over almost 100 years of our poetry in English, I find that it was simply
inevitable that, with facility in English and mastery of its poetic forms,
our writers would discover new ways of forging the work called poem and so
establish a poetic tradition. I use “forging” in its triple sense—to
fashion, to feign, and to forge ahead or move forward—because poetry is
always a matter of reinventing the language and seeing anew our historical
reality that the language is used to express or evoke.
In the 1970s, it was as though the poet
needed to free himself from New Criticism—not from the discipline of
craftmanship, but from obsession with rhetoric and its figures (irony,
paradox, tension, ambiguity), and from the ideology of the poem as
In the 1970s also, as an effect of political
activism, it had again become urgent for the poet to connect with his social
reality without neglecting the formal requirements of his art. We see this
move in, say, Alfrredo Navarro Salanga and Gelacio Guillermo, but it only
stresses that from the very beginning—from Ponciano Reyes’s “The Flood” in
1905, through Carlos Bulosan and Rafael Zulueta y da Costa, to the very
present—our poets in English, despite the trance of the English poetic and
critical sensibility, stood upon their own native ground.
Our writers began to be aware in the 1980s of
new critical theories which seem to affect their poetry—the structuralists
who fostered an extreme type of formalism and, almost in the same breath,
the post-structuralists who ravish still the voids in language. But our
poets are not academics when they write their poems. Working with language
as their medium, they make their own discoveries about poetry which later
the academic critic finds conformable with some artistic value or criterion
which, of course, the poet had first established by following his own
Our poetry in the 1980s to the present is
marked by a more heightened sense for language in the way it creates its own
reality—what we may now also call “virtual reality”; it is also
characterized by a deep sense of the poem as artifice and a kind of double
forgery—a forgery from language, which itself is already a fiction of
reality, and a forgery in one’s own consciousness from the reality outside
language. Moreover, I suspect, in science and in art, we have a deep
troubling sense that we are bounded by mystery—the mystery of our own human
psyche and the mystery of the universe, the concrete reality, that we
inhabit. So, more and more, I think, in our poems—and not only in English—we
shall find, as Alfred Yuson puts it, a solitary “personal voice whose
treatment of experience and insight is couched in hard-edged or tender
understatement… The quiet image, the ironic engagement, the subtle verbal
gesture” seem to be the “favored contemporary devices for lyric or cerebral
One other remarkable thing about our poetry
today is the number of women writers who carve from language a reality that
is truer to their “inner promptings,” as Edith Tiempo would say.
Our poetic course in English from 1905 to the
present has been a long and creative struggle with both the language and the
subject that it treats. But so it is to the present with any literature in
any language: when the struggle ceases, its literature fossilizes. By the
subject that the language is made to serve, I do not mean any specific theme
or topic, but the writer’s insight into his own humanity and the hybrid
culture which nurtures and sustains it.
Mastery of his medium, his language, must be
assumed for any serious writer in any language. It is the writer’s own
choice which language he feels he is most competent to write in, but the
choice also entails a serious responsibility to the language. Whether
English or Tagalog or some other native language, it is always the poet’s
task to reinvent the language and give it new life. A poem isn’t given by
language; rather, a language is transformed through insight, a new way of
looking, which is of the essence of poetry.
The poet must in fact constantly liberate
himself from both his language and his subject: that is to say, he must
constantly rediscover his language and constantly see his world anew; both
he must do to forge ahead.
Now I wish to address what Bienvenido Lumbera
says directly and indirectly in “The Babel Unified,” an interview with Bien
as reported/written up by Lito B. Zulueta in Sunday Inquirer Magazine
(October 1, 2000: 10-11). It helped me to clear many things in my own mind
as I looked into the future of our literature. I also thought that the work
of literature may sometimes be served by restating and stressing what others
may think are too obvious. (Not Bien, but some critics have become too
clever, too fond of “problematizing,” or too enthralled with jargon, they
miss what may be more basic as more elementary.)
We now speak, when we aspire, of a national
literature. Bien speaks of it as “multilingual and multicultural” (B)—“one
seamless continuity without artificial divisions of tongue and polish” (Z).
