Sunday, November 18, 2018

THE ACHIEVE OF, THE MASTERY: Filipino Poetry and Verse from English, mid-90s to 2016

GEMINO H. ABAD presents Introduction to

THE ACHIEVE OF, THE MASTERY: Filipino Poetry and Verse from English, mid-90s to 2016 edited by Gémino H. Abad and Mookie Katigbak-Lacuesta
(The University of the Philippines Press, 2018)

General Introduction: ‘The Achieve of, the Mastery’*

            Our chief motive in this sequel anthology to A Habit of Shores (1999) is to present to the general reader a representative sample of Philippine poetry in English over the last fifteen years or so. Apart from poetic/artistic merit, the selection rests on two general considerations: it is focused on the Filipino -- his history and culture, his environment, his own views on the human condition, his spiritual landscape; it also comprises for a number of poets, insofar as interpretively feasible, the range of the poet’s subjects or themes and the variety of verse forms and poetic skill.
            Poetic merit, of course, rests on various grounds. There are all kinds of literary work -- “breaktexts” or “poems dancing on their heads” (Ricardo M. de Ungria); or “spindrift verses” for wit and lightsomeness of being, as in Cesar Ruiz Aquino and Simeon Dumdum; and many others still, by whatever label you please: “proletarian” (S.P. Lopez[1]), “spoken word” (Vim Nadera’s performatura), “conceptual,” or “language” or “wala lang” (just so) poetry. Indeed, for some readers, a number may not appear to be “poems” at all! but the kind a given literary work is depends on one’s basic assumptions about what a “literary work” is and what it aims to achieve. We might add that when “poetry” is understood as a quality of the finest use of language, it pervades all kinds of literary work: there is poetry, for instance, in the fiction of Nick Joaquin, Bienvenido N. Santos, Gregorio Brillantes, and Jose Y. Dalisay Jr.
            There are kinds and kinds of literary work, and various ways of crafting it, because the imagination has infinite possibilities so that, consequently, innovations and experiments arise which over time then comprise the national, hybrid literary tradition of a given historical language. Even the criteria for artistic excellence change over time, like any literary taste, fashion or fad. Each kind of literary work -- the kind it is depending only (to stress it) on one’s principle of classification that one needs to be clear about -- builds its own expectations from readers; over time, readers get used to one or the other kind, those expectations embodying the spirit of their criteria.
            If there are only writers and writers in the glocal (global/local) homestead of creative writing, there are only readers and readers (among them, literary theorists and critics, reviewers, teachers) who, in the course of time, produce their people’s literature. It follows that there is only “tradition and individual talent” (T.S. Eliot[2]): tradition, what over the generations the readers themselves cherish of their literature as part of their cultural heritage; and individual talent, for in the very act of writing, the writer refreshes and renews his language of choice for the mimesis or representation of a human experience, as imagined as lived -- or, as lived as imagined.
            Our preferred approach to literary works is basically what is often called “formalist,” but we are nevertheless open to various experiments and innovations in the art of poetry: “that craft or sullen art.”[3] Indeed, “formalist” admits different views of poetry, and so, with the reader’s indulgence, we may here clarify where we are coming from[4] (and beg pardon, too, for a number of reiterations in the interest of clarity).

