Master Class Lecture on Poetry 2: On Figurative Language

Master Class Lecture Series for Lit 14: Introduction to Poetry and Drama, Second Semester, SY 2016-17, Ateneo de Manila University


From last time’s lecture, we have underlined that Poetry is a kind of imaginative language use. Poetry shapes language in a way that distinguishes itself from other forms of literature (primarily, all literary prose), and other means of communication. How does it do this? Poetry operates by way of condensed suggestion; it shows instead of tells. When the National Artist for Literature Edith Tiempo says that Poetry is “structured in metaphor,” she identifies this figure, metaphor, as the main element that enables poetic suggestion, and thus indirectness, which is not merely done for its own sake, but to awaken us from our automatic ways of thinking and perceiving. Metaphor transforms by way of the image. What we see in the image changes into something else, as metaphor essentially transports a thing’s qualities to another. The mystery of the comparison takes place when the image is fully made to embody the other, and ultimately becomes, and quite astonishingly, the other, while at the same time still sporting its same, old self. The most used up example is Shakespeare’s “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players” from As You Like It. The stage’s setting of performances is transferred to the world, where “all the men and women (are) merely players.” Life, in all its complexities, is all of a sudden being characterized as a performance of roles, a delivery of pre-ordained performances. The plane where this transformation, this metamorphosis takes place, is language, as language is made to make a turn from its usual, straightforward discourse and reinvent articulation to offer fresher insights into our experiences. Poetry’s swerving from our automatic means of making sense is best illustrated by a mastery of figurative language commonly used to evoke the vast potential senses of imagery. This swerving, also known in literature as tropes [etymologically “turns” or “conversions,” where, as M.H. Abrams in his A Glossary of Literary Terms would put it, “words and phrases are used in a way that effects conspicuous change in what we take to be their standard meaning”], reinvigorates language, and as they say of Poetry, makes it new. Recognizing this newness reawakens the senses and compels us to be very attentive to whatever newly-revealed meaning is being afforded us by the poem. I say being afforded because poetic revelation is never a finished experience. If we allow it, Poetry would linger in our minds for quite a while, or even for life, and we would not be able to completely mine its signification. There would always be something new to see. Figurative language provides form to Poetry’s turns of thought, and makes possible the conversion of meaning carried out by tropes. The schemes to be found in what we traditionally call figures of speech are not only meant to be identified and classified alone, as most of us have been reared to do in our past experiences of studying literature, but also to be unpacked as working, as indeed part of the poetic scheme of suggesting new ways of seeing. As far as I’m concerned, there are three main schemes of poetic conversion, rhetorically, that is linguistically being afforded us in Poetry: (1) the scheme of comparison, the most basic, where we also classify the two most familiar figures of speech, simile and metaphor; (2) the scheme of representation, exemplified by two other figures, synecdoche and metonymy; and (3) the scheme of distortion, which we may find in the figures of paradox and irony. Simile and metaphor are schemes that compare different things, though both carry out comparisons differently; similes explicitly compare using “like” or “as,” to name a few, while metaphors, on the other hand collapse the comparison by immediately, though deftly, applying one thing or its quality to another, in such a way that the comparison works by implication. Meanwhile, synecdoche and metonymy organic represent, that is, serve as stand ins for something else—still a matter of transformation; synecdoche is known to use parts to represent the whole [and vice versa], while metonymy works by replacing one thing with a name or term that is closely associated with it, as understood by a particular meaning-making community. Paradox and irony depart from and unsettle literal meanings by proposing opposition and disjunction, respectively. Paradox offers ideas that are quite contradictory and absurd, yet creates something logical and astounding out of them; irony, meanwhile, states or presents an idea or situation but actually means its opposite; some describe this as expressing something contrary to the truth. All, as we can see from our working definitions, strive to transform language, and consequently, meaning. Encountering them may startle us, make us think, and figure out why and how the transformation had to be carried out. Whatever the intended effect, figurative language intends to awaken us and also speaks of a human tendency, given the limitations of our own understanding. We always aspire and attempt to make sense of experience, but generally run out of concrete means of expression. Words easily fail us. Language is always an approximation of thought and may not always be reliable to bear all we want to mean. Comparisons, and ultimately, these figurative transformations, enable us to find a way to negotiate imprecision by helping us liken our most significant ideas and experiences to the more palpable world. Representations alert us to associations and relations, compartmentalizing the vastness of our experiences, and making us grasp their largeness by way of small things. Distortions on the other hand expand our expression, pushing language and statement to the limits, and reiterating that imagination is never, ever a straight, predictable path. Below is a comprehensive visual illustration of the said schemes and some of their subsequent permutations. Brief definitions are also given to further clarify distinctions.


Allow me now to illustrate how they work in the poems for discussion today. Similes carry out the task of marking the comparison by emphasizing ideas, as in this example from the Jaime An Lim’s “On the Eve of the Execution,” where the persona expresses heaviness while contemplating on his decision to direct the execution of a certain “Andres” so that the country’s “healing (may) begin”: “These medals burn like molten lead/ upon my breast. This sword, heavy/ with tassel and gilt, hampers my stride./ I have not asked for this burden.” The speaker in this poem, is of course, President Emilio Aguinaldo, who in the lines mentioned, characterizes himself as a fully decorated soldier and leader justifying, rationalizing his move to commandeer the death of the founder of the Katipunan Andres Bonifacio [who in history led the Magdiwang faction against our Caviteno’s Magdalo group] and finally unify the “house divided” and continue giving birth to the Philippine nation. The image of the molten lead diminishes the honor and valor represented by the medals on Aguinaldo’s chest, and the comparison transforms these decorations into nothing but useless metal burdens that the first Philippine president would seem to bear all his life. The persona continues, mustering all modesty, reiterating that the decision was done for the good of the country: “I have not wished to alter the lay and order/ of the stars, content to let the sun lord the skies,/ the sea crawl at the foot of the hills, the eagle/ soar no higher than the span of its sight./ Yet what needs to be done has to be done.” The persona, lending voice to Aguinaldo, gives this historical figure the benefit of regarding his decision as the only possible means to salvage the nation: “Not that I love you any less, you must/ believe that, but I love your country more./ You, who have always fought for the good/ of the many, should understand this.” He talks to Bonifacio here by way of what we call apostrophe, a literary device of addressing the absent, and in the historical context of the poem, silenced, since the Supremo and his brother Procopio have already been incarcerated by the Aguinaldo government for treason and sedition by this moment of the poem. For the persona-as-Aguinaldo, getting Bonifacio out of the way is necessary, and he utilizes a very apt analogy to illustrate this: “Too long the land lies wounded, the house divided:/ child from mother, husband from wife, brother/ from brother, a scatter of reeds buckling/ under the slightest blow.” The acute situation of dividedness [as may be seen in the images of wounded, as well as the separation of families] is set side by side with the image of the “scatter of reeds” that easily gives “under the slightest blow” of a scythe, signifying by way of what we call implied metaphor, any sort of test or challenge to the new-found unity in the integrating Philippine nation. The nation, the persona reiterates, needs unity, and he uses military images to evoke the sense of leadership he believes he emulates, being swept to power by the votes of his national council: “One unfurling/ under the sky, hearts beating to one marshal drummer.” The “unfurling/ under the sky” refers to a flag, and this image immediately suggests a metonymy exemplifying one most important national symbol. If we remember, the Philippine revolution sported many flags, typifying our various geographic, linguistic, ideological, and cultural differences. This use of a metonymy by Aguinaldo’s persona emphasizes the need to rally under one flag, under one nation, where everyone moves in unison, with “hearts beating to one marshal drummer.” The use of hearts here, hearts in a collective term, is a good example of a synecdoche, where a most vital part of the human body is utilized to conjure a collectivity, a sense of national community, even in the imagination, where nations are indeed first conceived. The “one marshal drummer” meanwhile is another metonymy for the persona as leader, as he pursues the image of “hearts beating to one marshal drummer”. The national collective here is dramatized as being a troop or battalion in review, military inspection, or parade. In this image, all are seen to be moving forward in unison and in achieving one goal under one leadership. Aguinaldo’s persona implies that it is his “supreme sacrifice” to be the country’s first leader, as well as to make difficult choices like the execution of Bonifacio, whom he considers a rather divisive figure who may hinder the possibility, not only of the “(o)ne unfurling/ under the sky”, but also the “hearts beating to one marshal drummer.” He likens his sacrifice to that of Bonifacio’s, who in his eyes, really has to die. He argues that both of them anyway dream of national unity, and supreme sacrifices have to be made, each to each. However, the one who is in power is ordained to play god, and this poem, which as I have said addresses Bonificio, becomes ultimately, Aguinaldo’s own self-address, as he uses Bonifacio to stand in as a sounding board for his own self-dialogue. At this point in the poem, in his own desolation, the persona situates himself in that point of no return in history, which he assumes should be understandable for the Supremo himself. The persona utilizes powerful metaphors that show how he discerned on his decision: “I have bowed my head in the lonely room/ of my conscience. I have looked into the darkness/ of my soul and heard my thoughts pace/ the long lightless corridors of the night./ And found the only answer you would have wished./ Were I in your place, I would ask for nothing less.”