[This is rather awkward, but B indicates a direct quote from Bien, and Z,
presumably Bien’s statement as reworded/understood by Zulueta. Sometimes, a
single statement that I quote from “The Babel Unified” consists of B and Z!]
How truly wonderful that future of a national literature is, but also, how
truly uncertain if we consider our economy and our politics.
The languages will of course remain
different, because each one may be a different way of perceiving our world,
but not one will be divided from the other because no one will think that
one is superior to the other. That is one sense of division overcome.
But we are speaking of literature, which
isn’t given by any language but is rather wrought from it. We are hoping
therefore that new works will be produced in our various native languages;
we cannot live in the past. Bearing in mind that a language like Waray is
mainly oral, that its works are mainly products of an oral culture, it is
improbable—unless our education is radically overhauled and a political will
persists in sustaining literatures in those languages—that a multilingual,
multicultural national literature is now in the offing. The offing is the
deep sea as seen from the shore. If oral culture is our deep sea, it must
yet break upon the shore of paper, print, and book where literature is
There is another hindrance to multilingual,
multicultural national literature. To cross each language’s natural divide
in the way it looks at reality, one must either understand all those
languages, or works in those languages have been translated into the
language one is at home with/in. Apart of course from one’s own native
tongue in one’s own region, the language one is at home with/in is, for most
people now, either English or Tagalog-Filipino or both because of mass
media, education, and the social and political support.
The work of translation then is another
hurdle. That translation must be excellent, or one gets the impression that
the original must also be flawed. The work of translation is what dissolves
the natural division between languages, but only if the translation is
deeply aware that literature is what the writer does to language to move us,
or what through language the writer makes happen in the reader’s mind. That
is to say, as with every art, good literature always transforms its medium.
It isn’t how we use the language for the everyday purposes of simple
As to the division of literatures by polish,
if by polish we mean quality, then the division can be artificial only if we
impose on one literary tradition the values and standards of another
Quality implies standards and values; in
literature and art, standards and values are created by the best writers,
the best artists. Therefore, the literary or critical tradition is never
static: it follows and serves those standards and values which the best
works have created, and it will change as new works are produced.
There may be a growing trend for literature
today to go back to the oral, that is to say, to move from the text to its
performance, to poetry recited and intoned, or story read aloud, with the
appropriate tone of voice and gesture and action. And this, owing to “the
changing habits of people, reading less and listening and looking more” (B);
owing also to “the experiential impetus that wants literature to be tactile
and virtual” (Z). But this cannot mean the end of the alphabet, print, font,
What has happened, and is still happening?
Language as words may no longer be the chief
medium of thought and feeling, at least for the younger generation; images
or pictures and sounds or music may be the new or current language of
expression among young people. The movies, MTV, texting, the Internet
emoticons (so I am told).
So now, literature as language as words,
abstract and rational, must compete with the new language, language as
audio-visual, concrete language, emotive and perhaps drawing its own kind of
logic from the unconscious and dream. It is the kind of competition that
enriches and deepens the power of literature as verbal construct.
Yet, at their core, the value of either
language or medium is the same: in one, literature says in words the
unsayable; in the other, “virtual” literature expresses in image and music
and action or gesture the inexpressible.
The unsayable or the inexpressible is the
limit for either language, which each constantly seeks to transcend in
There can be no doubt that “vernacular
writings have strengths of their own” (Z). But personally, I refuse the word
“vernacular” because, by its own etymology, the vernacular is condemned to
remain the same “slave born in his master’s house.” Verna in Latin is
that kind of slave.
It is true that the “strengths” of our
different native literatures cannot always be “measured or evaluated by
Western canons of taste” (Z). True, but we must make ourselves aware of what
we are saying. It is also true that writings in medieval English cannot be
measured or evaluated by Western canons of taste today. It is also true, as
Rizal was well aware, that the novel, for example, is a Western genre. The
chief point then is, we must know the indigenous tradition to which the
native writings belong. It may happen that the indigenous tradition is
mainly oral, and that the writing, in the past and today, only
veils its oral nature. Here is an important yet obvious distinction, that
between oral and literate cultures (and no negative
determinations implied!), which most recently National Artist Nick Joaquin
stressed in “Tomorrow & Letters” (in his column, “Small Beer,” in
Philippine Graphic, 17 July 2000). Here, truly, is more work for our
“national literature”—work of scholarship and theory, drawing from what we
already have and drawing from the world through English.
