The poet should
perform his poems - Lumbera
A critic, teacher,
playwright and poet. All these describe the 72-year old cultural giant,
Bienvenido Lumbera. But perhaps the most important description is that
Lumbera does not write from the ivory tower. His poems inspire the
downtrodden and extol the struggles of the ordinary, as he himself does
not hesitate to visit strike areas and exchange views with workers,
peasants and students. (* Para Kanino? - Filipino for "For Whom?")
BY RONALYN V. OLEA
Dr. Bienvenido Lumbera recites a poem
from Pakikiramay Jan. 18
Lumbera usually recites his poems during rallies and other political
gatherings. His Paanyaya kay Bush (Invitation to Bush), for
example, was read at an anti-U.S. war rally at the Plaza Miranda in Manila
in February 2003. The poem’s satirical tone held the audience captive.
More recently, Agunyas sa Hacienda Luisita (Funeral hymn in
Hacienda Luisita), which he performed during the night of tribute to the
slain workers, captured the agony and stirred the courage of all those who
have been left to continue the struggle.
The 1993 Ramon
Magsaysay Awardee for Journalism, Literature and Creative Communications
Art is a recognized nationalist artist. In its citation, the Ramon
Magsaysay Foundation “recognizes his [Lumbera’s] asserting the central
place of the vernacular tradition in framing a national identity for
searched for the “national identity of Philippine literature.” He found
it and with it also came the gradual transformation within himself.
Born in 1932 in Lipa,
Batangas, Lumbera grew up with his paternal grandmother. He was orphaned
at an early age.
After finishing high
school, he wanted to become a creative writer. But he took up journalism
instead as recommended by his English teacher. He said he intended to
study at the University of the
Philippines but his guardian wanted
him to enroll at a school in Manila. He finished his course at the
University of Santo Tomas.
shortly after college at a secondary school in his hometown. He enjoyed
teaching, he said, but feared he might stay too long. Thus, he decided to
take the position of a staff writer in a civilian employees’ newsletter in
a former U.S. naval base.
He described his
first experience with American arrogance. Their American boss inquired
into the problems in the newspaper, citing factual and grammatical errors.
Lumbera and a colleague would not concede. “He said he has never met such
insolent Filipinos,” Lumbera recalled.
He decided to teach
again, this time at a public high school in Manila, and took up education
units at the Far Eastern University.
scholarship came while he was writing for a Catholic publication. He took
up Comparative Literature at the University of
Back then, he said he
had no school of criticism. A colleague once told him his writing was
platonic, speaking only of eternal truth and permanence. “I was more
interested truly in absorbing as much the culture of the university and of
the American society,” he says. He spent time watching drama, films and
opera and listening to jazz.
During his second
year at the university, he recalled being invited to a poetry reading to
introduce Tagalog (Filipino) poetry. He did some research but found
limited materials. “I read Parnasong Tagalog (Inside Tagalog
poetry) by Alejandro Abadilla and concluded there was no such thing as
modern Tagalog poetry.”
From then on, he
decided to write Tagalog poems but had a dilemma. “Susulat nga ako,
wala naman akong readers” (I wrote but I had no readers.). He
explained Filipino scholars in the U.S. then were not that interested in
literature as most of them were into other fields.
Lumbera devoted his
masteral thesis on Federico Garcia Lorca, a Spanish poet. He was then
taking several subjects for a PhD. For his doctoral thesis, he proposed to
write about the English writers in India. He would have dealt on the
subject only that Rony Diaz, a Filipino friend asked, “Bakit hindi
tungkol sa Pilipinas?” (Why not about the Philippines).
Lumbera related, “Noon
ko lang namalayan na dapat kinokonekta ko ang mga pinag-aaralan ko sa mga
nagaganap sa Pilipinas at hindi lamang sarili ang pinagbibigyan.”
(It was then that I realized I should
connect what I was studying with what’s happening in the Philippines).
And so he wrote about
modern Tagalog poetry. “I felt I cannot come to any conclusion. I had to
study the history of literature in the Philippines.” The product is now a
classic study—Traditions and Influences in the Development of Tagalog
Poetry (1570 – 1898).
