Edwin Thumboo: The meaning and the making

Prof Thumboo is a pioneer in the Singapore literary scene

In conjunction with the new Edwin Thumboo Prize, recently launched by NUS English Language and Literature to acknowledge excellence in pre-university student essays on English literature, Marc Nair, poet and NUS Arts and Social Sciences (FASS) alumnus, sat down with the renowned poet and former FASS Dean, to talk about poetry, personal history, and names no longer remembered.  

In a 2006 interview with Mohammad A. Quayum, NUS FASS Emeritus Professor Edwin Thumboo offered an insight into poetry as a kind of making: 

"Meaning making, searching the thought/experience for significance, insight; words lifted above their habitual, ordinary selves, all subject to and pressured by the growing traffic between them. It is an equation: meaning = making, one in which, as the writing succeeds, the equal sign diminishes, then disappears as the poem turns increasingly seamless.”

Sitting with him in his office early on a Thursday morning, I am reminded of these words and how the Professor himself is the embodiment of a poem; that seamless melding of memory with history. As our conversation dips into pockets of experience, he dusts off the decades with assurance, holding forth in a phalanx of names and places drawn from a repository that, increasingly, he finds himself the sole keeper of. 

As he names the friends who sat at different tables in his storied life, I am reminded of these lines from his poem, ‘To A Young Poet’:

Obviously you listen; be more sensitive and intent;
Curious and comprising. Grip incessant worlds; catch
Silences born of anger. Bend light. Cherish irregularities;
Accost fresh endings. Reap tides. Put magic into blood
About to revolt to unleash.

Here is the spark of a thousand poems condensed from years of ideas, decades of unstringing experience into the cognitive space of poetry. Inevitably, we drift back in time, to the 1950s and his formative writing years. He remembers those who were interested in literature — Beda Lim, who became Chief Librarian at the University of Malaya library in Kuala Lumpur and Wang Gungwu with Pulse, the first known collection of English poems by a Malayan. There are others: Goh Sin Tub, James Peter Chin, Lim Thian Soo, James Puthucheary; names that have soaked into the lore of early Singapore literature.

He recounts a literary adventure in 1954, where he banded with some friends to print 2,000 copies of a journal which they hoped to sell in Malaysia. They rented a car, an Austin A40, and got a permit to go across the Causeway, stopping in Batu Pahat, Muar, Melaka, Seremban, Kuala Lumpur, Ipoh, Taiping and Penang. At one point, he recalls up to eight (eight!) people in the car, these names that are no longer remembered.

We get to talking about the wider scene in his time and he reminds me of Singa, and before that, Saya (1969–78), the latter a literary journal that was sent out mostly to secondary schools. At its height, Saya had a circulation of 10,000 copies.

Every nation needs its poet-singers to hum a tune or two that will resonate with the needs and desires of its peoples. Edwin Thumboo is one such poet.

I get the sense from these fragments of a delicate web of writers, readers and believers, an organic infrastructure that formed the root system for other organisms that thrive today. We chat about Singpowrimo, also known as Singapore Poetry Writing Month, which has crossed 6,000 members in its Facebook group. The premise is simple: write a poem a day, for 30 days in April. It is open to anyone, and the range of writing is astounding. While it may be poetry by numbers, and only a small percentage would actively be writing, it still is an incredibly dynamic and diverse group, a world away from the traditional thinking that a poet was only recognised when they had published a book.

Professor Rajeev S. Patke, Director of the Division of Humanities and Head of Studies, Arts and Humanities at Yale-NUS College notes that “Every nation needs its poet-singers to hum a tune or two that will resonate with the needs and desires of its peoples. Edwin Thumboo is one such poet. Over the years, through his anthologies and his advocacy of a role for poets and poetry in new nationhood, he has helped create and sustain some of the most essential enabling conditions for the practice of poetry in Singapore.”

Ruminating on the value of literature, Prof Thumboo once wrote that "the words read us, set us thinking and thus expand our understanding of life-experiences in rich, powerful, apt and memorable language.” I ask him how his writing has changed over the years, and he replies, “I ask myself those questions, but I have no answers. I thought I knew where I was going, but now I don’t know where I’m going.”

He goes on to give an example, “There is no painting of the Singapore River in a bad state. So I wrote something. I had to go to the river in 1951 to take some water to get hydrogen sulphite. I never saw it the way our painters saw it. I saw it in all its moods, stinking and smelly, and how it opened up like the belly of a carp. You can see where the poem is going, I don’t know how it will end, but it doesn’t matter.” 

Perhaps the seams are showing in his poems, but for Prof Thumboo, it isn’t so much about the seams anymore, but a constant urge to find wonder and allow the poem to take him by surprise. And that is perhaps the best way to find joy in the meaning, and the making.