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papa osmubal
oscar balajadia CAN POETRY help recuperate and revive a language that is in a coma and struggling painfully to gasp its last?

The answer is yes and no. The whole argument can be seen in the scenario where Kapampangan language and Kapampangan poetry are now.

I am a poet in my own right and I know a thing or two about what poetry can and cannot do. I would say it cannot do gazillions of things. Like, for example, it cannot fix your clogged kitchen sink. Poetry can be virtually useless, but it is just impossible to fathom why there are still people out there who write it. Were it not for poets, poetry would have been long dead as a dodo because ordinary people don't even know it exists at all. Or they know it exists, but (no offense intended) they really don't care because it has nothing to do with their immediate reality—say, it is not something they can spread on their bread or mix with their coffee at breakfast. (Of course, you know that is not what I mean by immediate reality!) It is a fact beyond dispute that poetry is read only by the poets writing it themselves, and by unwilling others whose arms get twisted to take it as a dreaded curricular requirement. But our very own Kapampangan poetry is not even taught in schools. Let me entertain a fancy, far-fetched imagination here: would there be real and intellectual Kapampangan poets or Kapampangan literary experts who could teach poetry in Kapampangan if it were ever taught in schools? Poetry is not just rhymes and rhythm or—using a poet-friend's description of it—a "verbal carnival." There is something more deep within it that is so elusive and untamed, profound and vast; something that only a few souls can see and encounter; something that intimidates the human mind and overwhelms the human heart. Borges calls it "the other tiger"—the counterpart of Blake's "tyger." Modern philosophers call it "being and becoming"—while Saint John the Evangelist and the Classic Greek thinkers call it "logos." Saint John of the Cross calls it "the bride and the bridegroom." Hopkins calls it "inscape"—while Rilke loves to call it "solitude," the mother of creativity and everything beautiful and sacred. In all honesty, can the Kapampangan poet dare go that far? And, how far can our poetry take us?

All I can say is that the Kapampangan literary scene is full of impatient and cantankerous clowns. After I criticized Kapampangan poets' traditionalist approach in writing, things mysteriously changed overnight. My critique was like a magic spell that turned the whole world upside down. It felt too uncomfortable and artificial. I feel so sorry for our poets. They used to employ perfect rhymes and foot-and-meter counts, now I read some of their new pieces and—surprise! surprise!—they are all rearranged into free format. Sadly the pieces don't have the meaning and profundity that free verse should have. Although, in fairness, quite a few do show promise. Meaning and profundity are the foundations of free verse, that is why it shed off of its multicolored "verbal carnival" costumes. Now our Kapampangan poets are on unstable ground. Things have gone from bad to worse, because our poets seem to have lost everything. I beg them to go back to their old habits and leave the business of modernizing and diversifying Kapampangan poetry to the capable ones, who might just be silently lurking somewhere and ready to come out into the light after the natural course of this literary battle has been played out.

Free verse is a serious business. It is not just simply chopping the sentences into mini-phrases, enjambments or short lines. In free verse there is more than meets the eye. Free verse doesn't show; it conceals. Free verse is not the perennial funny and noisy clown; it is a wise guru of few words. It follows the modernist and postmodernist dictum—"Less is more and more is less." A serious poet can talk about a school of thought, a person's life story or a country's entire history in free verse in just, say, ten words. Mastery of free verse can never be achieved overnight like what Kapampangan writers are trying to show now, which is an insult to the art. Don't get fooled by its name, free verse is not really "free"; it is a very difficult and demanding format. To come up with great free verse you have to torture your mind to formulate meaning, encrypt that meaning, and make sure that meaning is profound with all the essential information attached to it. That is what these poets don't really get. This is simply a sick joke. Poetry, whether in rhyme or in free format, is a serious business. Poetry, whether in rhyme or in free format, should have encrypted meaning and profundity. Now we can see that our traditionalist poets understand my concerns about poetic form (formal issues). Let us demand them to give us meaning and profundity this time. Once they give us these—meaning and profundity—whether in rhymed format or free verse, then all issues are squared away. The formal issue I previously presented must have been just the accidental stepping stone for us to get to the more serious issues—meaning and profundity. With what has transpired so far, I am asking myself this—Do we really have poets? It feels like we are moving into a literary dystopia.