Lumbera said that
while defending his thesis, the panelists commented he had blamed
colonialism too much for the conditions in the Philippines. Looking back,
he said, “There was no intention.” He, however, gained an insight, “Oo
nga pala, kapag nagsulat ka tungkol sa Pilipinas, hindi mo maiwasang
talakayin ang bisa ng kolonyalismo sa kultura at mga institusyon nito.”
(Indeed, if you write about the Philippines, you cannot avoid touching on
the effects of colonialism on culture and its institutions.)
His becoming a
nationalist was not overnight. He recalled having told a staff member of
the Fulbright Office in Manila that if given the chance, he would not
choose to become a Filipino. He said, “I cringe whenever I retell this.”
Upon returning to the
Philippines, he taught at the College of the Holy Ghost (now College of
the Holy Spirit), an exclusive school for girls. He recalled having to
tame the naughty girls. “It was a nightmare. Pinaglalaruan ako ng mga
babae” (Girls were making fun of me). He said he gave failing grades
to some of his students because of poor performance but the nuns did not
approve. “Sabi nila, secretarial lang ang kurso ng mga iyan,
ibabagsak mo pa sa Rizal.” (They said, they are only taking a
secretarial course, you shouldn’t fail them in Rizal.)
Soon, he taught
English at the Ateneo de Manila University. Lumbera said he thought that
his role was to “make them [Ateneo students] fit into the bourgeois
society which they can easily do because they belong to the elite.”
He came back to the
U.S. to finish his PhD. The civil rights campaign of the Blacks was
surging then. A Black American, also a graduate student, asked him what
he thought about their campaign. He told him, “You have begun to gain your
demands, you just have to wait and eventually you would have them all.”
Lumbera related, “Binalikan niya ako, Kayong mga Pilipino, anong
mangyayari sa inyo kung naghintay na lamang kayong mapalaya mula sa
Espanya? Natigagal ako.” (He retorted, You Filipinos, what would have
happened had you simply waited for Spain to free you? I was dumbfounded.)
It was Lumbera’s first encounter with the concept “hindi mo hinihintay
ang karapatan o kalayaan, ipinaglalaban mo ito.” (You don’t wait for
your rights and freedom. You fight for them.)
In 1967, he returned
to the Philippines and taught again at the Ateneo. This time, he was
caught in the intensifying contradictions and decided to take the
Lumbera described the
situation then: “Students were no longer content with the way Jesuits were
educating them. Americans were running the university. Students were
tuned to doing well should they go abroad. Walang malinaw na papel ang
edukasyon sa lipunang Pilipino” (Education had no clear role in
Ateneo graduates, he said, could
feel the distance between them and the ordinary people. Language is an
important factor. “The more idealistic students initiated the
Filipinization movement on campus,” he recalls.
Outside of the Loyola
campus, the radical Kabataang Makabayan (KM or Patriotic Youth) held
demonstrations. Lumbera took the side of the students and became one of
the figures involved in the Filipinization movement.
By 1970, Lumbera said
radicals had surfaced in the Ateneo. “Nagsimula na ring magbago ang
Ateneo. (Ateneo finally started to change) Jesuits became repressive.
Activists were being eased out of the campus.”
Writing for the
This was also the
time he began to have contacts with the national democratic activists. He
joined study sessions at the University of the Philippines. “Iyong
estudyanteng umuugnay sa akin, inimbita ako sa Vinzons Hall. Naka-barong
tagalog ako, ang mga kapulong ko naka-tsinelas, kamiseta. Hindi ko alam
paano magbe-blend. Outsider ang aking labas.”(Students invited me at
Vinzons Hall. I would come wearing my barong tagalog and the others would
be in slippers and t-shirts. I didn’t know how to blend. I appeared like
Then came Panitikan para
sa Kaunlaran ng Sambayanan (PAKSA or Literature for the People’s
Development), an organization of progressive writers. He was elected its
chairperson in 1971. After martial law was declared, he went underground
and edited Ulos, the revolutionary literary publication. Smiling,
Lumbera said, “Ulos then had very crude illustrations.”