            The Greek word, poiein, “to make,” which yields the English “poem,” is an apt generic term for “literary, or creative, work” which is a thing or artifact made of words (from Latin texere, textus, “to weave,” also comes “text,” any word-weave); likewise, Latin versus, “furrows,” from which English “verses” derives, is quite telling, for it suggests that the poet as wordsmith works the soil of language to produce his crop.
          Thus, work (Latin opus, operari) is the key, for the poem isn’t written in any language but rather is wrought from a given historical language that has been mastered: thence the medium is the message. For, as mastered, the ground of language becomes, by way of the writer’s imagination, his people’s culture and history, their day-to-day living in their own time and place, because these circumscribe his own life experience. This is how the language, as wrought into a literary work, bears the writer’s national consciousness. And this is why our literature is our people’s memory. A people is only as strong as their memory. Indeed, our writers, scholars, thinkers create our sense of country: we are our own best critics and interpreters.
            The writer wrestles with his medium -- its vocabulary, grammar and syntax, all its rhetorical resources -- to endow an experience with form and thereby wrest his prize, which is his story, poem, essay, or play. That prize is his chief reward for the agon or “struggle, contest” with language, his Muse. Indeed, for any artist, the medium is the Muse -- the medium with all its infinite possibilities for the imaginative construct: in music, sounds; in painting, line, color, perspective; in sculpture, wood or marble, its shape or form, its texture; in poetry,  language.
            The “poem” then or “literary work” requires a high level of literacy, a capacity for abstraction, and a lively imagination. Without such mental agility, language is a dead sea. We need to be clear about the nature of language to realize its Force (a form of energy whenever it is used) for empowerment and liberation, and thereby appreciate the writer’s job of work.
            Language is essentially an abstract conceptual system of representation in a given historical community. It is the finest invention of the human imagination. In one’s own community -- say, our country or a particular region of it -- the language there already shapes our consciousness as we begin to communicate in/with it; since its words already interpret our experience, they bear our culture, the way our people feel and think about their world. In that way, the reality one grasps with language is already spoken for, and yet, one can always talk back, counter-say from various standpoints, or gainsay a way of looking that inheres in the communal language. Hence, as one matures and gains more experience, he may also become his own interpreter in light of his own perceptions -- even against the grain or habit of thought and feeling in his community.
            Any language is essentially a translation of reality, that is, what we perceive, imagine, or intuit. “To translate,” etymologically, is “to carry or ferry across.” Thus, to think, speak, or write is, in every instance, to re-translate from a given language’s abstract conceptual system of representation, to ferry across its river of words (where the words only read one another and echo their provenance) your own pristine text or word-weave without hurt or injury to your own mind’s import and aim. The mind’s power of abstraction and imagination then makes real to the mind the translation.
            The meanings of our words do not arise so much from their differential interplay as from our living experience. Meanings, abstractions: they come to life only when writer or reader light them up with their imagination. “When the imagination sleeps,” says Albert Camus, “words are emptied of their meaning.”[5] Thus, to write is to get real, and the poem is to live: indeed, as you read, you are also read. 
            In short, language is our only means with the other arts (like music or painting)  to grasp through mind and heart our human reality -- that is, to translate an experience, to enflesh it, as it were, in order to apprehend a part of an inexplicable whole and make sense of it. That is in fact the whole point of writing at all: to make sense. Without language, we would have no memory, no history, no culture, no civilization.
            Now, the Real is essentially mystery. What we apprehend as “the real world” is our own “sense-world” -- that is, what sense we individually make from our own impressions which come by way of our nervous system (what we see, touch, smell, hear); but whatever sense one makes out is already an interpretation. Language, says William H. Gass, is the “habitation of the Word“[6] -- for all those impressions and perceptions we reinvent (find again within language and within ourselves) our words which are concepts. Our concepts enable us to project an image of what we call the “real world” -- the outer and inner phenomenal world. In short, our reality is what our language establishes and transmits: Il n’y a pas de hors-texte, says Jacques Derrida (there is nothing outside the text). We are all textualists, but our abstractions, our thinking, may also mislead: for any turn of word or phrase, another interpretation may arise. And yet, what language transmits “abounds in hints of wonder and mystery”[7] -- intuitions about those things in our experience which
                                    Nor mouth had, no nor mind expressed
                                    What heart heard of, ghost guessed[8]