Poetry is a genre in calamitous crisis. Poets should stop pretending that whatever they write goes to the hoi polloi. Poets only actually read what they themselves write and ordinary people simply don't give a damn. Such is the bitter truth that sarcastically grins in front of all the poets. If I say Crisostomo Soto's poetry is irrelevant in our time and age, do you think some drivers, fishermen and vendors in Pampanga would, in reaction, take it to the streets and throw rocks and Molotov bombs? No, sir. One of Crisostomo Soto's great-great-great-grandsons surely will, for the sheer folly of it. But not the people, because poetry is not their Mecca. In a normal conversation, when somebody says to another that he speaks in the manner and style of Balagtas, as in the ever notorious conversation-killer "balamu ika i Balagtas" (though, in all honesty, I have never heard someone say, "balamu ika i Crissot")—it only means two things. One, they stop the nonsense conversation and frustratingly go their separate ways. And two, things said need explaining in plain, quotidian language—in the language that ordinary people speak and understand. People don't buy pompous and pretentious language. People like to speak their language and like to listen to those speaking it. This is a very clear message to all Kapampangan poets.

Having said that, I don't really feel for the Kapampangan poets, that is the self-proclaimed Kapampangan language crusaders among them, who would wrestle with tornadoes and storms to revive Amanung Siswan through the might of their poetry. No offense meant, but they have obviously chosen the wrong instrument, which they think would help prevent our language from sinking into the murk. I challenge anyone to take the risk. Sarcasm is my middle name, and so here goes—go to the people and give them your best poems, the ones that poetry editors praise and say would become classics after when you die. Tell them to read your poetry (or just read it to them yourself) because poetry—as you firmly believe—is a way to save the language. That is a lot of bull, because that is too unrealistic, like you are trying to shoot the moon with primitive bamboo bow and arrows. That could have probably happened during the time of Menander, but certainly that would not in ours. You should know that poets, like Jehovah’s Witnesses and burglars, are the reasons why people keep dogs. You are even lucky enough if they just shoo you away in one piece, instead of sucker-punching you and shattering that pontifical kisser of yours into tiny fragments.

Poets speak and write in a language virtually unknown to the ordinary people. In the eyes of the great unwashed, poets are from another planet. How then can Kapampangan poets blindly presume that they can save the people's language when they can't even establish a practical and realistic communication with the people through or with their brand of poetry? Linguists, who are particularly concerned with existing spoken languages, would never ever resort to using poetry in order to investigate and analyze one language. Never in a million years. Never until the Giggling Jesus comes back on his dazzling chariot pulled by two limping donkeys and an army of smiling saints. Linguistically speaking, poets' language is not a valid language. Better call it coded jargon, spoken and understood only by the poets themselves—a very small, but bitterly divided, clique.

The kind of poetry that we have now cannot promote and save a dying language. Call me cynical, but as a poet myself, I know how far it can go. Kapampangan poetry cannot go so far as where Kapampangan language crusaders and poets think it can (and try as they might) to save Amanung Siswan from demise. Poetry just stays in the domain of the poets and it can never reach the common people. Easy-reading prose like children's stories, short stories, tales and legends, old and modern, can still do the job if written in the people's existing language, especially if they are presented in a creative format like a comic book. But poetry? You make me guffaw. You need to be confined in a funny house with all your dilapidated dolls and stuffed toys if you think poetry has that capability to nurse a terminally sick language back to its glorious health. But I am not totally pessimistic about this issue, though, because I strongly believe that poetry can still be appreciated by the common people in the future—it all depends on when poets get out of their dark caves and on how far their creativity can take their crafts. Then, and only then, can poetry help Amanung Siswan get back on its feet.