In those days, what
he called “panitikan ng pagsisiwalat at pagtutol” (literature that
exposes and opposes) emerged. “Malinaw sa mga manunulat ang kanilang
mga tungkulin” (It was clear to the writers what their tasks were).
Their writings, he said, were aimed at a specific target — the
Lumbera said that
because of Mao Zedong’s “Talks at the Yenan Forum,” the relationship of
art and politics become clear. Committed writers created works with
political content without sacrificing the aesthetics. Lumbera said his own
understanding of Mao Zedong has been gradual.
halimbawa, problema ko sa pagsulat ng tula, ano ang estilo, paksain,
teknik na gagamitin kahit pa politika ang
subject matter. Nilutas ang mga ito ng
katanungang ‘Para kanino?’”
(With me for example, the
style, topic, and techniques are always a problem when writing poetry,
whether or not the subject is political. But all these were resolved by
the question, ‘For Whom?’).
He said when that
question has been answered, the technique ceases to be a problem. But, he
quickly added, language is also very important. Lumbera believed this is
the most important legacy of PAKSA: to determine whom to write for.
Lumbera was arrested
by the military in January 1974. He was released in December of the same
year. Cynthia Nograles, his former student at the Ateneo graduate school,
wrote to Gen. Fidel Ramos for his release. Lumbera married Cynthia a few
months later. Asked about their love story, he said smiling, “Niligawan
niya ako” (She courted me).
In 1976, Lumbera
became a lecturer in UP’s Department of Filipino and Philippine
Literature. In 1977, he served as editor of Diliman Review upon the
request of then College of Arts
and Sciences Dean Francisco Nemenzo. The publication was openly against
the dictatorship but was left alone by Marcos’ authorities.
Around this time too,
Lumbera had taken on other creative projects. He began writing libretto
for musical shows. The Philippine Educational Theater Association (PETA)
requested him to create a musical based on Carlos Bulosan’s America Is
in the Heart.
Lumbera also helped in founding
cultural organizations such as the Philippine Comparative Literature
Association (1969); Pamana ng Panitikan ng Pilipinas (1970); Kalipunan
para sa mga Literatura ng Pilipinas (1975); Philippine Studies Association
of the Philippines (1984) and Manunuri ng Pelikulang Pilipino (1976). In
such ways, Lumbera contributed to the downfall of Marcos although he was
in Japan during the 1986 Edsa uprising, teaching at the Osaka University
of Foreign Studies.
On today’s artists
After Edsa revolt in
1986, Lumbera observed many creative writers have different orientations.
Having been invited to numerous writing workshops, Lumbera said of today’s
writers, “Maraming pinoproblema. Hindi gagap ang ideya na ‘pag may
audience, kailangang alamin ano ang kakayahang masapol ang mensaheng
ipinararating” (Writers today worry about a lot of things. They don’t
get the point that if you have an audience, you have to find out their
capacity to understand the message you want to send).
Asked about the
national democratic movement’s protest art, he said, “Mas creative na
ang skits… Gamit ng sayaw, maunlad na. Awit pa ang kailangang pahusayin.
Hindi binabalikan ang mga classic songs ng movement. Laging bago, usually
pangit ang creation…Kailangang matutunan ang akda ng nakaraan.” (The
skits are more creative... the use of dance is more developed. But the
songs have to be improved. The classic protest songs are not being
revived. Always new songs, usually not well-composed.... It is necessary
to learn the compositions of the past).
development, he said, are the works of workers and peasants. Lumbera said
there is a need to encourage the creation of more works from their ranks.
He, however, posed the problem of raising standards. What standards should
be used? The movement, he said, has yet to have a systematic framework for
The literary giant
left some words for today’s young writers. “Ang pagsusulat ay patuloy
na pagtuklas, paghahanap ano ang pinakaepektibong mga teknik. Kailangan ng
masusing pagsusuri sa audience.” (Writing is continuously discovering,
finding the most effective technique. There is need to carefully analyze
the audience). Lumbera said, “You perform your poems.”
A glimpse into
Lumbera’s life is also a glimpse into the rich history of Philippine
literature. Now Professor Emeritus at UP and a nominee for the National
Artist title, he remains today a political figure who performs his poems
for the people. Bulatlat
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