Poetic Pathologies, 3



 A. Solver Agcaoili



One of the ways by which we can begin to account the social responsibility of Ilokano poetics is to begin charting what I call an  ‘Ilokano literary history’ that does not follow the Renato Constantino trap of looking at the Philippine historical world using the lens of the outsider, with the landmarks of the way of looking at Philippine historical realities always those of the colonial/colonizer perspective.


Thus, if we go through a cursory reading of the textbooks idiotically multiplied to account the literary sensibilities of our people, we have these same age-old, impotent, and inutile because unproductive, even unimaginative historical frameworks: (a) pre-Spanish; (b) Spanish; (c) American; (d) Japanese; and (e) Contemporary. We look at the textbooks in high schools and colleges, and we have these immutable cornerstones to understanding what Philippine poetics is.


While the terms may not be exact, as we can quickly come up with a version of the interregnum between the (d) and the (e) by saying something like the continuum “Japanese-post WWII-Martial-EDSA One-EDSA Two” and its possible permutations in order to put a stress to the seemingly socially committed character of Philippine literature in general, this version does not respond to the need to look at Philippine experience from the outside, and using that outside view as the marker to account what could be presumed as the ‘national’ experience.


There are two problems here, which many anthologists and literary historians have failed to respond, including the national artist for literature Bien Lumbera in his idea of ‘Philippine national literature’, but which idea he would himself modify in the work, “Filipinos Writing”, with him as the general editor and with writers and scholars representing ‘literatures from the regions’ as area editors.


These problems always come up as our talking points in our continuing criticism of the concept of ‘national literature’: (a) the wrong historical framework for a truly just and fair literary history of the Philippines, and (b) the undue space given to Tagalog literature and the literature of the center of power and culture and commerce in the accounting of what constitutes ‘national literature’, with the other literatures simply marked off as ‘regional literatures’.


Those who studied under Lumbera, and this includes me, made it sure that we told him that we were not comfortable looking at Philippine literature by using the historical framework of Constantino.


We were—we are—continually on the lookout for a framework of Philippine literary history that acknowledges our ‘peoplehood’ and not simply as subjects of various colonizers and dictators and cheats and political opportunists, including all those who benefited from the two EDSA people power uprisings.


If we look at Ilokano literary history from this Constantino-Lumbera framework, we cannot truly account the best of our brains and the kind of investments we have to build up the Ilokano nation, which, to the mind of the congressman Carlos Padilla in his keynote address at the 3rd Nakem Conference, is not something that is real only in the imagination but is reality in actuality. For him, there is, in fact, an Ilokano nation and it is not imagined, and it does not simply exist in the imagination of the Ilokanos.


This idea of Ilokano nation—an idea that we hold onto with clarity at the Nakem Conferences since we started this movement in 2006—is what should serve as the starting point for an honest-to-goodness Ilokano literary history.


We can begin by asking when this self-consciousness of being a people—of being Ilokanos—began, starting from the history of the misconceptions of the Ilokanos and their language as “Samtoy”, a curious term, that, in a previous essay, I had downplayed as part of the myth of knowledge multiplied and popularized by the Spanish colonizers and their ever-willing ignorant acolytes, but which knowledge, until today, is being rattled off by those who still believes in the Ilokano as Samtoy, as in the case of the book of Visitacion dela Torre on the Ilokanos. Sadly, there are many Ilokano writers writing in Ilokano who ignorantly also uses this as a historical fact, without knowing the historical circumstances of that dubious term and name.


In the early 90s, Benjamin Pascual, one of the better Ilokano writers whose fame lies primarily on his brilliant ability to write in both Ilokano and English with equal fluency and mastery and his translation of the ‘Biag ni Lam-ang” into English, came up with a rather crude way of ‘historicizing’ the narrative tradition of the Ilokanos.


Pascual’s view of Ilokano literary history, at least in that respect, begins with the idea of the ‘a pail of tears’ and some such metaphors, and which historical framework Rey Duque, in one of his essays, would cite. Lacking in substance and critical importance, and lacking in the capacity to surprise and torment writers so that they could locate themselves or other writers in such a lame and bland view, the proposal would not survive the test of time and simply died.  


The “Kutibeng”, an anthology of Ilokano poetry by Marcelino Foronda could have provided us with some clues on how we could frame our literary history. But the book  follows, naively at best, a linear history that does not do justice to the notion of ‘Ilokano nation’, a foreign term perhaps, in the historical consciousness of that book.


The linear history of the “Kutibeng” traces our encounter with the colonizer in 1621, with the catechetical translation of the ‘Doctrina’ until we hit 1971, a year prior to Martial Law. The history spans 350 years, with lots of gaps and silences.


I submit we have a linear view of Ilokano poetry through this work.


But I submit as well that the literary history of the Ilokano nation that we are looking for is not in this work, not when we account, in poetic forms, the many struggles of the Ilokano people—and by extension, as it always has been in Northwestern Philippines history—the Amianan peoples.


The need to insist on a plausible framework for a literary history of the Ilokano people, and thus, the Ilokano nation, is borne of the need to understand our own share of what is good and bad, our share of the idiosyncratic and the brilliant, and our obligation to truth-telling.


This literary history of the Ilokanos will tell us some of the things we have always wanted to know, especially the younger writers who have only a second-hand knowledge of the conspiracies and complicities of Ilokano poetics—thus Ilokano writing and Ilokano literature—during Martial Law.


Someone has to answer this important question: What happened to Ilokano poetics when Ferdinand Marcos had all the power in his hands, including the power to administer the oath of office to the revered Ilokano writers who would eventually provide the contours and topography, not to mention the terrain of discourse, during the long and dark years of Martial Law?


Someone has to answer this question: What complicities are there in the giving of awards to people whose literary achievements are dubious? How do we ever justify the giving of an important award by a Committee of One, the award given by an important body of Ilokano writers?


Someone has to answer this question: What accommodations were given during the Marcos dictatorship? Who were involved? What were the repercussions of these accommodations insofar as Ilokano writing and reading are concerned?


Someone has to answer this question: Who determines that only one and one group of writers has prior claim to legitimacy as ‘a writers association’ and all other writers groups do not have the right to exist? Who gives the franchise to such claims?


Someone has to answer this question: How solidly grounded Ilokano poetics is in terms of its social commitment to the fundamental causes of the Ilokano nation, and thus, of the Philippine nation? What kind of a critical contribution Ilokano poetics has given in the pursuit of an aesthetic discourse that brings to light the already confused and confusing world of the Ilokanos, in the Ilocano homeland and in the diaspora?


Someone has to answer this question: In the attempt of Ilokano poetics to serve the community of Ilokanos, what corrupt and corrupting practices had there been that stood in they way of giving that service? Are these corrupt and corrupting practices still prevailing, however tacit these are?


These questions strike at the core of the historical realities of the Ilokano nation, and they point to the literary works that will guide us in understanding the aesthetics responses of the Ilokanos to these social and historical challenges.


Certainly, what Ilokano poetics needs right now are literary historians that can afford to open the door to an enlightened Ilokano conversation, minus the mulct and the muck that we see and read in message boards and internet sites, especially by those whose only virtue is to be coward by hiding behind anonymous names and yet calling out the names of their enemies for the cyberspace public to scorn and stone.


Certainly, Ilokano poetics—and thus, Ilokano writing and Ilokano literature—is not about writers being a ‘stars’ or playing a ‘starring’ roles on the pages of a popular Ilokano magazine.


Ilokano poetics is about social commitment to truth telling, to telling a liberatory vision for a people, to sharing that vision with others.




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