Unearthed Treasure: Poetry Through the Eyes of Cyril Wong

By Lim Jing Rong (18A03A) and Ashley Tan (18A13A)
Additional Reporting by Joan Ang (17A01B)

You might have spotted his name lodged between headlines in The Straits Times. Or perhaps you, or someone you know, frequent literary events such as the annual Singapore Writer’s Festival. But if you have been keeping up with the news on Singapore’s literary scene, then you would definitely have read about esteemed Singaporean poet, Cyril Wong.

Dubbed as Singapore’s “first confessional poet”, Mr Wong has numerous accolades under his belt. One could easily presume that a person as revered as Mr Wong would take on a lofty persona. However, as those who attended his talk hosted here in RI would have discovered, this is far from the truth.

Witty yet personable, Mr Wong exuded confidence and humour during his sharing session. Held earlier this month, the workshop was organised by Writer’s Guild, which aimed to provide greater insight into the world of poetry through the lens of a professional poet.

Not only was this Guild’s first CCA event of the year, but it was also open to all students who were interested in learning about literature and poetry, a first for the club. Topics ranging from his poetic inspirations to the smallest details and devices used in poetry were covered during the talk. It was a rare opportunity which gifted the audience a slice of an established writer’s psyche.

“We had dim sum together and it was the most terrifying experience in the world.”

Throughout the session, Mr Wong kept the audience engaged, peppering his talk with jocular personal anecdotes. He shared several insightful stories and quotes that he had gleaned from other well-known poets and previous mentors. Despite being an acclaimed poet, Mr Wong readily expressed his admiration for other literary critics such as Marjorie Perloff, whom he had the privilege of dining with. “It was the most terrifying experience in the world,” he deadpanned, before reiterating himself again in an urgent exclamation.

Keeping the mood light-hearted, Mr Wong even slid in a couple of unique and alternative terms he had come across. He shared self-coined phrases such as the “Lee Kuan Yew Art of Poetry” (no way other than my way) and the “Mariah Carey tool” (literary devices such as emphasis, the use of high notes, sudden symbolisms, and surprise), which helped him get his points across effectively while maintaining a zany attitude.

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Mr Cyril Wong gleefully sharing his experiences in poetry writing.

Most who have dabbled in the realm of poetry would know that editing your own writing is one of the most challenging and daunting tasks. So when the words “Editing is Menial Labour” were flashed across the screen, knowing looks passed between many audience members.

“Sentences can always be shortened,” Mr Wong declared, before sharing that he had picked up these invaluable words of wisdom in an Edwin Thumboo class that he had attended. While many writers would bemoan this seemingly banal statement, it is an ideal that should be aspired towards for more wholesome writing. As featured in Mr Wong’s book of poems The Lover’s Inventory as an epigraph, “Poetry teaches the enormous force of a few words, and, in proportion to the inspiration, checks loquacity”.

“Writing plainly is always more difficult than you think.”

During his talk, Mr Wong also highlighted the functionality of other poetic devices and technicalities. For instance, the nature of the language that is used has a cardinal effect on poetry. After all, everything is about “knowing your audience.” While using language that would typically be considered “high-brow” may appeal to some, everything ultimately depends on the poet’s target audience. If the poem is meant to address the everyday reader, then “simple and embedded cliches should be avoided” to make the piece more accessible.

Additionally, while the use of punctuation is sometimes overlooked, it, in actuality, “becomes almost existential” in any poem. The decision to place a semicolon or comma after a specific word would engender very different impacts, and could quite easily make or break the entire meaning of a piece. Essentially, every detail in a poem needs to be purposefully crafted so as to convey an intended effect that will resonate with its readers.

The Q&A session at the end of Mr Wong’s sharing session revealed further insights. During this segment, one of the most striking comments that Mr Wong made was the importance of writing with risk and urgency. Often, many aspiring poets write for the sake of writing – they feel that their poems need to present certain platitudes, or revolve around content that is considered to be socially acceptable. This very issue was addressed during Mr Wong’s talk as well, where he verbalised conflicts that many SingLit poets face – should the option of writing “safe” poetry that is likely to generate financial stability be favoured, or should the bold risk of writing truthful poetry that may be more uncustomary, or even discomforting, be taken?

“There needs to be a sense of urgency in poems… Don’t ever write a poem if it’s not burning in you.”

At its very core, a poem is meant to reflect the emotional state of the speaker, or their take on a certain issue. Mr Wong further expounded on this concept by citing his personal favourite piece, your goodness by Arthur Yap, where the poem itself is a flawed translation of the meaning of friendship. It accurately depicts the struggle of a poet who appears to question his own ability to capture something that is so infinite. In this sense, every poem should contain a piece of the poet’s heart and mind; it is only through the poet’s vulnerability and urgency to communicate a specific message that the piece will remain emotionally authentic.

If there was but one thing that the audience could take away from the talk, it would likely be the idea that no one should ever feel ashamed for being themselves. “I’m sorry I don’t have any poems about Merlions,” Mr Wong quipped towards the end of the session. Yet, it is this very ability to be unapologetically himself that differentiates Mr Wong from other writers. His charisma, humour, talent and nerve has enabled his art to shine through, and made for a cyril-iously well spent afternoon.

So, if you haven’t read Cyril Wong’s poetry, then we strongly suggest you start today. Who knows – you could end up discovering an unmarked treasure.

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