Why I Stopped Writing Poetry in English
By Jose F. Lacaba
Writing poetry—in whatever language—was farthest from my mind when I was young. Instead, one of my major youthful dreams was to become a writer-illustrator for comic books. At home, I produced several crude comic books on bond paper, drawn entirely in pencil, the plot developing as the illustrations progressed. This was in the 1950s. Each issue of my handmade publication had a circulation of exactly one copy, but I had a pass-on readership of five—my five younger brothers and sisters.
My first illustrated stories were in English. But then my younger brother came out with his own comic book, and it was in Filipino, so I used Filipino for the serial that I contributed to his publication.
For those unfamiliar with the language situation in my home country, I need to point out that Filipino is now the official, constitutionally mandated name for the national language of the Philippines. It used to be known as Pilipino. Both Filipino and Pilipino, however, are primarily based on the language spoken in the capital city of Manila—and that language is Tagalog, one of the dozen major languages in an archipelago of 7,100 islands.
I was born, and I spent the first ten years of my life, in the city of Cagayan de Oro, in the Mindanao island group, in southern Philippines, and my first language was Cebuano, the major Visayan language. My father was from the province of Bohol, in the Visayas island group, in central Philippines, and his language was also Cebuano. My mother, however, came from the town of Pateros, in the Luzon island group, in northern Philippines. Pateros, now part of Metro Manila, is a Tagalog-speaking area, and in her lifelong career as a schoolteacher, my mother taught Filipino, the national language, as a subject in high school and in college.
Thanks to my mother, Filipino was an ineluctable part of my growing up. I was exposed to the textbooks, grammar books, and serious works in Filipino that she taught. At the same time, she did not shield me and my siblings from the popular culture in Filipino. In those days, the popular culture that used Tagalog as medium of communication was generally shunned or looked down upon by college-educated intellectuals, who derided it as the culture of the “bakya crowd”—the mass of peasants and plebeians who still walked around in bakya, or wooden clogs, instead of in shoes.
But my mother the schoolteacher, while she herself did not really patronize bakya culture, did not seem to have any biases against it. At home, we could not afford television, but we had free access to radio programs in Filipino, including serials about Philippine superheroes, low-brow comedies, and the weekly balagtasan, or traditional poetic jousts. On occasion, I got to see Tagalog movies—and these were the only locally produced movies available, since the Visayan movie industry was already dying, if it was not already dead, and at any rate its products were never, ever shown in Manila. I was also a regular customer at corner stores that rented out Tagalog komiks, or comic books.
On the other hand, from the time I started schooling to the time I dropped out of the university, the medium of instruction at all school levels was English. In fact, back in my time, an English-only rule was in force in many schools, and fines were imposed on those who spoke the native tongue on campus.
Also, back then, there was a law that required all students to study Spanish—one year in high school and four years in college. In my case, I even had to take up two years of Latin, because that was then part of the Bachelor of Arts curriculum in the Jesuit university that gave me a scholarship. This same Jesuit university, incidentally, is renowned for its English.
What all this amounts to is that I was fed on a smorgasbord of languages throughout my life. In the end, however, the smorgasbord was stripped down to a two-course meal. After we moved to Manila, and after my father died, we stopped speaking Cebuano at home. I lost all contact with Latin when the Catholic Church abolished the Latin Mass. And as for Spanish, although I can read it and have even translated from it, with lots of help from a Spanish-English dictionary, I can hardly speak the language, and I can’t follow the conversation when I hear it spoken.
So in the end I became basically a bilingual, speaking Filipino at home and in the neighborhood, and reading and writing in English in school and at work.
This brings us back to the subject of poetry, and the writing of poetry.
While the idea of writing poems never entered my mind in my younger days, I was good at reciting them. My teachers noted that I had the voice and the diction for oral delivery, and a good memory to boot, so they entered me in elocution and declamation contests and programs, reciting pieces such as Walt Whitman’s “O Captain! My Captain!” and Alfred Lord Tennyson’s “Charge of the Light Brigade” and Mark Antony’s funeral oration in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.
It was in college that I began writing my own poetry. My professor in freshman English once gave our class an assignment to write a couple of haikus. I got a very high grade on the work I submitted, and my professor, himself an award-winning poet in English, encouraged me to write poetry in earnest.
The Jesuit university that had given me a scholarship did not have a fine arts or visual arts college or department, so I had ended up as an English major. I also found myself in the company of many other budding writers, both fictionists and poets. It was therefore not surprising that my first published works, in campus journals, were short stories and poems in English.
