Against The Grain

Shirley Geok-lin Lim

1994 Pbk 12.99/$14.95 224pp ISBN 1 871438 49 7


The Scarlet Brewer and the Voice of the Colonized

I was eleven when I had my first poetry reading. Sister Finigan read my poem to my absent mother aloud to the Standard Six class. Rumors went around that my essay on a day in the life of a cock had been read to the senior students, the Form Five class in the new building across the street. When I was twelve and a Form One student in one of the ground floor classrooms in the new building, I had a poem published in the Malacca Times. I received ten Malaysian dollars for it and immediately spent the entire sum on noodles, ice-cream, sour plums, and dried orange peel which I shared with my second brother who had mailed the poem for me. Do all writers find their beginnings in such minor triumphs, hedged by school-day tyrannies, poverty, and the almost palpable presence of a community?

At twelve, the inchoate desire to write poetry that probably characterizes the unhappy childhoods of many withdrawn insatiable readers focused itself on a book. Somewhere among the Convent School's mildewed books sent by missionary agents in Ireland was a red linen-bound copy of R.F. Brewer's The Art of Versification and the Technicalities of Poetry. In fact, in later life I had misremembered the book, confusing it with George Saintsbury's better known Historical Manual of English Prosody. Before writing this essay on intellectual memory, I walked along the library stacks in search of the 1910 edition of Saintsbury's History. Instead I found the unevenly aged scarlet cloth-cover of Brewer's book and recognized it immediately, despite the almost thirty-five intervening years.

Published in 1931, this University of California copy is almost an exact replica of the one the twelve-year-old child took to bed with her. I remember the heavy yellowing paper with its uneven cut edges, the ornate character of the large print, the skinnier italics, and the plainer appearance of the reduced print used for the verse selections. Especially, I remember the magisterial categorization. Under "Kinds of Poetry", Lyric divides into Ode, Ballad, Hymn and Song, and Elegy; then there are epic or Heroic, Dramatic, Descriptive, Didactic, the Sonnet and the Epigram. Who would undertake today to lay before us such a simple and grand sweep of poetry, a sweep besides that ignores vers libre, the major domain of the idiosyncratic and of the American transAtlantic speaking voice? No wonder as a university woman I had suppressed memory of Brewer and chose instead to reconstruct the more liberal Saintsbury as my saint of poetic form.

Yet Saintsbury was himself influenced by Brewer, whose work he lists in his bibliography. This scarlet book of my childhood had first been issued in 1869 as Manual of English Poetry (the only book in Saintbury's bibliography with the word "Manual" in its title, indicating perhaps its prominent influence on Saintsbury's later historical study, Historical Manual of English Prosody). Brewer's Manual was enlarged and reissued as Orthometry in 1893, and it was this late nineteenth century version, essentially the same except in a new scarlet suit, that had enthralled me in my precocious pre-adolescence.

Remembering the many books that have found a permanent home in my life, I suddenly see myself as a basket case. Reliquaries held sacred by British imperialists are scattered like altar figures in a shambling cavern, one lit by faith as much as by skepticism. Shakespeare's plays, every single one of them, published in tissue-thin paper in a collected edition that somehow found its way to the school library. I remember best the poems that filled the back of the volume, although to an Asian child in the tropics, "When icicles hang on the wall/And Dick the shepherd blows his nail" must remain at best exotic words on the page. For me, English words, lines of English poetry, seemed to glow in the brain even in the brightest of languid steamy afternoons.

There were also, in a book-poor community, numerous copies of Everyman's Classics and Oxford University Press World Classics, among them Oliver Goldsmith's The Deserted Village, The Poetical Works of Gray and Collins, and Lord Alfred Tennyson's Selected Poems. These were required Senior Cambridge Examination texts in the 1940s and 50s, part of that British Literature canon schoolchildren in every British colony would have to master if they hoped to succeed in the colonial administration. Ibo and Yoruba, Ghanaian and Egyptian, Tamil, Punjabi, Bengali, Ceylonese, Burmese, Malay and Chinese studied this canon in order to get on in the British Empire. We studied mysterious volumes in which alien humans wandered through mossy churchyards, stood under strange trees called elms and yewtrees, suffered from dark, cold, gloom, and chills, and hailed "the splendour of the sun" (Poems of Lord Alfred Tennyson 242). Pacing the walled garden of the Buddhist temple to which I escaped from the disheveled two bedroom shack in which my five brothers and I barely breathed, in the near ninety degree glare of the equatorial sun from which there was no escape until swift night at 6 p.m., I somehow made out the sturdy figures of the English language under the encrustments of Victorian ethnocentric sentimentality.