Recently, I commented on Kapampangan poetry. Disgruntled Kapampangan poets and language crusaders reacted with belligerence, figuratively and literally. I say figuratively and literally because their comments sounded more like death threats rather than what they were supposed to sound like. But what else can a poet do in that situation? I have seen it that many times before and will surely see it many more times over in the future. I confess, though, that you always get that sort of reaction only from nitwitted and puerile poets. My love of Amanung Siswan was put into question just for what I wrote. My loyalty to Indung Ibatan was doubted and refuted for what I said about their poetry. These people just do not know what they are doing. They think that poetry is the be all and end all of nationality, intelligence and identity. They think that their poetry can save the language. Or worse yet, as I gathered from their fiery comments, they even insinuate that their poetry is the language itself. They sound as if my critique on their poetry is damaging and lethal to Amanung Siswan. Which is out of the track. I did not criticize the Kapampangan language, rather I criticized (or rather I blatantly rejected) their imposing literary tradition. I love the Kapampangan language, at least what remains of it—the existing one that people speak in the streets. Call it Creole, but I call it Kapampangan because there is still a trace of Kapampangan in it—proof that in time it can recover its former glory. I would never attack it for the love of and respect for the people who speak it. But the poets? I can criticize them and their language anytime I want to, and in doing so I will never offend the hoi polloi. Most of the poets' language is not the Kapampangan that we know; it is the Kapampangan of long ago, so we can never connect and relate to it. And don't forget the rhymes and the meticulously measured meters and feet that make the poets sound like they are on stage—too artificial, pretentious and out-of-this-world.

Kapampangan poets behave as if they are some kind of disorientated linguists. Criticize their brand of poetry and they accuse you of trying to completely wreck and annihilate the language. The Kapampangan poets, whom I admittedly offended because of my critique, actually defended their poetry and the writing tradition they chose to follow and not the Kapampangan language per se. Reading their comments, one can easily notice that these poets are not really defending the Kapampangan language. Rather they are justifying their style of writing poetry (and coincidentally most of them have an identical style of writing and expressions that are deeply rooted in the time before Methuselah's birth). They are just clearly using the Kapampangan language and the issues concerning its upkeep to make their defenses and justifications credible. Something similar to what logicians term as an appeal to emotion, or red herring. But an observant and sensitive reader can immediately know where these poets are really trying to arrive at. Let us say I criticize the poetry of an English poet (or a poet writing in English), say Percy Bysshe Shelley, a great poet whose poem entitled "Ozymandias" made him immortal. Assuming I declared Shelley's poetry as (the skies forbid!) old-fashioned and inappropriate in our time. Would an Englishman accuse me of trying to erase the English language from the face of the earth? Only Kapampangan poets have that nauseating mentality. I just don't know why they developed such mentality, which is inappropriately shameful, disturbing and unintelligent. How can one declare oneself a poet if one lacks well-grounded philosophy and intellect? This is clearly reflected in the kind of poetry they come up with. Nursery rhymes are a bit better than their poetry. Yes, their poetry is like nursery rhymes in form, style and sound. The latter are at least cryptic and ciphered, clandestinely hiding underneath them meanings that the reader is challenged to dig out. The former is WYSIWIG—what you see is what you get. I iterate Kapampangan poetry is WYSIWIG.

Kapampangan poets seem to connect things that are not necessarily connected. They connect one's critique with Kapampangan nationalism and with the love for the Kapampangan language. Give them positive criticism and you are a true-blue, loyal Kapampangan; otherwise, you are a pariah, an untouchable. I criticized their poetry, but that does not mean I don't love Pampanga. But the traditionalist poets have already confiscated my birthright to the Kapampangan world. I am no longer Kapampangan just because I voiced out my feelings about their brand of poetry. I criticized their poetry, but that does not mean I don't love the Kapampangan language. But traditionalist poets were quick to accuse me of attempting to destroy Amanung Siswan altogether. Others would even connect one's critique with morality and ethics. Many of those poets mercilessly declared me discourteous and uncivilized. Others, being fatalistic as they are, connect one's critique with one's final destiny and the other-world. They spent no time consigning my soul to the abysmal fires of hell for my rather afflictive comments on their literary techniques. Many of them accused me of having no knowledge of poetry and being incapable of writing poetry. Obviously, they had not read some of what I have written thus far. They obviously did not research on my writing before firing an accusation at me. They did not bother finding out what made me say what I said. But, irony of ironies, they themselves did not waste any time in advising me to first do my homework before writing. Those poets are just an emotional and sentimental bunch who bark at and bite somebody who dares say something frank and honest about their poetry. Their behavior is also reflected in what they write—emotional and sentimental poems.

