The task of poetry | Sunday Observer

The task of poetry

2 May, 2021

Prof. Wimal Dissanayake who is a veteran poet, critic, and a leading scholar of Asian cinema, Asian communication and cultural studies recently launched two books, one is The Kingfisher, a volume of poetry in English, second is ‘විරිත හා අරුත’ (Meter and Meaning), a critical analysis in Sinhala, both published by Sarasavi Publishers. The Sunday Observer spoke to him to discuss his art of poetry, current literary scene and his life behind the writing. Prof. Dissanayake has been awarded honorary D. Litt. professor and is also professor of the Hawaii University in America and a visiting lecturer in many other prominent foreign universities.


Q: In your view, what is poetry?

A: The task of poetry is to provide a wonderful sense of enjoyment. But the enjoyment comes through the usage of language. So poetry is a feat of language, triumph of language. There are many definitions for poetry such as concept of Hada Basa (concept of language of heart) or poetry is a heartbeat. Though all these definitions show important aspects of poetry, they should direct towards providing a wonderful sense of enjoyment in the end.

Q: How do you see genre of short story which also gives enjoyment for the reader?

A: The Short story mainly uses characters to give that enjoyment whereas poetry uses metaphors and allegories or comparisons.

Q: But narrative poetry also uses characters to present its content?

A: Yes, but the characters there appear to be shadowy, not as lively. For instance, Jayasirige Samuganeem (Jayasiri’s Farewell), my recent narrative poetry in Sinhala, uses characters to express its experience, but its metaphors and allegories override the characters. In other words, its characters appear to be shadowy.

Q: What is your assessment on poetry of Ariyawansha Ranaweera who includes parts of prose as well to his poetry?

A: There are two types in the tradition of poetry. One is mainstream,and other is alternative. The type of poetry that you spoke about belongs to the alternative tradition. You cannot reject it as saying no-poetry, because it also gives a wonderful sense of enjoyment. Besides, there is a type of poetry called Prose Poetry in the tradition of poetry. Especially amongst the English and French poetry we could identify it very often. I agree with the alternative tradition, but I categorically deny the chopped-up prose which presents as poetry.

Q: How do you see Champu poetry, a type of lyrical poetry in Sanskrit?

A: There is a combination of poetry and prose in Champu poetry, whereas in prose poetry we only see a short paragraph written as a poem. Champu poetry was developed in Sanskrit poetry and it affected Sinhala poetry too, which is why we could see many Champu poetry volumes in Sinhala literature. Even Sarachchandra wrote a Champu poetry book named Vilasiniyakage Premaya.

Q: There is a trend in present Sinhala poetry, especially during the last decade that one could write a good poetry only if he or she is a poverty-stricken person. Thus, we could see some people come forward as big poets only because of their poverty.

A: The only prerequisite for writing poetry is poetic sensibility. If you have the sensibility along with talent you could write poetry. You cannot write a good poem on prostitution just because you are a prostitute. We all know that Tolstoy was an aristocrat. But he could write about oppressed people very successfully.

When we search world literature, we cannot in dentify an oppressed people’s literature, it’s a bourgeois literature that we have. However, that literature analyses the poor people’s life very deeply and seriously. After all, it’s a plus point that you are a prostitute or porter or any other poverty-stricken person, if you are writing poetry. But that does not mean that you can write good poetry just because of that. Good poem is a miracle. That is a miracle emanating from the feat of language.

Q: Generally, a poet doesn’t write fiction, and a fiction writer doesn’t write poetry. You also don’t write fiction, only write poetry?

A: Yes, you are right. From my childhood, I was attracted to poetry, not attracted to fiction. So I never try fiction writing though I read them so much. But there are people who engage in both genres successfully. For instance, Mahagama Sekara, Sarachchandra, Gunadasa Amarasekara all wrote good fiction as well as good poetry.

Q: Don’t you see some difference in their imagination between poets and novelists though they involve in both genres? I mean, novels written by poets are different from novels written by novelists?

A: Yes, you are correct. It’s a good observation that you described. I think the difference here is their imagination, like you said. If we take Doctor Shivago by Boris Pasternak, it’s a novel with poetic elements. The imagination is also poetic in it. This is not surprising because Pasternak is a poet at large. Lolita by Vladimir Nabakov is also a poetic novel, because Nabakov had a poetic sensibility. Prof. Sarachchandra’s novels are also much more poetic. Dr. Gunadasa Amarasekara also does not introduce them as novels, but Champu Kavya or poetic novels.