In fact, writers in the indigenous languages
must have a critical understanding of their own native oral and literary
tradition, before Spain perhaps and throughout our Spanish colonial period,
before they can critically draw from it, to reinvigorate it, to give it new
life attuned to new historical circumstances. To give new life to one’s own
literary tradition also means to renew the indigenous language, to endow it
with a fresh power to evoke the contemporary living reality. I believe that
in this regard the Filipino writer today draws perforce from English and
from other works and literary traditions of the world which he accesses
through translation into English. No writer in the world today is an island.
In literature, nationality is one more fiction.
There is another important point: that there
are universal standards of literary excellence. (It is presently the
intellectual fashion to lay siege to the idea of “the universal”—perhaps,
that is one factor which has today made all standards and values pretty
unstable.) For example: that the language be new, fresh, original; that is
to say, that the writer enable the language, which in fact keeps changing,
to carry fresh insights into contemporary reality. Literature is after all
conquest of cliché—in word, in thought, in feeling. For another example:
that, to the contemporary reader, the work be interesting, that it move the
reader. In a word, the writer must endow his work with power to move and
persuade his reader; what Aristotle of long ago called dynamis or
power still holds to the present as a literary criterion. “May atay,”
the Tagalog writer says of any remarkable or distinctive literary work; “malakas
o kakaiba ang dating.”
Unfortunately, I must take exception to what
Bien says about writings in English.
4.1 Bien says: “despite the palpable
deterioration of the quality of English of Filipinos in general (Z)… the
really good writers will continue to be there” (B). What needs to be
stressed is that, in literature, to continue is to change. Most writers who
are serious about writing continue to change. All our writings date and age,
but they must try and continue to speak to the new generation. Literature is
conquest of the future; it changes because that is the human condition,
restless, never still. To adopt a line of verse from Ricardo de Ungria: I
write “against all that failed to hold me still.”
Is there in general a palpable deterioration
of the quality of English of Filipinos? Yes, as any Department of English
will tell you. But that is not peculiar to the English of Filipinos, it also
afflicts the English of Americans, and it also applies to Filipino or any
other language. It is a world-wide phenomenon: the deterioration of the
sense for language. Language as words, in the world today, is suffering
a crisis as to its capacity to evoke, especially for the young generation,
our present reality. This seems to be at the heart of deconstruction. As we
lose our grasp on words and their order, we lose our sense of reality, or
rather, we are overwhelmed by its unfathomable mystery. But literature, in
whatever new form it has discovered, is conquest of the unsayable.
4.2 Bien also says: “the weight [of writings
in English by Filipinos] appears to have shifted to Fil-American writers who
(Z) will be there to influence the locals” (B). Why? Because, “despite the
yawning space separating them from their homeland (Z),” the Fil-Americans
are “distinctive in that they allude to the situation in the Philippines…
and are constantly in touch with what’s current in the country” (B). In
fact, continues Bien, “if literature in English could be considered in a
crisis of sorts, then relief or salvation would lie in the United States.”
That “crisis of sorts” of which Bien speaks
is merely hypothetical, as if local writings in English need to be saved by
an outside force. But that the weight or value of Fil-Am writings lies in
the fact that they allude to the Philippine situation seems to indicate a
stubborn will to deny that our local writings in English even allude to our
contemporary situation! But if we must see things right, English (the
language and its literatures) does not need to be saved anywhere because it
is the world’s language and the language of power; the proper response to
English is to master it. Where it took root, it has flourished, like Spanish
in Latin America. What needs rather to be saved is Filipino and Tagalog and
our other indigenous languages. But there is no saving, no relief, if our
writers do not produce great works.
The chief point, however, is this: it is vain
and counter-productive to pit English against Filipino or Tagalog; that is
old hat; it is more to our profit to cherish what we have, to value what we
have achieved, not to rest on what we can acclaim, but to move forward with
new works in English, in Filipino, in all our other languages. Any work by
any Filipino belongs to Philippine national literature.