However, the one who is in power is ordained to play god, and this poem, which as I have said addresses Bonificio, becomes ultimately, Aguinaldo’s own self-address, as he uses Bonifacio to stand in as a sounding board for his own self-dialogue.

A metaphor, which collapses comparison and illustrates how one becomes another, is composed of two parts, according to I. A. Richards: the tenor and the vehicle. The tenor is the subject of the comparison, while the vehicle is referred to as the metaphorical term. The tenor is a thing, idea, or person being referred and the vehicle manifests the comparison. The images mentioned above offer three metaphors that show Aguinaldo’s moment of reckoning: “lonely room/ of my conscience”; “darkness/ of my soul”; and “and heard my thoughts pace/ the long lightless corridors of the night.” The first one, that of Aguinaldo’s conscience (the tenor), is being likened to a lonely room (vehicle), and may conjure, not only the lonesome experience of making this difficult choice of liquidating his government’s potential political opposition, but also the historical isolation he will be receiving after the fact. This is also something that may be read in the “darkness/ of my soul,” where the soul (the tenor) is characterized as shrouded in darkness (the vehicle), and is quite hard to actually peer into when choices have to be made. We see the use of personification in the lines “and heard my thoughts pace/ the long lightless corridors of the night,” and we understand how restless Aguinaldo’s soul had become, at least in this imagined monologue by the poet. The “long lightless corridors (vehicle) of the night (tenor)“ is a metaphor that serves as a rejoinder that further characterizes not only this fictionalized Aguinaldo, but also his historical dilemma on that eve of the execution. When he says to Bonifacio the stand in: “And (I) found the only answer you would have wished./ Were I in your place, I would ask for nothing less,” we may infer that he was simply comforting himself with the fact that he had decided as the situation demands. Was he trying to do a Pontius Pilate in this imagined moment, washing the blood from his hands? Yes. Quite an interesting speculation about this historical incident. Bonifacio’s execution has long been debated by historians as murder of the first order, but in this poem, a humanized Aguinaldo, full of conflicted ideas about sacrifices and heroisms, is presented, as if he is in his own court martial or trial, where he is alone being judged by a jury composed of God (or history), the Supremo whose death sentence is moot and academic, and himself. When he says: “I send you to a hero’s death while I shall remain/ a footnote in history, my name shrouded in gross/ speculations,” he sounds very noble and exemplary in humility. He sounds very willing to be a mere “footnote in history” just to stay true to the common dream of “(o)ne unfurling/ under the sky.” He seems very convinced of his own reasoning, but not quite, considering his past self-reiterations of “what needs to be done has to be done.” “Not that I love you any less, you must/ believe that,” he tells Bonifacio the stand in, who deflects the words and brings them back to the teller. You must/believe that. Indeed, a tragedy in false humility. Does Aguinaldo, as inhabited by our persona, actually believe in what he is trying to say? Was he successful in his self-argument? In the poem, he keeps on telling Bonifacio, in the eve of his execution, that he “should understand this,” and that his death, in Aguinaldo’s hands as main executioner, is something he himself would have wished to keep the new nation intact. But this is, of course, Aguinaldo’s editorializing, since he, as said, was rationalizing his decision in the midst of being afflicted by guilty conscience. He tells of how reasonable and well-meaning his decision is, and appears to be quite convinced himself. His words however betray him, and as he utters, “I send you to a hero’s death while I shall remain/ a footnote in history, my name shrouded in gross/ speculations,” we hear the voice of this Aguinaldo’s own covetousness, his own desire to possess the heroism he is about to give away. All statements expressed by him in the poem fall into utter irony, where the opposite, that is, contempt of everything about Bonifacio, is actually implied. In the line, “Isn’t that your dream, too, worthy of the supreme/ sacrifice?” he does not praise Bonifacio but mock him, since his life was in his hands, and he had more to lose than gain with him around. One only takes the supreme sacrifice as needed; it is not something one prescribes. Aguinaldo the persona considers his taking the reins of power, and the decision to execute the Bonifacio brothers, as sacrifice, and conflates them with the “sacrifice” he was expecting the Supremo to take wholeheartedly as a price to pay for the unity of the emerging Filipino nation. He has, as I have already said, silenced him and imposed his own way of seeing things. For Aguinaldo, both of them are sharing a “common sacrifice,” and the least that he could do is to wish Bonifacio peace as he “meets (his) destiny”: “So go in peace and meet your destiny, my brother,/ for all our sake even as the night bleeds into morning.” It was a destiny that history has been arguing as one that Aguinaldo imposed. He sends him away, to oblivion, but does not get his wish, as historians would have it: “Go, Andres. Let the healing begin.” In the poem, Aguinaldo the persona foretold how history would regard him, as “a footnote in history, my name shrouded in gross/ speculations.” The tone of the poem is very ironic [sarcastic, actually], and provides a compelling tension that lends humanity to these otherwise cold historical figures we occasionally appreciate [that is, literally, during occasions commemorating them]. There’s irony too, in the silence of Bonifacio here, since his figurative opposition gave voice to the fictionalized Aguinaldo’s speculated political, and even personal insecurity. Aguinaldo’s only means to slay the shadow of the Bonifacio was to execute him, get him out of the way. The poem does not only illustrate its historical conjectures by way of simile, metaphor, synecdoche, and metonymy, but also of irony, where the unsaid, the opposite, is revealed. While the poem is indeed a dialogue on the eve of the execution, it is mostly directed to Aguinaldo’s self, who is considered by many as perpetually and historically haunted by Bonifacio’s execution. No healing had really began after the Bonifacio brothers were killed in the mountains of Maragondon, Cavite. Until now, historians are still arguing whether Bonifacio is indeed the rightful individual to be considered the first Philippine president. Many still find Aguinaldo a contentious figure in Philippine history, and even a symbol of a leadership culture that reeks of regionalism or parochialism. Is healing possible, as wished by this version of Aguinaldo in poetry? Perhaps. The project of the nation is always a work in progress. To heal, in this Aguinaldo’s perception, is basically to unify. To a country as divided then and now, there are choices that need to be made. But when are the persecution and murder of opposition ever justifiable? I’ll leave this question as food for thought, as we continue to consider and weigh our love for this country.

The poem does not only illustrate its historical conjectures by way of simile, metaphor, synecdoche, and metonymy, but also of irony, where the unsaid, the opposite, is revealed. While the poem is indeed a dialogue on the eve of the execution, it is mostly directed to Aguinaldo’s self, who is considered by many as perpetually and historically haunted by Bonifacio’s execution.

