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Balagtasan: The Art of Debating Through Poetry

Darius is a former high school literary and feature writer with a BS degree in Information and Communications Technology.

The Art of Verbal Joust

On April 6, 1926, two Filipino poets named Jose Corazon de Jesus and Francisco Collantes performed a duel in Instituto de Mujeres (Women's Institute) found in Tondo, Manila, a building that was also an office of another prolific Filipino writer.

Their battle would come in lines of prose, verses, and words, each more devastating as swords fought in a field and guns used in wars. The two opposing protagonists debated and argumentatively stood their ground to defend their positions on a common scope using deliberate, persuasive, and intricate poetries.

This art of poetic debate and deliverance would come to be known as Balagtasan.

The Birth of Balagtasan

During the American occupation of the Philippines, 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 delight and enjoyment of a broad and sophisticated public. From common places like houses and marketplaces to the more luxurious establishments like theater houses and operas, poetry was and is a way for most Filipinos to find artistic inspirations out of a bleak era.

Balagtasan was a derived form of Duplo, a poetic way of conveying an elegy and entertaining the ones who are grieving during a person's wake. Balagtasan, however, reiterated itself as an artistic, even theatrical, form of conveying opinions by poetry where two opposing sides would debate on the same topic.

Celebrating another prolific Filipino poet's birthday days before the actual event, it was coined from the last name of a highly-skilled, highly revered poet named Francisco Balagtas (also known as Francisco Baltasar). He was one of the prolific and well-known, prominent figures during the Spanish colonial era of the country, and is widely known today as the principal author of Florante and Laura - an epic written in awit (a type of Filipino poem consisting of twelve syllables and four stanzas) considered to be one of the country's most important and influential piece of Tagalog/Filipino literature.

Written during the writer's imprisonment during the Spanish colonization era, the epic, as Romeo G. Dizon describes in “Reintroducing Balagtas and His Work,” is described as “a sustained poetic interrogation about the nature of justice, truth and the human commitment to social-political equity” by heralding stories “between father and son, ruler and ruled, lover and beloved, Christian and Muslim, [and] man and woman.” Lope K. Santos, a former 20th-century Filipino senator, and the prolific writer thought of Balagtas's masterpiece as a four-pronged revolt against the corruption rampantly existing within the government. It was even highly regarded by the then young Jose Rizal, the country's unofficial national hero, as a literary magnum opus who sought the intricacies of Balagtas' clever usage of satire, allegory, and storytelling.

Sometimes, failure drives a person to strive and achieve success.

— Francisco "Balagtas" Baltazar

Performance, Value, and Impact

Performance

Often held in theatrical places and public events, Balagtasan is often performed between two or more poets with opposing views on a single, same topic. Topics to be debated range from national security to common problems found within a society. An intermediary also presents herself/himself during the debate, often opening the debate with a piece describing the nature of the event's debate.

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Pieces used in this event are often pre-written and practiced first before being shown to the general public, though there are moments where freedom of expression and impromptu is necessary. Pieces can be written in Filipino, English, or any language following a strict structural guideline and nature.

Poets will use flowery expressions and powerful sentences, all while reciting them poetically, just to get their points across. They will try to "attack" their opponents using counter-arguments and counter-points whenever an opportunity arises.

The opposing poets will deliver their points respectively during the event. And as being the main goal of the event, the poets will try to persuade the audiences and a panel of judges that each of their arguments is as strong as the others and that they should be chosen as the winner of the debate.

The sole intermediary opens the event with a remark, momentarily interrupts should a poet "cross the line," and ends the event with an appreciation and a question of whether which of the poet had given the most powerful, sophisticated, acceptable, and intellectually sound argument. A winner, sometimes, will be decided when the majority votes for that said poet.

Value

Despite being an event for giving delight to an audience, this art of poetry through debate had a major role in being a medium of expressing one's opinion through art. It highly tackled complex and multi-faceted socio-political and domestic problems, and became an essential compendium for the socio-political world's point of view, like traditional editorial columns found on the printed newspapers. As a political instrument and leverage, candidates that run for higher political positions are often met with the trial of being in a Balagtasan against other running politicians. In this way, politicians are highly and unforgivingly judged by the public on how they would answer complex societal, political, domestic, and even international problems.

On the other hand, it is also often performed in schools and higher forms of educational institutions. Events are pre-practiced and are also held in front of an audience, with the audience being the judges of the debate.

Balagtasan, despite having an intermediary, demolishes the notion of the middle ground and false dichotomy fallacy. It would force its audience to decide a stance on a complex problem and uphold his or her integrity of choosing it, and will never have them decide an option way beyond and outside of the arguments' scopes. It forces the audience to not pick a lesser of the two evils, but a create solutions without ever having a single caveat that may affect the solutions in the long-term.

Impact

Over the years, Balagtasan faded into almost oblivion due to its generational decline and the rise of more popular mediums, both in informal and formal ways. It is to be noted, however, that it can also be considered that Balagtasan never really disappear of of the face of the country's literary culture but evolved and diverged into new forms of artistic and joyful debates. It is still and often performed in schools as part of cultural and subject activities, especially during August when the Month of Filipino as the National Language is annually celebrated. It is also held during specific interschool and regional competitions. Specialized theaters also support the performance of the event in front of willing audiences. The medium also had multiple derivations and evolutions in Filipino pop culture, having a notion that it never really went away proving that, even though it had been in decline, its art lingers as a timeless cultural and artistic aspect of Filipino poetry.

Sources

  1. Art and Politics in Balagtasan by Virgilio S. Almario.
  2. Balagtasan by Galileo Zafra.
  3. The Timeless Art of Balagatasan by Mylah De Leon

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Darius Razzle Paciente

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