27 July, 2020
Professor Edwin Thumboo - Poetry shortlist, Singapore Literature Prize 2020

Photo: Ong Wee Jin, Ethos Books

Not many professors would manage to have their work studied in schools – locally and overseas – and featured in Singapore’s public places. The work of NUS English Language and Literature Emeritus Professor Edwin Thumboo – one of Singapore’s foremost pioneer poets – continues to gain appreciation, recognition, and relevance. After his 85th birthday in 2018, Prof Thumboo mentioned that he experienced a loss of energy, and discovered that he was at 80 percent capacity. Nonetheless, his latest poetry collection, A Gathering of Themes (Ethos Books, 2019), was released – in part due to his health concerns. It features 109 poems covering topics that include love, religion, history, and nationhood, and it has been shortlisted for the 2020 Singapore Literature Prize.

Why are Prof Thumboo’s works greatly appreciated? Ethos Books publisher Fong Hoe Fang stated that working with Prof Thumboo was a delightful journey into Singapore’s past. He mentioned that Prof Thumboo would normally point to connections on how his poems were informed by the social contexts and environments at the time of writing. Through those connections, Mr Fong would gain a good sense of Prof Thumboo and his thought processes, enabling him to refine his own thinking. These connections also allow a reader to appreciate the ethos of a time before they were born.

In A Gathering of Themes, Prof Thumboo believes that he has covered the greatest range of topics in a collection to date. The book gathers 109 poems from sweeping works on history and nationhood, to reflections on religion and love poems about his wife, with whom he has two children and seven grandchildren. He remarks that there were poems he thought about – conceived in his 60s – but could not do anything about, until many years passed and he least expected to. Prof Thumboo notes that he writes like an oil painter paints, as an oil painter can wait for months to make a stroke, put it aside, and come back to it later.

Last year, NUS announced the inaugural Edwin Thumboo Prize, which recognizes outstanding literary works written by pre-university students in English Literature. Prof Thumboo has a long list of accolades, which include the first Cultural Medallion for literature and the Meritorious Service Medal. He does not intend for A Gathering of Themes to be his last book.

To catch the virtual awards ceremony, watch it on Facebook on 27 August 2020, 8pm. To get A Gathering Of Themes (2019) and experience some of his evergreen work, click here. Read the full article about the collection here.