WORLD POETRY DAY: TOP 10 FILIPINO POETS WHO ARE GLOBAL IN THEIR OWN ACCORD
In celebration of World Poetry Day, we take a look at the realms of poetry not solely based on the stature of world poets from the west like Whitman, Rimbaud, Dante and Shakespeare or the great poets of the Romantic period like Coleridge or Keats; the female fatale of the verse: Dickinson and Szymborska—but instead, citing primarily Filipino poets who were phenomenal across borders.
- Eileen Tabios – One of the leading female poets of the Filipino-American literary canon who made waves with her experimental dash of the stanzas and tercets. Tabios migrated to the US and fully submerged herself with the English language. Her poetry reflects themes of longing, migration, gender and art. She is known for re-inventing the Japanese signature poetry: haiku and tanka, which resulted to a comic Filipino re-invention named as hay(na)ku. It is a six-word tercet with the first line being one word, the second line being two words, and the third line being three words. An example:
I am breathing
From Eileen Tabios’ official website: https://eileenrtabios.com/
Hay(na)ku since then made waves, influencing poets here in the Philippines, America and recently, an all Finnish hay(na)ku anthology has been published. Furthermore, the bourgeois editor of Philippine Panorama, A.A. Patawaran, published a collection of poems entitled HAY[NA]KU and other poems.
- Gémino Abad – One of the most musically versed-writers of Philippine literature, Gemino Abad is a breathing symbol of literature and education. He received many fellowships here and abroad, and even once became the director of the revered University of Philippines (UP) Institute of Creative Writing.
His works vary in form and structure—at times authoritative, at times witty, and at times, strike ala-Villa—taking excerpts from prominent authors, and re-working it to his poems. Abad’s most notable contribution for the Philippine literary landscape, however are his anthologies. As a prolific anthologist, Abad collected the best poems, short stories and creative non-fiction Filipino writers has produced, and categorized it per year and per theme.
Abad is now a professor emeritus of UP Diliman campus. In 2009, he became the first Filipino to receive the Premio Feronia award in Rome, Italy, under the foreign author category. His works have also been translated into Italian and Spanish.
- Rolando Tinio – He is one of the rare National Artist that has been conferred for two divisions in art: literature and theater. Known as a theatrical maestro, Tinio has published many collections of poems aside from stage dramas.
He published four seminal books of poems between 1972 and 1993, in which, along with his longtime friend, Bienvenido Lumbera, helped modernize the traditional, or technically, the Romantic Filipino style.
Tinio is highly acknowledged for his Filipino translations of the works of Ibsen, Sophocles, among others. His bravest feat was to translate majority of the works of William Shakespeare.
- Lamberto E. Antonio – Perhaps not as famous among other Filipino poets in this list, Lamberto E. Antonio is still a significant icon in Philippine literature as a poet, critic and translator. He won the Palanca 10 times—and his poetry collections, release per release, were critically-acclaimed. He has won prominent literary awards across the country.
A modernist, Antonio’s poems usually carry messages sympathetic to the poor and oppressed peasants he knew in his youth. Swept by the tide of radicalism in the 1970’s, he has consistently tackled societal issues in his works. His poems are collected in Dalawampung Tula, 1971; Hagkis ng Talahib, 1980 and Pagsalubong sa Habagat, 1986. His poems have also been anthologized in books like Manlilikha, Talaang Ginto sa tula, Parnasong Tagalog and New Poems in Pilipino. His essays and short stories are compiled in Rebanse, 1991.
What makes Antonio different is that he wrote the script of the first Filipino film shown in Cannes Film Festival back in 1978.
If that is not enough, well, take note that he recently released a Filipino translation of War and Peace—the novel of more than 1000 pages by the Russian literary titan, Leo Tolstoy. Antonio’s translation holds the record of the longest foreign novel yet translated in Filipino language.
- Eman Lacaba/Pete Lacaba – They might be radicals, but nothing can be global than doing the part to go against tyranny.
The brothers were both activists and poets. Eman firstly, or Emmanuel Lacaba as his full name, was considered as the ‘mandirigmang makata,’ or the ‘poet warrior’ of the Philippines. He was known to be the epitome of ‘art for the people’—or as the momentous underground adage cites: “Ang sining ko ay protesta; ang protesta ko ay sining,” (My art is a protest; my protest is an art). This movement was intensified during the Marcos regime, the Philippines placed under Martial Law which resulted to deprivation of human rights and basic availability to democracy such as the control of media outlets and campus journalism-activism.
Due to his blazing radicalism in verse and in real life, Eman is considered as Southeast Asia’s Arthur Rimbaud—the latter as the enfant terrible of French literature, known for his demonic imagery, angst and among other existential themes.
