16 September 2005

The Potato Eaters, Van Gogh.


            Old Folks Home

            All day long they lie on the
            straight rows of white beds or sit
            in the heavy-duty wheelchairs
            pushed out into the breezy sunshine
            of the gardens.

            Trapped in the prisons
            of their own failing bodies,
            they drift in and out of the haze
            of senility, patiently serving
            out their sentence.

            Still the bright-eyed teenagers come,
            on Saturday mornings, by the busloads,
            sent by their schools
            on compulsory excursions
            to learn the meaning
            of compassion
            as outlined in the CCA syllabus.

            They bring gifts of Khong Guan biscuits,
            they help to mow the lawns,
            they clap their hands performing happy songs
            and valiantly they attempt the old dialects
            trying to communicate.

            Later they will clamber noisily
            back up the departing school buses,
            and next week in class
            they will write startlingly
            similar essays
            on what a meaningful,
            memorable experience they had
            at the old folks’ home
            last week.
posted by Gilbert at Friday, September 16, 2005

14 Comments:

Blogger floots said...

We've "spoken" before about parents and a recent visit to my, increasingly confused, mother makes this post all the more powerful for me.
Old age tends to be feared or ignored but is, perhaps, less of an ogre once one meets it personally.
I love the power of those last two words: last week. Finality, ambiguity and dismissiveness all in two tiny words.
Thank you.

September 16, 2005  
Blogger Orso Dorato said...

Gilbert, This poem has a special meaning for me as well. It gave me insight to what my late great grandfather must have felt when he was in the old folks home he may it makes me think as to why he became so bitter in the last few weeks of his life with all of the visits from so many so called close friends and family.

P.S. On a different note i was wondering if i could post a link to your blog on mine?

September 17, 2005  
Blogger Gilbert Koh said...

Thank you both, and Orso, please feel absolutely free.

September 17, 2005  
Blogger dsnake1 said...

You wrote another gem, Gilbert.

I just love your second stanza. Reminds me of my late mother. She was bedridden in a nursing home for almost a decade because of a stroke. It was tough for her, and for her children too.

Thanks for the read. And by the way, you don't mind if I put a link to your blog on mine?

September 17, 2005  
Blogger Gilbert Koh said...

Dsnake1, thanks and please go ahead. By the way, I'm in the Sunday Times today (two poems) but the reviewer had a rather poor opinion of one poem.

Ah well .... go check it out.

September 18, 2005  
Blogger b-ing said...

Hi,

This poem is a pretty comfortable read. My main complaint would be that it's terribly predictable, especially the ending. The poem also seems to be cluttered with a lot of unnecessary detail - what's the significance of the students mowing the lawns or how noisily they board the school buses? Furthermore, I felt that your perspective of the experience of an old folks home is not exactly refreshing, "white beds", "breezy sunshine", "prisons of their own failing bodies", "serving out their sentence"(extended metaphor there?), "bright-eyed teenagers". I'm also wondering why you'd be writing this poem, since you're probably none of the characters described in the poem. Overall, nothing much about the poem strikes me except perhaps its inadequacy..

Sorry if I sound a bit disrespectful (I'm not even half as old as you) but I've been following this blog for a while now and this particular post was just really unconvincing. As a student who's been on these visits before, I can say you're absolutely right about the the general attitude of students towards old folks. You seem to be over-generalizing, though.

September 18, 2005  
Blogger Gilbert Koh said...

No problems, Bi. Poetry is subjective anyway.

This poem is not so much about the old folks home, nor about the students' attitudes, but about the inability of the two sides to establish any meaningful contact with each other.

Thus I can understand when (1) you said that the poem doesn't present any new perspective about life at the home; and (2) you question the "unnecessary" details about the students mowing the lawns etc.

The so-called "unnecessary" details are actually my way of showing the inadequacy of the students' attempt to make contact with the old folks. The students do all these things that students typically do on a trip, but you see now that none of these things succeed in helping them to understand the old folks better or connect at an emotional, human level. The students are only here because the CCA syllabus says that they have to be.

Perhaps now you'll see irony in lines like these:

"...they clap their hands performing happy songs
and valiantly they attempt the old dialects
trying to communicate."

In the above lines, I am conveying the idea that many young Singaporeans today are not even able to communicate with the older generation (see also the preceding poem "Children's Rhyme") as they do not even sgare a common language.