From love of country, we move on to more familiar territory, the territory of the self and all the other things we love, as we examine the figures present in the poem “Finder Loser” by Ophelia A. Dimalanta. As it is a play on our usual notions of “finders, keepers,” we encounter in the title a paradoxical contemplation of a persona about life as precisely consisting of, and being summed up by these two proverbial experiences. The title actually offers an oxymoron, an instance of paradox where contradictory terms are put together to evoke a concealed meaning. For indeed, how can one finder become a loser all at the same time? The poem’s persona makes sense of it by way of life’s very paradox. In the first stanza, the persona articulates how the acts of finding and losing primarily compose his/her life: “more than half of my life/ i spend searching for lost/ objects (papers, receipts,/ old letters, pills, and whatever/ else) and causes and the rest, losing and finding, and losing/ them again, found or otherwise; losing what i have and in good/ measure, finding what/ i can’t almost have—/ one perpetual lifetime probe,/ forever rummaging through/ bureaus and drawers and pages/ of my life’s past disarray.” The first few lines contain an ironic illustration, by way of understatement or litotes, which basically operates by scaling down; life, in its vastness, is understood as a matter between the experiences of finding and losing. Of course, we know that life is definitely larger that these two opposing poles, but the persona persists in proposing this way of seeing life as “one perpetual lifetime probe” and offering as additional metaphor for living, this “forever rummaging through/ bureaus and drawers and pages/ of my life’s past disarray.” One’s life is only to be understood in hindsight, and this properly explains why the persona needs the figures [or vehicles] of the “bureaus and drawers and pages” to be able to make sense of “life’s past disarray.” The “rummaging” however will take forever, and no matter how one neatly attempts safe keeping through the vehicles of the persona’s metaphor, there are no guarantees that generally, the search, as well as the losses would end. Is the poem suggesting that life is a cycle of desiring that comes with consequent frustrations? Perhaps. And this also motivates the persona to pursue the said ironic compression of the nature of life. Both finding and losing are found to be profound enough to characterize what it is! The persona does not tell us exactly what he/she is finding or losing, but finds comfort in the fact that to find is to lose, and to lose is also to find. This is what may be perceived in the second stanza, where the persona makes some form of an implied wish, if and when he/she dies: “and so when i finally go,/ keep the vault unliddled, for i/ shall surely sit up and look/ around to pursue this search,/ holding on to dear life,/ or dear death, does it matter—/they are one in the proper/ time but not till then.” How can death and life be one, “in the proper/ time”? Another paradox is offered to us, this time, one that blurs the difference between the two particular poles that truncate human life. Pursuing the logic of this paradox, we may begin by considering life and in its myriad searches and losses, as also ways of dying, of burying old selves and resurrecting new selves that are more primed to live in fullness. Death does not just come literally, and yes, “in the proper/ time” as the persona puts it; in living however, we experience deaths that are formative [and yes, also destructive] to our personhood. For instance, something somehow dies in us when we experience big and small losses. Certainly, we are also able recoup and recover something in these, we discover our selves anew, which makes losses all the more as worthy to be embraced. This is perhaps the reason why the persona, even in anticipated death, intends to go on finding and losing. Finding and losing are perceived to be all the same, whether or not one is already on that side of the life. It is a gift that keeps on giving. The persona assures him/herself, as well as his/her implied addressee the following: “i shall go on seeking out/ lost faces and faiths in the/ cold, collecting, calculating/ crowd, sadly aware that later/ but an unbreath away,/ i shall lose them all again,/ as i was wont, losing all/ in this final irretrievable/ loss of my deathtime.” There is fierceness, as well as self-assurance on the part of the persona, whom we may infer as a one who lives life fully. Not even death, which is the ultimate manifestation of loss, could deter him/her from his/her lifelong search. Despite a keen awareness of mortality and acceptance of loss’s unrelenting presence, he/she allows that seemingly only abiding life force that brings meaning to life—that of the search, for knowledge perhaps, for happiness, or even for enlightenment. Her unconventional view of the afterlife [usually perceived as a realm of the uncertain, despite Catholic catechisms about its being life eternal] lends her the capacity to bravely see its possibilities; in his/her mind, he/she will go on finding and losing, and she even anticipates the “final irretrievable/ loss of (his/her) deathtime.” This, in my reading, is also his/her way of undermining the finality of death. He/she extends life’s search in the afterlife, where his/her thirst for the things longed for would never ever be quenched. And this, even when the price to pay is death itself, that final repose and rest that may provide the persona the reprieve from all the search he/she been engaging all his/her life. He/she is willing to let of that reprieve! There’s just no resting for this persona. The line “final irretrievable/ loss of my death time” is another instance of irony, this time, in the form of hyperbole or exaggeration, which, as I have earlier explained, works by magnifying or amplifying the sense being offered by a statement. How could one’s death time be rendered irretrievable and possibly become part of everything one could lose? The reading I have offered suggests the logic of this irony, since this persona’s quest to search and find overcomes both life and death. In the last few lines, the persona also entertains the possibility that death would be more tolerant, and not as stern as expected—an interesting personification, if you ask me: “or perhaps, possibly yes,/ death will be kinder and oh, yes/ allow me at last this/ flowing final find.” In the end, the persona reveals that which he/she longs for, in life, and even in death: that flowing final find, a musical assemblage of words, alliterating to conjure the discovery, not of eternal youth, but of eternal longing and search, which flows in finality and is final in an asserted flow. Does the finding ever end? The answer is of course, no. Which makes the statement another instance of oxymoron, as it paradoxically combines both flow and finality to modify the word “find,” and which in the first place is never complete, in this poem, if unaccompanied by its oppositional term “lose.” In his/her search for the essence of life, the persona finds him/herself lost in all his/her longings, wishes, dreams, or desires, loses him/herself in the process, and understands in the end that this will go on, till kingdom come. Is this a bad thing or not? It depends on the way one sees it. Any search after all is an attempt to possess, to have, and the judgment on attachments may be easily passed given the circumstances. The persona however is talking in the abstract, is apparently dealing with abstract life searches, which makes life “one perpetual lifetime probe.” The persona’s only wish, I suppose, is that even death itself comes to terms with human nature: that it may grant him/her this “flowing final find,” where the end is paradoxically circumvented by the steady life force that is human persistence. It is, in itself, a wish, which coasts along the vicinity of finding, but despite the possibilities of loss, the desire for the flowing final find is hope enough to make this persona endure.


Master Class Lecture on Fiction 2: On Point of View and Three Very Short Stories

Master Class Lecture Series for Lit 13: Introduction to Fiction, Second Semester, SY 2016-17, Ateneo de Manila University


From our last conversation, we underlined three basic principles of Fiction as we oriented ourselves in about the workings of plot and character: (1) Fiction is basically a sustained telling or unfolding of an event; (2) Fiction is a worlding, that is, a creation of another reality which may be similar to or different from our lived reality, and because of this, proposes some form of comparison, examination, or rumination; (3) Fiction is the work of imagination.  All three must be remembered and reviewed as we begin to pursue a discussion of another fictional element, point of view. Considering that point of view is often described as who tells the story or how the story is told, the first principle suggests that in order for a sustained telling or unfolding to take place, there must be an intelligence or consciousness framing or focalizing the whole story. Our keyword here is framing, and this intelligence or consciousness—usually described as a narrator (who may be one of the characters in the story)—is making an effort [consciously, or even unconsciously, since that is possible] to be the instrument of seeing for us readers. We witness the unfolding of the event because of the teller of the tale, and in our reading practice, we normally distinguish the author from the point of view, since we consider it as a construct, as part of the whole make up or composition of fiction. We suspend our disbelief and participate in this illusion of a narrator sustaining the unfolding of the story and we believe the breadth and depth of its selection and combination of details as well as its ordering of events. While we are aware that the hand of the writer is always observable in the movement of the story, making it move here or there, twisting it at some point, or making readers anticipate in suspense, Fiction lends us this beautiful illusion that indeed, someone [or sometimes, something] is telling us this story. This transports us to an attitude of attention towards this moment of telling that is the story, which worlds an experience that merits our consideration, as the second principle proposes. To continue following a popular metaphor, the point of view serves as a camera zooming in and out of other characters’ minds or advancing conjectures and speculations according to what it had been designed to see. We see the world, this other “lived reality” because this narrator assembles and directs the process of worlding. By trusting the teller, we see a space—which we call setting—thrive not only with physicality but more importantly, with the motivations and actions of people. The point of view does a lot more things than description. It may be prescribed to immerse itself as a main or one of the supporting players in the story’s action; it may also ordain itself as a witness to all events across the story’s landscape; it may also choose to report in a removed or involved way. All these depend on the decision of the writer as he/she decides to frame the story. These attitudes, as we often call them, affect the shaping and reception of the story. It may make one sympathetic or indifferent towards fictional characters. It may also configure the way we as readers understand the fictional event based on how the point of view regards it: is the narrator suggesting an idea about the story he/she/it has witnessed [of course, he/she/it always does]? The medium, as they say, is the message, and the point of view, as the fictional medium of witnessing the story’s event, embodies a “message,” a thought or meaning for and about the story. The story as imagined, let us remember, is not imagined for imagination’s sake, but to evoke a thing or two about significant human experiences. And part of Fiction’s ploy is to create a make-believe experience, a form of contrivance as the word’s etymology suggests. As “dissimulation” (to pretend), “ruse” (scheme or ploy), “invention,” and “fabrication” [considering Fiction’s Old French origin ficcion], Fiction does not pretend to be factual as it is more interested in engaging the probable [although it is completely possible that it taps elements form real life to build its crafted reality]. As it creates worlds, it also creates the means by which these worlds may be seen. The narrator is a constructed being that mediates and intervenes in the conception of fictional worlds. For Fiction to be true to its being a work of the imagination, someone (or something, as I have said earlier) must be causing this imagination. There must be, as St. Thomas Aquinas once said of the dynamic universe, a prime mover, an intelligence that makes everything move.  To imagine, according to etymology, is to form a mental image or picture, to form an image, or to represent. Any form of storytelling participates in the act of imagination, but Fiction elects itself to impart a full range of probabilities that furnish readers various ways of witnessing worlds and fictional events.  In Fiction, one is not only limited to the character him/herself telling the story; there are other probabilities around him or her that can contribute a unique mind picture or imagination of what is happening. Paradoxically, points of view delimit and extend the vision of witnessing and enables the assumption of various, probable consciousness, which ordinary storytelling—for instance, news, history, or even your daily gossip or tsismis—does not usually afford us. Point of view precisely makes Fiction fiction, and distinguishes it from its deemed opposite, Nonfiction. While nonfiction may use fictional techniques, as in what they call today as “creative nonfiction,” its storytelling is confined to the limits of human mediation—whether its supposed “narrator” [the journalist, historian, or memoirist] decides to immerse in or distance from the story. In Fiction, a point of view may decide to be God, a lowly human, or a speck of dust; the difference will definitely show. It may even decide to radically  transform, as in Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis. The point of view is part of the artifice of language that tells one a story, quite distinguishable from narrators [writers, or even interviewees] of/in nonfiction, who may pretend to dissolve themselves in the telling despite their being very much present in their narrative or portray themselves as main characters of their life stories [as in autobiographies]. Nonfictional discourses have respective “narrators” deemed to perform certain tasks: for instance, news means to inform (or misinform, depending on intent); history opts to remember (or even forget); their “points of view”, if I may be allowed to borrow it here, are shaped by their discursive design. In Fiction, points of view indeed offer points of view, ways of looking, considerations to experience. If we pursue point of view as also considerations of experience, this element may be seen as enabling us to actualize notions of perspectives which maybe be quite arduous in ordinary discourse. Points of view are part of the trick of Fiction’s imaginative project. They frame how stories are to be told, as they also characterize their ways of seeing. They help us overcome the limits of our seeing and perception.

