Uncertainty and Scepticism in Arthur Yap
A two-part essay
By Cyril Wong
Arthur Yap (born 1943) has published four collections of poetry: Only Lines (1971); Commonplace (1977); down the line (1980); and Man Snake Apple (1986). He is one of several poets whose poems are represented in 5 Takes (1974) and in Seven Poets (1973). Since then, there have been no more volumes of poetry, but selected poems from these collections have been put together, although without any new poems included, in the space of city trees (2000). He has published a handful of new poems in the Books section of the Straits Times Life!, and two recent poems – "Fair Youth" and "On Offal" – on QLRS in October 2001.
Where is Yap now in the collective consciousness of contemporary readers and writers of poetry? What impressions have his poetry left upon them? Are these impressions ultimately accurate, or simply one-sided and misconceived? Is Yap still relevant today, or does his poetry extend beyond time and social context? I would want to argue in this essay that there has been general misunderstanding of Yap's poetic agenda and his themes, shaped and encouraged possibly by socio-political factors.
In writing about Singapore poetry, John Kwan-Terry has named Edwin Thumboo, Arthur Yap, and Lee Tzu Pheng as having "built a tradition where none existed before and a poetry that has come to possess a sense of poise and confidence." This refers to the period from the 1950s to 1970s, when Singapore faced new uncertainties; it had only just been separated from Malaysia to become an independent state in 1965, after almost one hundred and fifty years of British colonialism. The poets reacted to these uncertainties. As Chua Beng Huat and Eddie Kuo have put it, "Singapore as an independent nation-state was first and foremost a political reality foisted on a population, in 1965, under conditions beyond the latter's control." This is a reality which Thumboo clearly expresses enthusiasm for, as demonstrated in his poems of the 1970s. These poems possess a hopeful certainty of commitment towards the successful construction of Singapore's identity as a nation.
Other poets like Lee Tzu Pheng and Yap have been described as avoiding the more overtly nationalistic tendencies evident in Thumboo's work, and as possessing more of a "private sensibility" (Kirpal Singh in his introduction to Interlogue 1999). However, it can be argued that these poets construct an imagined community called Singapore. Their work too respond to the socio-cultural uncertainties of their time, the forces of nation-building, and the impact these forces have upon their society. In an interview with Kevin Sullivan, Yap is asked if he is in sympathy with Thumboo's opinion that "the writer must explain his society, bring into focus the forces, whether healthy or pernicious, which move society." Yap's answer is "No," although it can be argued that such poems as "2 mothers in a h d b playground" (1980) and "old house at ang siang hill" (1971) clearly reveal an active engagement with his social environment. I will analyse such poems in greater detail to show how these poems do not just offer scope for interpretation as forms of social satire and criticism, but evince an overall sense of ambivalence and uncertainty in relation to their social themes which discourages such a simplified approach to interpretation.
In the same interview with Sullivan, Yap also said, "I'm not a person who wants to write poems with a political basis or a social basis... if that is really what I want to do then I would rather be a politician or a social worker, or whatever it is." This is in contrast to Thumboo's own opinion on the writing of poetry in relation to the social context it is written in, as when he writes, "The role of the writer in society should be a central issue." Yap seems to be expressing views that emanate from a temperament that is not comfortable or convinced by the call for poets to take a public role on issues such as nation building. This is something that Thumboo apparently finds suited to his temperament. Yet, a solid case can be made for the claim that the great majority of poems in Yap's oeuvre does confront discourses that shape the societal context in which he is situated. But Yap ultimately promotes a position of uncertainty and scepticism in relation to these social issues, in which often contradictory attitudes toward such issues are juxtaposed and left without one winning out over the other. Instead, Yap seems to encourage dwelling within this ambivalence, and to leave alone the tension between opposing attitudes.
This may be demonstrated in poems like "old house at ang siang hill." The poem ends with the lines: "nothing much will be missed / eyes not tradition tell you this," which contain a possible criticism of the failure to recognise the value of the past in a current Singaporean context in which greater priority is given to the promotion of economic discourses and the effects of urban renewal. In this poem, Yap casts doubt over the certainties inherent in policies of urban renewal and industrialisation, by suggesting a new sense of the importance of alternative narratives about the sense of a collective or communal past otherwise ignored by the discourses of urban renewal. These discourses suggest certainty in the way they are promoted as compulsory, unproblematic measures to turn Singapore into a urban centre in order for this country to succeed economically as an independent nation. It is a certainty taken for granted that alternative narratives of the past may be eradicated without any consequence or sense of loss for the urban context of the present. The poem, however, does not deal with how there may always and inevitably be several accounts of the past in contention for public recognition. The poem alludes rather ambiguously to a collective narrative of "tradition." There may subsist a kind of muted acceptance of the loss of this ambiguous notion of the past. The ending provides space for ambivalence in the way it is possible to take the lines in several, and not always mutually compatible, ways.
