25 June 2006

Goodbye, Arthur


Singaporean poet Arthur Yap died last week of throat cancer. Arthur has had the distinction of being listed in the encyclopaedic Oxford Companion to 20th Century Poetry. Thus, in the opinion of Oxford academics, Arthur counts as one of the world's most significant poets to have lived anytime in the past 100 years.

Still there are folks who believe that nothing in Singapore literature is worth teaching in our schools. How foolish.

Personally, I can't say that Arthur Yap is among my favourite poets. Technically, I find his poems very impressive. Emotionally, I find them difficult to love. I've reproduced one of his old poems below that perhaps illustrates what I mean. But perhaps it will be loved by those who have recently been insisting that our schools must return to a serious teaching of the rules of grammar.

      the grammar of a dinner

      let's have chicken for dinner.

      somewhere else, someone else utters:
      let's have john for dinner.
      we are alarmed by the latter
      but a dinner, too, has its own grammar
      & we are assured by grammarians
      both utterances are in order.

      john, + animate, + human,
      couldn't be passed off as repast.
      chicken is + animate, - human,
      & can end up in any oven.
      if we combine the items of grammar
      the way things in cooking are,
      we would then have:
      let's have chicken for john for dinner,
      let's have chicken for dinner for john,
      let's have for john chicken for dinner,
      let's have for dinner for john chicken;
      but probably not:
      let's have john for chicken for dinner,
      let's have for dinner john for chicken.

      john is a noun holding knife & fork.
      chicken collocates with the verb eat.
      grammarians favour such words
      as delicious & john eats happily,
      but in a gastronomic dinner
      taxonomic john isn't to eat deliciously.

That is an intensely rigorous poem, the kind that takes a few very basic, everyday words - "john", "chicken", "dinner", "eat", "delicious" - turns them inside out and extracts the maximum from them. Janadas Devan, writing for the Sunday Times, descibes this as Arthur's "extraordinary focus on the innards of language ... Nobody has come close to commanding the technical skills Yap possessed to be able to dig through words to reveal, like X-ray photographs, their skeletal structures."

June 25, 2006
Pared down poet
By Janadas Devan

ONE of Singapore's most significant artists died last week. Few Singaporeans would have noticed. Arthur Yap was a considerable painter, a gifted poet, a rare talent, but he was virtually unknown beyond the small circle of his admirers. 'For poetry makes nothing happen,' as W.H. Auden wrote on the occasion of the death of W.B Yeats. That is true everywhere, of course, but nowhere more true than in Singapore - and among Singaporean writers, more true of Yap than of any other writer.

He was the most unpoetical poet imaginable, both in his person as well as in his work. He was certainly the neatest poet I have ever met, the least emphatic, the most deliberately unlyrical. Everything about him was pared down: Physically, he was excruciatingly thin; his clothes were so understated they seemed designed, not to clothe him, but to ensure his invisibility; his gestures were algebraic equations. 'Beauty is subtraction' - one sensed this abstractionist motto served as both his personal as well as aesthetic credo.

Take this poem, 'until', on the death of his brother Anthony:

until anthony passed away
i never saw cheeriest optimism
a person leaving hospital,
family carrying bags & he himself.

What extraordinary emotion, bitterness even, lies below the surface of those lines. And yet the emotion is barely alluded to. What we are offered instead is a startling definition of optimism: A person leaving hospital, his family carrying his bags, and he carrying himself, unaided.

'Not 'until' Anthony died,' Arthur says here, 'did that image occur to me as a definition of optimism.' And that is all he chooses to say - not an iota more.

Or take this, from 'event':

a little combed & frilled girl,
smile older,
at her wedding, the aunt's.
combed & frail,
smile smaller, the bride's teeth
stuck to her gums.
the occasion gave it beauty.

There is satire here, certainly - the bride's 'small' smile, the teeth sticking to her gums - but it is understated. There is irony - 'the occasion gave it beauty' - but it is glancing. The satire and the irony are contained in the sharply observed scene. Like a photographer, Yap judiciously records the scene, and fastidiously refrains from adding to it.

This kind of thing is far harder to do than it appears. Take that 'smile older'. As one critic of Yap's work, Geraldine Heng, has noted, a lesser poet would have said 'a little combed & frilled girl, with an old smile' or 'with a smile older than her years'. Only Yap would choose to say 'smile older', subtracting two to five unnecessary words.

This insistence on stripping things down to their bare essence, this refusal to be poetic, has made Yap a particularly difficult poet. I know of no one who has spontaneously quoted from his work to mark an occasion, illustrate a point, clinch an argument or move an audience. His poetry does not lend itself to such uses.

