What Is It to Write?

May 30, 2008

What Is It to Write?
(for Anna)

It is not a vacation
from your life
when you weary of meetings and rain
waiting for the bus
and cursing your luck.

It is a vocation
that curses your life
and can’t wait for luck
but must meet head-on
the bus weary and rain.

It is not to scribble
a granted sky
by a tree
in the evening park
with your dog running free.

It is to run the dog inside,
scribble the evening
into the sky and park
your tree between
the granted and the free.

Felix Cheong

This remains one of my favourite poems by a Singaporean. Felix Cheong’s ingenuity lies in the way he makes us do a double take, hear what he says and hear it again with subtle significant changes the second time round. That repetition is critical for the points it exposes: it both highlights the topsy-turvy world of a writer, one where all elements of ordinary life have been defamiliarised, and the inadequacy of any casual or inattentive listener to note the radical difference.

The poem is itself an assault on such day-to-day trivialisation of the struggles of art. It cries for alertness and empathy even as it knows the very difference between the writer and his reader to be a misrecognition of art’s goals and demands. Leisure for one is suffering to the other; one assumes that art is therapeutic, if not wholly self-gratifying, self-expression while the other knows no such luxury, messed up by art as trauma itself, stuck in incomprehension without redemption. The question in the title is the crisis.

Gwee Li Sui

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