For example, the line may suggest that there is indeed nothing worth missing with regard to the old house and its metonymic allusions to the past. The line hovers over the possibility that it ventriloquises – with or without irony – the opposite view, which accepts and, maybe, even endorses the logic of urban renewal, which sees no reason for mourning over a past that is being renovated. It may also be said that the speaker is ventriloquising a point of view ideologically inculcated by the state to perceive the loss of the past as unimportant in the necessary light of urban development. The ambivalence suggests that the poem may or may not contain a sardonic sense of irony and covert dissent aimed exactly at this conditioned-mentality of indifference to "tradition." It is made deliberately unclear whether the reader should read the last few lines of the poem as ironic or not. In its ambivalence and understatement, it is possible for the reader to project that specific nuance into the implied meaning of the poem. But the overall sense of the speaker's attitude is still uncertain because of this ambivalence, inviting the reader to have potentially contradictory interpretations of the poem at one and the same time, in the same way that the speaker is himself uncertain in his opinion about the renewal of the past. Yap adopts a position that stands between reproving the processes of urban renewal on one hand and accepting these processes as a pragmatic necessity on the other. In choosing both or neither attitudes, the reader is encouraged to enter the same ambivalent space as Yap.
Poems like "grammar of a dinner" (1980) illustrate Yap's frequent play with language. In others like "paraphrase" (1986), he makes a more profound point about the nature of language as a system of knowing, showing up the more unpredictable facets of language and playing up its propensities for uncertainty and ambivalence. Yap uses language with an overt self-consciousness which already figures in the systematic use of lower case, and in his frequent play with grammatical structures in many of his poems. "grammar of a dinner", for instance, with lines like "let's have john for chicken for dinner," playfully demonstrates the possible "substitution of parts of speech, the manipulation of syntax and grammar" (Robert Yeo in Interlogue 1999), which hint at the possible uncertainties of language.
Jacques Derrida has opened up an aspect of undecidability in the origins of meaning in language, in the way final meanings can never be secured as a result of the ability of a linguistic sign to break free from any given context. In a poem like "words" (1980), Yap opens up a fundamental uncertainty in a similar way to how Derrida counters the conventional assumption that language is capable of producing complete, certain meanings. In this poem, when Yap refers to how "we have a way of stilling words," the poem portrays this stillness as an uncertain and vulnerable state. The act of "stilling words" is akin to the way in which people insist that words bear complete and unambiguous meanings in any given context. Derrida has shown that words are to an indeterminable degree uncertain and vulnerable in the way they can break with every given context. The contrast between the penultimate line in the poem and the final, longer line emphasises this fragility of the stillness referred to repeatedly in the poem, hinting at the likelihood that such a stillness may be disrupted, with the implication that this inclination for disruption is that which also allows for the possibility of stillness. Also, "minute" in the last line hints at a unit of time which is brief and temporary, in the same way that the state of stillness is also brief and temporary. Besides hinting at our limited capacity to "still" words, Yap openly hesitates, then changes his mind in the poem when he writes, "& then, no, we have a way...," clearly revealing and promoting his own uncertainty and scepticism about ever knowing the extent to which we may still words, and the extent to which words are actually capable of "stilling themselves."
The propensity to repeat in everyday life is a theme which occurs in "they are days" (1980). Here are the first few lines:
In this poem, two types of repeatability are evoked. At one level, there is the sense of repeatability in the way "each day has what each day has," suggesting there are aspects of each day that recur predictably. The poem also suggests that what is "best" about each day is really the element which differentiates each day from the others. This points to the assumption that for every single day to be repeated exactly as the one that came before would be intolerable, and that what is bearable about each day is the fact of its difference from other days. In other words, we require difference in the repetition of each day.
A second type of repeatability comes into play when the poet describes this variability which distinguishes one day from the next as itself "a constant" and a kind of repetition. The immanent inclination to repeat which Freud had posited may be demonstrated in the poem where the variability as well as similarity of each day are both portrayed as forming different levels of repetition. However, the variability of each day as one kind of repetition stands in ironic contradiction or tension in relation to the other kind of repeatability implied by the resemblance of one day to another. What is welcome of each day is its capacity for variation, which is ironically depicted by the poem as a kind of repetition in itself. This results in a tension between the two incongruous forms of repetition which the poet refrains from resolving within the poem. Instead, the poet encourages a pluralistic point of view which accepts the viability of each form of repeatability, even if one might suppose that in ordinary terms most of us would be inclined to find it difficult to support both at the same time, as the poem manages to do.
So far, I have tried to show that Yap's poems reveal a complex interaction between the self and its environment (cultural, physical, political, social, linguistic etc.) which hovers between a conscious and an involuntary response across an entire spectrum of implied or explicit attitudes ranging from uncertainty, through ambivalence and ambiguity, to scepticism and resistance.
