seeks only glory
bought with the excess of words
few know the price of
The world has seen something of a literary renaissance these days. In Singapore, Literature is no longer that fogy subject with mind-boggling Early Modern English no one could fathom into an A grade. More have been clamouring for admission into Yale-NUS College, with people favouring classical approaches to education and seeking less of the conventional instruction in natural and formal sciences. Witness Tumblr sensation Lang Leav, typewriter maven Tyler Knott Gregson, and Twitter specialist Patricia Lockwood, all of whose commercial offerings on public social platforms have made poetry seem quintessentially cool. In a twisted turn, counterculture has now become the new culture: fuddy-duddy versification has become bohemian and rebellious, and versifiers have become gods. Now everyone wants their chance to be the non-conformist and it seems that self-proclaimed ‘poets’ have grown in spades.
Whilst I’m glad that more are pursuing recreational poetry, I feel aggrieved when confronted with a particularly nefarious breed of troubadour. I refer to those who cheapen literary merit in the name of self-gratification. Those who churn out fanciful verse for profit faster than a Chinese factory mass produces counterfeit bags.
Yes, the work of one’s hand can earn one’s keep—I do not begrudge poets their rice bowl. And perhaps we can never tell for sure whose haikus were conceived as expressions of vanity; in many ways art is a means to the end of advancing its artist. No poet in documented history has declined the financial gain nor shunned the attention received from his trade. Poets are human. Humans who are afflicted by the very human condition they write about. Afflicted by mortal temptations.
The perfect poet does not exist, but the selfish one does, and where do we draw the line? The ambitions we make of our work may be complicated by issues of fame and money, yet it takes far more than that to taint true, artistic grace. Even the simplest of compositions may be subject to human iniquity and still be saved from ruin, because its beauty is rendered in complexity of thought, ambivalence of intent, and the emotional struggle of its creator. But when a poem becomes void of all these virtues save for its author’s unbridled lust for ego, then it is merely a coldly manufactured product. It is no more than pretty typography and gratuitously elaborate words strung together.
Poetry reveals a part of its poet, but it is more than a narcissistic statement. Anyone with half a brain can make a couplet rhyme, but it takes integrity to distinguish the selfless purveyors, whose works we see a reflection of ourselves in, from the disingenuous conmen.