On E. San Juan, Jr.’s Filipino poems

ESANJUANPoems of Engagement: E. San Juan, Jr. and the
Various Philippine Political Dispensations

by Tomasito T. Talledo
Division of Social Sciences
University of the Philippines Visayas
Miag-ao, Iloilo

This essay aims to capture the continuing engagements of the poems written by E. San Juan, Jr. with the selected four Philippine po-litical dispensations, namely, administrations under Corazon Aquino, Fi-del Ramos, Joseph “Erap” Estrada and Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. These were post-Marcos administrations that claimed to be popularly elected yet distressed by disquieting vox populi. Supposedly they were dispen-sations that restored formal democratic institutions after the ouster of Marcos’ autocratic rule but failed to escape the odious label as regimes dependent upon the support of the world’s chief unilateralist — the po-litically imperial United States of America. In other words, they are ex-emplary dispensations fitting as objects of critical examination, they are dispensations that E. San Juan, Jr. elected to continuously discourse on in his poems even after Marcos. Earlier collected poems by E. San Juan, Jr. already recorded those struggles against Marcos martial rule but they deserve our separate attention elsewhere and in some other time.

When one does not subscribe to the thesis that the Marcos’ autocratic rule phenomenon was something unique and singular in our recent history, that it was in fact a kind of “solution-as-conclusion” ar-rived at when class contradictions in the Philippines were at its peak during that historical juncture, what followed then was the thesis of continuing problem, the deep down spiralling of social crises that are cognizable registers in San Juan’s later poems. Indeed, the erstwhile “US-Marcos dictatorship” was ousted by popular uprising in 1986, but the poet is only too familiar with the farce that Marx referred to in The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte thence he pursues his committed writings. The gyrating forces of neo-colonial relations and underdevel-opment had further impelled San Juan to remain awake, to vigil still, when many amongst us already went to sleep lulled as we were by the sweet bourgeois songs of Ibong Adarna.

Very like “kalamansi sa sugat” were the spicy, stinging, disquiet-ing poems written by E. San Juan, Jr. that were addressed to the re-gimes of Cory Aquino, Fidel Ramos, Erap Estrada and Gloria Macapagal Arroyo; those severe reminders which could have kept us awake and should have prevented us from turning into unfeeling stones. San Juan’s poetry is not “magical as a seagull,” its dictions feel like a stinging whip that draws no blood.

Early Readings of E. San Juan’s Texts

The Pilipino literary criticisms of E. San Juan in 1960s made used of Formalism, though he was not a fervent subscriber to its tenets, ac-cording to scholar Soledad Reyes (1977). In fact, he later disavowed the Formalist approach, but his English poems published in 1964 to 1965 were not able to escape formalist reading by critics. Literary critic L. M. Grow found in San Juan’s English poems, the “lyric voice” and “the comic voice” as the poet’s “saving grace”. This appears to me a formal-ist modus operandi of judgement as it was characterized by a double-faced task of putting-down and lifting-up what the critic considers as in-trinsic worth and inadequacies of a poetic work. The critic writes, “… lyric interludes are rare in San Juan. He easily drifts into dullness by simply writing uninspired prose in the form of verse” (Grow 1992: p.525).

Yet much later the critic reluctantly concluded, “many readers will find San Juan’s poetry repulsive because crude – even gross – it is his humor, if anything, which is its saving grace” (p. 529).” Ambivalence as virtue appears to be a fixation of formalist judgement. The same critic later acknowledges that San Juan’s Filipino poems in 1964 and 1965 – “Kundiman XL,” “Eklipse ng Buwan at Araw sa nayon ng Montal-ban,” and “Isang Pangkaraniwang Dalaw” rightly deserved honors in Talaang Ginto contest. It can be asked: is it in the court of ambivalence or of inconsistency where the formalist judgement is pronounced when the poet’s case is in the language that the critic does not share? A cur-sory view here suggests that San Juan’s poetic frame went through a process of metamorphosis.

Literary scholar Soledad Reyes produced an assessment of San Juan’s writings, mostly literary criticisms in Pilipino, where she grouped those criticisms into two periods: the first, from 1964 to later part of 1968 and the second, from early 1969 to 1973/5 (Reyes 1977). In the first period, Reyes noted that San Juan as a literary critic was freely in-fluenced but did not completely subscribed to the school of the New Critics or English and American Formalism. Reyes’ definition of this ap-proach reads: “The New Critics or Formalists are English and American critics noted for their critical theories and practise, stressing the need for a careful scrutiny of the text and a conscious exploration of the world of the poem as something abstracted from other external data pertaining to the author’s life, to history, and other backgrounds” (see footnote 2 in Reyes 1977: p.302). Never conceiving himself as a severe Formalist, in the first period San Juan maintained the “belief that the development of Philippine literature can be evaluated in terms of the artist’s response to the human condition that he articulates through a conscious use of language” (Reyes 1977: p. 303). But San Juan escaped such prison house of language through healthy self-assessment and dismissal of the idea that one can dream of becoming the Wittgenstein of the Pilipino language.

