http://jcl.sagepub.com Imagining the Nation: The Role of Singapore Poetry in English in "Emergent Nationalism"
Robbie B. H. Goh The Journal of Commonwealth Literature 2006; 41; 21 DOI: 10.1177/0021989406065770 The online version of this article can be found at: http://jcl.sagepub.com/cgi/content/abstract/41/2/21
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Imagining the Nation
Imagining the Nation: The Role of Singapore Poetry in English in “Emergent Nationalism”
Robbie B.H. Goh
National University of Singapore
Abstract Anglophone poetry has played a central role not only in the development of a national literature in Singapore in the ﬁrst few decades after independence, but also in the articulation of a kind of nationalconsciousness, a rhetorical rehearsal for an emergent nationhood. Examining the works of poets Edwin Thumboo, Goh Poh Seng, Arthur Yap and Lee Tzu Pheng – the ﬁrst four Anglophone winners of the Cultural Medallion for literature, the Singapore government’s highest cultural award – we see attempts to address nationhood not only in the thematic and stylistic projects of these poets, but also in theinstitutional support it receives from the government and the resonances between the poetic and ofﬁcial articulations of nationalism. Although this Anglophone and poetic nationalism (at some odds with the plebeian, carnivalesque and dialogical nationalism associated with novelistic narratives) clearly has its limits in a multilingual and multicultural new nation, it leaves an indelible impact on theearly development of Anglophone literature and culture in Singapore. Keywords Singapore Anglophone poetry, Nationalism, Edwin Thumboo, Goh Poh Seng, Arthur Yap, Lee Tzu Pheng This paper examines the role of Anglophone poetry in the construction of a national sensibility in Singapore, in the period of “emergent nationalism” spanning its independence in 1965 to its socio-economic coming
Copyright© 2006 SAGE Publications http://jcl.sagepub.com (London, Thousand Oaks, and New Delhi) Vol 41(2): 21–41. DOI: 10.1177/0021989406065770
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Journal of Commonwealth Literature
of age in the late 1980s. Anglophone poetry has played a distinctive and privileged role in this period of Singapore’sdevelopment, a role reinforced by deliberate institutional measures and for clear strategic reasons of nation-building and cultural uniﬁcation. This qualiﬁes those theories and studies which see the novel as the main genre and discourse of the nation. Looking in particular at the works of the ﬁrst four Anglophone Cultural Medallion winners in the category of literature – poets Edwin Thumboo, Goh Poh Seng,Arthur Yap and Lee Tzu Pheng – this paper sketches a poetics of the nation as it is constructed in Singapore, showing why Anglophone lyric poetry had such a central role to play in the context of Singapore’s nation-building. This role noticeably changes when Singapore enters a new phase of “cosmopolitan” global competition, after the 1980s, and this is marked not only by the conspicuous rise ofthe novel, but also by a change in the thematics and forms of the newer generations of Anglophone poets and an orientation away from the overt macro-themes and discourses of the nation towards individualized interrogations of what it means to be “Singaporean”. The Genre of the Nation It has become a truism, following the work of seminal scholars on nationalism, that the nation is the subject of...