Lawyer-poet Cecil Rajendra’s poetry remains deeply significant through the years

Cecil Rajendra rhyming with his daughter Shakila at their home in Penang in June 1991.

Veteran lawyer-poet Cecil Rajendra’s work continues to catch life by the throat.

A MOST enviable position to be in, it is ofttimes said, is to stand in a moment when one has nothing to lose.

It was just that position young Penangite Cecil Rajendra had found himself in when he strode into London’s Regency Press with a yearning to be published and a stack of poems in hand.

The year was 1965. He was a wide-eyed, 24-year-old first-year law student. Regency Press did not even publish poems. But what the heck, Cecil thought.

“As luck would have it, the managing director happened to be in and he gave me a moment. He told me they didn’t do poems, and he had no idea where Malaysia was.

“His wife, however, loved poetry, and if I could leave my poems with him, he’d see what his better half had to say about what I scribbled,” said the poet, now a wise and venerable 74 years old, in his office in Penang.

What happened after that rings of the climax in Rudyard Kipling’s If: “If you can fill the unforgiving minute, With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run, Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it, And – which is more – you’ll be a Man, my son!”

Cecil Rajendra (right) having a discussion with the audience at a poetry meet in Penang in July 1978.
Cecil Rajendra (right) having a discussion with the audience at a poetry meet in Penang in July 1978. – Filepic

So, that is how Cecil the Penangite became a published poet in London with his first slim volume of poetry aptly entitled Embryo.

In that book, his rhythmic verses tell tales of “a pain called Life”. He ruminates on its aim. He seeks out the purpose of love. He delves into a bitter, yet delicious feeling sometimes called loneliness.

It was a hit with London’s student population.

“I became a poet and got invited to anything and everything going on in the city!”

But not very many Malaysians are aware of this source of inspiration, bearing in mind that every literary artist in the globe from time immemorial has tales of knocking on the doors of scores of publishers before finding the sympathetic ear; Cecil had scored on the first knock.

Asked to elaborate, Cecil put the poetry-reading population of this country at a full 0.01%.

The communityminded Cecil (left), who used his law background to champion the everyman, meeting up with villagers in Penang in March 1985. – Filepic

“Malaysians today hardly read poetry. They think it’s highbrow activity. They are very busy with things like money and GST.

“Yet I understand. Most people ignore poetry because most poets ignore people.”

Here now, is the point of this story: World Poetry Day is going to be celebrated in Penang tonight at the grand ballroom of Eastern & Oriental (E&O) Hotel from 7pm right up to midnight.

The sub-theme is “Celebrating Cecil Rajendra”, and it is exactly 50 years since Embryo got printed and bounded.

Cast aside apprehensions of meeting an isolated and removed crafter of musical prose, because Cecil is very much a “poet of the streets”.

That is a literal description. To produce poems on Penang, Cecil roamed the backstreets of the island by motorcycle with the late master photographer Ismail Hashim (1940-2013).

“We sat around in coffeeshops chatting and looking around, and I waited for the poems to hit me.”

A host of paintings connected to Cecil Rajendras poems will be on display at the World Poetry Day celebrations in E&O Hotel on March 22. Star pic by: Gary Chen/The Star/March 18, 2015.
A host of paintings connected to Cecil’s poems will be on display at the World Poetry Day celebrations at the E&O Hotel in Penang tonight. – Photo: GARY CHEN/The Star

Together, Ismail and Cecil produced Scent Of An Island, a 2011 collection of poetry and black-and-whites that immortalise a long-gone Penang.

Cecil’s poems come in a flash while going through everyday life. He is not the prodigal poet who sits at the top of a hill to be alone and find his bang.

It would, however, take six months to a year for Cecil to fine tune his creations.

“It takes time to build a musical quality to poems. After I have a story to tell, it takes a while to get the verses just right.

“Sometimes, I take longer to finish a poem than to prepare a case,” he laughed.

By “case”, Cecil refers to his ‘regular’ profession as a human rights lawyer. He has a soft spot for people trapped in the sorry-end of the system with no one else to turn to.

He does not charge stacks and is, in fact, a founding member of the Legal Aid Bureau in Penang. Most of the time, he appears in court on a pro bono basis.

Cecil has been waxing lyrical for 50 years. He has 22 published collections across 50 countries, translated into several languages.

Yet, he still walks about anonymously in George Town and abstains from owning a handphone (it was rather difficult pinning him down to secure an interview).

But pinned down he will be tonight for World Poetry Day.

There will be a display of rarely seen paintings connected to his poems, a concert and poetry recital of treasured works from poets such as Adrian Mitchell, Usman Awang, Mohd Salleh and many more.

Humanitarian Datuk Anwar Fazal will also launch Personal & Profane – Selected Poems 1965-2015, a selection of some of Cecil’s most renowned works, published by Clarity Publications.

The event is organised by Friends of Artistes Liaison and entry is by donation (for enquries, email:

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