Tanglaw Newsletter



By Guro Montemayor


A Tradition Of Debating In Verse

There was a time when "Makatas" (folk poets) did not merely recite beautiful verses. They also argued with each other in lines of rhyme and meter, as in the traditional Dal-lot of the Ilocanos and the song Balitaw of the Visayans. Among the Tagalogs, folk poets show their mastery of rhyme and reason during wakes and in presentations called Karagatan, Huwego de Prenda, and Duplo.

Nobody knows for sure what Karagatan is all about. Some researchers say it is participated in by young men and women who try to outwit each other on the subject of love. Huwego de Prenda, on the other hand is a game used to entertain guests and the bereaved family during wakes. Duplo is the more intricate and longer debate in verse. Based on a make-believe court litigation in which a hari (king) looks for the thief who stole away with his bird, participants accuse each other and argue their cases in elegant verses.. A good duplero (poet participant) can sometimes deliver his defense for hours, drawing from folk wisdom, anecdotes, and excerpts from popular reading materials.

During the American Period, a group of writers came up with a new form of debate in verse to commemorate the birth anniversary of Francisco Balagtas. They called it balagtasan, in honor of the venerated prince of Tagalog Poets, and to signify its difference from the old duplo.

The balagtasan is like an ordinary debate, except that one has to reason and argue in verse. Two master poets are assigned to defend the pros and cons of an issue, and a board of judges sits to determine the winner. The first balagtasan held on April 6, 1924, had three sets of poets who delivered a scripted defense. It was a big success and the public was particularly impressed with the poetic jousts between Jose Corazon de Jesus and Florentino Collantes. This prompted organizers to immediately arrange for another balagtasan involving the two, who now would argue on a controversial topic without a prepared script.

The big poetic debate occurred on October 18, 1925, at the Olympic Stadium in Manila. De Jesus won and was proclaimed the first Hari ng Balagtasan (King of Balagtasan). The public adulation bestowed on De Jesus until his early death in 1930 is said to be unprecedented in literary history. Balagtasan became popular entertainment and the title of Hari, a much sought-after honor among poets until after World War II.

Other poets in Spanish, English, and various Philippine languages staged their own version of the debate in verse. The Ilocanos developed the bukanegan in honor of legendary poet Pedro Bukaneg; the Pampangos the crisotan after the popular poet-dramatist Juan Crisostomo Soto.

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