To continue following a popular metaphor, the point of view serves as a camera zooming in and out of other characters’ minds or advancing conjectures and speculations according to what it had been designed to see.

There are four conventional points of view known to readers of Fiction: (1) the omniscient point of view; (2) the third person limited point of view; (3) the objective point of view; and (4) the first person point of view. All are employed to convey and characterize specific ways of witnessing the unfolding of a story-event. The omniscient point of view, understood as a God-like perspective, has unlimited knowledge and prerogatives, and is free to inhabit the consciousness of characters at will. This point of view tells all about motivations, behavior, and action, and because it can access the minds and hearts of characters, offers a broader understanding of human relations and conflict and how both make the story, as particular sweeping stories are designed to do. We suspend our disbelief and surrender in awe to the intelligence who had yarned together all that is needed to be known. Omniscience, which etymologically means “all knowledge”, probably sits in consciousness because of our initiation to the epic, the grandest and most communal among stories that emerged from the human imagination. The Iliad and the Odyssey are our exemplars in the Western Canon, where we are made to witness (and re-witness) the exploits of men destined for glory, the tragedy and persistence of women, and the integration of great civilizations. Homer, the traditionally ascribed author of the epics, is believed to be blind, but has been an encompassing teller and witness of all action, from the events of the end of the Trojan War up to the glorious return of Odysseus in Ithaca, after years of itinerant exile. Before the birth of the printing press and books, tellers or chanters are carefully elected by societies to memorize epics, which basically encapsulate the history of the community. The epics have to be memorized in ordained and mnemonic forms like poetry so they may be preserved for generations. As device, the epic’s omniscience may be traced to the need to enthrall an audience’s imagination and transport listeners to a time and place of greatness which members of the community must always remember, along with the values the heroic figures embody. In Philippine folk literature, I always remember the epic of my Ilocano homeland, Biag ni Lam-ang, the Life of Lam-Ang, the “oldest recorded” and “the only complete epic to come down to us from the Christian Filipino groups,” according to Damiana Eugenio. The omniscient narrator follows Lam-Ang, literally, from womb to tomb, and characterizes the hero as a superhuman figure, wishing for his own name as soon as he was delivered, ably defending himself in all battles, and resurrecting after his final encounter with a shark. He also builds the story by going into the minds of Lam-Ang’s mother Namungan and his wife Dona Ines Cannoyan, who may easily remind one of Odysseus’s wife Penelope. These two play major roles in this epic, and serve to strengthen the triangulated narrative which offers a glimpse to Ilocano culture, despite Spanish encroachment, as can be seen in the uses of the terms “don” and “dona” before the names of characters, and the reference to baptism when Lam-Ang requested for his name, to name a few. This culture embodies strength as it is able to completely resist colonial culture and reiterate its community’s story of courage and power. While the narrative is much smaller in scale than the first one we have mentioned, the omniscience of the narration is present, as in all other Philippine epics, which amount to hundreds, and still counting [and I suppose that makes up for scale; our stories put together are myriad and might be longer than the Iliad, Odyssey, and all the western epics combined]. Rizal’s Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo, utilize a particular kind of omniscience to a certain extent, but as we know, the supposed “narrator” who has put together the rise and fall of the protagonist Juan Crisostomo Ibarra, shows his hand every now and then, as he offers commentaries or pokes fun at the hypocrisy of both colonizer and colonized. Meanwhile, the third person limited point of view is a perspective that follows one character, major or minor, in the story. The story is filtered through the said character, and since the emphasis here is on the word limited, how the story is conveyed or framed is shaped by this character’s biases, actions, and motives. The third person limited point of view is a frame by which readers view a very focused, but distant perception of the world. This character being pursued by the narrative is seen as participating in the unfolding of an event. The narrator relates how this character grew into an awareness of his/her situation, and oftentimes lays down indications about how the processes of transformation took place. If the omniscient narrator lends a sweeping account of an event, or a series of interrelated events, where characters interact and are ingenuously observed by an all-knowing narrator, the third person limited point of view elects a person in the story to follow, describes his/her impulses, traces back his/her past, unravels his/her mind, and ultimately, bares his/her soul. All these are carried out while the narrator ironically sports, all at the same time, distance as a third person perception and intimate knowledge of the character in focus, whatever the circumstance. Last time’s story, “Love in the Cornhusks” by Aida Rivera Ford, is a story told in the third person limited point of view that followed Tinang as she came to terms with her life choices. The narrator helped shape Tinang’s process of enlightenment by showing, not only what truly mattered in the end, but how she achieved epiphany. When the narrator said: “Among the cornhusks, the letter fell unnoticed,” the action became indicative of the realization. The narrator does not just tell it, but shows it in a more intelligent, powerful way.

