it turns into an idea. In many ways, the term “best” is politically unsound, intellectually brutish—which is why I like it: it generates thought. Or rather, it forces anyone to whom the term corresponds to some thing, to articulate judgement arrived at in a candid instant, long before the language for it appears and appears to have failed the ecstatic sensation of the judgement as it was made. Whether the anthologies of “the best” exist or not, we—or those of us who believe in (or recognize the fact of) human agency—live influenced by an idea of a supreme good, articulated or not. That it is historical, meaning not only that it’s determined by material circumstances belonging to the vague expanse called the present but also that it is in flux, excuses the naivete implicit in the act of using it, the blindnesses choice relies on to be made. The assessment of contemporary work by the future is no more valid than contemporary assessment: in either case, the moment declares what it needs. Only if the moment of the assessment occurs in a shared present, therefore, can aesthetic judgement be judged.
A useless anthology is staked on no compelling ideation of its own terms. When the selection depends on “subjective taste”—the truism of choice in the rationalization of the choices in the Likhaan books—the problem is not so much the suggestion that in no way can aesthetic judgment be mistaken: the problem is that in an anthology, that line of defense is a lie. Taste is passive perception, capacity for perception, mere proclivity: there is nothing passive about anthologizing. “[A]ll were chosen with the excellence of their artistic execution in mind,” writes Garcia in 1998. “How I arrived at individual appraisals of just such excellence is, finally, a matter of my unabashedly subjective—how is it called now?—taste.” If you read that last sentence again, does it not seem that “excellence” has been relegated to “subjective—what is it called now?—taste”? Such a sentiment echoes through the series. De Ungria, before a series of perhapses and metaphors for what he likes in poems, writes in 1996: “Until today when I am duty-bound to spell it out, taste bud by taste bud, I have never really bothered to find out what it is in a poem that excites me.” Abad in 1997: “I was guided in my choice by only one consideration: my own perception, certainly not infallible, of that difficult virtue or power in any work of art called quality...” Reading through the introductions, one often senses not an attractive sense of duty but a very odd sense of pseudo-gnostic snobbery, as if their choices are self-justified because, as Abad puts it in his “General Introduction” in 1996, “it must needs be pointed out unabashedly that the editors at the Likhaan have over the years earned their literary title.”
Thankfully, the editors do point out in some instances what positive attributes they found in the poems they chose (“wholeness,” “artful compositions,” “insight,” “energy,” etc.), yet dissatisfaction persists because no matter the occasional thoughtful articulation—de Ungria’s “a striking, even beautiful oddness I can claim for the moment to give things the perspective they seem to be losing all the time,” Garcia’s “silence that always comes after the poem’s ultimate line, finally...ringing true,” to cite two instances), there is no governing aesthetic, no wished-for perspective, perhaps because there is no vanishing point where idealism and conviction triumph over mere preference. The happy exception occurs in 2000 where Garcia, skipping the problematic of “best,” attempts to define the undefinable (“poetry”): “The violent movement across irreconcilable gulfs of difference, the metaphorical evacuation and ‘carrying over’ of meaning, the initially destructive yet finally transformative power of comparison or similitude—all this may be seen in each and every poem in this anthology...” Unhappily, past the dash, his statement is not true, which brings us to the poems themselves.
“The sad fact,” writes de Ungria 1999, “is that most of the poems getting published these days—bearing marks of schooling (or nearly so) and threats of competence and talent aborning—are insufferably mediocre and lazy.” That is accurate, and holds true for a great a deal of the material I had to sit with to write this piece.
To many poets whose works appear frequently in the series, poetry seems be a matter of sounding ‘poetic’: inflated, sort-of-heightened language that sounds understandable, but if read closely (or if simply read) either makes no sense, or obscures the small idea that is meant. Often, in effect, sentences descriptive in gesture do not describe anything, images are not achieved, verbs don’t do their jobs, diction is just wrong...—it is as though language in poetry is meant to be a kind of noise that ‘sounds beautiful.’ Metaphors proliferate with no consciousness tracking them, mainly because they derive from unintentional errors in diction. The writers of these poems seem unaware of how their language mangles material in the name of a misguided sense of what is poetic. In “The Blue Hour”:
I do not want this to end, you say
Under the stretch of sky, lengthening
our lips forming the gesture of a kiss
Under a stretch of sky? the stretch of sky—lengthening? And lips forming the gesture of a kiss? What on earth is a gesture of a kiss, and how make the lips form it? Here is a stanza from a poem called “Promising Lights”:
Wine-blue gemstone, grain,
and blooms of amaranth
in her hand, the stone angel
shatters. Conjuring a parfait
of lights, she falls on the rough
earth, sentient with love.
Does the language of that stanza help you imagine what it is asking you to imagine? (Note also how, as we follow the subject from “stone angel” to “a parfait of lights” to “she”, the imaging of the subject wavers to the point of unimaginability.) These are failures in technique, and what makes them alarming in the work of such writers is that cumulatively, they constitute a method of poeticizing, a programmatic approach to poetry begun on the wrong foot, namely, that poetry derives from muddy thinking and pretty words—what here so predominantly operates as an unexamined notion of the “lyrical.” In such work, the world feels largely unacknowledged, because sighed through, escaped.
