Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Notes on Philippine Poetry

Poetry is one of the oldest literary forms. In fact it predates literacy. In the Philippines, poetic forms have long existed even before the arrival of the Spaniards.

Philippine Folk Literature

Philippine folk literature refers to the traditional oral literature of the Filipino people. Thus, the scope of the field covers the ancient folk literature of the Philippines' various ethnic groups, as well as various pieces of folklore that have evolved since the Philippines became a single ethno-political unit.

Categories of Philippine folk literature

  • Folk narratives can either be in prose - the alamat (myth), the legend, and the kuwentong bayan (folktale) - or in verse, as in the case of the folk epic.
  • Folk speech includes the bugtong (riddle) and the salawikain (proverbs).
  • Folk songs can be sub-classified into those that tell a story (folk ballads), which are rare in Philippine folk literature, and those that do not, which form the bulk of the Philippines' rich heritage of folk songs.

Many of these literary forms were poetic. Hence, they contain idiosyncratic forms and conventions (rhyme, rhythm, and rhetorical figures) to suggest differential interpretation to words or to evoke emotive responses. 

The most important and prevalent of these pre-colonial poetic forms are the riddles, proverbs, folk songs, and the folk epic.


The most common of these folk speeches is the riddle, which is tigmo in Cebuano, bugtong in Tagalog, pakatakon in Ilongo, and patototdon in Bicol. These riddles used the talinghaga or metaphor to reveal subtle resemblances between two unlike objects and a person's power of observation and wit.


Another popular form of pre-colonial literature that is poetic in form is the proverb—basahanon (Bukidnon), and daraida and daragilon (Panay). Its extended form, the tanaga, a mono-rhyming, heptasyllabic quatrain, expresses insights and lessons on life.

Types of Philippine Proverbs

  1. Proverbs expressing a general attitude toward life and the laws that govern life
  2. Ethical proverbs recommending certain virtues and condemning certain vices
  3. Proverbs expressing a certain system of values
  4. Proverbs expressing general truths
  5. Humorous proverbs
  6. Miscellaneous proverbs
Folk Songs

Folk songs express the hopes and aspirations, the lifestyle, and the traditions of courtship of a tribe. The following are different types of folk songs:

  1. Children's songs
  2. Lullabies
  3. Work songs
  4. Love songs
  5. Drinking Songs
  6. Songs extolling the deeds of the dead
Folk Epic

The epic is considered as the most important form of pre-colonial literature among the pre-colonial inhabitants of the Philippines. They are sung or chanted accompanied with indigenous musical instruments and dancing during important tribal events. The epic chanters are considered treasures and are repositories of wisdom in their communities.

Poetry during the Spanish Colonial Period

The Spanish colonizers wanted to undermine the native oral tradition by substituting for it the story of the Passion of Christ. However, the native tradition survived and even flourished in areas inaccessible to the Spaniards. Also, the Spaniards were late in instituting a public educational system, which contributed to the survival of the existing folk literature.

The task of translating religious instructional materials forced the Spanish missionaries to employ natives as translators. Eventually, these natives learned to read and write both in Spanish and in their native tongue. These bilingual natives were called the Ladinos. They published their works, mainly devotional poetry, in the first decade of the 17th century. The most gifted among the Ladinos was Gaspar Aquino de Belen who wrote Mahal na Pasion ni Jesu Christo, a Tagalog poem based on Christ's passion, was published in 1704.

Until the 19th century, the printing presses were owned and managed by the religious orders. Thus, religious themes dominated the literature of the time.

In the 18th century, secular literature from Spain in the form of medieval ballads inspired the native poetic-drama form called the komedya, later to be called moro-moro because these often dealt with the theme of Christians triumphing over Moslems.

Awit and Korido were other popular secular poetry during the Spanish colonial period.  They are metrical romances in Tagalog. The awit is set in dodecasyllabic quatrains while the Korido is in octosyllabic quatrains.

Fransisco Baltazar (1788-1862), popularly called Balagtas, is the acknowledged master of traditional Tagalog poetry. His narrative poem, "Florante at Laura," (an awit) written in sublime Tagalog, is about tyranny in Albanya, but it is also perceived to be about the tyranny in his Filipino homeland.

The late 19th century ushered the beginning of the Philippine revolution. Many writers in this period turned to poetry to express their love of country and their desire for freedom. Notable poets of the Philippine Revolutionary Period were Jose Rizal, Andres Bonifacio, Gregoria de Jesus, wife of Andres Bonifacio, and Leona Florentino, the foremost Ilocano writer of her time.

Poetry during the American Period

The start of the American period made Philippine poetry in English possible. In 1900 English became the official medium of instruction in Philippine schools. The period 1910 to 1935 is generally called the period of apprenticeship.

The Filipino writers of this time were imitating American and English writers. One major reason for this is that these writers were college students and young graduates whose literary education had been largely confined to American and English authors. Thus, the University of the Philippines, which was founded in 1908, became the center of the literary effort.

The years 1935 to 1945 was a time of self-discovery and rapid growth; hence, some writers have called the period of emergence. This period saw an extraordinary literary creativity blossomed all over the country.

In poetry, poets studied in the universities still provided inspiration and the Romanticists and Victorians offered patterns that Filipino poets followed. The sonnet enables them to create love lyrics that captured subtle nuances and moods through a more skilled manipulation of the language and imagery.

The revolt against traditional values was felt in poetry with Jose Garcia Villa’s poetry. His poetry echoed Walt Whitman’s free verse, egoism, oratorical tones, mysticism, and intimacy of religious and sexual impulses.

The Contemporary Period

On July 4, 1946, the US declared the Philippines a new nation. With this, most writers felt a new sense of responsibility. They became more receptive of what was going on in the country and the world at large.

Filipino poets in the period after the Second World War has displayed considerable self-consciousness which has led them toward artistic originality and a growing sense of creative sensibility. In general, contemporary poetry is to some extent a reaction against romanticism; it lays special emphasis on symbols, images, and “fractured” structures.

Although poetry in the vernacular languages had always existed alongside poetry in English, it was unfortunately swept aside as a mere subcategory of Philippine literature. Nonetheless, the post-martial law years saw the conscious effort of bringing Philippine literature in various languages to the forefront.

With the recent requirement by the Commission on Higher Education on the teaching of Philippine literature in all tertiary schools in the country emphasizing the teaching of the vernacular literature or literatures of the regions assures that writers, especially poets who use vernacular language, have an audience.

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