The Real, the whole picture, is ever there -- beyond the intellect’s ken, the world of man’s spiritual nature of which his own living experience is the incontestable evidence. “Nothing ever becomes real till it is experienced,” as John Keats says.[9] So, the quest for the Real is endless because the hunger for reality is man’s profoundest instinct[10]: where there is no question, the quest ceases.
            All we normally apprehend then of our ordinary, day-to-day reality, what we call “our world,” is our experience of it: of ourselves, of human affairs, of our natural environment. Quite instructive is the rich meaningfulness of that word, “experience,” from Greek empeiran (whence the English, “empirical”) and from Latin experiri (whence the English, “experiment, trial”; experiri as also associated with Latin periculum, “danger”); etymologically then, “experience” denotes “to try or attempt; to pass through, suffer, or endure; to fare or journey, with uncertainty and peril.” Thus so precious is every word’s submerged history of the human imagination! It bears stressing: in our experience, we only catch glimpses of our human reality, what our mind grasps with words and words, but never see whole. Likewise, a cat’s perception of its reality is its own world to which we have no access; we can only imagine it, as in fantasy and children’s stories which of course draw from our own individual sense of reality. Thus, the basic poetic sense is a sense for language, which is our most intimate connection with that we call “our world.” This is why the care for words is care of light.
            If even our normal reality at times hints at mystery, at some ineffable spiritual  dimension, then for poetry as verbal art -- as both work of language and work of imagination -- there must needs be clear seeing (impossible without imagination: for the real in our experience -- say, of love, or peace, or cheer of spirit -- is the poem: their variant translation); clear seeing for clean writing (impossible without practice: for the poem is the real, because what is most real is what is most imagined). The poem is the revel and revelation for both poet (in the writing) and his reader (in the reading and interpreting): revel, that is, a shareable delight with one’s medium, even joy in the solitary work of creation; and revelation, that is, the import or significance (saysay) and the insight or vision, the meaningfulness or soul (diwa) of the experience as simulated or represented. Clear seeing then for clean writing, for our thoughts and our feelings do not seamlessly coincide with the words of any given historical language. The poetic moment, says Yves Bonnefoy, “open[s] the intuition to all that language refuses.”[11] The intuition or insight is a luminance of thought no idea quite expresses, a radiance of feeling no thought quite conveys. 
            There is nothing mysterious about poetry (except where its subject is a spiritual  or mystical experience, as in St. John of the Cross or Rumi). Like any other art, it is a skill with one’s medium and a discipline of mind and imagination. Poetry, after all, is only words not too far from their multiple sense through their history, and yet, as poetry, a fresh and lively representation of an experience, well-structured and insightful.
            That is our basic critical “theoria” or standpoint. (a) What is represented -- an experience, even only a thought, a feeling, or a stance or attitude toward something or other; (b) by what means -- the words chosen and their order; their rhythm or music as they flow; their evocative power through metaphor and other rhetorical devices and stratagems; (c) how represented -- the way the whole experience is organized[12]; and (d) the resultant form of the representation: all these drive the energy (dynamis; in Tagalog, dating or effect) of the poem’s imaginary drama or narrative by which we are persuaded and moved.[13] That imaginative/conceptual form enables one to grasp the poem’s substance: its external form is the precise verbal configuration of the experience as simulated on the page or performed on stage, and its inner form, the import or signified (saysay) of the whole experience; beyond that import too is the poem’s spirit (diwa) which isn’t a fixed meaning or signified[14] but rather the meaningfulness or significance of the poem’s own interpretation of the experience which it bears from reader to reader over the course of time. In the course of his creative work -- a lifetime’s calling -- the poet achieves his own distinctive craft or style, what Albert Camus defines as “the simultaneous existence of reality and of the mind that gives reality its form.”[15]                       
            Every poet, no doubt, has his own “poetics” -- his own path through his own self’s inscape, through the wilderness of language where he makes his own clearing. He is driven by his own temperament to re-create, to forge his medium of expression for that exact configuration of an experience, whether he has lived it or only imagined it; forge in its triple sense: to make, bring into being, or fabricate; to represent, mime, or simulate; and to forge ahead, advance, transcend the inherent inadequacies of language to reality. How transcend but by language’s own evocative power which draws upon both the poet’s and the reader’s imagination. Sometimes the poet fails, sometimes he succeeds -- indeed, at times, masterfully! over which he might even be amazed, just as though he had a spirit-guide: “I labour,” says Dylan Thomas, “by singing light.”[16]
            Ultimately, the poem is what you will, because for the artist, for the writer, the only important thing is the work itself; and the final test, for both poet and reader, is “the achieve of, the mastery of the thing” (as Gerald Manley Hopkins says in “The Windhover”[17]). What has been mastered, to reiterate, is the representation of an experience lived or imagined, and what has been achieved is an indefinable effect, what  earlier we called revel and revelation, that power or energy of the mimesis arising from what Horace says, dulce et utile[18]: that is, pleasing and instructive, or as Jonathan Swift might put it, “sweetness and light.”[19] Here I find a passage from Andrew Marvell’s “The Garden” quite apt:
                                    The Mind, that Ocean where each kind
                                    Does streight its own resemblance find;
                                    Yet it creates, transcending these,
                                    Far other Worlds, and other Seas;
                                    Annihilating all that’s made
                                    To a green thought in a green Shade.[20]

