On Jose Maria Sison as Poet
Excerpt from "Against the Dying of the Light:
The Filipino Writer and Martial Law"
By Ed Maranan
(An article based on the speech by the author to students and faculty of the University of London 's School of Oriental & African Studies (SOAS) in September 1999).
The best-known radical poet who became a political prisoner of the Marcos regime was Jose Ma. Sison, a former English instructor at the University of the Philippines, who spent ten years in prison, and wrote a whole volume of poems (much later set to music out of which a CD would be made) which spoke not only of his privations during his incarceration, but of his steadfast political views. Sison was arguably the most important political prisoner under martial law, for he was the chairman of the reestablished Communist Party of the Philippines. After years spearheading the radical movement in the Philippines since his university days, he would seal his place in Philippine history as the moving spirit behind the Marx- and Mao-inspired movement that has always been described as the 'longest-running communist insurgency in the world'.
While still behind bars, his friends in academe and fellow writers put together his poems and published them in a book, Prison and Beyond. One of the pieces in this collection speak of the prisoner's faith in the power of his writings, and of his certainty that outside his prison cell, the struggle which he helped launch continues.
Poems and rest
Since a long, long time ago
Incantations and prayers
Have been a comfort
To those who suffer.
Lying down at night,
I recite my poems
Until my throat runs dry
And I fall asleep in comfort.
But my poems are different.
They appeal to the people.
I put my trust in them
And in their firm struggle.
While at rest I am sure
That the struggle goes on.
And when my rest is over
I will do what I can.
Is torture so vicious.
But the poems I compose
Are my ardent companions.
Years after his release from prison, and while already living in exile in The Netherlands, Sison was interviewed by a graduate student at De La Salle University for her master's thesis. Among other things, he was asked about the role of literature in the protest movement against martial law.
How important was protest literature during the Martial Law years, especially those written by members of the party?
Protest literature in English, Pilipino and various other Philippine languages were exceedingly important during the martial law years. The biggest amount of revolutionary literature, in the form of poetry, lyrics for songs, short stories, plays and some novels, was written by communists and revolutionary mass activists.
The creative works were carried by national and regional underground publications of the revolutionary movement. In urban areas, poems were recited and performed in lightning mass actions and in large mass actions, especially from 1979 onwards. In all the years of martial rule, the revolutionaries produced and performed creative works in the guerrilla fronts.
How effective was it in fighting the dictatorship?
The protest literature was very effective in fighting the dictatorship. Poems and lyrics of songs could circulate most easily. They were inspiring and they could circulate fast and nationwide, with the help of underground revolutionary organizations, including cultural organizations. They were so much easier to circulate than political tracts and much more easily understood by the masses. The enemy had no effective way of stopping these. Without the protest literature, the revolutionary movement would have been drab and dull. But with protest literature, it became lively and militant. The protest literature was effective in spreading the revolutionary message because it could move instantly the hearts and minds of the people. The message reached the masses in a form that they could easily grasp.
(For the full interview, please go to: http://www.defendsison.be/pages_php/0306060.php)
Jose Ma. Sison