Toh Hsien Min at Work and Play: an essay
This essay is a first draft, written for the upcoming poetry.sg repository/directory.
In recent interviews, Toh Hsien Min has been mischievously calling his latest collection “a bit of an extended inside joke,” “a private joke,” even as it remains, to my knowledge, the best-received and most extensively reviewed of his books (“The Lounge Chair Interview,” “The City and the Writer”). I feel it important to read more deeply into those remarks, and draw from it some implications of Toh’s sustained work in poetic form.
To understand Toh’s poetics, it is important to first understand how the poet understands the task of a poetic project. Unlike many other contemporary Singapore poets, who might conceive of a collection as a group of poems written during a certain time, i.e. a book as a result of occasional forces, Toh is much more deliberate:
I conceive my collections as being integral and whole by design, rather than simply a patchwork of random poems written in the last X years. (Prick of the Spindle)
With that, it becomes possible, and even unavoidable, to examine Toh’s books as integral wholes and ask what each tries to do, situating each in the trajectory of the poet’s own, if we can still call Toh an emerging poet, his own emerging sense of oeuvre.
Ng Yi-Sheng, I think, has hit the nail on the head by describing Toh’s debut Iambus as “reveal[ing] the hallmarks of a talented young writer struggling to condense his experiences into the grandiose metric language of a borrowed tradition” (QLRS). In other words, Toh, again unlike many other Singapore poets, finds it necessary to wrestle with the English poetic canon, specifically the pre-modernist convention of regular rhyme and meter, as well as its (relatively) young New Formalist offshoots.
This wrestling produced, in one book, such curious anachronisms as:
Giant kelong nets of air
Pristine in solipsist’s delight
Hang on the chain-link barbed wire where
Their viscid scaffolds best ensnare
The jetting insects… (“Spider Watching”)
But also more conversational—a keyword to file away for later—and heartfelt stanzas as:
Grandfather found his kakis on his jaunts
Round Chinatown, at the elderly folks’ haunts.
For decades they defined his life; the strong,
Drab intervals were racks where clocks threw taunts.
He left the house eventually. He scared
Me. In the first decomposition, long,
protracted, fear of scolding held me back.
His kakis dropped off. All who said they cared
Were distant when he had his heart attack. (“Grandfather Thng”)
In both instances, however, there is a clear desire in that wrestling to both justify the uses of regular rhyme and meter to a Singapore literary culture suspicious of the neocolonial impulse, and transpose the local, everyday experience into an elevated register. Its overwrought language bespeaks that violence revealed in the book’s epigraph, where we are told that at its root, Iambus means “to assail in words”. Toh’s continuing struggle, therefore, is finding a poetic pathway that neither dismisses the weight of poetic history, nor the power of what Wordsworth called “the very language of men” (“Preface to the Lyrical Ballads”).
Toh has since described Iambus as “something that had to be done; it gave a young writer confidence to push on,” while The Enclosure of Love “was always the more ambitious work” (Prick of the Spindle). Nonetheless, that uneasy tension remains. On one hand, the hifalutin pronouncements of “Puerta del Sol”’s opening lines (“Eternal effulgence, be ever praised, / Ever exalted, unapproached light”), and on the other, the more quietly observed “you were so round, / Your arm was like a leg of lamb, and all / Your samfoo were unsleeved” of “Grandmother Thng”.
Enclosure does reveal some distinct shifts. For one, the persona darts easily across the world and back, from “A Coastal Boat in Port Muck“ to “Queenstown” to “The Freight Office in Hatyai Station,” which I read as partly an admission that one can’t ever get away from poetry as an occasional act. In many of these place-name poems, a meeting is staged, if not between friends, then between foreign people or landscapes, which seems to be a defining trope of Singapore poetry in general.
One of the most effective of these meetings occurs in “Fall, Maine,” where the persona, hunting a deer, accidentally shoots a local man’s dog: “‘I’m really sorry,’ was all I said, / Over and over”. The real danger of writing about place (whether ‘local’ or ‘foreign’) lies in the seduction of the tourist’s gaze, which turns everything into a play of light on the eyes, and furthermore at the pleasure of the watcher. “Fall, Maine” disrupts this expectation, reminding us of our blindness, our misreadings, our desire to take for ourselves things that don’t belong to us. For such meetings to take on significance, there must be something at stake bigger than the self.
The question of received form thus takes on more nuance. The uneasy meeting between conversational idiom and iamb becomes also a desire for reconciliation, a repeated apology for the writer’s inadequacies. At the same time, these dual restrictions on Toh’s craft also represent a way to pattern the chaos of existence, a way to transcend the blind self by acknowledging the dual histories of the postcolonial writer:
Now the enclosure that is love abounds.
It is the way a drop of rain that falls
Into a pool is enveloped at once
But carries on awhile, until the calm
Rejoins, and finds a deeper stillness there. (“Bir-Hakeim”)
The various conflicts described in the poem, from the “lightning-bolt that flashes through the sky,” to the pickpockets’ attack, to the rain, are resolved by a realisation that these difficulties are a necessary means of finding a new equilibrium. The lightning “Returns the skyline briefly to the day,” the persona “stepped aside like a floating spirit,” was “Too calm,“ and the raindrops return to their rightful place in the pool. If idiom and iamb are restrictions, they are also enclosures, promising a safe container for a single voice to find its deeper stillness in the pool of poetry.