But even as I was writing and publishing poetry and prose in English, on the side I was also writing poetry in Filipino. This, despite the fact that among university intellectuals, Filipino was considered a lightweight language for entertainment, not for serious writing.
Perhaps I was trying to impress my mother, the teacher of Filipino. Perhaps Filipino was such a part of my upbringing that I could not help but express myself in it. I may also have been influenced by a Jesuit philosophy professor who was working on finding Filipino equivalents for such existential concepts as being and becoming. I have never forgotten something this professor once told us—that Immanuel Kant, writing at a time when Latin and Greek were the language of philosophy, had declared that he would teach philosophy to “speak in German.”
Whatever the reason, I found myself resolving to teach modern poetry to “speak in Filipino.” Part of the reason for my decision to undertake this quixotic enterprise was my utter ignorance of the modern literature that already existed in Filipino. I was blissfully unaware that an entire generation of writers before me, and my own contemporaries in other universities, had produced and were producing Tagalog novels and short stories and poems that revealed an awareness, and betrayed the influence, of the themes and methods of the literature of modernity being created in more industrially advanced cultures.
In fact, I was already writing poetry in Filipino when I discovered that, right on my own campus, two of my English professors, under whom I was taking up modern poetry and modern drama and the modern novel, were themselves writing poetry in Filipino. But more on this later.
I was familiar with the popular culture—the radio serials, the komiks, the traditional balagtasan. This was a culture that seemed to have been eternally frozen in the era of the medieval romance, or the era of vaudeville, or the era of Fifties soap opera. And this culture produced a literature that my modernistic education (this was, you will note, before postmodernism came into the picture) dismissed as simplistic, superficial, and sickeningly sentimental.
Moreover, the Tagalog poetry that I read in textbooks was written in the ornate, flowery, and seemingly archaic Tagalog of the boondocks. It was not in the vibrant vulgate of Metro Manila, the plain-spoken, conversational, colloquial, slangy, coarse language that someone like me, whose first language was Visayan, now heard daily in the streets and neighborhoods that I walked in and lived in.
My poetry project was, in effect, an effort to reconcile my bakya background and my current urbanized and modern sensibility. In place of the vague generalities and trite metaphors of traditional Tagalog poetry, I brought in the visual discipline I had learned from imagism. In place of malalim na Tagalog, or deep and “poetic” Tagalog, I used ordinary day-to-day Tagalog, including vulgarities and unprintables. But I tried to pour all of this into the mold of existing metrics, using the syllabic count and rhyming schemes of traditional native poetic forms.
As part of my poetic experiments, I translated a lot of world poetry into Filipino, in what was essentially an exercise in the use of Filipino during infertile times, when I didn’t have the inspiration to write poems of my own.
As mentioned earlier, I would later, to my great amazement and delight, find kindred spirits in the university—my own English professors. I showed them my Tagalog poems, and they gave encouraging comments. Together with a few other like-minded campus writers experimenting with Filipino, we started publishing our works in campus journals and in small magazines, and the professors started constructing a theory to explain what kind of poetry we were writing, and perhaps to justify our being lumped together as a group for purposes of publication.
Today, our unstructured grouping is known in Philippine literary history as the Kilusang Bagay, the Thing (or Object) Movement, a literary movement that extolled the primacy of imagery and conversational language (which, incidentally, embraces what is now known as Taglish, a blending of Tagalog and English common among university-educated, city-bred Filipinos). My two English professors have since been raised to the ranks of National Artists of the Philippines, an honorific similar to a knighthood for artists.
The fact that we were writing poetry in Filipino did not stop any of us from continuing to write in English. There were simply certain ideas and emotions that we felt could only be expressed in the language of international discourse, and other ideas and emotions that required a native sensibility and a native tongue.
In my case, after dropping out of college, I found a job as a journalist for an English-language publication. It was simply the first job that came along that didn’t require a college degree, but I guess one reason why I have stayed in English-language journalism, which has been my primary bread and butter (or should I say rice and fish?) for more than forty years now, is that it pays relatively better than Filipino-language journalism, unless you’re a broadcast journalist.
Poetry is another matter. Whether it’s in English or in Filipino, poetry in the Philippines is not and never has been a paying proposition. You can’t hope to make money out of it, except by occasionally winning literary contests, and you don’t get to be famous, like rock stars. So why do I continue to write poetry, although not as often as before? I guess that’s because poetry simply is, as some poet once said, an itch you just have to scratch.
This finally brings us to the question that this long-winded essay seeks to address: What made me stop writing poetry in English? I think I can say without bragging that my English poetry has earned as much critical respect as my Tagalog poetry. Proof of that is the continuing publication of some of the English poems of my youth in anthologies and textbooks. So why did that particular itch stop being itchy?