            To read a poem is to live imaginatively its simulation of an experience. Often, the reader has only that piece of the poet’s corpus where it may constellate with other poems (both the poet’s own and others’ that the poet has read); that piece may not be the poet’s best but a part only of the poet’s progress toward the ideal that he has a feeling or intuition about. The poet of course has many lives -- as lover, say, as father, as teacher -- from which he draws when he writes. The poet’s reader likewise has as many lives -- lived and imagined -- from which he draws when he reads, which is why  as he reads, he is also read.
            Obviously, any mode of reading proceeds from certain basic assumptions about the nature of a literary work. Any interpretation then is governed solely by those assumptions which, though often implicit, account for its elucidative power and limitations as well. One’s interpretation may well vary from other readings, even in the same given mode, simply because its assumptions are also subject to one’s own understanding of their import and practical application, not to speak of the adequacy of one’s knowledge about aspects of reality that the assumptions may require (e.g., in a postcolonial reading, certain cultural/historical facts and their variant interpretations).
            Any reading -- Marxist, feminist, postcolonial -- is contextual; context is what goes with the text, both what goes with it inside its weave and what goes outside that weave. Inside: what the words singly and in their interplay denote, connote, and evoke (for both poet and reader); outside: what circumstances in the poet’s experience, and what knowledge of his people’s history and culture, may have shaped somehow his poem’s representation.

[...] [Section III featured in The Halo-Halo Review, December 2018]

            We may now conclude with a brief narrative of how we proceeded to put together this anthology.
            We did not personally know quite a number of the poets, but their friends gave us their names and helped us contact them. Most of the poets we were able to contact gave us their consent to include them in the anthology. We had ready access to most of the poets’ own works that were locally available; indeed, some poets (among them, those living abroad) or their friends generously gave us copies of their works. We also requested the poets to send us their own choice poems: this was truly of immense help in our own selection for the anthology; we also asked them for their bio-notes, and they kindly obliged us. At first, we did not limit the number of poems that we selected, but in the end, we had to cut down (with much agon) on our own choices for a slimmer volume.
            We decided -- as in the previous historical series of anthologies of our poetry from English -- to include (1) Poets’ bionotes and sources of their selected poems (including, in a few instances, the poets‘ own comments on their poems, as requested, and other authors’ comments on the poets’ works) and (2) a Bibliography, by no means comprehensive, of works that may interest the avid reader: individual poetry collections, other anthologies of literary works, and literary journals and magazines.
            From the very outset of working on this sequel anthology to A Habit of Shores, Mookie Katigbak-Lacuesta and I have wished to preserve and pass on to the next generation our rich cultural/literary tradition. And thus, at our journey’s end with the poets, we gratefully acknowledge their generosity, and celebrate with them all poets’ camaraderie as stirring image of authentic democracy where freedom and respect for everyman’s dignity prevail.