In Means to an End, however, it appears that Toh has stepped aside, like his mugged persona, from these restrictions, choosing “long lined free verse” as his primary mode of expression. In particularly veiled remarks, he says Means
sounds like something that had to be done, but arguably wasn’t. It’s the beach holiday in the middle of the nine-to-nine work days, necessary for reasons that are wholly other to the reasons that are usually thought of as necessary. (Prick of the Spindle)
A surface reading of this statement suggests that the formal constraint of the nine-to-nine wore on him, and that free verse was a way to remove himself from the wrestling, a vacation in more than one sense of the word. Part of the joke, therefore, is that Toh’s latest and greatest work is really a diversion from his more serious concerns.
To be fair, Means has met with mixed reviews. Eddie Tay praises the “intimate and meandering consciousness” as appropriate to the book’s rumination on transience and capitalism (Cha). On the other hand, Ng describes it as
[…] fall[ing] squarely into the ‘reluctant yuppie’ school of poetry that’s ruled our shelves for a while – meditative segues about disillusionment with office life, little epiphanies gleaned during holidays abroad, nostalgic geographies of a disappearing Singapore. (QLRS)
“What Work Fulfils” appears to prove Ng right—it is a poem that could be about an office worker “Trapped in a six-by-six cubicle,” dreaming of Trappist monks farming, and more importantly, of being able to both do modern, tech-based work as well as farm. To have one’s cake and eat it too, a commonplace that the poem “Riesling” repeats. I think the far more productive understanding of this emphasis on the theme of work lies in the resonances between vocational and poetic work.
The desire to be both cutting edge and still connected to ancient traditions is really just the same issue manifesting itself in a different form. Where Iambus and Enclosure explore this tension through experiments in register and metrical form, Means suggests that free verse must be formal, just in different ways:
Alvin Pang felt they nevertheless showed my “formalist instinct,” despite being apparently no less free verse than any other in that anthology. Did I say the cadence was conversational? I’m sure you can see how the narrative mode lends itself to that. (Prick of the Spindle)
Although “conversational” implies at least another point of view, most of the poems in Means run like monologues, suggesting a poetic self talking to itself, trying to answer the question that “What Work Fulfils” asks: “What were your expectations / for this work?” Of course, this is a question that also asks itself of any reader. Part of the joke is that any evaluation of Means must take into account the fact that it isn’t meant to be read as a finished, great work, a point which Ng concedes at the end of his review.
If we are to take Toh’s comments on Means as a joke seriously, then we must also want to know what comes next, after the holiday from metrical forms. What can a journey into the land of the conversational bring to the formalist table? If the 2011 poem “Coast” is any indication, Toh is moving closer and closer to a balance of idiom and iamb, in a work both about small talk and high art, where both, eventually, reach their limits, fall short, each apologising for the other:Your friend asked me to follow you two round
Your friend asked me to follow you two round
the exhibition, so I kept beside
you, painting after painting, yet I found
nothing to captivate but you. I tried
to make some sense of Turner and Manet,
and lightly sallied round to where the view
in Menton was the best and what made hay-
and grass-fed beef taste different, and you
were listening as though it mattered much.
And yet I never got to the point, jumped
in for the kill, asked you out. Keep in touch,
was all I said when it came time to part.
Twice more that year in galleries, we bumped
into each other and we spoke of art.
Handal, Nathalie. “The City and the Writer: In Singapore with Toh Hsien Min.” Words Without Borders. 4 Aug 2015. Web. 4 Oct 2015. <http://www.wordswithoutborders.org/dispatches/article/the-city-and-the-writer-in-singapore-with-toh-hsien-min>.
Kon, Desmond. “The Lounge Chair Interview: 10 Questions with Toh Hsien Min.” Kitaab. 10 May 2015. Web. 4 Oct 2015. <http://kitaab.org/2015/05/10/the-lounge-chair-interview-10-questions-with-toh-hsien-min/>.
—. “Means to an End: An Interview with Toh Hsien Min.” Prick of the Spindle 4.2. 10 Aug 2010. Web. 4 Oct 2015. <http://prickofthespindle.org/2015/08/10/means-to-an-end-an-interview-with-toh-hsien-min/>.
Ng Yi Sheng. “Lost in Translation.” Quarterly Literary Review Singapore Vol. 7 No. 4. Oct 2008. Web. 4 Oct 2015. <http://www.qlrs.com/critique.asp?id=655>.
Tay, Eddie. “Poetry of the Global Economy: Toh Hsien Min’s Means to an End.” Cha Issue 5. Nov 2008. Web. 4 Oct 2015. <http://www.asiancha.com/content/view/288/143/>.
Toh Hsien Min. “Coast.” Coast: a Mono-Titular Anthology of Singapore Writing. Eds. Lee Wei Fen and Daren Shiau. Singapore: Math Paper Press, 2011.
—. The Enclosure of Love. Singapore: Landmark Books, 2001.
—. Iambus. Singapore: UniPress, 1994.
—. Means to an End. Singapore: Landmark Books, 2008.
Wordsworth, William. “Preface to the Lyrical Ballads”. The Harvard Classics XXXIX, Prefaces and Prologues. Ed. Charles W. Eliot. New York: P. F. Collier & Son, 1909-17.