One Small Voice: Dr Gwee Li Sui

Published on 1 February 2016

You don’t have to be able to intellectualise a poem to enjoy it, says poet Dr Gwee Li Sui.


Poems are like brands of shampoo — some are more suitable for you than others. Just because you don’t like a poem, or someone’s poetry, doesn’t mean that you won’t like all poems. Appreciating a poem as a reader and as a student are vastly different in practice. As a reader, you read for the experience, to be entertained or enriched, as you are taken through a certain landscape.

But, as a student, you aim to articulate that usefully to others, and that’s a different level. The enjoyment is in your attempt at ‘meaning- making’. My advice for students is to treat a poem as a crime scene: you read for what you get first, and then you try to piece together a better sense of what is going on.

For this reason, students need a good amount of emotional distance from the text. What comes out of that distance is an interpretation that is personal insofar as it is also fair-minded. A student’s interpretation is judged on how reasonable his or her reading is, based on textual evidence, rather than on whether it is right or wrong.

Having said that, the starting point for a reader or a student is always the same: you enter a poem with a mental blank slate, having no assumptions of or expectations from what it will tell you. With the experience, it’s entirely okay not to go on to intellectualise it because that’s never its point. The point of a funny poem, for example, is not that you can take it apart and philosophise about humour!

Poetry has existed long before the study of literature. So it’s certainly okay to enjoy a poem you have nothing to say about intellectually, just as it’s okay to enjoy analysing a poem you don’t really like. We need to realise that poetry is primarily a medium of expression, meaning that it’s doing a lot more than language. Way more content is present in a good poem than we can ever imagine.

In Singapore, there was a time when people wrote a lot of nation-based poems because they felt that poetry had to serve some practical end. These days, our poets are more willing to wrestle with all kinds of poetic possibilities, even poetry for its own sake. Our audience has also evolved in tandem. But, given the past emphasis on public poetry, the natural tendency is to move in the opposite direction and want private poetry. We have to resist oscillating between these two modes and not appreciating poetry along other lines. Nonsense verse, experimental verse and spiritual poetry, among others, are underrated here.

Ultimately, we just have to give poetry as a raw notion a chance. It’s not scary: the poet William Wordsworth described his part as “a man speaking to men”. Sometimes a poet may think that he or she has achieved that, and you as reader don’t think so. That’s wholly within your right to believe — but move on to another poem!

There’s a lot out there, and, when you find a poem that resonates with you, the effort reaching it becomes worthwhile. You do remember the poems that affect you profoundly more than all the poems that you read, go “hmmm”, and forget. That one poem — out of every 100 or more — is worth your time.

GWEE LI SUI is a poet, graphic artist and literary critic.
A popular speaker at schools and literary festivals, Gwee has taught at a number of academic institutions and judged for several top literary awards in Singapore and the region. His works include Who Wants to Buy a Book of Poems? (1998), One Thousand and One Nights (2014), and The Other Merlion and Friends (2015). Since 2013, Gwee has been conducting Sing Lit 101: How to Read a Singaporean Poem, a lecture series at The Arts House for the public. The third season is currently on, and runs weekly till 27 February.

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