That is, thinking hard now through layers of early colonized consciousness - the girl-child saw something in the poems beyond the cultural differences that eluded her imagination. This something was what Brewer's Orthometry made manifest for me: the mysterious English poetry of the British imperialists was laid bare for me in this revolutionary red book as the bones of craft. Brewer's book of forms demythologized once and for all that literary culture the English taught colonized native children to memorize and fear. Through Brewer, Gray's stanzas written in a country churchyard lost their awesome alienness. Deconstructed as prosody, they re-emerged as iambic pentameters in rhymed quatrains, or as Brewer categorized them, "Four heroics rhyming alternately...[to] constitute the Elegiac stanza" (73).

The simple naming of craft as craft unweighted the imperialism in English poetry and sent it floating deliriously within my grasp. What Brewer's Art of Versification proved to me was that the English language was not a natural possession of the English people; like me, like every governed subject of King George V, English was also a language that the English had to learn. English poets learned from other poets; there were versions, variations, imitations, parodies; they borrowed the rondel, the rondeau, and the sestina from the French and the Italians. English poems were not acts of inspired imagination issuing spontaneously from English genius and yielding their meaning only to like spirits. Instead they were mindful things constructed out of reading, observation, care, learning, and play with language and form. According the Brewer's late nineteenth-century primer, English poetry was socially constructed, not innately inherent in race and genius. The respect for craft that breathes in a book of forms, as in Karl Shapiro's Prosody Handbook, is also the respect for any reader who will study it.

The clarifying idea that an English poem can be understood because it is written as language using known traditions of expression was revolutionary in a time when literature teachers arriving fresh from Cambridge and Oxford warned students against studying English literature. Was it Mr. Piggott or Mr. Price and does it matter who said with helpful concern, "You haven't grown up in the British isles - it's impossible for you to get the idioms of the lake District to appreciate Wordsworth." Or Scottish dialect to understand Burns. Midlands speech for Hardy. British history for Shakespeare. English gentility for Austen. In short, although we were compelled to study this foreign literature, the iron bar Mr. Piggott, Mr. Price, and all the other colonial university teachers raised before us was that English literature was really only for the English people.

The triple bind of force-fed colonial literature, cultural imperialism, and denigration of ability has only begun to loosen in ex-British colonies. But iron and bondage will produce their own kind of revenge. Today, generations of postcolonial peoples are writing in English, warping it into their own instruments, producing other traditions, the way the Miltonic sonnet evolved from the Petrarchan Italian, the way that Marilyn Hacker's sonnets evolve from the English. Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe, Bessie Head, Naruddin Farah, R.K. Narayan, Salman Rushdie, Bharati Mukherjee - these are the illustrious non-English names that appear in English language literature from Africa, India, Pakistan. But the postcolonial canon is more than those admitted by Anglos into their mainstream. It is the numerous nodes of writing in English produced by local national writers, read perhaps only by their local national audiences, the entire rhizomous planet of minorities, as Deleuze and Guattari would argue, replacing the hegemonic and hierarchical world view of the imperialists.

To my young mind, Brewer's Orthometry displayed the human skeleton of poetry; it deflated the Occidental Mystique of English Culture, and offered in its place a material body of social language, although one mediated through measures of syllables, interruptions of caesura, waverings between perfect and imperfect rhymes.

I can no longer read the scarlet Brewer with the intense pleasure of a child discovering the secret of adult power. Brewer's choice of lines and stanzas come too heavily freighted now with my own adult sense of power, the solid materially-inclined intelligence occluding the mere sensory motions of sound and music. Brewer, I see all too clearly, was a Victorian patriarch. While he approached poetry seriously, it was for him a moral and emotional helpmate, a feminine sublime, the way repressed men want their wives to be: full of good feeling, good judgement, beautiful shape. His selected passages expressed narrowly prescribed ideals of elevated emotion and noble thought: "There is a pleasure in the pathless woods" [Byron, cited in Brewer 182]; "Small service is true service, while it lasts:/ Of friends, however humble, scorn not one;/ The daisy by the shadow that it casts,/ Protects the lingering dewdrop from the sun" [Wordsworth, cited in Brewer 142]. Through bitter intelligence, I see how Brewer took strong poems and inevitably extracted their safest pulp. No wonder then that after twelve, I never returned to the book again.

Why have I picked this antiquarian volume as a foundational piece in my biography of mind? Probably to remind myself that a colonized childhood is composed of strange accidents of isolation and community; that, like Robinson Crusoe on a deserted island, a chest can wash to shore and we can find unexpected help - a book published in Edinburgh in 1931, read by the loneliest child in Malacca (so I imagined myself to be) and leading her to believe that the English language could be as much hers as anybody's. Claiming English as my own was my first step out of the iron cage and into a voice, and who is to say that it is not my language and not my voice?