The Early Poetry of Muhammad Haji Salleh: A Memoir in Tribute
There is a saying that “when the student is ready, the teacher will appear.” Since learning never ends, perhaps teachers come at different points in our lives according to what we need at the time.
Looking back to the time I was making tentative beginnings in poetry, it was certainly true. The teachers – there were two – who came to lay the critical foundations to my writing appeared without my even being aware of their significance, then. We are talking about the mid-to-late 1960s, when as an undergraduate reading English Literature, two poets came into my life who could not have had a greater impact on my attitude towards what I was studying, and the poetry I was attempting to write.
The Professor who headed the English Department at the time was Dennis Enright, a highly distinguished poet in his home country (the UK) and the English-speaking world. He was one of the tutors who took us under his wing, and in the two years of intensive immersion in the subject (as required under the degree structure then) I got to know much more about his poetry and his commitment to not only literature, but undergraduates struggling with creative writing. He was sharply discerning, but kind; I valued his critical judgement, laconic humour and compassion. Enright returned to England about five years after I graduated. Fortunately, his last few years with the University of Singapore coincided with the time I was a student and graduate tutor and developing an interest in poetry.
The other “teacher” who had an even greater role was a classmate, one in a very tiny class taking the single subject, English Literature. He was Muhammad Haji Salleh, a Malaysian, slightly older than the rest of us. He was a trained teacher from the Malay Teachers’ College, Brinsford Lodge, near Wolverhampton, England. His reputation went ahead of him, for we soon heard that he had a substantial portfolio of poems, which even the Chair of English admired. A quiet
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