25 June 2009


Let me give an example of how multilingual literary criticism can illuminate aspects of a second-language poem. Here is a stanza from a canonical Philippine poem in English, "Gabu" by Carlos A. Angeles:

The waste of centuries is grey and dead

And neutral where the sea has beached its brine,

Where the split salt of its heart lies spread

Among the dark habiliments of Time.

Notice the meter. Except for the third line, it is strictly iambic pentameter. Why is the third line not in iambic pentameter?

In the formalist way of looking at poems, we would say one of two things. First, the poet was incompetent. Second, the poet wanted to emphasize the third line and therefore deliberately did not make it follow the metrical scheme.

Angeles has proven his competence as a poet in poem after poem, including this one, so the first conclusion is unacceptable. The second conclusion might be defensible, because the stanza might be talking about the heart of salt; the other three lines could be merely establishing the setting or condition for the insight. The second conclusion, however, would not sufficiently explain why Angeles did not just break the meter in the foot (or group of syllables, for those not familiar with literary critical jargon) "split salt." On the contrary, the entire line is not iambic (one unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable), though it still has five feet (which is the definition of pentameter).

Multilingual literary criticism offers a third possibility. Angeles was from Leyte, an island in Central Philippines, where the language is Samar-Leyte or Waray. The vowels and accents of Waray are quite different from those of English. For one thing, there is a lot more natural rhythm or singsong in the language. "Split salt" has, for the native English speaker, two stresses, but it does not necessarily have that stress pattern for the native Waray speaker. The line, in other words, may be read as iambic.

The lack of a syllable in the last foot may also be explained by multilingual literary criticism. Filipinos tend to pronounce monosyllabic words starting with S as two-syllabled; "spread" has two syllables for Filipinos though it has only one for Americans. What appears as an error may now appear to be an interaction of mother tongue and second language, not an attempt at emphasis nor inability to count.

In fact, on the conceptual level, the emphasis of the stanza is really the darkness or deadness of the sea, which forms the central paradox of the whole poem, not its saltiness.


  1. Is it possible that "split salt" is really a typo, the more logical phrase being "spilt salt"?

  2. You're probably right, but it doesn't affect my observation about meter. Thanks!

  3. Hello! I'm just wondering if you know the interpretation of the poem Gabu... Im having a really hard time understanding this poem... Could you please help me? Thanks...

  4. Gabu is a place in Ilocos Norte. It is near Pagudpod. Often, when typhoon occurs, large tidal waves go rampant, even affecting Pagudpod itself. These tidal waves devastate the life forms (animals and plants) and even the structures in that place.
    The 2nd line reflects the sadness of people in times of despair.
    The color represented in the 3rd line is actually a description of sadness due to death and suffering as life can cease due to these waves.
    The 4th line describes that the calamity is strong and it may happen again and again.
    Lastly, the last line tells that the sea would really find its way to tell us about the status of people living in that place.

  5. can you give me the message of the plz??
    we have a project about comprehension question but i don't understand the other questions

  6. can you give the message of the poem gabu?

  7. ano po ba ang meaning ng gabu??