Sri Lankan Poetry in English

Getting Beyond the Colonial Heritage

by D. C. R. A. Goonetilleke, ARIEL: A Review of International English Literature, 21 : 3 , July 1990

THE CONTINUING AND growing vitality during the last three
decades of Sri Lankan literature in English seems to be disproving
the prophecies of gloom and doom made periodically about it. In
1964, in The Ceylon Observer, Ashley Halpe said: “Now, after
more than a hundred years of Ceylonese writing in English, we
can at last see the approach of the end. For those who have kept a
finger on the pulse, the realisation must surely be accompanied by
relief. Nothing of major significance has been achieved, nor is such
an achievement likely in the short future that remains” ( 2 ) . In
1971, in his review-article “New Ceylon English,” T. Kandiah
argued : “there is no distinctively Ceylonese style for creative writing
in English. If a distinctively Ceylonese style of writing had ever
had a moment when it could have come into being, the creative
writers had missed i t” (91-92). In 1981, in her “Introduction”
to An Anthology of Modern Writing from Sri Lanka, Ranjini
Obeyesekere asserted : “For the most part, the prognosis for creative
writing in English in Sri Lanka is gloomy. As has been the
case with the English theatre in Sri Lanka, creative writing in
English is unlikely to have the chance for survival that its counterpart
in India has” ( 1 7 ) . But Sri Lanka’s English writers have
reached particularly in the field of poetry a degree of achievement
that compares favourably in quality with good poetry in English
anywhere.

As in many countries, the colonial period in Sri Lanka was, despite
fitful flashes, generally an era of mean achievement as far as
original writing in English was concerned ; it did produce the novel
The Village in the Jungle ( 1913), still the finest imaginative work
40
about the island, but that was by an Englishman, Leonard Woolf,
just as the best creative work in the nineteenth century, Forest Life
in Ceylon (1854), was by another Englishman, William Knighton.
The presence of the colonial masters had a suffocating effect
on the creative energies of the local inhabitants and it was only
after Independence in 1948 that a body of literature in English
by Sri Lankans began to emerge. Actually, this had to wait till
after 1956.
Sri Lanka was granted independence by Britain mainly as a consequence
of the freedom struggle in India. Because this independence
was won more easily — perhaps, too easily — the Sri
Lankans did not forge as strong a national consciousness as the
Indians. In fact, neither country has been fully successful in this
regard, if we are to judge by the current separatist tendencies in
both countries, but Sri Lanka has been much the less successful
of the two, especially given the comparative smallness of scale of
its problems, though these are no less acute than India’s. Frantz
Fanon, in The Wretched of the Earth, argues that violence is
necessary in the process of decolonization to unify and truly liberate
the native people (26, 57, 5 4 ) , but I do not wish to endorse
this stand, mindful that violence can be in itself an evil and that
there is much cost in human and other terms. Even after Independence,
the ruling and social élites in Sri Lanka consisted of
“brown sahibs.” But it did not take long for nationalist currents
to surface, however extremist they might have been. The year 1956
is, in several ways, a watershed in Sri Lankan history. A national
dress with all that it symbolizes, replaced the top hat and coattails,
and English was displaced from its pre-eminent position as
the official language and the medium of instruction in schools and
universities. English was relegated to the status of a second language,
despite the regrets of the English-educated classes. But it
was not properly treated as a second language; it was neglected
for two decades and even reviled. Paradoxically, it was in this
context that literature in English by Sri Lankans came into prominence.
Faced with the loss or at least a significant diminution
of their privileges, the English-educated became more aware of
themselves and the social, cultural, and literary context in which
they lived. Their response to the changes of 1956 was negative
rather than positive, yet it led to fruitful results in the field of
creative writing.
Of course, before 1956, poetry in English did exist in Sri Lanka.
In fact, Ashley Halpe, in his article “George Keyt: A Felicitation,”
claims that Keyt, who, well-known as a painter of extraordinary
talent, published three volumes of poetry around 1935-37 (Poems,
The Darkness Disrobed, and Image in Absence), is “Sri Lanka’s
first modern poet” and “first authentically modern poetic voice”
( 32 ) ; but it seems to me that there is nothing of what one usually
associates with modernity in spirit or form in Keyt’s poetry even at
its best and as art, modern or not, his poetry does not engage my
interest :

