WritingsArticles & SpeechesSocial and Cultural themes in Philippine Poetry (Part I...

Social and Cultural themes in Philippine Poetry (Part I of II)

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Jose Maria Sison
The Philippine Collegian
December 20, 1961

It is very relevant to take note of the possibility of embodying militancy in a metaphorical presentation. While it may be said that the Filipino poet has always had enough social concern to image, he is still to be held responsible for not being able to go beyond the usual negative statement. It is an extremely sad fact that very often he appears cynical or simply palliative. While he has been very much able to tell the common pain, he has not been able to show how to proceed from it except to look heavenward or to hope for some kind of metamorphosis to the isolated individual. This is damnable pose, if it becomes static, while the masses struggle and need more direction. Metaphors of simple denial reach an optimum point beyond which their influence diminishes and turns into a mere salve making more men passive. It is the poet’s responsibility to keep a progressive correspondence between the organic symbol and social reality. In his part of the world, he has to keep an eye on the ninety percent of humanity convulsed with hunger and abomination and he has to provide them with the down-to-earth depth of collective change. It is interesting to leave open the question of whether the Filipino poets have kept a good eye.

But just as there is economic encirclement of the national intellectual, there is a corresponding cultural one which makes the first all too palatable. There is strong reason to believe now that the call made by critics like Salvador P. Lopez during the prewar years has been merely an echoing of Stateside radicalism only to be replaced by another echoing after the war. The point being made here is that our intellectual reflexes are tightly but deftly conditioned to the patterns set by both the cultural as well as economic hold that Mother America has on the Philippines. It is indeed, funny and terrible at the same time, that whereas the prewar conditions still obtain among the masses at an extremely worsening rate a great number of poets have assumed a solipsistic sophistication in which it is “crudeness” to pronounce one’s social concern. Funnily and terribly, the Filipino seems to have identified himself with the Depression as his country completely improved his imperialist position and its business cycle has dipped only in a few breath-taking recessions and the Smith Act has done well its job.

However, whereas the Filipino economist and all other social scientist have been extremely overt with their capitalist and reformist training today, the poet-being more true to humanity- tends to commit the “sin” of omission rather than commit himself to the set-up of sweet thievery. A perusal of the poetry shows this tendency to avoid the social theme.

More poets are now preoccupied with love themes and sheer sexualization that sell to the Weekly Women’s Magazine, or in clever and polished forms a la Baudelaire, a la Dylan Thomas, a la E. E. Cummings, etc. are contributed to campus magazines like Sand and Coral, The Literary Apprentice and The Versitarian. The Villa void has also come to town and has taken a good part in the circus. The romantic rage for personal immortality releases itself into the most confounding immortality themes.

While these fundamental themes that have to be taken up by poets with all their insights and technical preparation, they should not serve as escape valves; Filipino poets have to hack their way through the cultural membrane-which defines their bourgeois status and which imprisons them- through whose hazy transparency they have only watched comfortably the act of deception among the masses.

They have watched this act that makes what I call the diamond period strangely red with tubercular blood-vomit of moiling men and to a great extent with the syphilitic rashes of golden girls. They have said much about it in poetic distaste but they should have move further. Of course, if there is any tone of deploring here, it results merely from a sense of statistics.

There are some Filipino poets whose masterly control of form and content have developed the social theme and have brought it to a sufficiently major position from which progression-the progressive correlation between organic symbol and social reality can be made. Superbly they have also used more individualistic elements as perfect seasoning.

In some instances, social consciousness is woven into more personal contexts. The latest notable examples come from Andres Cristobal Cruz’ Estero Poems, a collection published last year. In his “Song to My Beloved”, obviously a love song, he can be as blatant as to state:

The country must be saved, the issue must be fought. If we stop within ourselves, that is folly. That is SIN.

It must be evident that this particular poet in these lines recalls the idealist lie. “If we stop within ourselves, that is folly”, he asserts. To make this statement in a love song and in a very graceful contextual manner is the height of wit. It is revolutionary. The way Cristobal Cruz weaves into a poem his social consciousness is superb, as his “6 Estero Poems”.

