‘That Which We Call A Poem’ — The Case Against Lang Leav

Fodder for critics: Lang Leav books squatting on the classics shelves of a local bookstore in the Philippines.

The subject of love and heartbreak is not hard to find on mainstream media: it has been the concern of many an artistic or literary work since the earliest civilizations. From movies to novels to poems, people have always found ways to express the sheer bliss of infatuation, the tingle of lust and desire, the gut-wrenching despair of having loved and lost.

On the poetic form, there is no writer of today’s generation more widely criticized than Lang Leav. Based in New Zealand, she has authored internationally bestselling books like Love and Misadventure (2013), Lullabies (2014), and Memories (2015) — and yet a number of people would still be hard-pressed to call her work good, if called poetry at all.

What counts as poetry in the first place? Over the years, the consensus has involved figurative language and formal elements like meter and rhyme, but such a loose criteria has always allowed for experimentation, entailing that that which we call a poem by any other name could smell as sweet. What, then, is the real problem people have with Leav’s work? Is it the questionable quality of writing; or her themes and subject matter? Could it be her place in the ontologically shifting definition of poetry in relation to class and accessibility, to commodification, to nationality and diaspora?

Like other literary forms, poetry has come a long way since the time of the Bard of Avon. We can fractionally credit contemporary writers like Leav for forcing readers to recall the point of a shifting definition of poetry in the first place, although to say that she contributes to this shift is nothing short of preposterous, for reasons explained below.

Triggered by the piece “A Question,” a Twitter thread from one Lakan Umali tackles an aspect of Leav-directed criticism — poetic talent or lack thereof. Some points below have been lifted directly from the original thread:

  • “A Question” had no cohesion of imagery: the image of a lip is followed by the image of a sweater.
  • While the focus on an overused topic is acceptable, her work in general reveals no hint of playfulness or experimentation with language.
  • In other words, her writing is so generic it should be a pharmacy.
  • The metaphor of an unhealed wound to describe one’s feelings for an ex-significant other earns points for creativity, because no one would expect that comparison.
  • Leav’s poems make the reader do all the work, and the generic-ness allows anyone to project literally any painful personal experience on the text.
  • Her work reaffirms already-established personal feelings and does nothing to challenge them or provide any new perspective.

The points are from a semi-literary slant, since Lakan himself admits a slight lack of technical know-how on poetry criticism.

From a socio-econo-cultural point of view, here are more questions to consider: Has Lang Leav already commodified poetry by commodifying love and heartbreak? Is not the point of poetry to be universally accessible and consequently open to interpretation in the first place? In defense of the bestselling poetess, are not the most lasting poems those that challenge the preexisting pool of works?

In June 2016, the local production company Star Cinema announced plans to collaborate on a project with Leav. The announcement promptly met backlash from a number of netizens.

Another reactionary Twitter thread, this time by one Mishka Ligot, adds a Filipino cultural context to Lakan’s standing critique to partly answer the second set of questions. Most points below have also been lifted directly from the original thread:

1. Barring the question of writing quality, it is popular culture that mobilizes poetry at present in the Philippines.

  • There is a class divide in local art: oftentimes literature is put up on some kind of inaccessible pedestal, which has not always been the case.
  • While Filipinos are not necessarily a ‘reading’ people, literature — particularly poetry — has more or less been part of our culture in the form of epic chants, folk songs, religious traditions, e.g. Pasyon/Pabasa.
  • Anyway, poetry as it is known by the modern generation is depicted as a bourgeois endeavor, regardless of whether it is in English or in Filipino.
  • Thus, the only way to reintroduce poetry to the Filipino psyche and knock it off its fake pedestal is through the vehicle of popular culture.
  • This has been proven to work by the growing number of spoken word gigs and exhibits throughout the country, as well as the likes of Juan Miguel Severo whose work was featured in the local TV series On the Wings of Love.

2. Unfortunately, there is a brain drain of the arts, so to speak.

  • There are many talented poets in the country, whether their poetry is in English, Filipino, or one of the regional/vernacular languages.
  • Their best means of exposure so far is through a limited academic circuit; local poets rarely ever get to break into popular culture.
  • Sadly, they are more recognized abroad, often becoming diasporic writers and taking their craft overseas.
  • How then can the public understand the quality of local poetry if they cannot access it?

3. Poetry nonetheless does not have to be pretentious; it can be accessible, understandable, even inherent in cultures across the Philippines.

  • If writing quality does come into question, we can talk to no end about how great poetry is mobilized through popular media, but realistically speaking this is not even the case.
  • Most films that feature works of landmark Filipino poets are indie productions, enjoying only a limited release to small audiences.
  • Star Cinema, on the other hand, rakes in millions of pesos annually and reaches nearly every corner of the archipelago. They choose to go with Lang Leav, perhaps because the fact that she is a foreigner lends sophistication to their project.

4. Filipinos are barely beginning to uncover a rich trove of local poetry.

  • Juan Miguel Severo’s successfully showcased work shows that people can be interested in something they once thought was above them.
  • For Star Cinema to opt for imported talent is a step back, a slap in the face for homegrown talent.
  • It is disheartening that the opportunity to promote one’s work is given to a poet who neither needs nor deserves it.

From a Filipino perspective alone, many arguments can be used to build up a case against Lang Leav, with plenty involving neocolonial undertones. The ultimate bottomline, of course, is that she writes terrible poetry, to the point that we must return to the basics of the craft to understand why her poems are terrible.

To say, though, that she has helped redefine said craft is an affront to writers who have accomplished exactly that by bringing something new to a great pool of timeless yet time-bound works. Lang Leav uses her words to convey scenes and emotions already tackled by better writers countless times before; and we who are acquainted with the latter are none the worse for it.

If all the arguments above are still not adequately convincing, here is a final Tweet to ponder on: