THE FUTURE IS FIRST SHAPED BY WORDS
THE FUTURE IS FIRST SHAPED BY WORDS
Philippine poets invited to Medellin:
Alice Sun-Cua, Marjorie Evasco, Gemino H Abad and Alfred Yuson
By Gémino H. Abad
I am truly deeply honored by the invitation to be the first speaker in the Adrian Cristobal lecture series of UMPIL. I should quickly add, though, that only upon encouragement from National Artist Virgilio Almario and Prof. Vim Nadera, chairman of UMPIL, did I accept with much reservation and not a little embarrassment. Why so? – simply because, to my mind, there are more worthy speakers who would do Adrian Cristobal, chair emeritus of UMPIL, much more honor.
Let me first tell you about my recent experience at the 20th International Poetry Festival of Medellin in Colombia, South America, last July – a celebration of the world’s poetry like nothing that I have ever witnessed. To that Festival were invited 100 poets from 58 countries; 93 poets came. I was astounded by the incredible spectacle at the inaugural ceremonies on July 8 in Cerro Nutibara at the Carlos Vieco theatre – a spectacle repeated there during the closing ceremonies on July 17.
Imagine an open-air amphitheatre in the woods; imagine about 5000 people in attendance, sitting on the stone steps that descend toward the stage; for four hours this multitude quietly, intently listen to the poets reading or performing their poems, non-stop, without intermission; and then it rains, a heavy downpour, and it becomes quite chilly, and our stage floods with little runnels of rainwater, but no one leaves, the audience just puts up their umbrellas, or puts on their white plastic raincoats, or takes shelter under the trees, and continues to listen avidly in silence and applaud, sometimes shouting out their approval.
Since we were 93 poets in all – all expenses except for our plane fare paid for – during the course of that 10-day Festival, we were divided into groups of five or six and sent by plane or van to 11 ciudades colombianas and 27 municipios antioqueños in Colombia for daily poetic performances, and in every venue – a university campus, a public plaza, a medieval castle, a mountain village – there would be an audience of 300 to 500 people who would, after every performance, gather excitedly around the poets on stage for their autographs.
The Festival had a most revealing shibboleth in all its posters and streamers: “El destino humano es un solo ritmo celeste” / Humanity’s destiny is the sole rhythm of the heavens. The principal motive of the Festival, I learned later, is the conviction of its founder-organizers, Fernando Rendón and his son, Luis Eduardo, that poetry takes away the violence, the thirst for blood, from the human heart. Twenty years running with that Festival, Medellin can justly claim to be the world’s center of poetry.
Where in our country – or any other country in the world – is there such enthusiasm for the incarnation of the word? It makes me think that writing, that wrestle with the words of a language, that lonely and desperate craft, is a descent first to darkness before a resurrection.
It is a curious thing that in Colombia, when they grouped a number of us as “poetas asiáticos,” the countries involved, as represented by the poets invited to Medellin, were – other than the Philippines, Cambodia, Bangladesh, India, and Sri Lanka – Turkmenistan, Syria, Armenia, Palestine, and Mongolia. So then, in Medellin at least, Asia encompasses more than our local sense of geography. It makes me thrill to an intuition that, for us, today, our world is Asia, our future is Asia. Perhaps, even the world’s future is Asia. And the future – as all writers know in their hearts – the future is first shaped by words.
Asia – once, an immense geography of colonies of the West; now, a vast panorama of proud and independent nations, aware of their history even long before the West came to them, proud of their culture and heritage, and critically knowledgeable about the West and what of, or from, the West they have assimilated or scorned or adopted.
Asia – mostly “Third World” countries, right? But who says, “third world”? – is there a “first” then, and a lesser “second”? “first” as in “superior,” or “master”? Thus, we are to be wary of words from the West, how subtly, imperceptibly, our minds, our perspectives, even our sense of reality, are molded. Take the word “postcolonial” also. Does it not sometimes gloss over, or obscure, our colonial history, the pervasive influences, the imported “theories” or “ways of looking,” the strains and stresses of what is imbibed in our indigenous tongues, in our habits of thought, in our songs and movies and videos and magazines and ads, in our sexual ethos and aesthetic sense, even perhaps the very rhythm of our souls?
We have to be wary of imported theories, but never dismissive, for they help us think, and think critically for ourselves, upon our own ground. As the Greek provenance of the word “theory” makes clear, theoria means only a way of seeing. Wary, I say, of those imported theories – whatever their labels, Marxist or Foucauldian, deconstructive or feminist – lest by their entrancing light we are disabled from seeing ourselves; wary, for their import carries the spiritual anguish of the West, their own crisis of their spirit and their way of looking. The future, I repeat, is first shaped by words – by notions and nuances in the words we speak and by which we think.
And now It is even time for us, however late, to know more about our fellow-writers in Asia, time now to know more about the literatures in Asia. A country’s literature, in whatever language, whether indigenous or hybrid or adopted, is her people’s memory: there lies literature’s chief value, for a people is only as strong as their memory. This has been my principal motive in those historical anthologies that I have edited so far of our poetry and our short stories in English – or rather, from or through English.
Consider, for a moment, that tangle of English prepositions: I say, from or through, or by means of, from a long-held realization that any language is only a medium – as sound is the medium of music, or color and line, the medium of painting, and wood or marble, the medium of sculpture. At first, any writer writes in English or in Tagalog, but much later, in his agon or contest with the words, as he gains mastery over their grammar, syntax, and rhetoric, he works from them his story or poem. He forges his own trail through the tangled woods of a language, and makes his own clearing there where his own people might recognize themselves.
Without words and words, there is no memory; without memory, there is no country, no culture. Words and words, no matter their provenance, for what endows the words with their weight and substance, their meaningfulness, is their usage by a people through their own lives in their own workaday world, through their own griefs and joys, through their own history and culture. The words of any language are like a writ of habeas corpus by which our human reality is brought to mind – that is, the world as we perceive it, all of nature and the world of human affairs – so that it becomes clearer to our understanding, and we can more willingly take the responsibility for it. We have no other reality but the human, and it is always changing – as the sole rhythm of the universe in our limited perception. Human nature is universal, but as a field of energy, it is perpetually transformative; our vale of tears and laughter is imperfect, but as the poet Wallace Stevens says, “The imperfect is our paradise.”
I take note of the UMPIL’s gawad – Gawad Pambansang Alagad ni Balagtas, Gawad Paz Marquez Benitez, Gawad Pedro Bukaneg. They encompass various Philippine languages, including English as we have made it our own. The Ubod series of the NCCA, devoted to our young writers, also comprises our various languages. This affirms what I’ve long held, that for anyone, it is the sense for language that needs to be nurtured and cultivated, because the sense for language is the basic poetic sense. It is the poetic sense that later in one’s life, says the poet Yves Bonnefoy, “opens to the intuition that all language refuses.” One may be language-bound, culture-bound, but it is the poetic sense that liberates. In that light, there is ultimately no English, no Filipino, no Cebuano – there is only language itself, the supreme human achievement, the finest human technology. Indeed, language is the hidden Muse, for it is one’s imagination’s agon or struggle with language that gives rise to the literary work as both work of imagination and work of art. Come to think of it, in all the arts – music, painting, sculpture, film – their medium is the Muse: only with imagination’s wrestle with it does Art arise.
It does not matter, I say, the provenance of our words, provided only their readers and interpreters are critical: that is the very crucible of clear-eyed understanding, which is the path also to forgiveness, peace, and harmony among nations. For the exact word critical illuminates the heart of any “theoria” or way of seeing: its provenance is Greek, krinein, which means “to divide, or discriminate, and to judge.” From that Greek verb both the English words, “criticism” and “crisis” originate.
Thus, a time of crisis is a time of division and judgment; and thus, to criticize is to bring the object of criticism to a point of crisis. If, for instance, the object is a short story, one needs to discriminate kinds of short story over the time of its historical development; then one needs to examine the criteria of excellence and standards of taste specific to each kind over the same historical period; and then, finally, one might thereby have earned the right to judge the worth of the story one is criticizing, bearing in mind that the creative process moves from work of imagination to work of art.
More and more I am persuaded that our genre distinctions – poem, short story, essay or “creative nonfiction” – are merely heuristic, that is, serving to explore and discover; our distinctions are only from time to time, maieutic, that is, a sudden bearer of insight. I am also thinking of various types of writing, of various forms of the imagination, that we call “traditional,” “experimental,” “avant-garde,” “postmodern,” whatever other label. All there is, in fact, is only language and imagination as one whole, of a piece: that is, a masterful use of language, with depth of feeling and insight, such that the reader is moved, even haunted. There is no theory of it, finally, only solitary labor and “the achieve of, the mastery of the thing,” as Gerard Manley Hopkins would put it. And the thing itself, as in Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan,” is “a miracle of rare device, / A sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice.
Once the story or poem or play has been achieved – a feat of imagination through language – its interpretation is superfluous. We need only contemplate what has been shown or represented by which we had been moved. It was throughout our sense for language, the basic poetic sense, that was our reading lamp. For in fact, the story or poem or play is already an interpretation of what has been imagined and endowed with form through language; a particular attitude or stance toward our human reality already inheres in the verbal representation, is there already manifest: we need only examine honestly our response to it.
Honestly, I say, for any literary work is entirely in the rhetorical domain. This is to say that it will always seek to persuade and move its readers, and so, to that end, it will make use of all elements in our psychic make-up: it will appeal to our ways of thinking, our feelings and sentiments, the values we cherish, even our biases and prejudices – in a word, our present world-view, our civilization. Hence, we need always to be honest with ourselves, and critical.
Literature, in the end, always implies change in our psychic weather. Language itself, the literary medium, is in flux, reflecting through a people’s history, our mind-set, our “jejemons” of feeling. Besides that constancy of change and transformation, we should also be aware that imagination, by its very nature, has infinite possibilities, especially, precisely, because the imperfect is our paradise.
I spoke just now of psychic weather: here, figuratively, there could also be a global climate change – I believe it is always happening, more so that our world is now smaller. We may for the moment be hardly aware of any change, but we need only reflect on works of imagination in our reading life which have borne our spirit on a flood of light and cheer. Now, of course, I am already thinking of literature beyond the restrictive categories of thought; I am thinking of literature as work of imagination in every field of human endeavor where language is the crux – in philosophy and religion, in history and psychology, in science and technology, etc. Whatever the language, whether that of physics or a poem, the writer or scholar must clear his own path through it by which a new understanding of our reality might be achieved.
“Text” is from Latin texere, textus, “to weave,” as in textile. So, that new understanding may be the word-weave, the text-tale, of our future.
17 August 2010