In a lonely place, among leafless branches,
There are images seated in a circle,
There are placid faces and unseeing eyes.
In everlasting silence
There are words spoken with voices from somewhere else,
Very soft, very distant.
The words are spoken, uttered in vibration,
Around that lonely place,
And the desolation listens. (Keyt 18)

This is the abstract, pseudo-metaphysical kind of poetry one would
expect Professor Godbole1 to write if he were so inclined.
Around the mid-1930s and early 1940s, poetry was being written
by the contributors to the Blue Page of the Ceylon Daily News2
and the Kandy Lake poets — poetry not satisfactory or satisfying
as art but revealing tendencies of interest, literary and social. Characteristic
of such poetry are these lines of Sunetha Wickremasinghe,
a Kandy Lake poet :

See the nights are dewy, sister; see the winds are friends to me
Lone the moonlight breaths a whisper o’er the dreaming Mahaveli.. .
You may call it madness, sister, but to stay me, O ’tis vain,
For the winds of freedom beckon, hark they call again, again —
Yours the call of glorious wisdom, Learning’s pathway high and steep
But for me the starlit forests and the wonders of the deep.
42
These poets obviously were influenced by the Romantics and Tennyson,
to whom their literary education was restricted at school,
and later were inspired by Indian poets such as Rabindranath
Tagore and Sarojini Naidu and, more so, by Rev. W. S.
Senior’s effort to be a bard of Lanka. It is a curious coincidence
that, like the great Romantics who died young (Byron when he
was thirty-six, Shelley at thirty, and Keats at twenty-six), most of
them ( Sunetha Wickremasinghe, Helen and Hector D ‘ Alwis, and
Earle Mendis) suffered a similar cruel fate. Nature and the human
heart, treated in a manner reminiscent of the Georgians, were
their main preoccupations and “dreaming” was a keynote of the
Kandy Lake poets. The human tendencies in the poetry reflect
their well-to-do, alienated (that is, alienated from the mass of the
people, their traditions, and their problems) though well-meaning
existence.
When our writers began to feel nationalist currents keenly after
1956, whatever their reaction to them, their central problem was
that which all writers faced in ex-colonies at the same stage of literary
development — that of reconciling their own sensibilities, indigenous
traditions and realities, on the one hand, and Western
literary and other traditions and influences, on the other. The
problem can be extremely difficult and lead to cultural dislocation :
in his poem “Stanley Meets Mutesa,” David Rubadiri clearly
wishes to suggest that the meeting of the two men represents a
penetration of his own culture by the West, but the poem verges
closely on the stereotyped Western account of the coming of the
white man. But Gabriel Okara, in his poem “Piano and Drums,”
is able to present the conflict of cultures more effectively from an
African point of view.
In Sri Lanka, the predicament of the writer at this stage is partly
illustrated by Ashley Halpe’s poem “the Boyhood of Chittha.” It
is an account of, and a reaction to, his upbringing under the influence
of two cultures. He first imbibes his native culture in the form
of stories of old, which blend history and legend :

Gemunu, tearing out brilliant earrings
for the starved monk, reeked copious blood
on golden shoulder-blades ; his famous elephant
was huge as a double-decker, wise as father;
43
and Yasodhara blushed in every breeze,
so fine her noble skin. (Silent Arbiters 2)

His kind of progress is towards Western culture which moulds his
early poetry:

And so to Robin Hood, Drake-filled Devon,
Prince Arthur, and Lancelot of the Lake,
(Abridged and Simplified). At seven
he versified — after a fashion —
Horatius, Columbus, the evening star. (2-3)

Significantly, whatever he learnt of his own culture was from a
servant who, moreover, “not surprisingly, was sacked” (3), and
his bitterness towards both the circumstances into which he was
born and his own divided personality is evident.
Given such conditioning, Gamini Seneviratne, a poet of the
1960s, came naturally to write of his personal predicament in this
vein in “Two Songs of Myself” :

