Reading Poetry

From "Sa Lalong Madaling Panahon," a poem by Gelacio Guillermo.
From “Sa Lalong Madaling Panahon,” a poem by Gelacio Guillermo.

In recent years much of my explorations in literature has been confined primarily to prose. Novels, short stories, essays, polemics, philosophy, literary criticism, political economy, etc. I have come to neglect poetry.

This was not always the case.

I used to be enamored by poems. I remember leafing through Pablo Neruda (Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair) and an anthology from the Martial Law era (Kamao: Panitikan ng Protesta).

I even wrote not a few myself. But on hindsight, most of the poems I penned are mostly hackneyed outlets of puerile sentimentalism bereft of literary quality.

A crucial distinction marking poetry from other literary forms is its direct physicality in that it is not only meant to be read in silence but also said aloud. So we pay attention not only to the images and stories the words show and tell but also the actual sound the verses make.

In the past, my engagement with poetry merely revolved around the superficial stringing of words without any consideration of this crucial factor. Reading some of my old poems gives me a feeling of shame. Poetry, after all, while written stems directly from the oral tradition.

Yet these  literary experiments were, nevertheless, expressive of my temperament at the time of their writing. I console myself with the thought that even the young Karl Marx had his own fair share of early poems that he would later on become very critical of (A bad comparison, of course, as I am no Marx).

Now I have a renewed interest in poetry after reading some poems by Roque Dalton (“Like You”), Nazim Hikmet (“I Love You”), and Mao Zedong (“Reply to Comrade Guo Moruo”).

The featuring of radical poets in recent films that I recently saw (Avtar Singh Pash in Sanjay Kak’s Red Ant Dream) or is planning to watch (Sison in the Dalena sisters’ The Guerrilla is a Poet and Eman Lacaba in Tikoy Aguiluz’s Eman) also played a role in this fascination with the verse.

In lieu of this rediscovery, I decided to overhaul my old reading plan and dedicate the last quarter of the year to reading poetry in the main. The following are some of the collections of poems that are with me and which will naturally be my starting point this October:

  • Joi Barrios’ Ang Pagiging Babae ay Pamumuhay sa Panahon ng Digma,
  • STR: Mga Tula ng Digmang Bayan sa Pilipinas (Poetry of People’s War in the Philippines),
  • Neruda’s The Heights of Macchu Picchu (in English translation),
  • Jose Ma. Sison’s Prison and Beyond: Selected Poems 1958-1983.

I will also read the poems by Chairman Mao, Axel Pinpin, Gelacio Guillermo, Amado Hernandez, Nazim Hikmet, Ho Chi Minh, Cesar Vallejo, and Mayamor, the Panay-based revolutionary artist, that I have with me.

The poems that I have been able to get my hands on for reading are mostly from the protest and revolutionary literary traditions, poems that seek to represent the plight of the working class and oppressed people as well as their aspirations and struggles to build a world without exploitation and oppression.

I have yet to secure the definitive poems of Roque Dalton in English translation and Jose Corazon De Jesus’ social realist poetry. Can anyone email copies or point me to where these can be found? Bertolt Brecht and Avtar Singh Pash’s poems are also of interest to me. Other recommendations are appreciated.

Of course, the books I’ve began reading already (Anna Karenina, Love and Capital, Philippine Cultural Disasters, From Marx to Mao Tse Tung) I will still continue to read. Also, next time I’ll try reading plays too (an even more neglected area in my literary explorations).



  1. Roque Dalton has two English editions, both by Curbstone. Clandestine Poems and Small Hours of the Night. Small Hours is the most generous selection and probably the most available. I know that I can get it cheap here in Japan. If there is no other way, maybe I can mail you a copy. Brecht’s collected poems 1913-1956 is out of print, and sometimes goes for inflated prices–80 to 200 dollars. But for some reason the 1981 UK paperback edition can be had for around 20 to 30 dollars. This book should not be out of print.

    I would suggest Ernesto Cardenal, the Nicaraquan poet-priest who is a Christian and a Marxist. A good place to start is ZERO HOUR — a New Directions selection. Then there is his magnum opus—THE COSMIC CANTICLE. It’s all about the evolution of the universe and the revolution on the Earth. I could think of more– Leonel Rugama, Otto Rene Castillo, Varavara Rao– but I will stop here. I enjoy your blog. We read many of the same books.

    1. Hi, thank you very much for the tips and recommendations. Poetry in general, and socially-oriented poetry in particular are all new to me.

      I remember reading a translation of Otto Castillo’s condemnation of apolitical intellectuals in Filipino years back but forgot about him altogether later on!

      If I request for you to help me with the Dalton collection how can I arrange to compensate you? Once again, much thanks for this helpful comment.

      1. Not really necessary, but if you happen to see a copy of the fifth edition of Philippine Society and Revolution by Amado Guerrero somewhere–you could send it to me! But seriously, no compensation is necessary. It’s only about 1000 yen, not much at all. I have a fairly good job at the moment. I could have it shipped to you direct. Amazon Japan’s dealer in this case is The Book Depository in the UK. But I will need some shipping address. And I would have to enter it in the Amazon electronic order thingy. Or I could just send it to you by post. Either way I will need a shipping address. The application here asks for my email, so maybe you have access to my address. Go ahead and send me a message with the info. And if you don’t have access–we will figure something out.

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