There is little lyricism in it, of the kind one finds in Edwin Thumboo's work ('If I should sleep and never wake/ What rib of earth, gift of you/ Will the angels let me take?'); no acute registration of shifting inner landscapes, as in Lee Tzu Pheng's ('When I look out and think I see day coming,/ Then, turn me from the dark heart of the sun'); no eloquence, as in Alfian Sa'at's ('When the blind are lonely do we lend them our mirrors?').

Yap's work has none of the qualities one usually finds in poetry. What it does have, what it offers - and in offering, demands from its readers - is an extraordinary focus on the innards of language. Nobody writing in English in Singapore has come close to producing such bare bones poetry, with no hint of fat. Nobody has come close to commanding the technical skills Yap possessed to be able to dig through words to reveal, like X-ray photographs, their skeletal structures.


My wife once gave a copy of one of his collections of poems to A.R. Ammons, the distinguished American poet. Ammons was struck by their distinction, surprised he had never heard of Yap. He read the collection from cover to cover, pointing at different lines, repeating 'this is good, this is very good'.

It is absurd that we are still debating whether writers like Yap should be read in our schools. Here is a Singaporean; he did these astonishing things with the English language; surely, that is a fact worth remarking.

I will leave it at that. Arthur Yap wouldn't have approved of anything more emphatic. Less is best, he would have said. And the rest is silence.

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Anonymous said...

I'm sure many Singaporeans and I can write much better poetry, we just don't brag about it. (Hey fans, you can dream on using my words for your instant self-gratifications)

Poetry is personal. The greatest poetry is of the unheard, not some crap. There I said it so fcuk off if you think otherwise.

For Singaporeans who think they are so and so if they managed to publish a book or write some literary nonsense in the papers, I say wake up and get a life, many others can write much better.

Riding on high horsies will never get Singapore known for its Literature.

Medusa aka expiringpoet said...

Thank you Mr Wang, for sharing this. Its a sad loss for Singapore. Hopefully the younger generation of local poets will be much better appreciated by their fellow singaporeans for their unique talents.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous at Sunday, June 25, 2006 11:33:30 PM - I'm sure many Singaporeans and I can write much better poetry, we just don't brag about it.

You just did. Bragged about it, I mean. Bragged about the non-existent excellent poetry that you can write.

Anonymous - There I said it so fcuk off if you think otherwise.

If you can't cope with disagreement, get your own blog, disallow comments and don't give email address, IM names etc.

Your entire comment is sheer nonsense.


My favourite line from Arthur Yap:

there is no future in nostalgia
and no nostalgia in the future of the past.

Quoting from memory, apologies for any misquote.

Anonymous said...

Haha, who knows, maybe the first Anonymous is Li Shengwu himself, the son of Lee Hsien Loong who's going around demanding that local literature not be taught in SIingapore schools.

smazh said...

I read Arthur Yap's poem 'Old House at Ang Siang Hill' during English literature classes in school. That's how I came to know of him. It's sad he has passed away.

Anonymous said...

Li Sheng Wu who won the Angus Ross Prize for 2004 A'Levels is the son of Lee Hsien Yang NOT Lee Hsien Loong.

Anonymous said...

Further analysis:

"let's have chicken for john for dinner"

---> The host's suggestion is to provide chicken to John, at the dinner. This sentence leaves open the possibility that others at the dinner will NOT be having chicken, but will be having other kinds of food.

"let's have chicken for dinner for john"

---> This has two equally plausible meanings:

(a) everyone will be having chicken for dinner, and the host is suggesting chicken specifically because of John (eg because John likes chicken); or

(b) the dinner is held because of John (eg he is a special guest). So this is a "dinner for John". The host is suggesting that chicken shall be the main course for this dinner.

let's have for john chicken for dinner,

---> This sentence does not convey any idea that the dinner is being organised specifically because of John. This sentence does have two possible meanings:

(a) the suggestion is that John will be having chicken for dinner, while other people may be having other kinds of food; OR

(b) the host is suggesting chicken as a main course for everyone, but the choice is made with John as the special consideration (eg because the host knows that JOhn likes chicken).

let's have for dinner for john chicken;

---> The dinner is being held specially for John. The suggestion is to eat chicken. John is not a special consideration in the making of this choice.


As Mr Wang has said, very rigorous ... and difficult to love,

Anonymous said...

He did astonishing things with the English language?

He did astonishing things with Singlish!

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