Dean Virgilio S. Almario, College of Arts & Letters, University of the Philippines, Diliman
During the American Occupation, poetry was more than a personal art for the enjoyment of a small circle of initiates. At that time, it was a popular art practiced by highly skilled craftsmen for the instruction or delight of a broad public.
In 1924, a poetic event took place at the Instituto de Mujeres in, Tondo, Manila. This became the balagtasan -- a poetic joust patterned after the duplo of the 19th century. It was conceived as a tribute to Balagtas or Francisco “Balagtas” Baltazar, the literary giant of the 19th century who wrote the famous awit Florante at Laura, an allegory of the sad condition of the Philippines under the colonial regime of Spain.
It became such a popular form of entertainment that practically every poet of the period, if he was worthy of the title of “makata,” had to display his skill in declamation and argumentation as a balagtasan poet.
In its original form, the joust was written by only one poet, with parts assigned, in the manner of a verse playlet, to the intended participants in the “contest.” Such was the first balagtasan written by Jose Corazon de Jesus, the author of “Bayan Ko,” the national anthem of the EDSA Revolution. In this Balagtasan, a butterfly (paruparo) and a bee (bubuyog) battled over a jasmine flower (kampupot).
Later, Benigno R. Ramos, in his two known balagtasan poems, introduced social content, making of the “contestants” proponents of specific philosophical/political positions, as in “Dalagang Bayan Laban sa Dalagang Bukid [ City Lass Versus Provincial Maiden] (1930) and “Balagtasan ng Kalayaan.” (Balagtasan of Freedom).
Later on, the balagtasan assumed the form of debate in verse where the poets had to improvise in verse while arguing a position that they had been appointed to defend.
Compiled by Tita Pambid. Source: Philippine Literature: A History & Anthology by Bienvenido Lumbera and Cynthia Nograles Lumbera.
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