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Filipino Poetry from English

Filipino Poetry from English

By Gémino H. Abad

On the rocky isle of Corregidor, soon after Commodore George Dewey effectively ended Spanish colonial rule in the Philippines on May 1, 1898, American soldiers set up the first makeshift American public school. Then, in 1901, 600 teachers from the United States arrived aboard the transport Thomas to serve as principals, superintendents, and teachers in the highly centralized public school system. Since there are more than 170 Philippine languages, English was employed as the medium of instruction and communication; the colonial government also began sending Filipino students and professionals to various colleges and universities in the United States, and in 1908, the Philippine legislature established the University of the Philippines (UP) in Manila as the national university.

Thus English effectively became the country’s first national language or lingua franca. It became not solely the chief instrument for the acquisition of new learning, not only a favored medium by which to represent the Filipinos to themselves and to the world, but also a principal means to employment, social status, prestige, and power. Indeed, to the very present, English has remained the principal medium of instruction in the school system. The country’s literature in English, like its scholarship, was bred in the university, and UP may justly claim to be the cradle of Philippine letters in English through its literary organs, The College Folio (1910–13) and The Literary Apprentice (since 1928) of the UP Writers’ Club, and through its national writers’ workshop every summer since 1964. (We might note here that the Philippine Commonwealth, established by the United States in 1935, was disrupted during World War II by the Japanese occupation of the country from 1942 to 1944, and that, in 1946, the independent Republic of the Philippines was founded.)

It is truly remarkable that in only half a century since the first English literary endeavors were published in 1905 in The Filipino Students’ Magazine in Berkeley, California, the country already possessed a significant body of fiction, poetry, drama, and essays in English. It may be said that, if at first the writers wrote in English, later they wrought from it because its use in literature had been chiefly toward affirming, within the adopted language, a Filipino sense of their world. By the mid-1950s, “Philippine Literature in English” was already offered as a formal course at the UP.

Philippine poetry in English may be regarded as having passed through three overlapping transformative phases: a romantic era during the first forty years or so since 1905, a New Critical phase from the 1950s to the 1970s, and a poststructuralist period from the 1980s to the present.

Because the country already had accomplished writers in Spanish, Tagalog, and other native languages, the literary apprenticeship during the romantic phase was linguistic and cultural rather than literary or poetic. The tension that inevitably emerged between the poets’ creative struggle with the adopted language and their responses to the new historical situation cleared the poetic terrain for their own sensibility and perception of their circumstances. Such engagement with their own cultural and social milieu is already signaled in Ponciano Reyes’s “The Flood” in 1905, a narrative poem that addresses the plight of the working class during a natural disaster. Among the romantic poets of note are Fernando M. Maramág (1893–1936), Luis G. Dato (1906–83), Angela C. Manalang Gloria (1907–95), Jose Garcia Villa (1908–97), Carlos Bulosan (1913–56), Amador T. Daguio (1912–66), and Nick Joaquin (1917–2004).

In the 1950s, the American New Criticism began to hold critical sway: Cleanth Brooks, John T. Purser, and Robert Penn Warren’s Approach to Literature (1936) was the standard textbook for the collegiate introductory course in literature from the 1950s to the early 1980s. Indeed, New Criticism is to the present still conspicuous in writers’ workshops, book reviews, and judgments in poetic contests. Among significant poets during this period are Edith L. Tiempo (1919–2011) and Ricaredo Demetillo (1919–98), both graduates of the University of Iowa Writing Program, and Carlos A. Angeles (1921–2000), Alejandrino G. Hufana (1926–2003), Emmanuel Torres (b. 1932), Ophelia Alcantara Dimalanta (1932–2010), and Cirilo F. Bautista (b. 1941).

Yet even among these later poets, the transformation of both language and sensibility owes more to the poet’s creative toil with language in response to his or her historical circumstances than to the influence of New Critical formalism. Political activism in the mid-1960s and the martial-law regime under President Ferdinand Marcos from 1972 to 1986 compelled poets to connect with their social reality, even as they recognized a formalist imperative. There are many more contemporary poets of note, among whom are Alfred A. Yuson (b. 1945), Ricardo M. de Ungria (b. 1951), Marne L. Kilates (b. 1952), Eric T. Gamalinda (b. 1956), Luis Cabalquinto (b. 1935), J. Neil C. Garcia (b. 1969), Merlie M. Alunan (b. 1943), Rowena Tiempo Torrevillas (b. 1951), Marjorie M. Evasco (b. 1953), and Luisa Igloria (b. 1961). Of these, significantly, four—Gamalinda, Cabalquinto, Torrevillas, and Igloria—now reside in the United States.

The special FUSION on Filipino poetry in English has trees for its theme. Our poetry when it touches on this theme speaks of a spirituality that is rooted in a deep reverence for nature. Until recent times our country has for a long time had a vast resource in virgin forests that were a haven to rare fauna and flora. Our poets stand witness to this and cry out against the greed that would ravage them.

The present FUSION gratefully acknowledges the generosity of the poets and artist for their creative participation. Sincere thanks are also owed to Professor Agnes S. L. Lam for introducing me to Kwame Dawes, and to Kwame Dawes himself, Marianne Kunkel, and the Prairie Schooner editorial team for their professional support at every stage of the voyage.


Gémino H. Abad

Gémino H. Abad, university professor emeritus of literature and creative writing at the University of the Philippines, is a poet, fictionist, literary critic and historian, and anthologist with various honors and awards. In 2009 he received Italy’s Premio Feronia for his poetry in In Ordinary Time, translated into Italian by Gëzim Hajdari and Amoà Fatuiva under the title Dove le parole non si spezzano (Where No Words Break). He has, to date, forty books to his name. Care of Light is his eighth poetry collection, and Imagination’s Way is his eighth collection of critical essays; he also has two collections of short stories, Orion’s Belt and A Makeshift Sun. He is known also for his three-volume historical anthology of Filipino poetry in English, Man of Earth (co-edited by Edna Zapanta Manlapaz), A Native Clearing, and A Habit of Shores. He has recently finished his six-volume anthology of Philippine short stories in English over the period of 1956 to 2008: the first two-volume set is called Upon Our Own Ground; the second set, Underground Spirit; and the third, Hoard of Thunder. Dr. Abad obtained his Ph.D. in English at the University of Chicago in 1970 and continues to teach at UP where he has served as Secretary of the University, Vice-President for Academic Affairs, and Director of the UP Creative Writing Center (now an Institute).

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