I had originally wanted a title congruent with the titles of the previous anthologies and, preferably, drawn from a Filipino poet’s work. I thought of Amador T. Daguio’s “Land of Our Desire” which has that stirring line, “We could not make the ruby / Into the stone of a ring” (italics mine); and Dm. Reyes with J. Neil C. Garcia most helpfully suggested the title of Edith L. Tiempo’s poem, “Holding the Mainland.” But finally I settled on Gerard Manley Hopkins‘ “the achieve of, the mastery” (from his poem, “The Windhover”): to my mind, “the achieve of” is where a poem has got to so far, today and tomorrow, as the poet’s own clearing in the fastnesses of language (for the poet needs to perseveringly strive for perfection of his art); “the mastery of the thing” is that rare moment when and where, through the poet’s agon with language, his Muse, he’s got the poem-of-it so right, it can’t be done again: the very “thing” itself, sui generis, “immortal diamond” (again, from Hopkins‘ poem, “That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire and of the comfort of the Resurrection”)

[1] See Caracoa 7, May 1985. Cf. two essays in Poetry (April 2015): Tara Betts, “Life is Good: How Hip-Hop Channels Duende” and Nate Marshall, “Blueprint for Breakbeat Writing”: [pp. 50-53, 54-57]. See “Proletarian Literature: A Definition” in Salvador P. Lopez, Literature and Society: Essays on Life and Letters (Manila: University Book Supply, 1940): 216-227. “It is hardly necessary to say that the proletarian writer is first an artist, ... Passion for a cause alone cannot make the artist; neither can the possession of a sound theoretical foundation or philosophy of life. The artist must possess on top of all these the ultimate gift which is the gift of the creative imagination.” (p. 224)
[2] See Eliot, “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” Selected Essays, new edition (N.Y.: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc.: 1960): 3-11. “Tradition ... cannot be inherited, and if you want it you must obtain it by great labour. It involves ... the historical sense, which we may call nearly indispensable to any one who would continue to be a poet beyond his twenty-fifth year; and the historical sense involves a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence; ... This historical sense, which is a sense ... of the timeless and of the temporal together, is what makes a writer traditional. And it is at the same time what makes a writer most acutely conscious of his place in time, of his own contemporaneity.” (p. 4) Eliot’s “impersonal theory of poetry” posits “the conception of poetry as a living whole of all the poetry that has ever been written” (p. 7) -- the world’s poetry an ever-changing universe, as it were, where all the poems constellate.    
[3] See Dylan Thomas’ “In My Craft or Sullen Art,” in DylanThomas: The Poems, ed. Daniel Jones (London: J. M. Dent & Sons, 1978): 196-97.
[4] See also “What Is a ‘Literary Work’?” in Gémino H. Abad, Past Mountain Dreaming: New Essays (UP, 2015): 6-9.
[6] Gass, Habitations of the Word: Essays (N.Y.: Touchstone Book / Simon & Schuster, Inc., 1985.  
[7] Evelyn Underhill, Mysticism: The Nature and Development of Spiritual Consciousness (Oxford: Oneworld: 2001): 9. We acknowledge here our indebtedness to this classic work.
[8] From Hopkins’ poem, “Spring and Fall: to a young child,” in Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins, ed. W. H. Gardner, 3rd edn. (Oxford University Press, 1964): 94.
[9] Letters of John Keats, selected by Frederick Page (Oxford University Press, 1954): 250.
[10] Here perhaps, for clarity’s sake, a needful digression. That hunger for reality is at the root of what is called mysticism -- the very living at its deepest level where our world is, as Keats intuits, “the vale of Soul-making” (in his Letters, op. cit.: 266). Language itself and the arts are signs and spurs of that instinct. In “literary taste,” for instance, the tongue, as metaphor for language, suggests that we would savor the reality, say, of awe over an indescribable vision of Mayon Volcano on an early morning; or that of an overpowering passion called love, or that of a devotee’s ecstasy in the traslacion (transfer/ translation) of the Black Nazarene. Camus would say: “If the world were clear, art would not be necessary” (; or, Robert Frost: “... the greatest adventure of man is science, the adventure of penetrating into matter, into the material universe. But ... the best description of us is the humanities.” (Richard Poirier’s interview of Frost in Writers at Work / The Paris Review Interviews, 2nd series, ed. George Plimpton. Penguin Books, 1977: 23.)
[11] John Naughton’s “Interview with Yves Bonnefoy” in Bonnefoy’s In the Shadow’s Light, tr. Naughton (University of Chicago Press, 1991): 162-63. The intuition is part of what Underhill (op. cit., footnote 8) calls the “transcendental sense” which gave rise to the world’s religions.
[12] That way or manner of representation is either dramatic or narrative or a mixed mode: when dramatic, the reader is put in the position of a witness to an experience; when narrative, the reader’s position is that of one listening to someone else’s account.
[13] To persuade and so move the reader: as the poem’s desired end or final cause, that power or effect may be regarded as the poem’s organizing principle. Any kind of literary work is epideictic: chiefly designed for rhetorical effect; and hence, cathected: invested with intellectual and emotional power.
[14] Our words, alas! are at times unstable or ambiguous even in a given context. “Signified,” as Webster defines it, is “a concept or meaning as distinguished from the sign through which it is communicated”; “signifier” is “a symbol, sound, or image (as a word) that represents an underlying concept or meaning”; and “significance” is “something that is conveyed as a meaning often obscurely or indirectly” [italics mine]. -- Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 10th edn., 1996.
[15] Camus, The Rebel: an Essay on Man in Revolt, tr. Anthony Bower (Alfred A. Knopf, 1951): 271.
[16] See footnote 5.
[17] In Hopkins’ Poems, ed. W. H. Gardner, op. cit.: 73.
[18] Horace, De Arte Poetica, ed. H. A. Dalton (London: MacMillan, 1941): 23 -- “Aut prodesse volunt aut delectare poëtae” (ll. 333-34). Freely translated: the poet’s function is either to improve (prodesse) or to give delight (delectare); the perfect poet combines both functions. See also J. W. H. Atkins, Literary Criticism in Antiquity, II (Gloucester, Mass.: Peter Smith, 1961): 76.
[19] See Matthew Arnold, Culture and Anarchy: An Essay in Political and Social Criticism, ed. J. Dover Wilson (Cambridge University Press, 1963): 53-54, where he says: “ ... the Greek word euphuía, a finely tempered nature, gives exactly the notion of perfection as culture brings us to conceive of it: a harmonious perfection, a perfection in which the characters of beauty and intelligence are both present, which unites ‘the two noblest of things, sweetness and light,’ as [Jonathan] Swift calls them in his Battle of the Books.”
[20] Helen Gardner, ed. The Metaphysical Poets (Penguin Books, 1959): 255. See also  Krip Yuson’s “Yes You Can” and “Islands of Words” in Islands of Words & Other Poems (UST, 2015): 26; 63-107.


