The Humanity of Anne Lee Tzu Pheng

November 3, 2017

This foreword appears in the Artist in Words exhibition booklet celebrating the life and work of Singaporean poet Anne Lee Tzu Pheng. The exhibition, held at The Arts House between 3 and 12 November 2017, was part of the Literary Pioneers segment of the Singapore Writers Festival. The entire exhibition booklet can be downloaded here.


In the literature of Singapore, Anne Lee Tzu Pheng occupies a singular place. She is one third of the country’s longest recognised trinity of poets working in the English language. Together with Edwin Thumboo and the late Arthur Yap, she has helped define the foundation of modern English poetry in independent Singapore.

However, unlike Thumboo, Lee has not propounded a poet’s urgent national role in her best known works. Unlike Yap, she does not put abstraction and experimentation at the heart of her artistic endeavour. Poetry for her is rather the language with which to draw out and preserve delicate truths in the experience of life.

This understanding makes Lee’s verse at once both timeless and often out of sync with the times. For decades from the 1960s, while others wrote to construct a sense of national identity, she went in a radical, personal direction. She used her environment and its moments more to ground and cultivate inner values.

The solitariness of Lee’s voice, and its firmness, are now what stands out. Equally distinctive is the feel of a pilgrimage, a meditative atmosphere, that saturates her art. Her engagement with society shows her in the substance of her words and also elsewhere, housed like one who looks out at the world, reluctant to be too much in it.

From this cautious distance, Lee surveys what external encounters can offer to an interest in being. Her channels of information have included travels, friendships, and the news. Her subject matters range from human enclaves and developments in Singapore’s landscape to her own struggles and milestones in life.

Her preoccupation tends towards finding faith in crises, and her quest seems to be for steadiness. Her method is a maintenance of balance between the abruptness of experiences and the continuity of self-care. Her emotions conjure images from a compact mind while her reasoning adjusts to feelings of kindness and compassion.

What Lee’s shifting scenes themselves bring to the fore is her vigilant interiority. Through a manner where it seems like the soul rises to meet life, she compels herself to watch over an old innocence. In her spacious lines, the world is reshaped even as its wrongs and failings are answered with provocative gentleness.

Lee is thus a special kind of Singaporean poet since her self-possession does not avoid or diminish the world. At the same time, the world never exists as either the centre or the end of her reflections. Rather, through honest engagements, the poet learns to tend her soul and master the means to calibrate her moral compass.

Wit is wielded by Lee as this key ability to achieve intelligence over life’s randomness and destruction. Wit allows her to contain consuming emotion, overturn a sense of powerlessness or confusion, and deepen self-control. It permits her to gain against the passage of daily life passing wisdom, a moment’s transcendence.

Another active feature is the conscience. Lee fiercely wants a moral universe with which to understand the sufferings and strangeness around her. It is not enough that poetry bears witness to events as they happen and are felt; it must further affirm reacting and contemplating, be a site to struggle with knowledge.

For Lee, despite the truths of obvious differences, equality and the right to longing and freedom have to be supported. While divinity is revealed in sacraments and faith, yet the believer must pursue a dignified dialogue with God. National well-being may well concern every citizen, but humanity ought to ground any construal of belonging.

These distinctions take Lee’s significance beyond just being a Singaporean pioneer in women’s literature, introspective writing, and religious verse. She has made it possible for a future in poetry that is neither public nor solipsistic. It is a main reason a virtual roll call of esteemed poets in Singapore today considers her an influence.

From Lee, we can extend into Heng Siok Tian’s focus on private history and Boey Kim Cheng’s attention to taut language. We can discern her role in Felix Cheong’s struggles with life and faith and Aaron Lee’s calm love for deep experience. Her interrogation of nationhood returns in Alfian Sa’at, and her patient crafting passes into Toh Hsien Min.

Most of these poets find Lee an inspiring labourer with words, for whom truths must be sought in solitude. They recognise thought, not mere agenda or word play, as the pure demand of poetry. Qualities of tightness, brevity, and control, notions of artistic anguish and the weight of self, and self-orientation matter too.

Such ranging influence, set in individualism and humanity, cannot be considered romantic. Lee’s universe is filled with change, pain, and death, and yet here too poetry finds ample work to recover hope. Poetry becomes a possibility of life in a broken world, a place for the mind to build up and humanity to heal.

Gwee Li Sui

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