Am a lone wolf
in the winter forest gnawing the ice.
If I should see a man
stamping into warmth on covered thighs
I’d pull him down
and tear at him. ( 1 )

It is not illegitimate for a poet to use culturally alien (in this instance,
extended) imagery. The poet has the right to exploit every
area of experience and resource of language, alien or not, and this
kind of Western experience and language may even be regarded
as having become international through common knowledge and
currency. In a way, the crucial question is whether the poet communicates
his meaning and in this case Seneviratne certainly does
so on his own rather adolescent level. But all this is less than complete
justification and how well he conveys his meaning is an
important question : that Seneviratne should write in this manner
is evidence of his deracination and his style is thereby less immediate.
It is a commonplace in literary criticism to adopt the position,
as Ashley Halpe and D. M . de Silva do, in their “Introduction”
to Selections of English Poetry for G.C.E. (A/L) 1973-74, that
44
“the most characteristic problem of the Commonwealth poet is
that of being caught between old and new, between inherited and
acquired” (v). What is more, it is taken for granted that this problem
is everywhere and always true of Commonwealth poetry. Actually,
it is only partly true and the problem ceased to be central
or important a decade or two after independence from colonial
rule. With “the clash of cultures” phase now over and behind
them, the poets in the Commonwealth write as do their counterparts
in Britain or America — out of their personal situations.
Another commonplace of literary criticism concerns what is regarded
as a major problem for the Commonwealth writer, the
choice or adoption of the English language. David Carroll, referring
to African writers, in his book Chinua Achebe, says: “We are
faced with the paradox of a people describing and identifying
themselves by means of a foreign language which embodies the
values and categories from which they are seeking to free themselves”
( 23 ) . In Sri Lanka, the English language was taken for
granted by many writers and posed no problem to many even
during the early stages of our literary development, whereas, in
others, it excited strong feelings and even contributed to dislocating
personality. In 1965, in his “Note” to his collection of poems
Lustre, Lakdasa Wikkramasinha wrote :

I have come to realise that I am using the language of the most
despicable and loathsome people on earth; I have no wish to extend
its life and range, enrich its tonality.
To write in English is a form of cultural treason. I have had for
the future to think of a way of circumventing this treason; I propose
to do this by making my writing entirely immoralist and
destructive. (51)
On the other hand, Yasmine Gooneratne takes to the English
language without trauma and even approaches it as a lover in her
poem “This Language, This Woman” :

So do not call her slut, and alien,
names born of envy and your own misuse
that whisper how desire in secret runs.
She has known greatness, borne illustrious sons,
her mind’s well-stored, her lovely nature’s rich,
filled with these splendid warm surprises which,
45
now the distorting old connections done,
fit her to be your mistress, and my Muse.
(Word Bird Motif 48)