Gémino Henson Abad is a literary critic from Cebu, Philippines. He earned his B.A. English from the University of the Philippines Diliman in 1964 "magna cum laude". His MA with honors and Ph.D. in English literature degrees were obtained from the University of Chicago in 1966 and 1970, respectively. He served the University of the Philippines in various capacities: as Secretary of the University, Secretary of the Board of Regents, Vice President for Academic Affairs and Director of the U.P. Institute of Creative Writing. For many years, he also taught English, comparative literature and creative writing at U.P. Diliman.

Abad co-founded the Philippine Literary Arts Council (PLAC) which published Caracoa, a poetry journal in English. His other works include Fugitive Emphasis (poems, 1973); In Another Light (poems and critical essays, 1976); A Formal Approach to Lyric Poetry (critical theory, 1978); The Space Between (poems and critical essays, 1985); Poems and Parables (1988); Index to Filipino Poetry in English, 1905-1950 (with Edna Zapanta Manlapaz, 1988) and State of Play (letter-essays and parables, 1990). He edited landmark anthologies of Filipino poetry in English, among them Man of Earth (1989), A Native Clearing (1993) and A Habit of Shores: Filipino Poetry and Verse from English, ‘60s to the ‘90s (1999).

The UP Diliman has elevated Abad to the rank of University Professor, the highest academic rank awarded by the university to an exemplary faculty member. He currently sits on the Board of Advisers of the U.P. Institute of Creative Writing and teaches creative writing as Emeritus University Professor at the College of Arts and Letters, U.P. Diliman. He also is the first Filipino to receive the Premio Feronia in Rome, Italy under the foreign author category.