Reading Sonnets in Singapore

Home / Education / Teaching Highlights / Reading Sonnets in Singapore

By Rhema Hokama,
Assistant Professor in HASS


Sonnet 105 from Shakespeare’s 1609 Quarto edition. Students in this term’s new Lyric Poetry elective discussed how later poets respond to Shakespeare’s sonnet form.

This past term, as part of HASS’s new Lyric Poetry elective, 25 students gathered each week to read and discuss short poems spanning 500 years of modernity—from the Renaissance sonnet to the Twitter poem. This new elective provided students with an opportunity to explore the role that poetry has played in modern society and culture. To this end, we read practicing poets on the purposes of poetry—from the Renaissance poet Sir Philip Sidney to contemporary Singaporean poets such as Alvin Pang, Cyril Wong, and Joshua Ip.

Students studied how poets from a range of cultures and historical moments have used poetry to comment upon questions of perennial importance. Can poems help us think about what it means to create a well-run city? And how we can live a flourishing life? In weekly modules, students explored poetry on topics such as the roles of children and parents, an individual’s place within the family and the city, love, religion, politics, and technology. While the majority of these poems were written in English, we also read a several in translation from Chinese, Malay, Tamil, and other languages.

Student also explored the formal features of poetry in lessons on prosody, form, meter, rhyme, tone, and imagery. These features constitute what an SUTD engineering student might term the “architectural and design studies” of poetry. In these units, we studied the formal structures and techniques that enable poems to convey meaning—what the poet Marianne Moore calls “a place for the genuine.”

Poetry for engineers

The lyric poetry elective received positive feedback from students, who demonstrated great enthusiasm for the kinds of thinking and critical work that we did in class. My hope is that this class will continue to be popular in future teaching terms. According to my students, enrollment for this course filled a few minutes after the online enrollment system went live, and nearly 20 additional students emailed me asking whether they could join a waitlist for this course. I’m happy to see that there’s such tremendous enthusiasm for poetry studies from students at SUTD and in Singapore.

My own research area focuses on Renaissance British poetry, and poems from this time period featured frequently in my lessons and reading assignments. Initially, I feared that these older poems wouldn’t feel exciting or relevant to students in Singapore today, but I’m pleased to say that my students proved me wrong! My students were excited to tackle complicated and difficult poems, and their engineering and methods-based research skills provided them with a strong basis for approaching the formal aspects of the poetry. One of my students, a senior majoring in Information Systems Technology and Design (ISTD), told me that although he initially felt daunted by difficult poems—such as those by the Renaissance metaphysical writer John Donne—he eventually came to enjoy the challenge of working through the poems’ detailed conceits, which often yoke together strikingly different topics.

John Donne (1572-1631), an English poet and preacher, was one of the major metaphysical poets writing in Renaissance England.

The second set of poems that especially captivated students were poems written by contemporary Singaporean writers. My students were excited to see how their own literary tradition responds to—and sometimes questions—500 years of poetry conventions. For example, many of the students pointed out how the contemporary Singaporean poet Joshua Ip circumvents older sonnet models associated with Petrarch and Shakespeare in his book of poems Sonnets from the Singlish.

As per his collection’s title, Ip writes many of his sonnets in Singlish—the unofficial lingua franca of Singapore—with roots in Malay, Hokkien, Teochew, Cantonese, and Tamil. At first, my students were hesitant to volunteer to read Ip’s poems aloud to the class, in part due to Singlish’s long history of being stigmatized as a creole language associated with the less educated. But then one brave student, a junior ISTD major, volunteered to read Ip’s “overhead at al-azhar”—a sonnet that consists of a Singlish conversation overhead in a local eatery. It occurred to me that the ISTD student’s recitation of Ip’s poem might have been one of the few times that my students have head Singlish being spoken in their college classrooms. Although we read poems aloud every class this term, Ip’s poem alone received riotous applause from my students. In many ways, my students this term taught me as much as I taught them about poetry and its purposes.