The poetry of the Filipino revolutionary leader Jose Ma Sison as collected in Prison and Beyond is part of a long tradition of protest literature that aims to contribute in the weakening of an unjust social order. As founding chairman of the Communist Party of the Philippines and present political consultant of the National Democratic Front of the Philippines, Sison combined “leadership of the Filipino people’s struggle for national liberation and democracy with his practice as a poet.” No contemporary Filipino writer has exerted a pervasive influence on national events except for Rizal in the 19th century.
For the most part, the literature and the arts has been the exclusive domain of the propertied elites while the vast majority of toiling masses have had little or no access to it at all. But the literary field has always been caught in a struggle between classes. Dominated groups would also gain inroads into this established preserve of the ruling classes. Social movements that seek to redress the inequitable distribution of wealth and power have been instrumental in consciously pushing for the accessibility of literature among the less privileged. In the Philippines, the National Democratic movement has been instrumental in the creation of a new mass literature that aims to truthfully reflect the aspirations of the peasant and working masses.
Among the selections in Prison and Beyond, “The Guerilla is Like a Poet” marks the midpoint between Sison’s earlier formalist phase and later evolution into a more politically committed writer with poems characterized by “stark diction and militant tone.” “The Guerilla is Like a Poet” gives a poetic representation of the life of a guerilla fighter, an experience that is shared by many Filipinos in the countryside and fills the imagination of those in the cities. This reflective element intertwines with the didactic message of the inevitability of the victory of the people’s war, “Swarming the terrain as a flood / Marching at last against the stronghold.” The poem is recounted by an invisible speaker in the manner of a narrative. The interest here is more of reflection of what it is to be a guerrilla rather than a psychological outpouring in the dramatic mode.
The speaker’s diction, his choice of words and grammar constructions, shows his education and would at first glance betray the aim of reaching the widest number of people. English is a language that is not commonly used among the rural masses that the guerillas seek to mobilize. Yet there is already a significant difference between the overly ornate and aesthetic poetry of his contemporaries and that of Sison’s whose use of transparent direct speech “theoretically at least, makes his poems accessible to a wider audience who could read in English, but lacks the specialized literary training that is a requisite for the appreciation of much of Filipino poetry in English.”
A number of poetic devices are put to use throughout the poem. The first and most obvious one is the likening of the guerilla to the poet. This simile forms the vehicle that runs through the whole of the text. The imagery visualizes the tranquility of the countryside and is loaded with symbolic significance. The peasant masses that have been aroused, organized, and mobilized to stand up for their rights are expressed in metaphoric manner as “the green brown multitude.” Danger coming from the armed forces of the State is “The smell of fire.” In the second stanza, the guerilla’s unity with the people, community, and environment is articulated as the merging “with the trees,” a metaphor which at the same is an allusion to Mao Tse Tung’s dictum that guerillas should become the fish and the people the water.
The use of alliteration, the repetition of a consonant, is maximized with lines like the “master of myriad images,” “Ripples of the river,” “Bush burning,” and “ensnares the enemy.” The poem, which may be described as a free verse, follows a repetitive structure with the recurrence of the line, “The guerilla is like a poet.” This imitates the repetitive routine of the guerilla’s life of painstaking political organizing and building of alternative power structures centered on the exploited peasantry in the countryside. At the same time, this repetitive structure slowly reveals a larger idea by way of a movement from the particular to the universal. The description of the minutiae in the early stanzas lead to the final unveiling of “the protracted theme: / The people’s epic, the people’s war.”
The poem’s power lies in its presentation of an alternative picture of the guerilla that runs contrary to the State’s black propaganda of the guerilla as a bloodthirsty terrorist bandit. A guerilla, in his careful honing of his craft, is also a poet. Waging guerilla war, like writing poetry, is a discipline of its own. Likewise, a guerilla, like the poet, has a muse of his own and that is the great masses of people who are oppressed under the present dispensation. And while a poet risks a life of luxury to follow his craft, the guerilla offers the greater sacrifice of his very own life for the ultimate victory of his enterprise.
Apart from the obvious reference to the agrarian-based rebellion being waged in the Philippine countryside, the poem also divulges a Zen-like sensibility as shown in the guerilla’s being “enrhymed with nature” and her keenness “to the rustle of leaves / The break of twigs/ The ripples of the river.” The restrained use of language in the poem is reminiscent of Japanese haiku. Of course, Sison follows in the tradition of revolutionary leaders who were at the same time poets. China’s Mao, who was influenced by Classical Chinese literature, and Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh, who once wrote that “a poet must also learn how to lead an attack,” wrote verses that were filled with varied descriptions of nature. Even Pablo Neruda himself was Secretary General of the Communist Party of Chile before dying under house arrest by the U.S.-sponsored Pinochet dictatorship.
Contrary to the predominantly aesthetic ideal of literature as a mere object of beauty, “The Guerilla is Like a Poet” embodies a didactic purpose of calling on the reader to rise up against injustice in the material world by means of armed struggle. The poem offers the romanticized image of the guerilla as the exemplary heroic figure who unafraid of any hardship, bravely pushes through with the struggle for the people’s liberation. It combats the notion of “art for art’s sake” by treating “life as reflected in works of literature and… on a higher plane, more intense, more concentrated, more typical, nearer the ideal, and therefore more universal than actual everyday life.” ■
1. Gelacio Guillermo, Ang Panitikan ng Pambansang Demokrasya (Manila: Kalikasan Press, 1990), 103.
2. Petronilo Bn. Daroy, “From Literature to Revolution,” in Prison and Beyond, Selected Poems: 1958-1983, First Ed., By Jose Ma. Sison (Philippines: Free Jose Ma. Sison Committee, 1984), 33-42.
3. Kris Montañez, The New Mass Art and Literature and Other Related Essays: 1974-1987 (Quezon City: Kalikasan Press, 1988).
4. Bienvenido Lumbera, “Beyond Autobiography,” in Prison and Beyond, Selected Poems: 1958-1983, First Ed., By Jose Ma. Sison (Philippines: Free Jose Ma. Sison Committee, 1984), 28.
5. Jose Ma. Sison, “The Guerilla is Like a Poet,” in Prison and Beyond, Selected Poems: 1958-1983, First Ed. (Philippines: Free Jose Ma. Sison Committee, 1984), 47-48.
6. Lumbera, “Beyond Autobiography,” 31.
7. Jose Ma. Sison, “The Guerilla is Like a Poet,” 47-48.
9. Mao Tse-Tung, “Talks at the Yenan Forum on Literature and Art,” Mao Tse-Tung on Art and Literature (London: Anglo-Chinese Educational Institute, 1942), 14.