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.
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QLRS Vol. 1 No. 4 Jul 2002