Now, I want todiscuss the significance of Yap's poetry on the contemporary writing scene in Singapore. To begin with, let us look at specific generalizations, such as Thumboo as social poet, Yap as private, eccentric, and difficult poet. Contrary to popular belief, Thumboo may actually be seen as more of a private poet rather than a social one. As Rajeev Patke has noted in Interlogue, "it is possible to argue that there are far more poems commemorating personal friendships in Thumboo's oeuvre than utterances of the kind that get inscribed on public monuments." This runs counter to the frequent notion of Thumboo's poetry as more committed to a political standpoint and exclusively committed to the evocation of a coherent, national identity. Also, Yap's oeuvre reveals a greater preponderance of poems with social themes. On account of this, it may be argued that Yap is not the private poet that everyone claims he is, despite his eschewing the nationalistic rhetoric and didacticism evident in Thumboo's poems.
The poems by Yap best known in Singapore are such poems as "old house at ang siang hill" (1971) and "2 mothers in a h d b playground" (1980) which deal chiefly with specific aspects of society. More importantly, Yap deals with individuals other than the self in such poems. I want to also emphasise that his poems do not actually reveal "a trenchant critique of our society and its attentiveness to things superficial" (Kirpal Singh in his introduction to Interlogue 1999). This is because to adopt a social critique would entail a definite point of view regarding such social themes as the effects of urbanisation or materialism in Singapore. Yap offers a conscious or unconscious allowance for different, even contradictory interpretations in his poems that may run counter to the common belief that these poems evince a straightforward agenda to satirise and criticise aspects of society.
In "2 mothers in a h d b playground," for instance, the vivid dramatisation of a conversation between mothers, during which they talk about such matters as the spending of money and the intelligence of their children, is not accompanied by overt comments made by the poet to promote a definite point of view concerning the social issues evoked by their conversation. This creates uncertainty about whether the poem implies that the themes of affluence and materialism alluded to by the "2 mothers" be read disapprovingly, or whether such a dramatisation may also be read in a possibly celebratory way. I have tried to argue that such ambivalences in Yap's poems may point to a sceptical mode of uncertainty reluctant to deny the viability of either of the conflicting perspectives opened up in the space of the poems. It may be that such ambivalences that have encouraged the perception of Yap as a private and obscure poet uncommitted to confronting social themes unlike Thumboo.
In his collections, Yap frequently dramatises situations where the characters are familiarly and characteristically Singaporean. He may write many poems which explore with a sense of play the nature of language, but even in a poem like "a lesson on the definite article" (2000), for instance, the poet makes fun of a "girl with bank-teller's eyes" and an "accent" who is suggestively Singaporean in his portrayal. Other than the obvious social themes in such poems as "old house at ang siang hill" (1971) and "letter from a youth to his prospective employer" (1977), Yap's poems also evince socially-mimetic elements in terms of the incorporation of Singlish and the ventriloquising of distinctly Singaporean voices. Shirley Lim has also written that "Yap's experiments with local English offer one route to the construction of a 'national literature'" in Singapore, hinting at the need for such a literature which could aid in defining the national identity of such a new country. Singh has commented that Yap's use of Singlish may have "paved the way for a more meaningful acceptance of common parlance."
The remarks by Lim and Singh suggest that Yap's poetry is significant and important in the local context due to its usages of Singlish, which in turn enhances the indigenous flavour and sense of locality within the variety of English poetry published in Singapore. I would like to suggest that this hints at a possible insecurity within the local literary scene which fears that its literature may not be distinctive enough in relation to the literary output from other countries with a longer history of writing and literature. This is in turn connected to the country's general insecurity about the incipient stage at which its identity is being formed. To aid in the consolidation of such a identity, the establishment of a national literature not only abundant in works by local writers but also distinctively localised in flavour would indeed play a significant role. The role of Singlish as an indigenous variety of English is also given more dignity for being incorporated into a national literature. It is ironic then that a supposedly private and difficult poet such as Yap should be seen as being linked to such a socially-conscious cause of enhancing and affirming the national identity of Singapore.
Yap's poems do not shy away from going down to the micro-level of society when they deal with specific individuals or relationships between individuals. A poem like "an afternoon nap" (1977), dramatises the recurrence of a mother scolding and beating her son, who yells back at her. The context is familiarly Singaporean. The poem alludes to "report-book grades" and the mother's "expensive taste for education," which reflects the general obsession with obtaining formal qualifications in Singapore. This stems from a societal ethos which places a high value upon a life of hard work towards eventual affluence and the way in which good examination grades may pave the way towards such a life. The poem illustrates the corollary pressures placed on both Singaporean children and their parents as a result of this ethos. Yap hints at broad social themes through the dramatisation of the behaviour or psychology of particular individuals.
One simply cannot ignore that Yap is a poet interested in society, as many of such poems point implicitly or explicitly to aspects of the social ideologies or preoccupations prevalent in Singapore society. But, as I have mentioned before, such poems regularly promote the tension between the opposing ways of interpreting their engagements with society. Also, the frequent use of Singlish in his poetry enables him to evoke the social context more convincingly and dramatically in his poems, such that readers of such poems relate more readily to their social allusions and themes. As such, it would seem that he is a poet more engaged with Singaporean society than he has been commonly perceived, regardless of the uncertainties and the ambivalences predominant in his work, and even more significantly and effectively so than Thumboo.