Eclectic Religious Influences in Edwin Thumboo's Poetry

Ee Tiang Hong

If Gods Can Die, Thumboo's second volume, appeared in 1977, twenty-one years after Rib of Earth. Many events had occurred in the intervening years. Singapore had become a self-governing state in 1959, merging with Malaysia when the new federation had been formed in 1963. Constant bickering between Singaporean and Malaysian leaders had come to a head, and on 9 August 1965, Singapore became an independent nation. The new nation went through a number of crises, but by the middle seventies, could look back with pride on its economic and social achievements.

Gods Can Die contained 48 poems, including six that had appeared originally in Rib of Earth, but had now been substantially revised.' Thumboo's second collection evinced a greater range of subject and theme, revealed a more mature judgement and sensibility, and a more confident mastery of form and technique. The fundamental changes in the nation's political, social, economic and cultural life presented "inescapable themes" to the poet even as they suggested an extension of his repertoire. As he was to explain later: "I decided to loosen my style, to work up a somewhat relaxed mode so as to cope with public subjects. There are now elements in it which are close to conversation, to plain statement" (Bennett, Ee & Shepherd 5).

The lyrical strain was not altogether extinguished, although the literary exuberance of young love was held in check. The new voice was more controlled, more direct, and clear, the rough edges of form and technique smoothed, the propensity for the compressed metaphor and symbol curbed. Changes made in the poems carried over from the first volume, comprised a fair amount of deletions, particularly illustrative in the case of "For Peter Wee" which, now with two stanzas in Section I deleted, also had a third section ten lines shorter than the original poem. Technically, the revisions aimed at conciseness, without the cramped effect of the early poems, manifesting a more mature and realistic outlook on the craft of poetry, and of life, generally. The poet had shed his juvenile cynicism and nihilism, and had profited from considering other criteria for poetry and other strategies in the construction of poems. It was in this period, according to Geraldine Heng, that Thumboo found his characteristic tone of voice. [25-25]

The preceding passage has been quoted from the late Ee Tiang Hong's Responsibility and Commitment: The Poetry of Edwin Thumboo, ed. Leong Liew Geok (Singapore: Centre for Advanced Studies/Singapore University Press, 1997. It can be ordered from Singapore University Press, 10 Kent Ridge, Singapore 119260 [GPL].

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