Practical Criticism or Why Should Not Young Men be Mad

April 2, 2010

Practical Criticism or Why Should Not
Young Men be Mad

why should not young men be mad
thrown into the country of the old
where age solves no old problems
and the sleepy eyes no longer see
the newness of the moment?
we die in old men’s wars
are born from old men’s whores
and we are young among the old

why should not young men be angry
being cold and dead in the land
of machiavelli’s mind
driven out the hours of our youth
into a factory of grab-and-grip politics,
or lured by promises of dynamism
or patriotism of another’s will?

why should not young men howl
being dumb after the logic of another trick
or the reasons of persons
come to top without our consent,
being cheated of our growth
and education,
our heads pushed into books
and other people’s values
just to prove another’s worth.

why should not young men go away
from this country of the scheming old,
from the wars fought from old men’s tempers
from fat exploiter’s money or the honey
of persuasion of the men’s women.

young men should live
in the heart and mind of youth,
in the humanity of the moment,
which is the home of humanity,
and here in the country of the old,
we die, body, mind and soul.

Muhammad Haji Salleh

This early poem by Muhammad Haji Salleh is among the most compelling poems on the theme of crabbed age and youth I have encountered. It plunges straight into an assault on establishment values without need to use calm objectivity or prancing coyness to reel the reader in. This lack of conciliatory techniques is a strategy to signal powerlessness and to physicalise raw honesty. So strong is its suggestion of impulsiveness that the poem seems oblivious to how the disenfranchised young generation may grow old some day too!

Yet, to be sure, what Muhammad does hint at is a recognition that rebellion is part of general continuity as much as it is opposed to it. He chooses to think that this “objective” view would have done ironically nothing for the process of social renewal and so, while true, must be suspended. What human history teaches is rolling patterns of conformity and degeneration, and youth becomes the process within life and nature that pulls in the opposite direction, as if in a desperate attempt to self-right.

This thus makes a key distinction rendering youth and age as not organic stages but metaphors for opposing forces in society. Youth speaks from its only resources, given its perpetual disempowerment — a clarity of values and an excess of rage — while age is self-gratification at the expense of others’ freedom and goodness. Youth is instinctual, age creates thought-factories to follow; youth is endless struggle, age promises death coated with the comforts of surrender.

“Practical Criticism” in the poem’s title, in fact, uses the literary term to pass judgement on two distinct spheres. Other than the real practical one of seamless power, there is also the subtly colonial canon of English writing, through which this poem itself must be silenced. William Shakespeare’s famous take on youth and age may come to mind here, but it is W. B. Yeats’s that more directly inspires the piece and is being challenged by it.

Gwee Li Sui


One Response to “Practical Criticism or Why Should Not Young Men be Mad”

  1. Anonymous Says:

    this is a very good poem and it has deep meanings and it teaches

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