The diverse responses of the creative writers to English and their
tendency to make the language of literature an issue especially
during the early stages (that is, immediately after Independence)
of Commonwealth Literature are valid, but not the arbitrary and
simplistic demands of critics. It is the generally accepted view of
twentieth-century poets and critics that the language of poetry is
more effective, if not only effective, when it reflects the idiom of
everyday speech. In his essay “The Social Function of Poetry,”
T. S. Eliot argues: “. . . poetry has primarily to do with the expression
of feeling and emotion ; . . . Emotion and feeling are best
expressed in the common language of the people — that is, in the
language common to all classes: the structure, the rhythm, the
sound, the idiom of a language, expresses the personality of the
people which speaks it. . . . a poet must take as his material his own
language as it is actually spoken around him” (19, 2 2 ) . In his
essay “Discoveries,” W . B. Yeats observes that in “literature, partly
from the lack of that spoken word which knits us to normal man,
we have lost in personality, in our delight in the whole man —
blood, imagination, intellect, running together” ( 2 6 6 ) , and he sets
out to make good this supposed loss in his own later poetry. As in
his book Revaluation, F. R. Leavis, perhaps the most influential
critic of this century and the counterpart of Johnson, Coleridge,
and Matthew Arnold in their day, consistently lauds the poets, such
as Donne, Hopkins, and T. S. Eliot, who employ the “utterance,
movement and intonation . . . of the talking voice” ( 1 1 ).
But it seems to me that this point of view is vulnerable. It ignores
key questions, though it is true that modern poets made a contribution
to literature by re-introducing conversational tones after
these had been virtually banished for a long time in Romantic
rhetoric and musicality (particularly during the Victorian period).
Modem linguistics has sharpened our awareness of the varieties of
speech and dialects, of regional, class, group, and individual variations
in speech of the same language within single countries. From
which kind of speech should the language of poetry draw sustenance?
Can there be universally applicable touchstones? How
46
much does it account for the achievements of modern poetry itself?
Despite Yeats’s declared view and though F. R. Leavis in New
Bearings in English Poetry praised Yeats’s later poetry for employing
“the idiom and movement of modern speech” ( 42 ), the language
of Yeats’s great poems such as “Sailing to Byzantium” and
“Among School Children,” though incorporating elements of polite
educated speech, is basically and in an overall way, stylized.
Really, what matters is whether poetry works as poetry, whatever
the kind of language that is employed.
Sri Lankan critics have adapted the Western position on the
language of poetry. In “New Ceylon English,” T. Kandiah argues
that the language of the Sri Lankan writer should reflect “in an
ideal form the actual rhythms and idiom of living Ceylon English
speech” (92) and, furthermore, that the language of the Sri
Lankan writer in English gains vitality if “derived from Sinhala,”
from the vernacular ( 9 1 ) . The argument is also put in a crude and
dogmatic form by Quadri Ismail in his article “Wanted: An Offensive
Poetry” : “no Lankan poet, seeking to evolve through his
work a Lankan identity, can hope to do so without an equal commitment
to the Lankan language” ( 2 4 ) . M y criticism of Western
writers and critics applies to their Sri Lankan counterparts. Moreover,
to be so conscious of language and pay it special attention is
to separate language from content and experience, whereas, in the
case of a truly creative writer, his experience will find the language
that comes naturally to it; this will determine its components,
whether Sri Lankan or British or whatever mix. Lakdasa Wikkramasinha
is often eulogized for employing Sri Lankan English in
his poetry, yet his use of language is not a simple matter of doing
so but is original, incorporating expressions derived from a variety
of sources. Moreover, as Wole Soyinka said in a recent interview
with Biodun Jeyifo, “Soyinka at 50,” we are now “beyond the
‘Prospero-Caliban’ syndrome of the complexities which attend the
adoption of a language of colonial imposition,” the “‘Prospero-
Caliban’ syndrome is dead” (1730-31). In our own region,
Kamala Das, in her poem ” A n Introduction,” expresses the right
attitude towards these matters:

Why not leave
Me alone, critics, friends, visiting cousins,
Every one of you? Why not let me speak in
Any language I like? The language I speak
Becomes mine, its distortions, its queernesses
All mine, mine alone. (Gooneratne, Poems from India 10)

Probably, poetry will gain if writers and critics look upon language
as their counterparts do in other fields. Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.,
the American novelist, and Robert Penn Warren, who occupied a
position in America equivalent to the Poet Laureate in Britain, in
his fictional masterpiece, All the King’s Men, take liberties with
language but no one takes them to task on a purely linguistic level
for doing so. Writers everywhere in all forms (including poetry)
should enjoy the same kind of freedom.
# * *
Yasmine Gooneratne is probably best known, especially outside
Sri Lanka, for her work as a critic, but equally valuable is her
poetry, found in her first two collections, Word Bird Motif and
The Lizard’s Cry and Other Poems. She possesses a mastery of the
English language and literary forms in her poetry, experiencing
no problems because of their alienness, and perhaps her greatest
gift is her ability to think in images, especially when she transcends
the Westernized upper class to which she belongs. In “Peace-
Game,” she does so and satirically and allegorically contemplates
class conflict; the pressure of the poetry is such that it suggests
another dimension, that of international power politics :