In the second period, according to Reyes, San Juan has shifted from reluctant formalism to a historico-sociological perspective, his point of arrival at a realization that no creative work can be viewed as something closed and self-contained. Allow me to repeat San Juan’s self-admission as quoted by Reyes: “… I soon learned that without a his-toricist and materialist grounding, the partially valid insights of existen-tialism, Freudian rationalism, archetypal speculations, phenomenology, and other idealist styles of thought, would never lead to an objective revolutionary understanding of life – of the reality of one’s specific time and place judged in concrete perspective” (Reyes 1977: p. 316). With these words, San Juan finally plunged into the waters of his future po-litical writings. When he made this self-admission in fact, it was 1971, the ominous year described as “may balana ng unos sa bundok,” in a poetic line that appeared in the underground publication Ulos (Ordonez 1986: p. 12).

Poems of Engagement from Cory Aquino to Gloria Arroyo

The poems by San Juan selected as subject of our commentary here were understood to be written during his critical engagement with various presidential administrations after Marcos. The appellation “re-gime” is the loaded and widely-used word that critics deploy to charac-terize the periods when the dispensations of Cory Aquino, Fidel Ramos, Joseph Estrada and Gloria Arroyo were in power. From standard sources, the word regime does not only refer to a particular govern-ment in power but generally the ruling system as well. And in the poems of San Juan we sense that he tries to portray the persisting system of inequality that fetters social classes even as various presidential dispen-sations succeeded one after another. The poet avers that while on the political exterior names and faces of rulers change, the flawed funda-mentals in Philippine society remained.

In this paper the poems of engagement are those written by San Juan to openly expose and oppose the various regimes after Marcos. The valor in these poems is straightforward, their message unabashed, they are the poet’s head-on confrontation with phony optimism of op-pressors, business-as-usual timidity of the middle class and quietist poli-tics of the day. Where there is a preference for don’t-rock-the-boat dis-course among consumers of media products; and where self-control is hallowed by producers of the imaginary when they portray the powers that be — San Juan was no longer patient with Formalist ambiguity un-less perhaps such ambiguity is Leninist clandestinity. His poems bravely capture and pitilessly critique the social conditions that characterized the succeeding post-Marcos regimes.

The poems/tula selected for exemplifications were part of the E. San Juan, Jr.’s already published collections such as “Alay sa Paglikha ng Bukang Liwayway,” 2000 by the Ateneo de Manila Press, “Sapagkat Iniibig Kita at iba pang bagong tula,” 2004 by the University of the Philippines Press, “Salud Algabre, Babaeng Mandirigma at iba pang tula,” 2007 by the University of San Agustin Publishing House, and “Bu-kas, Maynilad!” 2009 by Philippine Cultural Studies Center in Storrs, Connecticut. The selected poems also came from Eduard C. Dionio’s un-dergraduate terminal essay requirement of his senior Literature course that I suggested and later on supervised (Dionio 2010). The selection of poems focuses more on the details of social reality that are captured in the poems than on the poet’s style and form of writing. Being aware that San Juan has consciously unloaded the previous baggage of For-malism, the selection here is therefore deliberate: the preference is content over form.

The selected poems or mga tula are: “Masaker sa Mendiola: En-ero 22, 1987” and “Litanya para sa Kapayapaan sa Gitna ng Karahasan” for Cory Aquino’s term; “Lagalag sa Makati” and “Megamall sa Metro Manila for Fidel Ramos’ term; “Uyayi sa Panahon ng Terorismo” and “Dalumat ni Felix Razon sa Boston Harbor” for Joseph Estrada’s term; and “Bago Ideklara ang Emergency Rule ng Diktaduryang Arroyo” and “Makabagong Dasal: Madapa ka, Presidente Gloria” for Gloria Macapa-gal Arroyo’s term. Represented by two poems for each presidential dis-pensation after Marcos, there are a total of eight poems for exemplifi-cation.