The first story for consideration today, “First Rain” by Raymund P. Reyes, also sports a third person limited point of view following the story of a certain Mr. Malpas who works as a teacher in the Middle East. In the story, the narrator allows us to witness what Mr. Malpas saw, and how he perceived the interesting turn of events in school after it had started to rain. Through this filtering, our attention has been focused on the perspective of Mr. Malpas, from the time he had “finished calling the roll”, right to his dilemma of calling off classes and his sudden remembrance of home and childhood rains, up to his “defeated” resolve and returning of “the chalk to its box.” It is a very compact story which shows very little about the circumstances of Mr. Malpas’s decision to teach in the Middle East [the very general term for the setting, actually, which is illustrated by the details of the “gusts of flying sand” and the rain’s pouring “a day—or a few intermittent hours throughout a week, at most,” as well as the reference to “this Arabian city”, that locates him, and transports us readers, to Saudi Arabia, a traditional Overseas Filipino worker (OFW) destination], his life back in the Philippines, and his work of educating foreigners. Despite its shortness, as it is, a very short story, it echoes shared OFW and diasporic experiences brought about by the need to support one’s family and the lack of opportunities back home. As we follow this story’s point of view, which by implication, also compels that we recall similar experiences and bring them with us in our reading, we are made to append our common understanding of this decades-old complex Filipino phenomenon to the desolation that descended upon Mr. Malpas, who in the end of the story was “empty” like his deserted classroom, as “(s)tudents gathered on the lawn, dancing like frogs, their white robes clinging wet upon their skins.” His students are generally warm, but are primarily being what they are—children longing for rain in a desert climate. The story presents this stimuli for the conflict, which brings Mr. Malpas to decide on whether he would “finish his lesson for the day,” so that “children could go and enjoy their rain.” What was going through his mind is typical teacherly predicament; he has a lot to consider: “He was giving a quiz on Wednesday. He had spent an afternoon last weekend making it. He opened the desk drawer and took out a piece of chalk. He had an hour, he decided.” As “(a)ll eyes were on the spectacle on the horizon,” he had no recourse but to let the thunderstorm enthrall his students. However, as “(h)e stared out the window and hoped that it would stop,” he is gripped by what we can imagine as a usual ache: “Suddenly, he felt homesick.” The succeeding narration provided by the third person limited point of view gave us a glimpse of the Mr. Malpas’s inner life which contains much of tender memories from back home: “It rained the whole year in Batanes [where he probably hails] but it had been months since he left the country to teach in the Middle East. He loved those heavy dark clouds too, especially when lightning crisscrosses their breadth. When he was a child, his mother would watch with him as they sat on the rocking chair on their porch. It was like somebody in heaven was taking pictures of the earth, she would say. Afterwards, the rain would pour and mother and son would shift their focus from the sky to the ground, following raindrops as they splattered and broke on the glass.” Observed closely, the narrator has not only entered and unraveled the consciousness of the character [where his thoughts, considerations, and motivations are to be found] but also his memories, which he conjures in that moment, perhaps as the character tries to cope with homesickness. When his students leave the room, his isolation becomes more acute and the narrator zooms out to give us a bigger picture of his own internal darkness as a migrant worker: “When the room was empty, he stood and peered out the windows again. Students had gathered on the lawn, dancing like frogs, their white robes clinging wet upon their skins.” The narrator has strived to reveal the sadness and longing of this teacher who had found both comfort [because of memories of home] and affliction [being disturbed by the weather (we may surmise that he is a very conscientious teacher) and displaced by economic constraints (which led to his working abroad anyway)] in the pouring rain. The narrator’s diction (choice of words) shows how the perspective intends to persuade readers to empathize with Mr. Malpas’s position: “When the room was empty, he stood and peered out the windows again. Students had gathered on the lawn, dancing like frogs, their white robes clinging wet upon their skins” (italics mine). The emptiness in Mr. Malpas’s being, magnified and deflected in the emptiness of the room, is contrasted with the innocent joy of thrilled, rain-drenched children, “dancing like frogs.” Imagine this same scene rendered in the objective point of view, described as a reportorial perspective that simply narrates the story’s unfolding without commentary, interpretation, or inhabiting a character’s mind. It would probably take a whole lot of revising diction to do that, making the whole story sound like a mere report of the unfolding, which may start with the rain pouring, evolve with the teacher and students having a little discussion about calling off classes, and end with the teacher looking out of the window while students are rain-soaked, playing in the rain. The end. My attempt of a report already looks very bare, but it is just one of the possibilities. Conventionally, the objective point of view, also called the dramatic point of view, narrates as a spectator, putting together what is to be seen and heard from the story. Its only mediation, so to speak, is its quiet witnessing. While the objective point of view is believed to be a more speedy form of narration, I suspect that it will take away all the conjured effect of isolation distance from the homeland brings in Mr. Malpas, who was dramatized as severed from all the joyous abandon outside the window. The quiet witnessing of the objective point of view might not be able to provide the necessary contexts of his being away from home, unless it provides a tedious flashback. The story’s parameters and form however render it impossible.

The emptiness in Mr. Malpas’s being, magnified and deflected in the emptiness of the room, is contrasted with the innocent joy of thrilled, rain-drenched children, “dancing like frogs.”

The final mode of narration, the first person point of view, may be observed in our second story, “Mother, Mother” by John Bengan. This compact story, which juxtaposes the accounts of two mothers of what has long been called extra judicial killings (now sanitized by the state as “killings under investigation”) that befell their sons, is a very relevant one nowadays. Back in the year of the story’s publishing, (2007), it was already making a sharp commentary about the ruthlessness of this so-called war on drugs, which appears to be going on for quite awhile in the Republic of Davao City. The first one is narrated from an obviously privileged perspective, based on how the mother characterized herself: the mother is clearly one with entitlements, property, and mobility (“I was in Cagayan de Oro when it happened, busy talking my sister through an annulment”; “I had gone completely mad, dropping the phone on the wool of the carpet of my husband’s Land Cruiser”; “Weeks passed and I flew to Canada, where no one really knows about me and my son.”); the second one was from that of one from the fringes, of a mother who was “selling grilled pork and entrails” in a typical city street. Both were recounting the unfortunate moment of learning about their son’s deaths, deftly connected by media and police with dangerous drugs. Characterization is key in apprehending the first person point of view, where an “I” is chosen to assume not just the focus but also the central intelligence of the story. The character of the narrator shapes the story’s ways of seeing. All these are affected by the narrator’s biases, behavior, and motivation. Whether the story elects to narrate in the first person inhabiting the minds of a minor character (one who might simply provide a somewhat passive perspective to the story’s unfolding) or a major character (who usually is the subject of the story, actively and vicariously living the story’s unfolding), the narrator’s hints about him/herself must be accounted for. We began reading Bengan’s story by looking at the class differences of the mother, which is easily discernible. But since this is a story of juxtaposition, it is asking readers to see any difference among (1) the way the mothers responded to the news of the deaths and how they coped; (2) the way they perceived or even judged their sons’ alleged drug involvement; (3) the way they lived their lives after the fact. Towards the end of the second mother’s narration, and of the story as a whole, the killings never end, as “a body of a thirteen-year-old” was found “on the edge of the Bankerohan River.” “The boy ran drugs for dealers around our place,” the mother said, as she remembers that that same day, when the body was found, “I was at the cemetery, cutting the grass around my son’s headstone.” The story hints that the two mothers are connected by the fact that the second mother’s son “worked as a carpenter” at the furniture shop of “another man who was killed, right outside his own house” (italics mine). This phrase echoes the second sentence in the first mother’s narration: “Actually, he was killed, shot in the head like some goat, right outside his home in a village on the upper side of Matina.” Both were devastated by the news. The first mother was away, “snaking through traffic” when she heard about it through a phone call made by her frantic daughter. She described herself as having “gone completely mad”, weeping “soundlessly” and long, “as if some demon pulled a switch inside my body and set free decades worth of unexpressed anguish.” The second mother, meanwhile, characterized the moment as not only crushing but disabling, as she was made to “run after something” upon hearing the screams Your son! Your son!: “I wanted to run, but I couldn’t move my legs; I thought of flying.”  However, a very telling line seems to imply what the neighbors know, and that which the mother chose to be silent about: “I was stunned when I saw the look in my neighbors’ eyes, as if they had known this day would come.” It took time for both distraught mothers to see their dead sons, who were both diminished as criminals by news reports [on the part of the first mother: “From the broadsheets I learned that a motorcycle-riding gunman took his life. Police told me what they could: I raised a criminal who smuggled cocaine from foreign lands” (this statement may come to a reader as quite ironic, since it is as if the mother does not know anything about her son); on the part of the second mother: “In my house, these people (referring to the “television crew”) asked about our life, about my son. They wouldn’t go until they get it right (so, who is really determining who they are?). So I told about him, the son I lost, he was too young, my eldest who was a dreamer. But they wanted to hear about the pusher.”]. While it is interesting to find out whether the sons were indeed involved in drug trade, both mothers, in their anguish, focus on the pain of loss, which in the story connects them despite their apparent differences. A commentary that may be possibly culled about these juxtaposed narratives would be how these killings cut across classes and how these essentially dehumanize both the victims (for they have never been brought to court for the supposed crimes), and their bereaved. In our earlier reference to the sons, we have already shown how sensational media treats them as mere figures for the drug war’s data. On the other hand, the mothers, in their narrations, were diminished and battered by the news of their son’s death: [on the part of the first mother: “With the news of my only son’s death, my body ached for nourishment”; “Torment coiled in my chest like a serpent, and this hole widening and deepening as days and nights descended on my body”; on the part of the second mother: “My neighbors watched as I started to thrash on the ground, tearing at my hair, my clothes”; “I rode a wheelchair to the funeral”]. While indeed the first mother is privileged to fly to “Canada, where no one really knows about me and my son,” the second mother from the fringes is resigned to living in an environment of impunity, where violence and killings continue. Read separately, this story of two mothers showed contrasting apprehensions to similar contexts of loss. However, since we have argued that they are connected, the juxtaposition may be properly recognized by considering the higher intelligence or consciousness that put together these stories in the first place.

As human beings, our perception is as limited as our experiences, and literature, Fiction most especially, provides us ways of approaching the vicarious and various possibilities of the human situation, no matter the distance or likelihood. To be human, we need to feel! The dead are not just numbers or unknown figures. They are human, no matter how the powerful portray their supposed inhumanity.

