Yap, Arthur

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YAP, Arthur

Nationality: Singaporean. Born: Singapore, 11 January 1943. Education: University of Singapore, 1962–65, B.A. (honors) 1965; TTC Singapore, Cert. Ed. 1967; University of Leeds, England, 1974–75, M.A. 1975; National University of Singapore, 1982–84, Ph.D. 1984. Career: Education officer, Ministry of Education, Singapore, 1965–78. Since 1979 senior lecturer, National University of Singapore. Awards: National Book Development Council of Singapore's Poetry award, 1976, 1982, 1988; Southeast Asia Write award, 1983; Singapore's Cultural Medallion for poetry, 1983; Mont-Blanc-CFA award, Singapore, 1998. Address: 40 Lloyd Road, #02–48, Singapore 239107.



Only Lines. Singapore, Federal Publications, 1971.

Five Takes. Singapore, University of Singapore Press, 1974.

Commonplace. Singapore, Heinemann, 1978.

Down the Line. Singapore, Heinemann, 1980.

Man Snake Apple. Singapore, Heinemann, 1986.

The Space of City Trees: Selected Poems. London, SKOOB, 2000.

Recording: Singapore Poetry in English, National University of Singapore, 1998.

Short Stories

Singapore Short Stories. Singapore, Heinemann, 1978.


A Brief Critical Survey of Prose Writings in Singapore and Malaysia. Singapore, Educational Publications Bureau, 1971.

English Grammar and Usage. Singapore, Federal Publications, 1981.

Thematic Structure in Poetic Discourse. Singapore, Copinter, 1987.

Editor, Language Education in Multilingual Societies. Singapore, RELC, 1978.


Manuscript Collection: Central Library, National University of Singapore, Kent Ridge, Singapore.

Critical Studies: "Beyond Responsibility" by D.J. Enright, in Times Literary Supplement (London), 24 November 1978; "To Much Eliot and Alas, No Ulysses" by Anthony Burgess, in Straits Times (Singapore), 9 August 1983; "The 'Second Tongue' Myth: English Poetry in Polylingual Singapore" by Jan B. Gordon, in ARIEL (Calgary, Alberta), 15(4), October 1984; "Towards a Creative Use of the Alien Tongue: A Study of Singapore Literature in the English Language" by Miyuki Kosetsu, in Southeast Asian Studies (Kyoto, Japan), 22(1), June 1984; "The Sense of Place in Singaporean and Malaysian Poetry in English with Special Reference to Wong Phui Nam and Arthur Yap" by Anne Brewster, in A Sense of Place in the New Literatures in English, edited by Peggy Nightingale, St. Lucia, University of Queensland Press, 1986.

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Painter and short story writer as well as poet, Arthur Yap belongs to the generation of Singaporeans whose careers coincide with the development of that modern state. The history of modern Singapore has been a period of self-reliance, enterprise, pragmatic endeavor, material prosperity, and rapid change, to all of which the poetry has reacted with oblique but persistent irony, sharp observation, wry nostalgia, and enormous and genuinely original linguistic liveliness. Among poets there also has been, however, a reflective ambivalence about the solicitations for an affirmative public commitment to everything that nation building requires of its writers. In their laconic precision images like the following, from Yap's "local colour" and "elementary pieces," are characteristic:

the artist is neither here nor there
he mistakes grassroots for his hair
now the strands have sprouted in the air
flanking an attap hut as a cultural stair
the fluidity of air
tranquil even as water,
scatters hope like litter.

Yap's poetry is marked by certain distinctive features that have remained more or less constant. As in "dawn," he has an acute eye for nuanced detail of gesture and tone in the human world and of evanescence and mutability in the natural world:

dawn in the quiet key of light
utters a whole paragraph of hues
in the early mutter of an aviary.

His pared-down minimalism of grammar and imagery is more a matter of a temperamental preference for economy of means and a distaste for display rather than an affiliation with an international idiom, although the addiction to lowercase letters and other related syntactic effects is not without recollections of e.e. cummings. This can be seen in the following lines from "until":

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

Yap's witty self-consciousness about the oddities and quiddities of language use, evidence of his training and professional interest in linguistics, can enter quite directly into poems like "the grammar of a dinner," "words," "a lesson on the definite article," "parts of speech," and "group dynamics i." This leads to occasional patches of arid or riddling self-absorption, but more often it creates situations that are funny as well as insightful, as in "2 Mothers in a HDB Playground." Yap is very good with ventriloquistic effects, showing skill in portraying people through their linguistic idiosyncrasies. He can also be whimsical, playful, and self-indulgent. Part of "letter from a youth to his prospective employer" goes like this:

		i am reasonably qualified;
quite handsome; my lack of experience compensated
by my prodigal intelligence: i shall not expect
to marry the typewriter: it's decision-making
i am after; that's what i am: a leader of tomorrow;
so why don't you make it today? my personality
is personable: & all opportunities being equal:
i am equal to any most opportune moment ………

Yap's poetry also shows a tendency toward abstraction, which is corroborated by the paintings reproduced in the volume Commonplace. Poems often take off at a speculative tangent from a perceived concrete detail to go on a journey whose rewards depend on how much the reader can bring to the work by way of tolerance and stamina for nimble, imaginative free play. In brief, the style is a daring and difficult one, ever willing to take chances. It cannot be denied that for every exhilarating poem that works there are a handful of trial pieces reading like experiments that did not quite come off. But the sum total of his achievement is a considerable body of poetry that is witty, humane, and inimitable.

The principal contribution of Yap's poetry to Singaporean writing is to show how individuality can be sustained independently of the pressures to conform to conventional importunities. It practices what can best be described as a highly personal impersonality and a very disengaged engagement. It resists the times with what the moment has to offer, and its eccentric resistance redefines "the centre":

on Sunday it isn't whether the sun
& shadows have been well constructed,
they are a detachable presence.
the other days have the colours of the world.
Sunday's recitation is by omission
rather than by commission.
if you had asked, the roadsweeper
would have lent you his road.
it is the day the wheel is re-invented
to a halt.

Along with the very different work of his contemporaries and colleagues, the older Edwin Thumboo and the slightly younger Lee Tzu Pheng, Yap's poems constitute the best part of the diverse body of contemporary Singaporean writing. In their significance and interest they are comparable to the best poetry written in the past few decades from anywhere in the English-speaking world.

—Rajeev S. Patke