Q: Luisa Valanzuela, an Argentina novelist said that it’s very hard to write in her mother tongue when she lives in America. She said that she should hear her mother tongue in her outside if she goes to write in her own language. You may also have this type of experience as you live in America?

A: Yes, quite correct, I face this problem. But now the problem is almost solved because unlike earlier times, now we always hear Sinhala language through teledramas, songs, political discussions, news, etc. around us, thanks to the modern media technology. However, it is a formidable challenge to write poetry or fiction inone’s mother tongue in a foreign land. But there are plus points too in writing like this. When we write in a foreign environment, our subconscious and our adopted language – mother tongue -work more efficiently. And also, that entails a natural alienation from the reality which is a good thing.

Q: In this way, we can think that a dead language also has some value. I read some of our old scholars used dead languages to communicate each other. For instance, Ven. Hikkaduwe Sri Sumangala Thera corresponded in Sanskrit with some of his erudite contemporaries.

A: Yes, I know that Ven. Yakkaduwe Pragnarama Thera who was my wife’s uncle communicated in Sanskrit when a Brahman ascetic came from India to meet him.

Q: You also studied Sanskrit?

A: Yes, I studied Sanskrit as a subject during my Peradeniya years. No one before me studied Sanskrit in the University of Peradeniya. But I chose to study it. My three subjects were Sinhala, Sanskrit and English, which may seem as surprising for a person. I can still read in Sanskrit and recite the Kavya Shekarayain memory (Prof. Wimal started to recite Sanskrit Kavya Shekaraya in his memory).

Q: T.S. Eliot said that one cannot write poetry in a foreign language, poetry should be written in one’s mother tongue.

A: T. S. Eliot said that one’s subtle sensual experiences are engrossed in his/ her mother tongue. So he argues that one cannot express his or her sensual experiences through a foreign language. Not only him, but also many critics and poets agree with this. There is another writer who left his mother tongue to another language for a time. He is Samuel Becket. He is Irish, but in his mid life he went to live in France, and started to write in French. There he wrote many plays and poems in French. He himself translated them into English. Some poems he wrote in English and then translated into French. However, Becket and Eliot both left the French and once again started to write in English.

Here, I would like to speak of my own experience. You know I have written seven-eight volumes of poetry in Sinhala and recently published a poetry book in English. Though I wrote in both languages, poems in Sinhala are more close to me. It is more soothing, I would enter my poetic experiences very sincerely when I write in Sinhala. So when I write in a second language such as English, some sensual obstacles emerge from nowhere, disturbing my creative expression considerably.

Q: However, your critical writings in English are very much poetic like your Sinhala writings. How did you learn to write in English so well?

A: I have been living in America for more than four decades, but my English was shaped not just by my stay in America, but by wide reading and writing in English. Reading as well as writing both affects one’s writing skills. Without my writing exercises I couldn’t have developed my writing style.

Q: I would like to know something about your background?

A: I am from Kurunegala the District, but my hometown is very much remote and rural. It’s a village called Nikawewa, 35 Kilometres away from Kurunegala. Both my parents are Sinhala teachers. We lived at school quarters which wasn’t spacious, just with two narrow rooms. I had a younger brother too. Interestingly, we both received preliminary education from the Nikawewa Vidyalaya and then moved to Trinity College, Kandy. I got my Ph.D. from Cambridge University while he got his Ph.D. from Oxford University.

Then I got my D.Lit. from Vidyalankara University while he got his D.Lit. from Oxford University. He receiveda honorary title as “Vidya Rathna” from the government and after two weeks I received ahonourary title as “SahityaRathna” as well. I think it’s a record that two brothers who started from a very remote school, got more prestigious degrees and titles almost at once.

Q: Did you have some English knowledge when you entered Trinity College?

A: No, not at all. I couldn’t speak a single English word. I remember those days no one was there in our village to read an English letter. We had to walk three miles on foot to the Post Office to get the letter read.

Q: How did you enter literature? What’s the first book you read?

A: My father always read books as he was a school teacher. I remember he read poems of Selalihini Sandeshaya, a classical poetry in Sinhala in our home. This influenced my reading profoundly. My first books were children’s story books as always. But I can recall the first serious book that I ever read. It is Pali Geneema(Revenge) by G.B. Senanayake. At that time I was six-seven years old. Though I read it, I couldn’t fully understand the book.

Q: Who are the major influences for you?

A: My first inspiration was my father. Then, there were two writers who affected me immensely. They are Ediriweera Sarachchandra and Siri Gunasinghe.Both were my lecturers in the University. I learned Sinhala from Sarachchandra, Sanskrit from Siri Gunasinghe. In addition to student – teacher relationship, we had a close connection with each other.