The Kapampangan that we know, the one people speak in the streets and in the marketplaces is, in fact, totally different from the language of the Kapampangan poets. Most of the Kapampangan poets use archaic words that many modern Kapampangans don't comprehend. Listen to the traditionalist Kapampangan poets reading their poems (or do a self-reading of their poems) and you will feel like you are being taken out of reality and teleported to another time and dimension. I don't mean to say their poetry is of no use, because, admittedly, it has its own essential use, though linguistic in nature. But linguistics and poetry are two totally different animals, living in two separate islands. Traditionalist poetry archives old terminologies for possible use in the future—that is, if they still have the potency to fully express the people's current reality and identity. If not, then these shall forever remain as mummified terminologies. At least, in a way, we don't lose these mummies; these are well-kept in a sepulcher called poetry. But I think that is the job for lexicographers. To think that poetry can save a dying—or transforming?—language is a gross mistake and miscalculation.

In my own little way, I too am a Kapampangan language defender—well, at least in my own way of looking at things, not of those who abhor my personality and character. For the record, I must confess that I am a purist when it comes to languages, especially the Kapampangan language. I advocate pure Kapampangan in speech or in writing, unlike many of the so-called Kapampangan poets and language crusaders who can't even come up with a piece of work in pure Kapampangan (or maybe they just don't know how to distinguish loaned Spanish from Kapampangan, so they can't winnow and separate them). But I am a liberal purist (if there is such an epithet), so I respect the way people want their language to evolve and I don't identify myself with those who suppress that, because, linguistically speaking, language transformation doesn't mean language death at all. If one reads my Kapampangan articles, one may notice that they don't have a lot of loanwords, because I intentionally sieve and winnow loanwords from my Kapampangan as long as it is possible and, moreso, necessary. My own personal version of Kapampangan is not heavily anglicized and hispanized, because I keep and preserve the dignity and simplicity of Amanung Siswan.

I recently read this one article by this gaudy Kapampangan poet (by virtue of his surname) and self-appointed language savior. A good portion of the article was in Kapampangan with a good portion in loanwords (anyway, let's just call it Kapampangan to make a quick argument). The author did not even know how to write the title in Kapampangan, or so it seemed. The title was in English and was humbly beseeching for a translation. The eye is to the human as the title is to a piece of written work. The title is the window to the literary work's soul. Excuse those who once in a while write titles in such language as Latin, because you won't expect the entire article to be in Latin. The writer in question took the shortcut by giving an English title to his Kapampangan article. But no one cried foul for the linguistic and literary misdemeanor. I just don't know what could have happened to him should he have written the title in Tagalog. The writer obviously could not translate the title into Kapampangan or else he would lose the meaning of what he wanted to convey through it. But then again, if he translated it he could have surely ended up with a hispanized title, considering the looks of those English words in that title. A creative Kapampangan writer can find ways to do a meaningful translation to that title, without using the loathed loanwords. With its English title, his Kapampangan essay awkwardly looked like a sun-tanned Kapampangan farmer in tuxedo, with matching neck-tie and American northwest cowboy sombrero. Picture that, dear Pampanga. That is nothing but a gross mockery of the Kapampangan intellect and identity. He mercilessly raped our language in broad daylight. To make the essay peculiarly funny, he even quoted from Spiderman to make his contention credible and look scholarly. I am not making this up, he actually quoted from Spiderman. So, we can expect him quoting from Scooby Doo or from Winnie the Pooh next time around. Obviously, this writer doesn't even bother keeping the dignity and simplicity of his native language, and yet he has the audacity to say he is a Kapampangan writer and poet and one of the protectors of the language. He should read my Kapampangan poems and essays (and a few are easily accessible here on eK!), so that he can have a little lesson in real purist, but light and rural, Kapampangan.