Of course, in his “6 Clarius Poems”, Cristobal Cruz’ social consciousness is most cogent. Here, he is very political and he reflects history. His gestures reach out. Clarius is allusive of Don Claro M. Recto, the nationalist. And Adrianious resembles very much a young intellectual in the contemporary scene who is honestly subversive. The “I” is supposed to be the plebeian. The issue involves “Some foreigners,/ They are handsome foreigners.” The whole issue is “the systems. The foreigner brought.” Cristobal Cruz observes that they are here “Because the nation is doing them a lot of good./ For one thing,/ business. For another, defense”. He declares at the very outset:

I shall go with the noble patrician Clarius.
Because
Clarius has already won. It is the proper time now
To build the New Republic.

And he adds:

I choose the ways of the plaza.
Moving in the crowd, meeting friends, asking how
They would like their New Republic to be.

In connection with Adrianicus, he strikes up an exciting tension for revolutionaries themselves. It poses the present situation wherein there are Believers in a new social order who place themselves within the existing political system purportedly for the chief idea helping the Movement.

My friend Adrianicus, is now in the palace.

He is an intellectual. This is the first time
I hear of an intellectual being in a palace.
But I think the ministers of the emperor
Shall use Adrianicus, but Adrianicus
Should also exploit the ministers.
Otherwise, he has no business serving in the palace.
I only wish
Adrianicus could escape the luxuries and intrigues
In such a marketplace as the palace.

I have already made the claim that Cristobal Cruz’ poems’ are reflective of current history. On the basis of this, I wish to make a historical sounding. And I adduce to the contemporary scene with his question. How much can be expected from a silent struggle? For his own answer, Cristobal Cruz says with certitude after the dolorous victory of the New Barbarians:

Looking for my friend
Adrianicus, the intellectuals
I was not surprised that he had been conspired.
Against.

So, implicitly he prefers him to be in the field rather than presume silent subversion. Deprecatingly, Cristobal Cruz can never be more clear than in the following lines which outline the defeat of the first socialist led revolt in the Philippines.

The New Barbarians won with
the overwhelmingly promise
Of gold and power and great scheme
Of future commerce with their abiding allies
From the decadent west.

In our tents in the dark
suburbs, we measured ground
Together, yet apart in
individual faces of despair.
And our silence was harder
than the last of liquor
We heard the barbarous trumpets long
and loudly blaze.

The noblest acceptance of our
first and historic defeat.

In Cristobal Cruz’ “6 Clarius Poems”, although he is undoubtedly extending social significance and thereby reflective of the national situation, he keeps his artistic integrity by objectifying his emotion in symbols; the Philippine social reality is given a valid set of other names and parallel scenes.

R. Zulueta da Costa, Whit-manish in style, can be sarcastic of Philippine independence in “Fourth of July, 1946, Not for the Books”. The author has been a poetry winner of Commonwealth awards; and he, as to be expected, has been equipped with populist sensibilities.

As crumbs to the beggar bones
to the dog.
Friends and

in the social situation in a nutshell “the Knockers” follows

countrymen a beautiful
speeches
Microphone the lump in
the (Canddi (…?) angle the tear in the sun)

“Our Forefathers Dreamed

“The Altar of Bataan
“Our American Bell Friends
“Bastion of Democracy
“Freedom loudspeakers
cameras flashbulbs band burst>

While there is no hesitancy on the part of da Costa or Andres Cristobal Cruz in reflecting the political condition, Tita Lacamba-Ayala- who represents to a great extent a group of young Filipino poets– betrays an aristocratic flare even as she affirms sense of duty towards a “crowdedness of faces” in “Politique”- one among sunflower poems.

There is a sense of duty and a sense of break
When facing the crowdedness of faces eager
to be impressed by firm of chalk markings
and firm judgments on the choice at hand

She puts that “sense break”. Why? But, anyhow, she admits that there is that sense of duty.
There are Filipino poets like Gerson M. Mallillin who reveal

The first one knocked at
At the house with his heart.
No one heeded him
the door did not part.