Eman was a professor at UP who taught Jose Rizal’s Life and Works. From being a simple teacher, he ventured into other fields. He became a production hand and even a stage actor with his most famous work for film, the lyrics for the theme song of the award-winning movie in 1974 “Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang”.
Eman died young, after his inclusion with the New People’s Army. Their base was raided by vigilantes laid out by the cronies of President Ferdinand E. Marcos. But before his death, the unrivaled Nick Joaquin prior to receiving the Order of the National Artist given by the state as the highest award to a Filipino artist, had defied the recognition unless Eman be freed (The poet was held captive by the Marcos’ administration). Back then, Juan Enrile Ponce who was the Defense Minister heard the request and told Joaquin’s stand to Marcos. The president did oblige, however, the poet was never spared. This historical story in Philippine literature elevates Philippine literature itself—as poets are known to go against institutions. Eman proved it. In Spain, Federico Garcia Lorca, the popular poet and musician was also gunned down in the time of dictatorship amid his nation’s civil war.
Jose F. Lacaba, or Pete Lacaba however, continued the legacy of his brother. Known for his poetry and journalistic writings, this Lacaba achieved an immortal seat in literature when he wrote both the famous and infamous poem, “Prometheus Unbound”—which liberated people to take a part against Marcos:
I shall never exchange my fetters for slavish servility. ’Tis better to be chained to the rock than be bound to the service of Zeus. –Aeschylus, Prometheus Bound
Mars shall glow tonight,
Artemis is out of sight.
Rust in the twilight sky
Colors a bloodshot eye,
Or shall I say that dust
Sunders the sleep of the just?
Hold fast to the gift of fire!
I am rage! I am wrath! I am ire!
The vulture sits on my rock,
Licks at the chains that mock
Reeks of death, death, death.
Death shall not unclench me.
I am earth, wind, and sea!
Kisses bestow on the brave
That defy the damp of the grave
And strike the chill hand of
Death with the flaming sword of love.
Orion stirs. The vulture
Retreats from the hard, pure
Thrust of the spark that burns,
Unbounds, departs, returns
To pluck out of death’s fist
A god who dared to resist.
Not seeing its poetic prowess? Learn to find its impeccable alliteration then shout.
Lacaba worked with well-known directors like Lino Brocka and Mike de Leon in producing films that exposed ordinary people’s lives that experienced poverty and injustice. He continued writing poems, and in 1999, was decorated as one of 100 “Bayani ng Sining”.
He currently seats as the executive editor of Summit Media’s YES! magazine, the sister publication of PEP.
His screenplay credits meanwhile, include Jaguar (co-written with Ricky Lee), which competed at the Cannes International Film Festival in 1980, while Bayan Ko: Kapit sa Patalim competed in 1984.
In honor of Lacaba for being the 2008 Lifetime Achievement Awardee, the classic film Bayan Ko was screened as the closing film of Dekada Cinemanila. According to Anima Aguiluz, the daughter of Direk Tikoy and festival programmer of Cinemanila, Bayan Ko could be found in Toronto, Canada.
- Virgilio S. Almario – Considered as the leading authority in Philippine languages and literature, Almario didn’t once cease to write poetry or write about poetry—or literature as a whole.
He published his first collection of poetry in 1967, Makinasyon at Ilang Tula, which was followed by more collections including Peregrinasyon at Iba Pang Tula (1970), Doktrinang Anakpawis (1979), Palipad-Hangin (1985), Katon Para sa Limang Pandama (1987), Muli, Sa Kandungan ng Lupa (1994), Sentimental (2004), Estremelenggoles (2004), Memo Mulang Gimokudan (2005), Sonetos Postumos (2006), andBuwan, Buwang, Bulawan (2009). Most of his poems were collected into the two-volume Una Kong Milenyum in 1998.
Almario is also a scholar and critic, redefining how the Filipino poetry is viewed and paving the way for its discussion. He has published numerous books of criticism, literary history and anthologies, among them are Taludtod at Talinghaga (1965; 1991), Balagtasismo Versus Modernismo (1984), Kung Sino ang Kumatha Kina Bagongbanta, Ossorio, Herrera, atbp. (1992), Panitikan ng Rebolusyon(g 1896) (1993), Pag-unawa sa Ating Pagtula (2006), Walong Dekada ng Makabagong Tulang Pilipino (1981), and Mahigit Sansiglo ng Makabagong Tula sa Filipinas (2006).
His intense interest in the Filipino language resulted in the books Filipino ng mga Filipino (1993; 2009), Tradisyon at Wikang Filipino (1998), Patnubay sa Masinop na Pagsulat (1981), and UP Diksiyonaryong Filipino (2001; 2010), which is considered as the most comprehensive monolingual dictionary on Filipino.
Almario is a leading academician, guiding innumerable students. In 2003, he was appointed Dean of the College of Arts and Letters of the University of the Philippines. He also became the director of the UP Institute of Creative Writing.