Paradoxically, it was my work as an English-language journalist that led me to the crucial decision to end my career as an English-language poet.
In college, I was basically apolitical and in many ways antisocial, although being a poor scholar in a school for the very rich elite, who spoke English even to their maids, may have stirred subconscious feelings related to class and linguistic conflicts. When I became a journalist, what may have been subconscious feeling rose to the surface.
The second half of the Sixties, when I worked as a reporter for a weekly newsmagazine, was a time of great social and nationalistic ferment in the Philippines. I have described that period in the title of one of my books, a collection of the reportage that I wrote back then: Days of Disquiet, Nights of Rage. As in the rest of the world, the Filipino youth were protesting the war in Vietnam and marching as advocates of a whole slew of issues, from civil rights to women’s rights to human rights. In the Philippines, the youth were also questioning the continuing control of a former colonial power over our political, economic, and military affairs—and over our cultural life.
One cultural manifestation of this postcolonial domination had in fact become the symbol for the entire colonial experience. As one Filipino writer put it, the pre–World War II history of the Philippines as a colony first of Spain and then of the United States could be summed up as “three hundred years in a convent and fifty years in Hollywood.”
I must confess that I remain a fan of Hollywood movies and American popular song, particularly of the Frank Sinatra variety, but in the late Sixties and early Seventies, as I covered demonstrations and protest rallies and labor strikes, I found myself asking myself the questions being addressed by the youth to “cultural workers”: Why was I writing? Whom was I writing for? What language should I be writing in?
The washerwoman who did our laundry and the ambulant vendor from whom we bought sweetened soya snacks probably had no interest in poetry, but if it was possible to address them through a poem, I knew that the poem could not be in English. In any case, I had also reached a point in my literary as well as sociopolitical life where I felt that, as a poet, I had nothing more to say in English. I am not making a generalization here, I speak only for myself—when I wrote poetry in English, I had the feeling that I was talking to myself, and about myself, about my dandruff and my pimples and my personal angst; but when I wrote in Filipino, I could write about anything, about exploitation and oppression and imperialism and all the big stuff, but also, yes, about my dandruff and my pimples and my personal angst.
In the final analysis, it was primarily a personal decision. At the end of the year 1970—and, it turned out, two years before Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law and put a temporary end to my work as a journalist—I wrote my swan song in English, a long rambling poem about the crisis facing the country and the social upheavals that seemed to be on the horizon.
At least, I intended that poem to be my swan song in English. But I would find myself writing another poem in English a few years later, when martial law was already in force and I was a fugitive. Written under a pseudonym, the poem somehow got published in the mainstream media, despite the rigid press censorship. It was entitled “Prometheus Unbound,” and it looked harmless enough, since it sounded Greek to the authorities. But word soon got around that there was something about the poem that was subversive, and the magazine carrying the poem was pulled out of the newsstands by military troops.
When the centurions finally caught me two years after the declaration of martial law, and in the course of the physical torture that I was subjected to, one of my interrogators said: “You’re the one who wrote that poem in that magazine.” I was flattered that a constabulary colonel was literate enough to have heard about my poem, but he was making a statement, not asking a question, so I did not bother to confirm or deny his allegation. It was only after the fall of Marcos, after the people-power uprising of 1986, that I finally publicly admitted to being the perpetrator of the controversial poem.
Today, whatever standing I may have as a poet in the Philippines will probably be based on my Tagalog poems. But I will also probably be remembered, or remain notorious, for my last poem in English.
Still, “Prometheus Unbound” is not entirely in English. It’s an acrostic poem, and the first letters of the lines, if read downwards, spell out a Tagalog slogan popular among demonstrators before martial law: MARCOS HITLER DIKTADOR TUTA (Marcos Hitler, Dictator, Running Dog).
I shall never exchange my fetters for slavish servility. ’
Tis better to be chained to the rock than be bound to the service of Zeus.
Mars shall glow tonight,
Artemis is out of sight.
Rust in the twilight sky
Colors a bloodshot eye,
Or shall I say that dust
Sunders the sleep of the just?
Hold fast to the gift of fire!
I am rage! I am wrath! I am ire!
The vulture sits on my rock,
Licks at the chains that mock
Reeks of death, death, death.
Death shall not unclench me.
I am earth, wind, and sea!
Kisses bestow on the brave
That defy the damp of the grave
And strike the chill hand of
Death with the flaming sword of love.
Orion stirs. The vulture
Retreats from the hard, pure
Thrust of the spark that burns,
Unbounds, departs, returns
To pluck out of death’s fist
A god who dared to resist.
Jose F. Lacaba