To evoke our empathy for the human figures of the story—as what points of view are meant to do—the narratives of the two mothers, said in the first person point of view, are framed by a larger consciousness—which in this occasion is what may be termed a silent, dissolved third person point of view, which orchestrates the discourse of the mothers, and seems to direct how the comparisons and connections are to be done in the reading of this short short story. The silence, in effect, lends voice to these figures silenced by society’s thirst for blood. This kind of point of view, in my reading, taps into both the third person limited and the objective narrator, to provide focus on the story’s plotting, and to render an almost documentary-like unfolding, where the mothers are made to appear to be giving an unadulterated account or interview. Points of view create these effects, as well as expand our perspectives, especially in these days where the spate of killings are being exonerated through shameless denials and the perpetration of alternative facts. As human beings, our perception is as limited as our experiences, and literature, Fiction most especially, provides us ways of approaching the vicarious and various possibilities of the human situation, no matter the distance or likelihood. To be human, we need to feel! The dead are not just numbers or unknown figures. They are human, no matter how the powerful portray their supposed inhumanity. Closely observing points of view in action as a fictional element allows us to witness imagined situations [which sometimes mine real-life experiences], study action [as provided by the story’s perspective], and wonder what these say about the human impulse. Etymologically, the term perspective, which we usually associate with art as a technique of creating an illusion of three dimensions, depth and space in a flat surface, figuratively means “a mental outlook.” As they say, ars longa, vita brevis, life is short, and art, Fiction in this case, is eternal, not only because it composes life meaningfully, but also shapes it using outlooks. We may not have our entire lives to broaden our horizons, but if contemplated upon, this is what points of view offer us. It even suffices in granting us the experience of being co-opted into the narratives, as in instances of stories utilizing what is problematically called “second person point of view,” which, as can be seen is not included in my list of concepts. You (and now I am addressing you, dear students) must be surprised—why problematically? I say this, because, a main requirement for a point of view is that it is able to frame the story, and consequently, articulate an outlook. This “second person point of view”, as commonly defined, is a narration that addresses a “you”, the reader actually, who is made to participate in the unfolding of the story. No issues with the narrator, really, but the problem lies with the you, this second person. The “you,” however, is silent, and quite passive, as the narrator—usually a first person, sometimes, an oracular or prophetic voice addressing a general audience—dictates particular actions or motivations for him/her. The “you” is used as a device for whatever effect the story intends. As part of the fictional ploy and suspension of disbelief, readers allow themselves to be co-opted by the storyteller, and this probably convinced some teachers of fiction that indeed, participation is also a form of outlook giving. However, I am more inclined to call this a narrative addressee, and readers, in that moment of reading the text, assume the consciousness of the addressee as characterized by the narrator. In our third and final story, “Conversation” by Darryl Delgado, we encounter this experience of being the addressee of a narrator enjoying a drunken stupor with her spouse along Matahimik Street. I like the fact that the story is titled “Conversation” and it takes place along the said road. The title and the setting evoke a very interesting tension, one that encapsulates the noise and silences between the characters of the story. This conversation ensues with the wife directing the narrative, and the husband, the you, performing the ordained actions or dialogue. The husband, the you, while he is made to respond in certain parts, becomes the figure whose presence in her life stirs the wife to ruminate on their life together. In the randomness and incoherence of their conversation—which makes sense because of the couple’s togetherness—the main narrator muses on what they both do (both write and teach), their marriage, and their life together: “It makes me think: Surely the swaying moon, smug with the knowledge of melting, knows about this, this death of ice. I don’t know why I think that thought though. I don’t know now why I had thought it would be a good idea to get drunk—and not just drink, but get drunk—with you tonight. I don’t know why we got married. I thought we had agreed to be married to ourselves, and date each other on the side. I thought we would travel the world, help the poor, write novels. I don’t know why we both ended up as teachers. I don’t know why I am starting to hate hearing, listening to, pronouncing words.” There’s is not much conflict manifesting in this compact story, but if one believes that conflict is also a tussle within the self, we may say that the wife, in that moment, found an opportunity to consider her life, and her life with this man who is her equal, even in getting drunk. It’s a subdued tussle meant to yield for her some kind of illumination in the present [the story is narrated in the present tense, take note] as she speculates about their future. As she went to “stop at the nearest lamppost” to lean and puke, she realizes how the constant presence of this man reaching her, “breathing short, heavy breaths” [because she ran from him] is comforting enough to last her a lifetime: “Your face is red. Your eyes alive like they have never been before. You seem to me magnified by some strange force.” Her illumination is projected not only by the street lamp, but also by the 7-11 at which she gazes after puking: “The brightness of the store softly illuminates the entire block.” The illumination wandered off again, this time, associating itself with a story of Estrella Alfon, and their not having any children. Now, if this is indeed a conversation between wife and husband, is it also safe to say that at large, the husband figure and the you, were both utilized by the wife as some sort of a sounding board for her own self-dialogue? In the end, is she really talking to her husband, or is he talking to herself? The answer to both is yes, which explains the art in this use of address. Essentially, the story is told in the first person point of view, but uses a stand in, the narrative addressee, in order to reflect and deflect the drunken conversation, which embodies the nature of love and marriage, in the first place. Relationships are coherent and incoherent, sane and mad, focused and aimless. Relationships are paradoxes, they are disjunctions that make sense, where individuals with various similarities and differences coalesce in what the great poet Shakespeare once called “the marriage of true minds.” The contradictions usually dissolve and even the dialogue “I wass stalking about Siberia, I mean talkings abouts Siberia…” becomes a warm reassurance as the world spins wildly in one’s drunkenness and doubt. The only guarantee of the relationship is indeed the moment one shares with the beloved, even if, as in the story, both are “swaying”, and “the ground under (their) feet is heaving like a tentative wave.”  Resonating with the first person narrator of this story is made possible through a keen sense of understanding the  dynamics between the wife-narrator and her husband-narrative addressee-you. As the two hold hands at the end of the story, the you, us readers, are also made to reexamine our perceptions about relationships and commitments. After all, a relationship is not all about the romantic search for forever. It is, as the final story tells us, about the shared graces and illumination of the now.


Paanyaya: Panayam at Lunsad-Aklat sa Marso 11, 2017 sa DLSU

Daluhan ang paglulunsad ng pinakabagong aklat ni Louie Jon A. Sánchez, ang Pagkahaba-haba man ng Prusisyon (University of the Philippines Press), at muling pagpapakilala sa kaniyang dalawang naunang aklat ng tula, ang Kung Saan sa Katawan at At Sa Tahanan ng Alabok (kapwa mula sa University of Santo Tomas Publishing House). Pakinggan din ang kaniyang mga pagninilay hinggil sa pagtula at pagsasanaysay sa panahon ng kawalang-katiyakan.

Si Louie Jon A. Sanchez ay kandidato para sa PhD in Literature sa De La Salle University, Manila, kung saan din siya nagtapos ng MFA in Creative Writing, with high distinction. Kasalukuyan siyang guro ng panitikan, pagsulat, at kulturang popular sa Department of English, Ateneo de Manila University. Nakatakdang ilathala ng UST Publishing House ang kaniyang ikaapat na aklat, at unang aklat ng kritisismo, ang Aralín at Siyasat: Mga Pagninilay sa Tula.

Itinatanghal sa kagandahang-loob ng Bienvenido N. Santos Creative Writing Center ng De La Salle University, Manila.

Master Class Lecture on Poetry 1: What Makes a Poem

Master Class Lecture Series for Lit 14: Introduction to Poetry and Drama, Second Semester, SY 2016-17, Ateneo de Manila University