And before he could think
Of knocking with stone
The life from his tired heart
Had flown,

The second knocked
With pieces of gold,
The door opened promptly
And someone called

Come in, Friend, come in
And join us here-
We welcome all callers
Anytime of the year.

The indictment of our cash relations is sweeping with such parabolization, The simplicity of style has its aptness.

Oscar D. Zuniga, the sexualist virtuoso, can be highly allusive of our cash relations in several of his poems. However, most of the time he seems to lament only the further financial fall of the lady “fallen from grace” in a game which he himself accepts. Most of the time he feels simply sorry for the diminution of her earning capacity. In one poem, though, “The Hour Is Come”, he succeeds in making broader social and economic implications. One woman becomes incapable of competition and becomes bankrupt in the laissez fare of whoring; she is simply left out by everybody’s surge for one’s own self. The manner in which Zuniga produces a sense of helpless languorous or the manner in which he conjoins the eternal principle of becoming old and the transitory factor of a peculiar kind of economic displacement is a good-mark of his artistic striving. The poem follows:

You should not be here watching
The shadows of your withered self.
The sun in your blood is gone.
The winds in your feet are dead,
And you must be tired wandering
Through streets of jagged stones
Along the tattered houses whose windows
Reflect the dark face of hunger.
Your hour of forgetfulness is come,
dusk is heavy upon your eyelids,
The feel of silence is in your flesh
The night celebrates your death.
Now a little girl shelters
The memoir of a woman whose name
Is among the torn newspapers
Of putrid garbage can.

In his own simple way, Serfin Lanot- who has recently come out with Songs of the Brown Man, a thick collection of poems unified by its dedication to the Filipino- is more projective and threatening. Though he may be communicative, I suppose that his subjects can be dealt more poetically than he has done. However, if he is to be upheld as a true poet, one has only to refer to the notations made on him by Nick Joaquin, Amador T. Daguio and Ed Uhl, among others. But still, I am quoting from him in relation to the quotation from Mallillin and not at the same tome asking whether he is only signaling through mere versification. Thus, I quote but with my sense of style on guard, he states:

We can be slaves, But then,
we, too,
have hearts—and also honor–
and hearts, you know, don’t tolerate
cruel sense of humour.
If we revolt ‘tis not because
we need some sort of medal;
we only need the heart’s desire
and instincts for survival.

Here, the bourgeois concept of medal heroism is refuted and what is insisted upon is only that the slaves cannot at all put up with liberalistic hocus-pocus and old-time patriotism.

The amplitude of Lanot’s verses covers the state of the masses, how they have been used. His sarcasm bears the maul and soy (?) of the prose. He lays out the whole history of the Filipino tao. The most stinging irony and the most pressing one that he sees, of course, is the fact that when heroes are wanted, in a matter of hours, they are mobilized in extortionate mines and workshops and rice-fields and office. They become Christian martyrs through no choice of theirs and all for imperialist interests.

In a two-line sweep, Lanot sardonically writes that “they fought the Spaniards who fleeced us for love and religion, and the Yankees who grabbed us for goodwill and peace on earth”. And above all this bitting restatement of history, he asserts, but surely we are people who can also dream of a country redeemed and free…”

Although much is called for in this poem in terms of stylization, the attempt to reflect the Filipino condition is certainly made with assumption that it is surely possible to have social content and form beautifully bound together as poetry has been supposed to belong to pure eccentricity, rather than to prophecy. Whereas Lanot’s lines easily suffer because of a historicity that leads into platform rosiness, Alejandrino Hufana’s poetry is rich with its cultural aspersions and the continuous pilling-up of feeling-imaging clauses. Although Hufana usually exasperates critics and readers alike with a disjointed syntax, a careful re-reading—as it has been advised by Leonard Casper to everybody– easily evinces the skill with which he makes his poetic statements. However, there are points where one is to suspect that the anti-grammatical transpositions are merely contrived rather than spontaneous: furthermore, they obstruct an immediate response which is vital to poetry.

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