Dressing up language does not always lead to mistakes mentioned above. In other instances, the words simply lose their power to function. Here is a stanza from a poem called “Requiem for a Dying Poet”:
Too timid to dip riverward and
Clouds afraid to gather into a storm,
Baring but slightly one part,
Touching but gingerly, surfing
Nets of cursory interactives, bios
Anonymous, no collision of parts
To ignite a blinding, no lines
Nor loins burning, no treads on
Grounds plundered into one
No flames charring this limp wood
Into possible deep limnings.
The interest in the verbal image and the intention to describe via negation and to use hyperbolical metaphors (those allusions to catastrophe) for poetry are clear, but the words here are made indistinct by the very phrases in which they find themselves, apparently at peace—the tone gives you that impression—with their own resultant vagueness. If that is by design, the question is: to what end? For twelve lines of intelligent-sounding obliquity? If the language here is intended to embody the “Dying Poet’s” ‘impotence’ (in that the phraseology is impotent), then isn’t there a mistake in using the verbal image which refers chiefly to itself and therefore cannot work as a metaphor for the ‘impotence’ of the “dying poet”? If we do indulge the writer and accept such metaphorizing, wouldn’t the mistake lie in that the tenor and the vehicle are both abstract? In this poem, it becomes significant to ask what its writer manages to attend to, and what in the poem manages to get heard.
Some of the verses that are too hard to trust, like the stanza above, borrow the manners of thought, not its ballasts; the egregiousness of the flaw makes the difference. The speakers in the verses below as well as many others strike a pose of intelligence (easy to do, isn’t it, in a milieu where to talk in English is still wrongly believed to be a sign of intelligence), their stabs at aphoristic utterance fail to convince, and/or they proceed from propositions, assumptions or methods of intellection that are inane. Here is the beginning of “A Memory of Water”:
Few people seek a glimpse
of the wide Pacific
from the moon—
Here’s the first line of “Movement”:
All women in pain look alike in Art.
Here’s the first stanza of “Ash Wednesday”:
it should fall on a Wednesday
must have counted backwards,
from that morning
He rose from the dead
to fulfill His promise.
Here are two lines from “Reconciliation”:
But there will be reasons for this
As there are reasons for everything.
But the least gratifying texts in the series are those which might not be poems at all. Here is the opening stanza of “Fortune Telling at Ora Cafe”:
You arrive all alone
full of fear and apprehension
in this cafe that promises
to foretell your future, as if
your goddam life with all
its complexities can be reduced
to a pack of cards, the twisting
path of your destiny as clear-cut
as a crystal ball, your strange fate
a text written in the stars.
Let me illustrate. Let’s read it this way: “You arrive all alone full of fear and apprehension in this cafe that promises to foretell your future, as if your goddam life with all its complexities can be reduced to a pack of cards, the twisting path of your destiny as clear-cut as a crystal ball, your strange fate a text written in the stars.” Was there any difference in what you received as a reader? What did the line-cuts and the arrangement of the words accomplish? Here is “Your Name,” its last two stanzas:
Now, I am all alone
at the helm of this colossal vessel,
drifting in a mercurial sea of mystery,
without any sense of time, facing
the distant horizon with no visible
port of destination.
Like a suit of armor
several sizes larger than your own,
the metal shimmering with the silver
sheen of valor, your name does not
fit you, my lily-livered, chicken-hearted
deserter of a captain.
I do not mean to belittle the sincerity or emotional sources of such verses, nor am I against feeling which I love when apparently genuine (i.e., when a form for it is found), but when poetry is used to ennoble pretentious, ‘poetic’ ka-ek-ekan by virtue of calling it “poetry,” all privilege goes to a stuporous use of language that would be dangerous to honor. Inclusion appeals to our sense of democracy, but the impulse to include must be distinguished from the avidity to excuse. When such works are called “best” or “excellent” as they are in the Likhaan anthologies, cogency—meaning—deserts those terms. When a self is forced to feign appreciation and give such works attention (sad customary practice in Philippine Contemporary Lit survey classes, where often even the teachers don’t like what they’re teaching), I think it becomes crucial to ask in what name that pretending is being done. Nationalism? ‘Friendship’? Good morals and right conduct?
I have refused to mention the names of the writers of the texts from which I quoted, not out of timidity but because naming their authors could so easily misconstrue this critique as a will to put down, when the intention—the wish—is that the poems we write be read not as extensions of people with names big or small, nor as cultural ornaments that one need not consider seriously, but as a written thing that is best read without—in fact may be read only without—fear, without that weird readiness to be intimidated, a readiness which tends to submit too easily to inherited, ‘expert’ judgement and interpretation at the expense of a self vivified by its honest response. What is desired, I would posit, is true contact with another voice. It can happen only if we read poems awake—granting that the poem being read does not merely ape speaking. Poems of this sort are represented in the Likhaan anthologies too, and it is with deeply grateful appreciation that one comes upon them. Let their authors’ names go unmentioned—listing them here only adds a layer not needed to read their poems. In such work, whatever the style of speech or writing, we encounter authentic voices; we experience, thanks to stylistic control matched with an openness to where the act of the poem might lead, a regard toward the self and its linguistic acts more human than merely ‘poetic,’ more interest in the objects of their attention and in possible discoveries kept possible by their forms than in the trappings of provincial celebrity. In their hands, poetry becomes luminous seeing configured in, allowed yet never circumscribed by language, and the writing of poems turns into a task that justifies itself.