Laguna Lake, photo from ABS-CBN
Laguna Lake, photo from ABS-CBN

Poetry usually comes to a lot of people as rather perplexing. Many think its perceived “depth” requires special skills for unlocking. Many also mistake “mysterious,” even flowery and winding expression for poetry; feelings, or “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings,” as we would often quote from the poet William Wordsworth, more often than not become the final arbiter of one’s understanding of the poetic. In both cases, poetry is seen as something that necessarily evades our understanding, something that must keep meaning to itself in order to be, and because it is, poetry. What is often neglected is its being a kind of imaginative language use, a moment where words, put together, are shaped to precisely transform and mean something else. This moment seems to validate the said notions about poetry: after all, doesn’t this meaning something else create “depth” and a certain kind of indirection? However, when we exclude poetry’s languageness we simply miss the point. Every reading of poetry is an experience of language, and since poetic meaning is the ultimate subject of everyone’s curiosity, let us begin this discussion by tracing back how meaning is made to emanate from poetry’s most basic unit: words. I have already said that poetry is saying something but meaning something else. When we were first taught about vocabulary, we were introduced to the two levels of word meaning: (1) denotation, the most basic level, which generally refers to the dictionary or literal meaning; and (2) connotation, the level of other meaningful possibilities. All of literature, as imaginative language use, is made to mean bearing these two levels of signification. This is precisely why, for instance, we never ended talking about short stories or novels as simply what they have narrated; they contain ideas, and these are embedded or suggested, especially in plot and action. This linguistic nature is made more apparent in poetry as it is a heightened use of imaginative language. A more compressed, condensed one where the choicest of words are placed in, as the say, the best order.  The National Artist for Literature Edith Tiempo, in her work Six Poetry Formats, properly distinguishes prose and poetry in this manner: “Whatever the substance and format, what is therefore the fundamental element that does make poetry the unique species of literary art that it is?  Fortunately, as we see it today, the question is quickly answerable regarding the bottom agent responsible and as they say, No sweat: Prose is direct statement and direct exposition, whether written in versified lines or in paragraphs.  On the other hand, poetry has traditionally been acknowledged as indirect, as structured in metaphor.” She even emphasizes: “Without structuring of metaphor there is no poetry.” The “structuring of metaphor” being mentioned by the great poet explains whatever depth or mystery may be found in poetry, for after all, metaphor, etymologically, is not only a suggestion of resemblance between two different things, but actually a representation that entails some form of “a transfer”, a leap of meaning, I say. However, we have long been impelled to immediately search for meaning in a poem—and possibly, its “lesson” or “moral” as many of us have been taught—without actually first considering the poem’s “structuring of metaphor.” Where does a reader find it then? Poems, for them to transform metaphorically, utilize images in their heightened language use. The assemblage of words in a poem create impressions in the mind that are perceptible because they recall our sensory experiences—the visual, auditory, tactile, gustatory, olfactory, and the kinesthetic. Images comprise the literal figures and phenomenon we see in the poem; they are precisely what’s in there, and what’s happening. In any search for meaning, we must not immediately strive for what may be called “higher” meanings. We must learn to linger a little. We have to start somewhere. The connotation, say of the word “mother” as nurturer works because of its denotation. The literal must cohere with the figurative, with the metaphorical, and our useful key in “unlocking” poetry, as they say, is to linger at imagery. Poems transform into meaning because of images. The image is, we must say, the most fundamental element in poetry. It is structured in metaphor, ang metaphor happens in the image. It must not only be perceived then on its face value.

 Edith Tiempo, National Artist for Literature: “Whatever the substance and format, what is therefore the fundamental element that does make poetry the unique species of literary art that it is?  Fortunately, as we see it today, the question is quickly answerable regarding the bottom agent responsible and as they say, No sweat: Prose is direct statement and direct exposition, whether written in versified lines or in paragraphs.  On the other hand, poetry has traditionally been acknowledged as indirect, as structured in metaphor.”

Let’s take for example two traditional poems from Tagalog, a dalít and a tanaga, which I have translated for you. The dalít (a quatrain with a feet of 8 per line, monorime) is a proverb that juxtaposes two situations. The first couplet conjures the image of a wound, and how a person of will would cope with its pain: “Enduring the wound/ makes bearable pain,” while the second clearly shows the opposite: “(T)he one who resists and persists/ wails at the merest scratch.” The dalít tells of two situations that oppose when it comes to the experience of the wound and being wounded [perhaps in literal battles or squabbles]; but instead of telling directly the ancient Filipino listener that one must learn how to bear one’s challenges or suffering with dignity [and not with a lot of whining and complaint], the poem, which must be commonly shared in times of strife or adversity, opted to utilize a more vicarious experience—an image! An image of wounding! It presented two possible responses to it. The literal wound transformed into something else, a condensed lesson on life’s disposition powerful enough to change perceptions, especially when times get rough. Meanwhile, the tanaga (a quatrain with a feet of 7 per line, monorime) utilizes what is called in figurative language as personification to characterize the inanimate speaker or persona of the poem. The personification process already shows the leap from the literal to the figurative [and this makes language new and unfamiliar], and it heightens the statement even more when the poem imbues the speaker with audacity, as it addresses another inanimate object in that watery world, perhaps of a fishing village: “Be warned, firm Stake/ when waves come rushing!/ I, a minute moss/ will coil on you.” In the literal level, a tension is being suggested between the characters of the poem, one that must have to do with their positions in that water world. A “minute moss” warning a “firm Stake”? If you have been to lake or seashore towns in the province, you will surely encounter stakes or bamboo poles planted deep into the waters to make fish pens. They precisely lord it over the fresh water world, and this image of firmness was recaptured by one anonymous mind, the nameless persona, who seemed to have had more empathy in the nondescript moss, which basically glut the waters. This dynamic between the “firm Stake” and the “minute moss” evoked a sense of awareness about polarity among members of a society, and what happens when towering, domineering figures seem to throw shade onto the minuscule, or as we are wont to call it nowadays, the marginalized. Mosses may be minute but “when waves come rushing,” they could conjoin with others to create a hefty weight that may coil the stake and dismantle its firmness. That sounds like a revolution to me. This very short monologue, ala-David versus Goliath, illustrates, in the connotative level, the potential of the small (and usually the many) in the face of an imperious, and perhaps, autocratic figure. In its minuteness, its being from below, the moss had the temerity to threaten the “firm Stake” because time will come that the small would awaken and be able to muster all courage to push for a final reckoning. This very old poem from lifted from an entry of the Vocabulario de La Lengua Tagala (where the earlier dalít also came from) captured the imagination of the oppressed during the Marcos dictatorship. Despite the distance in time, the tanaga spoke of the same sentiments the “minute moss” was striving to articulate. It may be speaking of the same views nowadays, but Filipinos, as was suggested by the dalít, are generally patient, as much as they are also persevering, to a fault. The belligerent “firm Stake(s)” of today, who, we could imagine, must be bearing so much accumulated moss, has to be warned, because “when waves come rushing” they might suddenly find themselves submerged deep in the waters, demolished from the very silt where they used to be firmly planted. That doesn’t need much of what we call recently as “creative imagination” to decode.

The belligerent “firm Stake(s)” of today, who, we could imagine, must be bearing so much accumulated moss, has to be warned, because “when waves come rushing” they might suddenly find themselves submerged deep in the waters, demolished from the very silt where they used to be firmly planted. That doesn’t need much of what we call recently as “creative imagination” to decode.

Another thing that could be said about imagery is that it thrives in particularity. The general or abstract is given form by way of images, is made more specific and palpable, as we may have seen in our earlier examples. Suffering was made more acute by way of the comparison of the reception of wounds, and revolutionary potential dramatized through a personified audacious moss. Imagery is description coming to life, and as images are assembled together in a poem, they bring forth, a scene, an event that comprises the lyrical experience of a poem we usually call a dramatic situation. Briefly, the poem’s dramatic situation, also sometimes called the objective situation, is what is generally happening in the poem [with emphasis on the situation, and not on the drama (in the way we understand the word today), though they are very much related, since poetry is indeed the primary form of drama; in dramatic parlance, the dramatic situation may also be described as the scene we witness in the moment of the poem; it is its staging, so to speak]. The poem calls forth a worlding of images, and they are put together to pursue a meaningful experience. The dramatic situation usually works this way: in poems, we always have a speaker, a persona, talking about something. That moment of speaking is occasioned by an experience that is supposedly suggestive of something else, as we say regarding metaphor. The persona’s moment of speaking assembles the imagery that is being put together to articulate insights or contemplations about whatever experiences. Once asked about the dramatic situation, one is basically being made to think about two questions: (1) what occasioned the speaking?; and (2) what has been worlded as the persona articulated thoughts or statements? Understanding the dramatic situation and its consequent imagery unlocks the denotative level of the poem. One cannot simply move onto any particular interpretation without unpacking the dramatic situation and image. One would see later on that the dramatic situation and its scenic assembly actually support the connotative prospects of a poem. The poem’s connotation is always founded on its denotation, as to be seen in the dramatic situation. In the dalít, a learned persona, perhaps a wise elder or a community philosopher, seems to speak about the wisdom of endurance, as an invisible public listens, being reminded of common and shared experiences of loss, pain, or suffering. The comparison of how wounds are received becomes an illustrative dramatic situation. Clearly, a lesson has been effectively conveyed. In the tanaga, a minute moss speaks tenaciously to the silent but intimidating “firm Stake.” Its “speaking truth to power,” so to speak, situates its subversive possibility in that world where systemic injustice persists. In time, injustice will be acted upon and the proud will be brought down. This is precisely what the moss warns the Stake about. The Stake, which may represent a collective’s leader, is responsible to its constituency. If a leader turns tyrannical, the way the stake is being characterized in the tanaga, people are entitled to make him answerable for it. Power emanates from the people, and this is what the “minute moss” intends to reiterate. The moss’ speaking and speaking truth to power comprise this poem’s dramatic situation (In terms of drama, we know that this is dramatic because characters in conflict were created, with one of them given the stage for a very short but powerful monologue). The event that unfolds in the poem shapes the idea it tries to articulate. The dramatic situation and its consequent images provide concreteness to the abstraction of ideas. The concretization of the abstract, as many poets and critics have already said, bestows poetry, and all art, the transformative capacity.