A great part of Kapampangan poetry, as we know it, still uses old and dormant terms and archaic expressions. How then, in the name of the Clapping Jesus, can it resuscitate a dead or dying language? Ah, the blind leading the blind, so they say. Let us get real here once and for all. Old-styled poetry cannot make a sinking language float. Its use of archaic language can even add weight to make the sinking even worse and faster.

Alright, I don't need to be harsh on poetry, lest I'll be branded Janus-faced by fellow poets. Admittedly, poetry has its linguistic use as well, aside from archiving as I mentioned above. But on one simple condition: it has to modernize—that is, it has to be written in modern form and style and in modern language, and it has to use modern expressions. Poetry can be intellectual and philosophic, but not necessarily pompous and proud as to turn the reader off. By using the ordinary language that people use in their daily conversation, poetry can still be creative and powerful, intellectual and philosophic, depending on how deep and vast the knowledge of the poet is and on how the poet can make full use of his craft. If one can't (or if by choice one doesn't) use modern language and expressions, then it is better to just flush one's poetry down the stinking john, and refrain from pretending that one is doing the language a favor. Poets should show where they are coming from in the way they present their crafts. Yes, I know that age, more often than not, plays a big factor in choosing the style, form, expressions and language in writing poetry. Those who were already seasoned poets during the time of President Diosdado Macapagal's are forgiven and tolerated for the best they can give us. But for those who were born shortly before, during, and after Ferdinand Marcos's Martial Law, please be responsible and generous and give to the art what it deserves. I beg the younger poets and writers to kindly feel the soil underneath their feet instead of feeling the imaginary clouds on their shoulders.

It is not unknown to all that initiatives for literary reform have already been done high and low in clandestine fashion. So for those Kapampangan writers and poets who are already firmly on their way to modernity and diversity, my prayer is that they keep doing what they are doing and don't listen to the traditionalists and their yes-men who eschew and discourage initiatives. Remember that modernist Kapampangan poets and writers are not opening new doors for the traditionalists and their flunkeys (who have used the time and opportunity given to them in the way they wanted to use them), but rather for the willing members of our generation and the generations after us. The real golden age of Kapampangan literature is yet to come. This real golden age of Kapampangan literature will be measured for the open-mindedness and freedom it can give to writers and poets, and its pulchritude is its flambeau. Let's call it the birth of a new Kapampangan literature. For sure after our generation, things will be smooth sailing—when everything new and fresh is always accepted, tolerated, scrutinized, mended, amended, appreciated, encouraged, studied, and improved further. New writing styles will give birth to new writing styles, and Kapampangan literature will become a garden full of flowers. By then, imitation without innovation will be a felony. Imagine fifty poets writing in fifty different styles—that's what I call a golden age of Kapampangan literature. Imagine the works of those fifty poets in an anthology—by the Rejoicing Jesus, that is certainly a beautiful anthology. At least in a literary sense, that is the sign that a language is blooming. That is a great service to Amanung Siswan. That is the celebration of the language.

As I have already admitted, poetry can be of help in keeping the language alive and kicking and prevent it from disappearing, only if—again, here is the perennial if—that poetry speaks the ordinary people’s quotidian language. The truth is Kapampangan poets who are self-proclaimed Kapampangan language crusaders seem to be confused and do not know how to set priorities. They have to know that what needs saving is the part of the language that is still existing (the one still spoken by the people), not the part of it that is already dead (the archaic language used by those poets). Given the right conditions and taking into consideration the people's linguistic needs, the poets should by all means exhume and resurrect from the cold and dark tombs what is still useful from their hold and hoard of the language. Poetry should not be pretentious—it has to embrace and tackle people's reality. Now, look at many of the poems written in Kapampangan. Do they have what it takes to promote and save our dying language? Most of the Kapampangan poetry, as we know it, doesn't employ ordinary people's expressions; much of it is too ostentatious and pompous. If poets write in the harsh and crude language of a town bum or a peddler, then poetry is alive and sincere and its arguments, valid and logical.