We Evens were a well-fed lot
and tough, so that the little patched
and scrawny Odds would never dare
to say the teams were not well matched.
That was the beauty of the game,
we chose the ground and made the rules,
they couldn’t really do a thing
about it, stunted little fools. ( Word Bird Motif 61 )

Satire is her strength, yet she is capable of combining it with deep
feeling, as in “Words to a Daughter,” and of writing moving love
poetry too as in “Rocks on Marine Drive” and “White Cranes”
( Word Bird Motif 2 1 , 3 , 9 ).
48
She was a Lecturer in English at the University of Peradeniya
and then immigrated to Australia. Her first collection of poems
appeared in 1971, her second in 1972, while 6000 Ft Death Dive
contains poems written in Australia, Honolulu, and Sri Lanka
between 1972 and 1981. For a span of nine years, this is a surprisingly
slim volume of twenty-nine short poems, a performance disappointing
for a poet so prolific earlier and is perhaps explicable
in terms of her emigration. She is still capable of writing warmly on
the theme of love, but Australia has diminished her satiric fire and
wrought changes. Lakshmi de Silva, in an unpublished radio review
of the book, noticed a new tendency in her technique : “It is
as though the clarity and predictable precision of her earlier style
has ceased to satisfy her and she is now exploring the resources of
resonance, the depths and echoes that rim the edge of a poet’s
line.” More significant, however, is her new preoccupation with
exile, the main subject of the volume, especially the difficulty of
the writing of poetry i n Australia. Like Coleridge in “Dejection:
An Ode,” Yasmine Gooneratne in her new vein is communicating
the inability to communicate. Her position at the time as an alienated
emigrant is responsible for the poetry in this volume not
quite achieving the quality of her earlier works.
Yasmine Gooneratne and Patrick Fernando are Sri Lanka’s
most talented poets. Fernando’s first book of poems was published
in 1955, and the momentous changes of 1956 were not important
in his case. In an interview with Yasmine Gooneratne published
in the Journal of South Asian Literature, he said: ” A Ceylonese
writing to be read by anybody anywhere cannot move in a field
that is exclusively Ceylonese or ‘oriental'” (104). Perhaps he
arrived at this point of view deductively: his poems possess a
framework provided by Christianity (Roman Catholicism) and
Western Classics; his poems have been published abroad (his 1955
collection was published in London and occasionally his poems
have appeared in foreign anthologies too ). However, it seems to
me that, contrary to his pronouncement, he writes for a Sri Lankan
educated public. Indeed, it would be presumptuous of him to think
that he is writing for an international reading public, not for those
in his own country.
49
Fernando’s poems fall into five main categories. His personal
poems, such as “The Way of the Adjutant Stork,” and genre pictures
of Negombo fisherfolk, such as “The Fisherman Mourned
by His Wife” and “Sun and Rain on the West Coast,” are among
his weaker efforts. “The Fisherman Mourned by His Wife” is
generally praised without serious reservation by Sri Lankan critics
and readers, but it appears to me that the effectiveness of the poem
is undermined by its sentimentality and such incidents as the wife
recalling her deflowering seem inappropriate to her character and
situation. The satirical poems, such as “The Late Sir Henry,”
“Chorus on a Marriage,” and “Obsequies of the Late Anton Pompirelli,
Bishop,” are first-rate. It may appear as if the satire inhibits
feeling, but the case is more complex ; Fernando, concerned with
feeling, satirizes the lack of it. In fact, feeling is present in poems
in all the categories. The Classical poems, written early in his
career, are also fine. They capture the spirit of the originals and
those who know the Classical background will understand and
appreciate them best. But these poems do possess a contemporary
interest, and Fernando is really writing of such permanent themes
as the enduring power and tragic destiny of love in “The Lament
of Paris.” Later in his career, Fernando grew increasingly fond of
writing symbolic poems, usually investing Nature with symbolic
meanings as in his observations on procreation in “Survivors” and
the destruction of things beautiful and splendid by violent and
incongruous forces in “Life and Death of a Hawk” (Selected
Poems).
At every stage in Fernando’s career, irony is crucial to his work ;
it is a feature of his technique as well as what shapes his vision of
life. It enables him to see contradictions as inherent in, and central
to, life and to reconcile himself to these. “Folly and Wisdom”
begins :

Though her mind was rather small and its thoughts were quite absurd.