4.3 Bien also says: “More writers in English
would probably want to go to the US, like Eric Gamalinda” (B). Having
assumed that probability, Bien then gives advice: “If you want to continue
writing in English, you should do so [leave your country] and compete, so to
speak, in the belly of the beast” (B). Then Bien also offers a possible
prize: “Fil-American writers may yet gain the international acclaim that has
eluded Filipino writers, but which has been showered generously on the Latin
Americans, the Chinese and the Indians” (Z).
This is bizarre—both the matter of
probability (that the writer in English would want to go to the US) and the
matter of a writer’s motive for going (international acclaim). But what is
gratuitously assumed can also be gratuitously denied. The matter of
competition, however, even if it were not foremost in the writer’s mind, is
simply fact. The writer must first compete with himself, and the reality
that he must deal with is the reality of his own historical circumstances:
not the reality of America, but the reality of the Filipino, wherever he is.
4.4 Bien also says that “the Filipino writer
in English has to go to the West because (Z) his biggest problem is that he
has no readers here” (B).
We must immediately ask: Who, what language,
has readers here? Do writers in Filipino fare better with readers here than
writers in English? And what kind of reading fare? we must also ask. Our
local bookstores may have the answer.
But the real problem, it seems to me, is
readership—whatever the language. It matters greatly what the medium of
instruction is in our schools. It matters greatly what the quality of
education is in our schools. It matters greatly what sort of teaching takes
place—the teaching of Filipino, the teaching of English; and is there
teaching of Waray and Sugbuanon and Hiligaynon and Iloko at the same level,
with the same support? The teacher of Filipino today had better take a hard
look at what happened to Spanish: perhaps its legislation into an academic
requirement was resented by the youth? perhaps its teaching was in the main
uninspiring? perhaps, above all, there were no new exciting works in Spanish
by Filipinos themselves?
It is in the school where the sense for
language as words is sharpened and cultivated.
4.5 But Bien posits a reason why the Filipino
writer in English has no readers here.
Literature in English is produced by
“literary writers,” that is, for Bien, “pure aesthetes” (B). “Their
style—their ‘fine art’—is not familiar to the broader audience” (B).
“’Literariness’ is not part of the tradition of the readers” (B)—presumably,
the readers of Filipino or the readers among the masa.
Bien thinks of F. Sionil Jose as “an Ilocano
who writes in English” but “who will continue to be regarded as an outsider
by writers in English” (Z) because, so Bien implies, Jose lacks the quality
of “fine art” or “literariness.” Jose, according to Bien, “will be better
appreciated by readers of Filipino” (B)—assuming of course that such readers
also read English; “better appreciated” is Jose because, according to Bien,
Jose “belongs really to the critical tradition of the Filipino vernacular,
where works are charged with a searing social consciousness” (Z).
First of all, the quality of “literariness”
or “fine art” is simply intrinsic to any literature in any language. Why, is
there no “fine art” or “literariness” in Florante at Laura? in other
writers in Tagalog? To call it “pure aestheticism” in English, but not in
Tagalog, simply begs the question. Is Arguilla’s “Caps and Lower Case” or
Polotan’s “Hand of the Enemy” pure aestheticism, nil on social
I think the problem for writers and critics
is to discover and define literariness or fine art in the literary tradition
of each one’s language—a tradition, we must bear in mind, that is never
static if it must survive, a tradition of standards and values that keeps
changing, or must keep moving forward, attuned to the contemporary reality,
and vigorous because there are new works, new discoveries, which set new
standards of fine art or literariness.
As to “searing social consciousness,” I don’t
think any body of writings in any language has that monopoly.
4.6 Bien also says that “perhaps, with a
well-formed social consciousness, the writer in English may make (Z) a
concrete effort to relate to a broader audience rather than an elite” (B).
But, says Bien, “The problem is that the critical tradition to which
[writers in English] belong will always bury them back. Their fears that
what they are writing for a popular audience is really vulgar would eat into
their art” (B).
Again, it is gratuitously claimed that it is
not certain or inevitable that the writer in English, even “with a
well-formed social consciousness” (from whatever ideological standpoint)
will make the effort to relate to a broader audience. This is just loading
the dice. Almost like Erap desperately pitting the ilustrados
against the masa.