One cannot simply move onto any particular interpretation without unpacking the dramatic situation and image. One would see later on that the dramatic situation and its scenic assembly actually support the connotative prospects of a poem. The poem’s connotation is always founded on its denotation, as to be seen in the dramatic situation.

Another poem that may interest us in further understanding how imagery and dramatic situation work is the poet Marne Kilates’ “Python in the Mall.” It is a poem in free verse of four irregularly arranged stanzas, and comes with an epigraph (a lead-in of the poem) quoting a tabloid story. This is a very important key to what will happen in the poem, as it is clearly “inspired” by this piece of news. In an objective reading of the poem, we always distinguish the poet from the persona. This use of the epigraph may however make assumptions about the news item moving the writer to respond by way of a poem as equally valid as a persona making his/her own response to this thing he/she had read in the same tabloid. Both poet and persona are driving towards a “reading” of the story of this “serpent-like creature” that resides “in the dark recesses of a new shopping mall.” If you grew up in the 1990’s, you surely have been initiated into this urban legend tied with the rise of malling culture along the Epifanio de los Santos Avenue (EDSA). Quite recently, this lore of the “serpent-like creature” was remembered and recreated in a horror film. The story of how this creature would suddenly barge into occupied fitting rooms from secret doors and take captive unsuspecting women, only to leave them dazed in the mall’s parking lot, captured popular imagination back then. An awareness of the context makes a good unlocking of the poem in terms of denotation. In doing this, we not only establish, in the main, the occasion of the poem, which is that of responding to news, but also how the persona (or even the poet, as we said) intended to read the article, as well as the urban lore that came with it. In the poem itself, the “serpent-like creature” transforms into something else, something more abhorrent, if we come to think of it. In the first stanza, we witness how this python in the mall is born. The python, which is a “she”, “hatched in the dank/ Basements of our gullibility,/ Warmed in the gasp of our telling,/ Curling in the tongues/ Of housewives and clerks.” This creature has clearly transformed into lore as it was transcribed in the poem. The public talk—rumors, tsismis, as we call it—about her made her exist. She further finds form in the perpetration of her lore, as we see in the succeeding stanza, which also refers to details I have mentioned earlier: “We gave her a body half-serpent,/ Half-voluptuary, and a taste/ For maidens and movie stars/ Who began to vanish mysteriously/ Behind the curtains of boutique/ Fitting rooms and water closets,/ Never to be seen again,/ Or only to be found in the parking/ Cellars, wandering dazed/ Into the headlights of shoppers’ cars.” The persona, being self-aware, includes himself/herself in the collective, and expands further how everyone participates in this endeavor of scaring ourselves, of making our own ghosts in a supposedly urban and progressive world. As the creature comes alive in the imagination of the public, the python generously bequeaths onto her creators what will fill them: “How she fed on our thirst/ For wonders, fattened on our fear/ Of vacant places. Slowly/ We embellished the patterns/ On her scales and admired/ The sinuous grace of her spine.” In a way, the tables have been turned and the creature has somewhat turned into a deity of sorts, while the creators, willing prey to her inclinations. The creators of their own horror have indeed fallen victim to their own plots. This is sheer irony.

The public whose imagination was fed by mass media—in this case, tabloid news—was in a way, eaten up by its own created terror. They were hungry for more. This is what may be seen in the last stanza: “Avidly we filled our multifarious/ Hungers at her belly, and lapped/ The marvelous tales of her forked/ Tongue. And as the gleaming temples/ Of her worship rose in the midst/ Of our squalor, how we trembled/ At the seduction of her voice,/ O what adoring victims we became.” Horror is both repulsive and seductive, and as people continued the talk of the terror of the mall serpent, the more that they were engrossed in it. We could stop in our reading in this level, since there are already indications that we have already reached a decent connotative level, where the persona is basically making a very sharp commentary on how, as he/she describes it, we fill our “multifarious hungers” and lap “the marvelous tales of her forked/ Tongue.” We know that the persona reads the lore of the serpent-like creature as something to be examined, as it seems to create thoughtless believers (whom we call fanatics nowadays) out of its own invented terror. However, I cannot help but read another meaning from the lines “And as the gleaming temples/ Of her worship rose in the midst/ Of our squalor.” What “temples/ Of her worship” are we really talking about here but the temples of malling culture, of the shopping mall that created both creature and lore in the first place? While the persona is reflecting on the absurd fascination for the story in sensational mass media, he/she is also criticizing the platform by which the figure and the story have been created: consumerism. Like the lore, consumerist culture, brought about by the rise of malls, seduced the public to become mere “adoring victims,” worshipping false needs or branded frills peddled behind department store glass displays or spread across billboards. Is the marvel the same for both the lore and mall culture? Both are serpent-like, hatching in the “basements of our gullibility”, feeding “on our thirst/ For wonders,” and making us tremble “(a)t the seduction of (their) voice(s).” The historical rise and aftermath of malls along Edsa in the 1990’s—and one must note that the poem was dated January 23, 1993—is, I think, the very thing being commented upon by the poem. This is, if we really happen to linger more on the poem. There is even tsismis that such lore was only floated in the media by the competing mall-owning family.  Through his engagement with the phenomenon of the much-talked about serpent creature in mass media, “(s)upposedly the offspring of the mall tycoon himself,” the persona was able to pursue a more pointed account of how malling culture changed not only the landscape of Edsa (where traffic is something we love to hate), but also the way it reordered people’s lives and consciousness based on capitalist interests and gains. Read in this manner, the poem shows the persona as offering a discerned insight, a moment of awakening from the zombie-like collective marvel and seduction perpetrated by this culture, which one way or another has taught us the horrors of our frailties as human beings, which consumerism offers to heal through its myriad market options. Talk about retail therapy. The persona does not directly pass judgment, but roots him/herself in that collective experience. He is very much part of it, yet he awakens from it. He remembers that the collective is in a state of squalor, wretchedness. Malls in the supposed “Third World” or the “Global South”? Quite paradoxical for people who do not have much spending power, don’t you think? How damned we are to spend, spend, spend. We actually believed and internalized the horrors of the materialism we were taught to embrace.  As this is a poem, it is suggested that the spell—of both the lore and mall culture—has to be broken. And how? The persona acted out the best manifestation of rousing oneself: to finally speak and examine the ill effects of the spell. To cast another spell, by way of the poem, which is after all, language, a spell [we are initiated into words through spelling, remember]. And that made the difference. Both the persona and the serpent-like creature transformed towards the end of the poem, with the earlier offering a sharp critique, and the later changing into a figurative manifestation of that which plagues contemporary Filipino society.


Ang sugat ay kung tinanggap
di daramdamin ang antak;
ang aayaw at di mayag
galos lamang magnanaknak.

Enduring the wound
makes bearable pain;
the one who resists and persists
wails at the merest scratch.


Katitibay, Ka Tulos
sakaling datnang agos!
ako’y mumunting lumot
sa iyo’y pupulupot.

Be warned, firm Stake
when waves come rushing!
I, a minute moss
will coil on you.

Translated by Louie Jon A. Sanchez


A serpent-like creature has taken residence
in the dark recesses of a new shopping mall.
Supposedly the offspring of the mall tycoon
himself, the creature feeds, by preference,
on nubile virgins.

—Tabloid story

She hatched in the dank
Basements of our gullibility,
Warmed in the gasp of our telling,
Curling in the tongues
Of housewives and clerks.

We gave her a body half-serpent,
Half-voluptuary, and a taste
For maidens and movie stars
Who began to vanish mysteriously
Behind the curtains of boutique
Fitting rooms and water closets,
Never to be seen again,
Or only to be found in the parking
Cellars, wandering dazed
Into the headlights of shoppers’ cars.

How she fed on our thirst
For wonders, fattened on our fear
Of vacant places. Slowly
We embellished the patterns
On her scales and admired
The sinuous grace of her spine.

Avidly we filled our multifarious
Hungers at her belly, and lapped
The marvelous tales of her forked
Tongue. And as the gleaming temples
Of her worship rose in the midst
Of our squalor, how we trembled
At the seduction of her voice,
O what adoring victims we became.

Marne L. Kilates
January 23, 1993

*Printed here with the indulgence of the poet.