“Masaker sa Mediola…” and “Litanya para sa Kapayapaan…”

The Mediola Massacre or what was later termed Black Thursday by journalists happened in January 22, 1987 under Cory Aquino’s dis-pensation. A street march was held then followed by a huge gathering in the city spot near the Presidential palace called Mendiola for the peasants to publicly broadcast their demands revolving around the na-tional issue of land distribution pointing in particular the Cojuanco fam-ily-owned Hacienda Luisita. The paranoiac security forces assigned therein went berserk and the routine dispersal operation turned vio-lent. The gruesome count includes thirteen (13) unarmed peasants that died on the spot, thirty-nine (39) with serious gunshot wounds, and thirty-two (32) suffered various types of injuries. This incident was in-ternationally reported and seriously tarnished the immaculate image of the Cory regime. The anger is a little subdued, yet the poet rages and echoes those howls after the many massacre incidents in our national history:
Abot tanaw na
Tumatagos sa karimlan ng hirit-ganti
Sa ilalim ng bandila ng pulang mandirigma
Abot-tanaw na natin
Ang liwanag ng sumabog na utak at dugong dumanak
Sa larangan ng digmaan
Sa Mendiola

The contented middle-class that felt settled, the devoted constituency of the Cory “yellow” administration was not spared by the poet’s sting-ing scorn.

Dito sa aming bayan ng Gitnang-Uri
Mapayapa ang lahat –
Payapa ang kasama sa bukid na nagpapawis araw-araw, walang kibo
Payapa ang mga trabahador na nagbabanat ng buto, walang ingay
Payapa ang mga babaeng nasa kusina
Patuloý ang luto at laba, walang imik
Kung may naligaw na pulubi’t palaboy rito
Mapayapa ring manlilimos o nagugutom, walang ungol

The erstwhile peace enjoyed by the middle-class brought no advance-ments to the lives of those in the lower classes. The progress hoped for after the fall of the Marcos dictatorship by the landless peasants, urban workers and women trapped in their domestic role was not delivered by the middle-class Cory dispensation. If the prevailing temper then was not disappointment, more probably it was betrayal of expectations for the majority populace.

“Lagalag sa Makati” and “Megamall sa Metro Manila”

San Juan’s poems seek to disrupt the smart propaganda of pros-perity spewed by the media machine of the Ramos regime. While the regime painted a modernist vision of a leaping “tiger economy” for the Philippines, the poet makes sure that reality still bites, “Alumpihit sa umatikbong trapiko, wala ka pang trabaho at ilang/ Buwan ng pasabit-sabit lamang./ Nagbibilang ng poste’t bituin, inaabot ng siyam-siyam.” The reality includes high rate of unemployment while the local labor market is not capable to absorb the new and young workers. With a contracted local labor market, the burden of average-size household gets heavy. And to shoulder the basic needs of its members, the house-hold affords to sacrifice even its optimism.

Pumalaot ka sa Ayala Avenue, pikit-matang nilulunok ang bayag
sa lalamunan
Humahagibis ang bilis ng tren ni Dr. Zhivago pero hanggang Tutuban
lang tayo.
Sa bartolina ng panaginip sumisingit at lumalagos ang amoy
ng pulbura.
Walang itulak-kabigin ang pagtitiis, kumapit sa patalim.

To fund its pompous vision, the Ramos regime launched its ambitious programs of deregulation, decentralization and privatization – the full speed globalization of Philippine economy riding the winds of the dreaded neo-liberalism. Aggressive invitations to foreign investments and massive export of warm bodies for their expected remittances were integral to the strategies of the rentier state under Ramos. Such vision was not informed by the dark experiences of South American peoples under neo-liberalism. But when the planned Constitutional change to extend his term of office was derailed, Ramos exited in a whinge for failing to industrialize the country and was disgraced by the Amari deal corruption issue.

“Uyayi sa Panahon ng Terorismo” and “Dalumat ni Felix Razon…”

The presidential term of Joseph Estrada was the shortest so far since post-World War II history of the country. This short term was nonetheless troubled by terroristic activities such as hostage taking of locals and foreign-ers for ransom, the logistics and casualties of war it launched against Moro rebels but what abruptly truncated his stay in the Chief Executive’s Office was his shameless amassing of monies from gambling operations and the scandals of his personal life. The president whose occupancy of the highest office was propelled by cinematic roles became the casualty of the tele-broadcast of his own impeachment. Here, the poet rudely awakens the gullible movie fan in us by his satirical uyayi or lullaby.