He has also long been involved with children’s literature through the “Aklat Adarna” series.
Also as an acclaimed translator, the poet also made Filipino language editions of the works of the Greek poets and philosophers, Aristotle and Socrates. One of his most significant translations also is the poems of the Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore.
As a public leader, Almario heads the Komisyon ng Wikang Filipino and the National Commission for Culture and the Arts. With these two institutions under his responsibility, he had lectured across the country and abroad, pursuing the public knowledge of Filipino literature and culture.
For his many achievements, Almario is recipient of numerous awards including several Palanca awards, the Southeast Asia Write Award of Bangkok (1989), among others before being conferred with the Order of the National Artist in 2003.
This year, the “Heneral ng Wikang Filipino” won the ‘IV Premio Jose Rizal de las Letras Filipinas’ by the Instituto Juan Andrés and Grupo de Investigación Humanismo-Europa of Spain for his poetry collection, Oras ng Tindera’t Kriminal, or En tiempos de la vendora y del criminal in Spanish—as translated by Salvador Malig Jr.
His poems are all written in Filipino.
- Bienvenido Lumbrera – Reaching this part of the list, it is now known that most Filipino poets are part of the academic circle. And yes, another National Artist leads, for the first and only reason that they are conferred because of their art. He is also a recipient of the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Journalism, Literature and Creative Communication Arts, among other recognitions.
Lumbrera, having finished his master and doctorate degrees in Indiana University—outside the Philippines, proved that a Filipino is not only to learn new from the western literary canon—a Filipino has the chance also to bring local literature to a foreign and wider audience. This was his bold move when he was still a post graduate student abroad, deciding what would be his dissertation. He settled on a Filipino topic which since then, cemented him to the annals of Philippine literature and education.
His most cited book, Tagalog Poetry, 1570-1898: Tradition and Influences in its Development, traced the early origins of our poetry—from works written in Tagalog until colonialism breezed the form and structure, and the very content of our traditional poems. Lumbrera was acknowledged by Almario, citing the former’s book in his postmodern criticism about Filipino poetry, Balagtasismo Versus Modernisismo.
Lumbrera’s poetry collection ranges from Likhang Dila, Likhang Diwa (1993), and Balaybay: Mga Tulang Lunot at Manibalang, a collection of new poems in Filipino and to those from Likhang Dila. He has several critical works, including Abot-Tanaw: Sulyap at Suri sa Nagbabagong Kultura at Lipunan (1987) and Writing the Nation/Pag-akda ng Bansa (2000). He has also done several librettos, among them Tales of the Manuvu (1977) and Rama Hari (1980). Sa Sariling Bayan: Apat na Dulang May Musika (DLSU, 2003) collects the four historical musicals Nasa Puso ang Amerika, Bayani, Noli Me Tangere: The Musical, and Hibik at Himagsik Nina Victoria Laktaw.
- José Garcia Villa – The one and only Filipino New Yorker poet who can be both deserving and divisive because of his bourgeois pursuit to modernize Philippine poetry.
Banned in UP, to the extent being fined by the trial court as young as 17 years old because of his erotic poems, Villa took refuge abroad. He studied law and medicine, until to the point of realization he was born to write. The son of Col. Simeon Garcia Villa, a physician that was part of Emilio Aguinaldo’s cabinet, Villa preferred New York than Manila. This had been a lifelong conflict between the father and the son.
Villa himself, could never deny the impact of English poets in his life that turned him as a modernist and surrealist poet. If one has a critical eye on his poems, the influence by Whitman, e.e. cummings, Emily Dickinson and metaphysical poets were obviously present. This led him to be experimental which had produced awe-struck styles that made him irrevocable in learning Filipino-American literature. The comma poems and reverse consonance were the highlights of his poetic legacy, but as always—never forget his work called The Emperor’s New Sonnet.
As he stayed in Greenwich Village, New York, and had joined the Anglo-Saxon writers-movement, Villa’s obsession with cummings grew. Until the two met, and the latter ignoring Villa, then talked and supported nonetheless in this fancy friendship.
Cummings in his later life, wrote and dedicated a poem to Villa. The poem was titled the same with Villa’s pseudonym: “Doveglion”.
The Filipino modernist was so prominent in his own accord, that he won writing fellowships and had his works be published and anthologized in literary folios and magazines of London Times Literary Supplement, Yale, The Verse; and Villa himself even founded a his own in University of New Mexico entitled Clay.
The colonel’s sons had been awarded by American Academy of Arts and Letters and the Shelley Memorial Award.
Villa would then be the first ever writer who was conferred for the Order of the National Artist of the Philippines.
In 2008, after numerous anthologies of his works in the Philippines and the US, Villa’s collected poems were published by Penguin Classics—the prestigious publisher of revered western classical literary works of Dickens, Dostoevsky, Austen, and others.