Poetry is alive and sincere, and its arguments are valid and logical, if it expresses people's reality and speaks the people's quotidian language. Poetry or anything written should sound like it is talking to people—it should be like ordinary folks talking to their fellows. Kapampangan poets should know that modernism and post-modernism have long stripped poetry of its pretense, haughtiness and rogue loftiness. Wouldn't you just break into loud laughter if someone talking to you sounds like he or she is performing on stage—like in a zarzuela, with all those rhymes, prolonged sing-song words, and exaggerated hand gestures? That is downright funny—as in "balamu i Balagtas." That is what I call showy poetry. But I would not laugh; I would instead hang myself in front of him or her before I get sent to a nuthouse.

For a genre to be successful, it has to be responsible. A literary genre is responsible if—again, the monotous litany!—it speaks the people's language and shows the people's reality. In short, it should live in the present. A long time ago, poetry was successful, because in those old times it was one of the most relevant genres. People of long ago connected themselves and their reality with their poetry as we now connect ourselves and our reality with the computer, the Internet and other products of modern technology. Sadly, many poets choose to stay in the old, bygone days. They do not cope with all the changes around them. They do not modernize their poetry. They do not modernize their style of writing, their language and expressions.

Why is the novel quite a successful modern genre? It is because it uses the people's language—it is our reality that is in it. And the novel works and continuously develops alongside new technology. Find the best Hollywood films and most of them are adaptions from great novels. Sometimes good movies are turned into novels. The novel—or at least most of the genre—is populated with characters that breathe, think and behave like real people and speak the language of the real world. This is the reason why the novel and many prose genres, like the short story, the essay, even the fairy tale, et al., can be better tools in promoting the language than poetry, especially if they are presented in attractive and creative packages (like a comic book, movie or documentary film). Poetry should be modernized before it can join those genres and be considered as an effective tool in promoting the language. Young Kapampangans and their bands singing their poetry accompanied by modern music, and cultural workers staging musicals in Kapampangan that young people love to watch are examples of how we can creatively explore the uses of poetry and available modern technology.

Admittedly, poetry is a very lofty genre. It is arguably the loftiest of all the genres. But I would say its loftiness is its weakness. Its loftiness divorced poetry from the people. Its ancient loftiness alienated the modern people. But as I have already said, modernism and post-modernism have stripped the world poetry of its loftiness and put it back before the people in its most innocent and simplest form. So, it is also time for Kapampangan poetry to alight from its majestic pedestal and go to where the people are. It is time for Kapampangan poetry to speak the people's language. It is time for Kapampangan poetry to leave behind the past and stay in the present and prepare itself for the future. If not, then Kapampangan poetry will always remain out in the cold and cannot serve the language it wants to serve—Amanung Siswan

[About the author. Papa Osmubal is Oscar Balajadia of Magalang (Well, don't get fooled by that name), now a Macau resident (Sorry, where?) and married to a Chinese local (How? How come? Why?). He has been a Catholic seminarian (OK, he once opened a book at an exam in Latin and Romance Languages---but who in frigging hell did not?), a Catholic missionary (Oh, the rosary is the answer to our country's economic problems and to your alcoholism and addiction to nicotine!), a bookstore staffer (Yes, sir, listen here, we know it is urgent, so your book is on its way from Guangzhou and will be here in 8 months!), a librarian (Oh, it's Friday the 13th and I am not putting 666 as Dewey call number on this bloody book!), and a teaching assistant (OK, pal, I know you prepared for the exams so I will check and mark them!). He is currently a teacher (yawn) and has an M.A. in English Studies (yawn even more, nod off, and then snore) from the University of Macau (sorry again, where?).]

-Posted: 9:56 AM 10/10/09 | More of this author on eK!