And how do the students feel about their futile attempt to establish meaningful contact? Is there regret, shame, a sense of failure, perhaps? No, not at all. Their visit to the old folks home is a superficial experience and it doesn't occur to them that there could be anything significant or "deeper" in it.

To convey this idea, I used details such as some of those you questioned - eg they "clamber noisily up the school buses" and depart without looking back.

To me, the ending (which you didn't like) is in fact the most powerful part of the poem. It is deeply ironic and it suggests that ALL the students fail to see anything significant in their visit to the home. That is why they end up writing remarkably and similarly cliched essays about the experience:

".. next week in class
they will write startlingly
similar essays
on what a meaningful,
memorable experience they had
at the old folks’ home
last week."

On your question about why I wrote this poem -

it was originally inspired by an old man in an old folks home who told me that he detests the students who come visiting, because they are very noisy and when they came, he can't sleep; but he does look forward to their biscuits. He didn't care for their company and their songs and their chores; all he wanted was their biscuits.

September 18, 2005  
Blogger b-ing said...

hi again, same guy here.

(with all due respect)

Well, I might have interpreted some of your lines inappropriately, but nevertheless, I find the over-generalizing tone of this poem a bit unnecessary. I find that you are making a lot of assumptions about students' attitudes, and it gets a bit irritating because these assumptions are pretty trite. Because of that the poem comes across as being safe to me. Also, I thought maybe the issue regarding the inability of both parties to connect is ineffectively explored from the viewpoint of an "outsider", i.e. the thirtysomethingold you.

If I were you I would write about that old man, since your broad view of this issue doesn't seem to penetrate anything beneath the surface. But exploring the issue from the perspective of that old man would certainly be provoking.

Thanks for taking the time to reply, though. =)

September 18, 2005  
Blogger Gilbert Koh said...

Heheh. That element of over-generalised criticism - was it injected by me, as poet, or as you, as reader?

You could just as well see the poem as a criticism of the education system, rather than of its students:

Still the bright-eyed teenagers come,
on Saturday mornings, by the busloads,
sent by their schools
on compulsory excursions
to learn the meaning
of compassion
as outlined in the CCA syllabus.

... or alternatively, you could see the poem as simply descriptive - the gap between generations is unbridgeable, and the students make no real contact - and this is simply the way things are, no one is to blame.

See Mr Wang's comment on my Sunday Times poem - it is quite a different poem, of course, but that same idea of an unbridgeable gap between generations runs through.

September 18, 2005  
Blogger tscd said...

I hated visiting the old folk's home as a student. I never felt I did anything useful when I was there. I think I wrote an essay about the horrible smell of decay there and got scolded by my teachers.

September 21, 2005  
Blogger Bluesky_Liz said...

>>outlined in the CCA syllabus.

It's that they made it compulsory that makes students visiting old folks homes seem generally insincere.

There are indeed many ways to read this poem, depending on whether one agrees that such activities should be outlined in school syllabus. To me, when I read this, I think the students are sincerely trying their best. They've been prepped up. I think most of them want to do something meaningful.

Yet the poem ends with a rather disturbing sense that these kids hadn't really learnt anything. I think even without the word "startling", I would be startled that the essays are similiar.

September 22, 2005  
Blogger MY said...

Ah... I love this poem...

Couldn't decribe my classmates better...

Meaningful Memorable Experiences at the expense of the old folks,
that is not the right way to make them "contribute to society"...
We've all become pawns in this wonderful system created,
To be the robot programmed to do these "meaningful" activities to "become a better person".

The old folks had to switch off their TV set when we visited,
They were upset at having to take their minds away from the plot of the serial drama.
How could I continue singing, without bowing my head down, feeling so guilt-ridden?

But we're all forced to. The puppet strings are pulled.
Accept it, its all our fate.

November 08, 2005  
Blogger ~chi yan~ said...

You came to Cedar today! I've just found your blog. My teacher gave us this poem for practice last year. And from it I finally understand what irony is. Do you mind if I link you?

Hope you like our souvenirs. Cedar Girls' is very environmentally-friendly!

P.S. The girl on the cover of our year book is my senior who also attended today's talk!

January 18, 2008  
Blogger Unknown said...

hello this poem is something that i can really relate to but i cant identify what the theme is about

July 24, 2018  

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