Gising na, bunsong madungis, humabi ng bagong uyayi
Manupol ng pulbura’t isabog sa marangyang alta
Gusi’t bumbong ay bawiin kamusmusay isuka

By the Boston City harbor, the poet anxiously ruminates what transpires in the Philippines under Estrada. His uneasiness continuously lingers, “Laluna kung nababalitaan ang inhustisya sa ati’y kalabisang lumalatay/ na parusa sa bawat mamamayan – extra-judicial killings, forced disappearances, ma-saker ng mga pesante’t manggagawa…” Piercingly the poet’s private inner voice becomes publicly audible.

“Bago Ideklara ang Emergency Rule…” and “Makabagong Dasal …”

The international Human Rights Watch and other bodies that monitor the violations of human rights in the Philippines were simply appalled by the grisly record of the Gloria Arroyo regime. At some point of its rule, its tally of victims exceeded the number of the lengthy Marcos dictatorship. Though Ar-royo ascended into the Presidency as successor of the ousted Estrada, it em-ployed numerous manoeuvres to stay longer in power like the manipulation of election results, open repression of political oppositions, declaration of emer-gency rule, among others. The poet asks the apparent yet disconcerting ques-tion: “Sa pambubusabos at pagmamalupit baka walang hihigit sa ‘tin –/ Di ba nasaksihan ito sa pagmamalabis ng diktaduryang Marcos? At ngayon pa-sistang sundalo ni Col. Palparan, pulis at vigilanteng berdugo ng may po-der?” This history redux is a cruel farce in our collective impasse and I sense only a few are laughing but numerous are indeed grieving.

Sharing the sense of frustration by the countless that are fed-up with the excesses of Arroyo regime, San Juan writes the mantra prayer: “Hoy GMA madapa ka madapa ka sapilitan ka ring mawawala.” Now we realize such are poetic and prophetic words of the poet. Former President Gloria Macapa-gal-Arroyo is now isolated while under trial for the crime of plunder.

Concluding Words

In more than twenty years, the writing of these poems of engagements has registered the poet’s creative combat with the imposing suasions of the succeeding political dispensations after Marcos. Such political commitment must have required from the poet steady patience, unflagging energies and single mindedness – sometimes perhaps, with “pessimism of the mind and op-timism of the will”. Yet almost without rest, the poet continues to dig deep into the bowels of our collective experiences as a nation. He brings to surface what were expediently secreted in the national psyche. He acts like the reli-able “old mole” tunnelling into the communist horizon.

He piercingly rages against killings of innocents and the business-as-usual nonchalance of the middle class during Cory Aquino’s dispensation; he actively unmasks the smart propaganda of neoliberal globalization during the presidency of Fidel Ramos while poses the reminder that grim reality still bites; during the Estrada administration, he shakes the gullible and passive fan mentality of citizens yet still meditates the fate of our country while located elsewhere outside its territory; he asks disconcerting questions and like an augur prophesizes the downfall of Arroyo.

San Juan’s poems of engagement are no “sweetness and light” for he “sees his role as part of an organization within a nationwide movement seek-ing thoroughgoing social change” (Ordonez 1986: p. 15).


Abalajon, Eric P. “New Poems of an Established Poet: Review of Bukas Luwalhating kay Ganda (2013) by E. San Juan, Jr.” BUSAY [Students’ Literary Folio, College of Arts and Sciences, University of the Philippines Visayas]. Year 38 2013-2013. Pp. 35-38.

Casper, Leonard. The Opposing Thumb: Decoding Literature of the Marcos Regime. Quezon City. Giraffe Books. 1995.

Dionio, Edward C. Social Conditions and Transformations in the Selected Filipino Poems of E. San Juan, Jr. An Undergraduate Thesis Presented to the Division of Humanities, University of the Philippines Visayas. March 2010.

Grow, L.M. “Epifanio San Juan, Jr. as a Poet.” Philippine Stud-ies. Volume/Fourth Quarter 1992. Pp. 522-30.

Ordonez, Elmer. “Emergent Writing in the Underground Press.” Diliman Review. Vol. 34, No.4. 1986. Pp. 1, 12-15.

Reyes, Soledad S. “Main Trends in the Criticism of Epifanio San Juan, Jr.” Philippine Studies. Volume. 25/ Third Quarter 1977. Pp. 302-333.

First presented at a symposium on “The Places of E. San Juan, Jr.” at Ateneo de Manila University, 7 March 2015.

About philcsc

E.SAN JUAN, Jr. directs the Philippines Cultural Studies Center, Washington DC, USA and lectures at the Polytechnic University of the Philippines, Manila, Philippines.