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Breaking Signs: The Problem With Poetry
"I FIND IT hard to like poets. They don’t say what they mean,” Damaso said. We had taught in the same college in Benguet.
After some thirty years, we bumped into each other outside a music store in Quezon City. I invited him to a nearby shop for coffee. He was now an executive vice president of an insurance company. After the obligatory polite inquiries into each other’s individual life, our talk meandered into the matter of communication. I mentioned that I had become a serious creative writer and had published some six books of poems. That was when he made his critical remark. "They beat around the bush, you know, and that’s misleading," he continued. "In my line of job, we value straight talk, we lay everything clearly on the table so there won’t be any misunderstanding. But you, poets—and don’t take this personally—enjoy torturing your readers with your verbal obscurity. I remember the book you gave me, your first book I think, The Ark and Other Poems—"
"The Cave and Other Poems," I corrected him.
"Yes. It was published in Baguio City. I carried it with me for one week, trying to figure out what you were trying to say about Rizal and Bonifacio and Helen of Troy and Giotto but I gave up. You always had me puzzled and guessing. Why don’t you just say what you mean and be finished with it?" He flicked the cuff of his silk shirt.
"But that’s not how poetry works," I said. "It epitomizes people’s highest aesthetic verbalization of social realities. Its linguistic configurations attempt to capture the human condition at its evanescent point. It is language raised to the ultimate degree, as the American poet Paul Engle said, because the poem, limited as it is by the insufficiency of language to transmit experience in its complete form, tries to subvert that language and squeeze as much meaning from it as possible—"
"There you go again," he interrupted me. "You’ll not make an insurance salesman. You’ll never close a deal with obliqueness and indirection coloring your words. The target client must be told quickly and briefly and exactly what he’s getting into so that he knows where he’s putting his money."
"Not if he reads the fine prints, ha ha."
"But even our fine prints have clarity of expression. You won’t misunderstand them. Now, if the target client doesn’t read them, that’s his mistake. But a poem—I don’t know…It seems to be an apology for bad communication. Soon you’ll be quoting Robert Frost on poetry being the only possible way of saying something and meaning another, or Marianne Moore that it is an imagined garden with real frogs in it or something. Well, it can have a zebra or a panda in it for all I care, but if it doesn’t tell me what it means, it has no value to me."
"I see you are a literalist. It will really be difficult for you to appreciate poetry which requires a profound imagination to sort out linguistic indirection, implicitness and allusiveness. You don’t like reading between the lines to see meaning that are not obvious in the text, but which are embedded there by the very arrangement of the words. You must realize that the poem represents a kind of code—it is a human experience waiting to be uncovered and discovered. Its tropes increase the sense of urgency needed to grasp its significance and the subsequent aesthetic pleasure upon its understanding. The imaginary is transformed into the real through the machinery of the metaphoric mind."
"Hey, are you talking to me? Stop being dynamic. All I want to know is why poetic language is roundabout. Can’t it be linear or straight forward?"
"That’s the way of prose, but suggestiveness creates poetry’s essential beauty. What you see is not what you get, but you get much more than what you see. The trouble is, there are as many definitions of poetry as there are person who will define it, and they will define it poetically, out of necessity. That is why I become academic, even philosophical, in trying to explain what they mean. But all these definitions will invariably agree on language as the dominating ingredient of the art. It is not the language of your insurance world, nor of the prose world in general. Poetry tries to communicate and communicate in a more powerful manner than prose. For that, it needs all means to amaze or astound the mind, doesn’t it?"
He seemed unconvinced but nodded just the same. "Perhaps, but I prefer to get my astonishment somewhere else. By the way, do you like Ultimate Fighting Championship?"
– from Breaking Signs by Cirilo F. Bautista (Philippine Panorama, 22 Jun. 2008)
Website at www.cirilofbautista.tk
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A Tao 道 Sign
Santiago B. Villafania, a bilingual Filipino poet who writes in English and in his native language of Pangasinan, is the author of poetry collections Bonsaic Verses (2012), Pinabli and Other Poems (2012), Malagilion: Sonnets tan Villanelles (2007), and Balikas na Caboloan (Voices from Caboloan, 2005) published by the National Commission for the Culture and the Arts (NCCA) under its UBOD New Authors Series. He has been published in several countries and translated into several languages. Villafania is one of the 11 Outstanding Pangasinan conferred with the 2010 ASNA Award for the Arts and Culture (literature) during the first Agew na Pangasinan and also the 430th Foundation Day of the province on April 2010. He is a member of Philippine PEN writes a regular weekly column for the Sunday Punch.