Hymn, sob, psalm and Edith Tiempo | Inquirer Opinion
The Learning curve

Hymn, sob, psalm and Edith Tiempo

In heralding April as the country’s National Literature Month, the literary icons whose birth or death anniversaries occur during the month are highlighted. In this roster, the only woman named is Edith L. Tiempo, who in 1999 was declared a National Artist for Literature.

To mark Tiempo’s 100th birthday, an impressive interactive exhibit featuring her life and works, “Hymn, Sob, Psalm,” was mounted at the Cultural Center of the Philippines. Curated by Ateneo professor DM Reyes and artist Gwen Bautista, it ran until April 22, Tiempo’s birthdate. The opening was on the third day of CCP’s Performatura Festival, a performance event directed by Dr. Vim Nadera celebrating the interactions of the written word and performance.

The lyrical exhibit title comes from Tiempo’s poem “Becoming,” which sums up her life’s philosophy. “My anatomy is hymn, sob, psalm/And I become/The poem I write.”

A few “Tiempoets,” the many poets influenced by Tiempo like DM Reyes, Padma Perez, Kael de Lara Co, Krip Yuson, Susan Lara and Jimmy Abad, honored her with poetry readings.


Tiempo is a giant of Philippine poetry who paved the way for many women to pursue lengthy careers in the field of literature and books. Her influence in poetry and women’s writing is evident among young writers who credit her craftsmanship as a model.

No doubt, many of us today will repeat lines from her most beloved and oft-quoted poem, “Bonsai,” performed at the Performatura Festival by Dumaguete’s Kahayag Dance Company. The poem is such a concise evocation of deep feeling within poststructuralist bounds. It is the best representation of Tiempo’s poetic ethos, a blend of the lyrical and the intellectual:

It’s utter sublimation,

A feat, this heart’s control,


Moment to moment

To scale all love down


To a cupped hand’s size.

The poem itself is poetic genius in miniature, almost like a prayer you can repeat to yourself in quiet times.

Owing to her fellowship at the Iowa State University and her doctorate from the University of Denver, much of Tiempo’s writing was influenced by American New Criticism. Poetry produced with the formalist aesthetic in mind can sometimes be accused of privileging dry intellectualism over sentiment. But unlike her male contemporaries, she could balance the formal aspects of her writing with an inherent romanticism.

As quoted in “Filipino Writers in English: Their Story, 1905-2002” by Edna Zapanta Manlapaz, Tiempo wrote: “My whole stance in writing is tied up with being a woman… Writing, to a woman, has become one of the processes of her life, as natural as any of the others… If a woman is true to herself, she will write as a Romantic. If she turns off her inner promptings and attempts to be purely objective, I think the effect will be artificial because the life springs are not there.”

But possibly her greatest contribution to the field is founding the Silliman University National Writers Workshop in 1962, along with her husband, writer and critic Edilberto Tiempo. This workshop, now on its 57th year, has allowed our country’s literature to flourish in abundance by producing among its alumni some of the most notable writers in the country. This is incredibly significant, because it emphasizes that it is not enough that we produce great writing ourselves; we must also encourage young people toward the creation of good writing and literature.

Tiempo, a remarkable woman, was not just a poet and a fictionist, but also a true leader in Philippine women’s writing. No surprise that she was the first woman declared a National Artist for Literature, in 1999.

April began with the yearly pilgrimage to Francisco Balagtas’ shrine in Orion, Bataan, and ends with the centennial exhibit of Edith Tiempo at the CCP, and today in Naga, with the awarding ceremony of the 1st Premyo Valledor Prize for Best Bikol Novel.

A month to remember—auguries of brighter and grander things to come for Philippine literature!

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Neni Sta. Romana Cruz (nenisrcruz@ gmail.com) is chair of the National Book Development Board and a member of the Eggie Apostol Foundation.

TAGS: Edith Tiempo, literature, national literature month, Neni Sta. Romana Cruz, The Learning Curve

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