Q: Could you recall your University days?

A: We had a strong student – teacher relationship than nowadays. I remember that we – Sarath Amunugama, H.L. Senevirathne and me – began a free verse magazine titled “Nisandes” in the University. Dr. Siri Gunasinghe was our mentor on this matter. When there was any discussion regarding the magazine he came to us with a bottle of liqueur. My colleague Amunugama was very enthusiastic about these discussions because of the liquor and the sincere environment around us. Thus, we headed to Mahakanda in Peradeniya weekly to discuss poetry without fail. Though I didn’t consume liqueur at these meetings, I once had to take some of it because of the persuasion of Siri Gunasinghe. That was the first time that I ever consumed liqueur, but now I owe a debt of gratitude to him for it.

Q: You entered the University of Peradeniya during its golden era?

A: Yes, the year that we entered was 1958. Then Sarachchandra was in a preparation for another play, after the great success of Maname.

I met Sarachchandra before I came to the University. Once he attended the Trinity College, Kandy. I wonder whether he came to our school for judging a drama. However, I spoke few words with him as a student. I was still a follower of Peradeniya School of Literature despite the fact that I was a school child.

Here, I want to reveal that those days I could write good poetry but in the style of Colombo Era poetry. I filled them in our school magazine. Still I could write good poetry in that style which I consider rubbish.

Q: Why didn’t you part with Sarachchandra’s dramas?

A: Hemamali Gunasinghe, our senior batch mate once wrote a drama. It was originally written in Japan, and Hemamali translated it into Sinhala. Dr. Sarachchandra agreed to produce it. He named three students for the characters, one is Saratha Amunugama, another is Hemamali Gunasinghem, and other is me. I immediately refused saying, “Sir, I never acted in a drama, and I don’t ever think I could act properly.” He said, “Don’t say like that, you have a good appearance for the stage, and you have a good voice too, so you act.” I had to accept the role. Then we started rehearsals, and it went onfor three weeks. Meanwhile, Dr. Sarachchandra suddenly had to leave the country for Japan. Thereafter, the production was stopped. At the end of the day, Sinhala drama was saved by this sudden change! If not, the whole thing would have been disastrous, because of my acting!

Q: Yet, you wrote a drama for NamelWeeramuni?

A: Though I didn’t act, I wasn’t completely away from drama. I translated Anatole Franz’s play named “A Man Who Married a Dumb Wife” as GoluBirinda into Sinhala. It was originally written as a middle class drama, but in my effort I translated it as a country drama. Namel Weeramuni, my batch mate read it and produced. He still produces it enthusiastically as it was a landmark in his theatrical career.

Q: As you said before, you were directed under Dr. Sarachchandra for three weeks. Could you describe about some of his direction?

A: He focused on the pronunciation of words very much. As the drama we rehearsed was a Japanese one, he gave much attention to its pronunciation. He knew the Japanese well. I remember he advised me not to raise the voice at the endings of my phrases.

Q: Haven’t you written a drama along with Sarachchandra?

A: I co-translated a drama with Sarachchandra named Walahediya.

It was named so by Sarachchandra because the original title is“Bear” written by Chekov.

Q: Coming back to your poetry, you published a volume of poetry as Nagalakanda?

A: Yes. Nagalakanda was a mountain in front of our house. We often climbed it through the jungle, because there was a temple on it. And we had a Wewa or water reservoir near the mountain too where we bathed most of the time.

I wrote many poems based on this Wewa such as Diye Gilunu Ayyata (To Ayya who was drowned)and Miyagiya Uwasiya (Female Devotee who died).My poetry is based on my childhood experiences in this village at large.

Q: Do you believe in the notion that one should move apart from the raw experience if he wants to write it?

A: Yes, a poet needs that alienation to write down the experience successfully. Because of that he could see the experience more objectively. A poem is created by experience and imagination. These two components are essential for a poem. However, the more you are away from the raw experience, the more you imagine it deeply.

Q: To end this discussion, I would like to know about your reading habit. As far as I know you are a fast reader. You must be having a huge collection of books?

A: Yes, I am an avid reader and I can read fast. For the moment I have 5000 book collection. If you ask my wife about them, she will tell you how my study room is. My room was filled only with books, everywhere books. Now I am prepared to donate them to Vidyalankara University.

I have no capability of carrying out my other businesses such as preparing meals, washing my clothes, except reading and writing. I’m absolutely a weak man in the practical works.

– By Ravindra Wijewardhane