His poems, under this edition, is the first Filipino poetry collection published by Penguin Classics. He was the second Filipino writer after Jose Rizal, of course.
- José Rizal – Novelist, hero—poet. Before being the champion who ignited Filipino revolution against western colonialism, dear Pepe was more than an illustrado. He could both deliver written and oral literature like we were told back in history class. That was true.
Our National Hero had written 38 poems and three plays excluding his two fierce novels and his prophetic Spanish verse, Mi Ultimo Adios before his death.
According to Dr. Florangel Rosario Braid, in The Complete Poems and Plays of Rizal, National Artist and foremost writer Nick Joaquin, who had translated Rizal’s works from Spanish to English, the National Artist noted that Rizal started writing poetry at an early age.
Rizal began writing at a young age. It is presumed that he wrote his first poem which was in Tagalog and about Tagalog before he turned 12.
In this poem dedicated to his childhood friends, he described Tagalog as “the speech of an angel,” and said, “He who does not love his own tongue is far worse than a brute or stinking fish.”
Besides his advocacy for the national language, Rizal had this firm belief that it is “through education that the nation is glorified.” In the last stanzas of the poem, he conveys his ideas on how education can contribute to nation-building:
Where education rears
Exuberant youth robust
To crush down error
with a firm foot
And be enlarged
with great ideas.
Education the neck
of vice shall break;
Black crime shall pale
and fade before her:
she shall subdue,
And as the river that nourishes the crops and shrubbery
of the lowlands
Bestows its placid wealth
To irrigate with constant zeal
The banks through
which it undulates,
So he who gains wise education
Shall hoist himself
to the heights of honor.
Braid further added that, Rizal was most productive as a poet from the age of 13 to 19 when he wrote two sonnets, A Filipinas and A la Virgen Maria, and two of his plays. Melancholy haunts his poems on home and family. In most of his poems and plays, such as Junta al Pasig, his verses usually begin with “freshness and suddenly darken with foreboding.” Note this stanza from Junta al Pasig:
Ah, in the future shall come the evils I keep for your race
that acclaims an impure cult: dismal calamities, plagues,
wars, and cruel invasions
at the hands of various nations
In the not too distant future!
She expounded the National Artist’s review on our National Hero: “In Ultimo Adios, Joaquin notes that Rizal’s use of the hexameter (a line of verse consisting of six metrical feet) or the so-called “heroic line” for the first time. In the earlier poems, he used ballads, but in this final poem, he speaks in heroic lines. It is stronger in the opening stanzas and grows fainter as the poem ends. The mighty music is echoed in the line “Perla del mar de oriente, nuestro perdido Eden!” and “Y cuando en noche oscura se envuelva el cementerio.” The test of a good translation of the Adios, Joaquin notes, is how closely it approximates, the music of the hexameter without using the hexameter.”
However abrupt his literary canon is, Rizal’s works is a testament not only to creative writing but also of history. Because his poems have the fierce power which called for a national stand against colonialism that didn’t only resonate in the Philippines, but also in the whole of Asia.
- Francisco Balagtas – It was a tough choice between Rizal and Francisco Baltazar—or Balagtas as he was fondly called. But Rizal mostly expressed his way through the Spanish language—the complete anti-thesis of Balagtas who was brave enough to use Tagalog in the time of Spanish rule.
It could be one of the strictest reading requirement in school, Balagtas’ magnum opus, Florante At Laura; or his komedya (stage drama-comedies); but what makes Balagtas a global contender representing the Philippines in poetry is that he pursued the love of Tagalog language—which had been cultivated in the next centuries and had been the unifying basis of Filipino as the national language, then as part of the national identity.
Many would dismiss Balagtas as some ancient poet with antiquated verses, but if one would review the world poets, they were democratic in designing not only their verses but also the imagination and the love of country among their people. And Balagtas surely did it right here in the Philippines.
Balagtas influenced many Filipinos that would become great in their poetic path. Rizal’s novels also were frontlined by the bard of Tondo, Manila’s lines: an admittance in the part of the highly educated Rizal to the genius of Balagtas.
Such unique way of expressing back then ignited the majority of the provinces, especially the ka-Tagalogan areas to express their own, too.
Even now, and each day we speak, reminiscence of Balagtas’s poetry is present.
And remember, no matter how modernized poetry has been, without the first ones, like Balagtas nor Dante, Shakespeare, or others—there would be nothing. Because in the beginning, the likes of neither Whitman and Rimbaud was never once a voice of the world. They began observing their countries, much like Balagtas, until they produced poetic masterpieces. And time made the masterpieces became not only a part of their countries but of the world.
We owe it a lot to them, and us Filipinos, we owe it to these poets for our country—for our world.