Commentary: Of course we don’t read poetry. We’re Singaporean
Where a National Arts Council survey found that Singaporeans read only a book a year, Singapore’s youth poet ambassador argues that literature has a place in Singapore.
SINGAPORE: We are learning about the life cycles of caterpillars. Our textbooks tell us that caterpillars spin warm, little cozy cocoons for themselves and eventually emerge as pretty butterflies.
But Mrs Chang, our science teacher details to 38 of us horrified but enthralled 9-years-olds how caterpillars digest themselves into a soup and how their cells work to reform that body-soup into a butterfly.
That, I think, without realising it, is the moment I first understand my love for poetry.
In early 2016, a National Arts Council survey found that fewer than one in two Singaporeans had read at least one "literary book" a year - obviously, a pretty dismal result.
As a working poet now, the questions I most commonly get asked are “why don’t Singaporeans read poetry?” and “why do you think the number of students taking Literature is declining?”
One of my favourite poets Audre Lorde says we need poetry because “it gives us the language to say what we do not know how to otherwise articulate.”
Poetry and literature exist to help us question, deconstruct and then rebuild, not simply reaffirm our worldviews. But what if there is no need for us to question in the first place?
DEVELOPED, ADVANCED, SAFE
Whenever someone asks what Singapore is like, we are likely to say “developed” or “safe” or “advanced” and we are all those things. As Singaporeans, the one story we all know best, is the story of survival. We know how vulnerable our little island nation is, how hard-won our stability and prosperity has been. But the unfortunate byproduct of that story is fear.
Fear that if we walk a road other than the one painstakingly laid out for us, that our destination will no longer be certain. Over time, we have developed a deep-set belief that the tried and tested path is always safer.
And it probably is. Stick to the road and you might never feel discomfort. And who wants to knowingly put themselves through tribulation?
We are not interested in the unknown, we are happy to be in our own cocoons of security. Poetry and fiction don’t allow for this.
“Literature isn’t easy to score!” we hear again and again, but the bigger question we should be asking is, why do we see that score as the real marker of success or learning?
Young people in this country are our future, but if we continue to lay out specific roads for them, then how will their dreams be any different from ours? If we keep dreaming the same dream, how will we ever see real growth?
Every few years, we hear concerns about how Singaporeans aren’t creative enough, how we need to instill more entrepreneurial dare in our children. But if we are a people afraid of discomfort or alienated from it, how can we fully develop social consciousness or the ability to navigate complexity or uncertainty?
The conversations on complex issues like race and sexuality have become more recurring as we evolve as a society and they are issues that threaten to divide us.
But if we cannot trust ourselves to have difficult conversations, if we have not acquired the vocabulary for them, or if we believe it is easier to disengage, then how will we ever emerge better?
STRUGGLE TO TALK ABOUT DIFFICULT ISSUES
Young people of my generation seem more passionate than ever about ensuring our country is a reflection of all that we have to offer, but we are also struggling to talk about issues that are difficult and won’t fit into a neat box. We don’t know how to work with things we cannot easily define.
We are a society in love with pie charts, acroynms, data, neat slogans that help define and neatly explain our concerns.
I remember a particularly frustrating meeting when I was still a Head of Department where we were all held hostage for three hours in a board room while the school insisted we had to find a way to “measure” leadership.
But there are things in the world, in life and in the human condition, where the most real things - like questions of belonging, identity and loss - cannot be quantified, neatly packaged, or sometimes, even named.
This is also why Singaporeans don’t read poetry. Poetry demands that you suspend yourself in uncertainty, it asks for meaning to unfold in its own time and this can be incredibly uncomfortable if you are used to constant certainty.
I am guilty of that need for efficiency myself. On a rainy evening in Oxford, I find myself feeling a surge of anxiety because there is no app to tell me when exactly my bus will arrive.
As Singaporeans, we are “your Uber will arrive in 3 minutes”, we are “tracking your order”, we are “but the message has been blue-ticked”. We are programmed to want to know outcomes.
But it is precisely in situations where we are forced to struggle with the unknowns of life when we tend to turn to poetry. It is no coincidence that poetry resurges in difficult times like war or times of complex human emotions, like weddings and funerals. Poetry exists to give us language where we have none.
Poetry demands that we feel instead of think, to sit in questions rather than rush for answers. It asks that we recognise no two people live in the world in the same way, the same poem can mean vastly different things to different people and neither meaning is “wrong” or “right”.
Poetry demands that we examine all the contradictions, even the ones within ourselves. We cannot hate without the capacity for love, we cannot grieve if we do not feel joy, and we cannot build if we do not first tear down.
It will do us no good to look away from our messy selves, however much temporary comfort that brings us. To look away means to deny and to silence large parts of who we are as a people. It means to allow ourselves to be reduced to numbers and fiscal growth and rankings.
All of these are valuable but are not enough. We cannot define success as scores and profit over and above human need, over and above possessing the language we need to build real bridges to make us genuinely stronger.
Real growth will only come when we allow ourselves to experience all our feelings, even the ones that make us profoundly uncomfortable. Because that’s where the most important lessons are to be learnt. And we can realise these lessons through our poetry, our stories, our writers who are a lens to our anxieties, our alienations, asking the difficult questions.
Audre Lorde also said:
If what we need to dream, to move our spirits most deeply and directly toward and through promise, is a luxury, then we have given up the core - the fountain - of our power.
Metamorphosis isn’t just some beautiful physical transformation. It’s a stunning display of evolutionary mechanisms. It’s a testament to what it truly takes to grow.
Butterflies and caterpillars don’t just look different, they behave differently too. One lives in trees, the other flies. And everyone knows, the most diverse ecosystems are the most resilient ones.
We need poets as much as we need scientists if we are going to finish the 21st century stronger than we started it.
Pooja Nansi is the author of two collections of poetry. She is also Singapore’s first Youth Poet Ambassador.