But the facts show that the elite for our
literatures in our languages is really only the readership: that is to say,
they are few for any language, and perhaps, even dwindling with the young
generation liberated from texts or too distracted by or engrossed with
other, more interesting media.
As to the critical tradition that will bury
back the Filipino writer in English, that is precisely the challenge for any
writing in any literary tradition. If that tradition is not given new life
by new works, it is doomed to the grave of its past.
As to fears about writing for a popular
audience—granted there is such a broad audience clamoring for new texts to
read—the fear that addressing such an audience is really vulgar and would
ruin one’s art—Bien confesses to that fear, in his past, but he cannot then
conveniently transfer that fear to writers in the present (and limit it
especially to writers in English).
What is clear and necessary is that the
writers in whatever language must search out from the literary tradition of
his chosen language what new forms in writing, what new dimensions of
literariness or fine art, are possible by which new insights into
contemporary reality are conveyed. The possibilities for any literary
tradition, for any language, should be infinite, since the possibilities for
the human imagination are infinite.
4.7 Finally, writing for Bien is “a political
decision, a political commitment” (B). And so it is, and always has been—but
for me, it is never doctrinnaire, because freedom is the absolute condition
for art. Bien’s parting shot, as it were, is: “If you don’t care for the
masses, then you will not write something that they will care for.” True;
but you might also try, in fact you must try, to make them care for what
presently they have no care for. After all, the masses or a majority of them
elected Erap President.
By way of concluding, I see in the future an
unprejudiced acceptance of literary works by Filipinos (anywhere, in
whatever language) as living substance of Philippine national literature.
Because of thoughtful scholarship and literary criticism, unencumbered by
intellectual fashion and academic jargon. Because of excellent translations
into English and Filipino. Because of better-quality education at all
levels. Aware that all predictions of the future are unstable, I choose to
take the optimistic view, although not without present ground to stand on.
English will remain dominant. It is crucial
to our nation’s life. And politicians will continue to pay lip service to
Filipino as the evolving national language. As always, it’s up to the
writers to produce new works.
There will be very fine works in English
because our writers have mastered that medium and its literary tradition
that we have ourselves established over the last century, and because our
writers are open to the world and its literatures through English and will
There will be very fine works too in Filipino
and in Tagalog, drawing their strength and inspiration both from their own
oral and literary traditions and from the world’s literatures through
English. That world, needless to say, includes both East and West, and works
in our other Philippine languages in English and Filipino translation.
I have no doubt that there will be very fine
works also in Sugbuanon, Iloko, Hiligaynon, and a few other indigenous
languages, again drawing strength and inspiration both from a critical
understanding of their own oral and literary traditions and from the world’s
great writings through their English translation.
There will be more women writers and gay
writers, and I think they will bring what is generally called “creative
non-fiction” to a very high level.
The novel is, and will be, the great test and
challenge for all writers. It is also what our country needs most from our
literature because the novel-form has the breadth by which to re-imagine the
way we live and deal with one another as a people.
In all these literatures—in English,
Filipino, Tagalog, Sugbuanon, etc.—our writers will surely discover new
forms of the imagination and establish new criteria for those forms.
Criticism and literary theory will also
flourish, fed by scholarship on our languages and their oral and literary
traditions and deepened by familiarity with the world’s critical and
intellectual heritage. Criticism—which our writers shall no longer take as
personal affront—and literary theory without obfuscation are quite crucial
not only in creating a wider and more discriminating readership but also in
sharpening our writers’ artistic craftmanship and challenging them to
produce new and better works.
I say all these from what I see today and
sometimes judge, using “Western criteria,” in the national Palanca literary
competitions, in our national magazines, school publications, books, and
special issues, in our writers’ workshops—U.P., Silliman, University of San
Carlos, Iligan, Ateneo, La Salle, U.S.T.—as well as those writers’ workshops
by GUMIL, say, or LIRA, or those other small writers’ workshops in the
regions such as those conducted by Merlie Alunan in Waray and Leoncio
Deriada in Hiligaynon and Kiniray-a.
Our future is first shaped by our words in
all those languages that our writers have enabled to speak us and interpret
us to ourselves.