Written by Pan Huiting
Dated 4 Nov 2015

Kirpal Singh is an internationally recognised scholar whose research articles and critical writings have been published in many international journals. His books of poetry include Twenty Poems (1978), Palm Readings: Poems (1986) and Cat Walking and the Games We Play (1998). He is the editor of many publications, including Interlogue: Studies in Singapore Literature, Volume 1-3(1998, 1999, 2000), Rhythms: a Singaporean Millennial Anthology of Poetry (2000) and The Merlion and the Hibiscus: Contemporary Short Stories from Singapore and Malaysia (2002).

In an interview with Peter Nazareth in 2004, Singh describes his poetics:

Essentially, my poetry is basic politics, in the Aristotelian sense of the word. It’s about my relationship to the world, and the relationship of the world to me and to other people who matter in my life. It is characterised by a very blunt, not refined, sense of observation, because the refined sense of observation basically is meek and mild and therefore does not make a dent. I write from a mission to educate the sensibility of those around me. To expand the consciousness, to just perhaps convince people that in this morass of humanity, what is lacking is a little kindness.

Indeed, the city and its citizens are delineated–sometimes critically, but always lovingly–in Singh’s poetry. “Politics” means “the things concerning the polis,” or city. In the poem “so what?,” the city is full of contradictions. Consisting of three stanzas beginning with the titular words, “so what?” the poem conveys through repetition a sense of apathy borne out of resignation and frustration:

so what?
said the grumpy old man–
he was thinking aloud about our leaders
and those who tried but failed.

Ironically, although the old man is dissatisfied with the government of the polis, at least these leaders, according to the poem, tried. Similarly, the legitimacy of the grumpy old lady saying “so what?” in the second stanza is undermined as her plight–“she was thinking about her medical bills”–is overshadowed by–“those who could not pay / and so did not seek any medicine”. In the last stanza, the reader is implicated: “so what? / say so many of us –”. The poem forces us to re-evaluate our apathy while “sitting comfortably in our chairs / at starbucks or délifrance”. Here apathy is a result of privilege and the choice of inaction in the face of desired change: “leaving the world as it is, ignoring human pleas for change”. What Singh deems blunt observation is always tempered by a humane sensibility. The critiques of the citizens in “so what?” emerge from a desire for things to change.

The same blunt sense of observation can be seen in another poem, “Making Harmony,” which opens with a tableau of two people sitting and having different drinks: “he sits and drinks his coffee, black, no sugar / the other guy sits and drinks his tea, white, one sugar”. The speaker realises that no words passes between them–“no dialogue between them save the sips”–but notes a kind of rhythm generated by their sips: “coffee / tea, tea /coffee, coffee / tea, tea / coffee [ . . . ]”. Beverage sipping is transfigured by poetry into rhythmic harmony. Once again, we see that living peacefully is central to the poem. Singh’s poetry opens up a space where the humane may be brought to our consciousness, where change for a better, kinder tomorrow may be contemplated.

Rhythm is Singh’s way of generating harmony and his penchant for it is also observed in “Catwalking,” a poem written entirely in the lower-case without any line breaks lest the flowing rhythm of the poem be disrupted. The same devices may be found in another poem aptly titled “Rhythms.” It illustrates a meeting between a “you” and a cat: “you walk in the park. the path is wet. it has been raining. you continue to walk. suddenly there is a stir in the grass. your cat, your favourite cat is following you, smelling you, following you”. What occurs next is a dance between cat and human, an interaction punctuated repeatedly by the words “she looks” and “you look”. Here, the polis makes its way into the poem in the form of a patch of regulated greenery–the park. Cats appear in several of Singh’s poems; indeed, one of his books is entitled “Cat Walking and the Games We Play”. As Peter Nazareth observes, cats are metaphors. Singapura, “Lion City,” might also mean the city of a big cat. “Rhytms” ends with the line: “as you walk away, you think about this beautiful catwalk, this rhythm of exchange, this bond of being”. Once again, the rhythmic harmony of poetry creates a space where exchange, where living peacefully, becomes possible for human and cat.

Vladimir Nabokov also recognised the power of the aesthetic to clear space for an alternate world. He wrote in the afterword of his Lolita:

For me a work of fiction exists only insofar as it affords me what I shall bluntly call aesthetic bliss, that is a sense of being somehow, somewhere, connected with other states of being where art (curiosity, tenderness, kindness, ecstasy) is the norm.

The same may be said of Singh, whose poetry conjures a polis where tenderness and kindness for its inhabitants, and curiosity and ecstasy are the norm.

Works cited

“Kirpal Singh.” Singapore Infopedia. National Library Board Singapore, 2004. Web.

Nabokov, Vladimir. Lolita. London: Penguin, 2006.

Singh, Kirpal. The Best of Kirpal Singh. Singapore: Epigram Books, 2012.