It ends :

The sparrows hop and wink and chirp ‘But how could we have erred,
We who in spite of all you say are not yet embittered?’
(Return of Ulysses 26-27)

50
As M . I. Kuruvilla suggests in his seminal essay “Modem Sri
Lankan English Poetry,” Fernando’s language, like John Crowe
Ransome’s, is polished and minted, yet familiar and conversational,
and his forms well crafted and orthodox (239).
Yasmine Gooneratne, in her article “‘Unhelpful Isolation’:
The Literary Correspondence of Patrick Fernando,” observes of
Fernando: “He was firm in dissociating his own poetic practice
from the technical experiments made by some poets in the 1960s
and 1970s (including Lakdasa Wikkramasinha and myself) with
a view to introducing a local sense into their English verse” ( 103 ) .
Their view of the language of poetry is oversimple. In fact, in tone
and quality, Yasmine Gooneratne generally resembles Patrick Fernando
and both are different from Lakdasa Wikkramasinha. The
latter is a radical, his radicalism being brought about partly by his
traumatic reaction to his English affiliations. He spells out his
credo in “The Poet”; the images in the poem do not flow one into
the other but they all cohere under the general banner of the poet
as a rebel with a social and political consciousness (Lustre 4 6 ) .
Notwithstanding Wikkramasinha’s posturing, the poem has an impact
and helps us to understand him and others of his ilk. But
Wikkramasinha had an aristocratic ancestry and while his compassion
would flow towards the underprivileged in society as, for
example, the servant girl exploited sexually and otherwise in “The
Death of Ashanthi” (O Regal Blood 12) and though he expresses
scorn and anger towards his own kith and kin in the same poem,
an ingrained aristocratic streak remains, suggested, for instance,
by the fulsome praise accorded the feudal lady in “From the Life
of the Folk-poet Ysinno” (Nossa Senhora 16).
Wikkramasinha’s, then, is not an integrated personality and it is
from the tensions within him that his poetry and its vitality spring.
He was conscious of his own worth as a poet; this lies behind the
cheap humour he levels at the Professor in “Work of a Professor,”
a deterioration of the satirical stance in his better poems :

What does the Professor do?
He plants brinjals
all day because he’s too
intelligent
to do anything else.
But he loves his country :
He loves poetry . . . (Grasshopper Gleaming 20)

Wikkramasinha is the most original of our poets. His genius
(evident in his ability to create a new stanza-form for each new
experience — stanza-forms altogether impressive in their variety)
resides in his ability to unite Western and Sinhalese traditions in
his poetry and in his ability to express himself freely as a Sri
Lankan, whereas, in an ultimate sense, both Patrick Fernando and
Yasmine Gooneratne withhold themselves. These are exemplified
obviously in the violent denunciation of imperialist exploitation in
the guise of art in “Don’t Talk to me about Matisse” (Wikkramasinha,
O Regal Blood 5 ). These are abilities that belong to a major
writer in the Sri Lankan context and Wikkramasinha has made
the impact of a major writer in the small world of letters (in
English) in Sri Lanka. John Wain, in his article “The Importance
of Philip Larkin,” said : ” A major artist is one who alters or modifies
the tradition of his art. A minor artist may be exquisite, and
give great pleasure, and be remembered with much honour and
gratitude, without affecting the way his art is practised or thought
of” (351 ). But Wikkramasinha died ere his prime (at the age of
thirty-seven) and left behind only a handful of good, shorter poems,
without suggesting in what directions his undoubted talent
might have developed.
Yasmine Gooneratne, Patrick Fernando, and Lakdasa Wikkramasinha
are our three important poets to date. The insurgency
of 1971 and the present ethnic crisis have proved traumatic experiences
and have given rise to much poetry. But our recent poets
have not been able so far to reach the levels of their important
predecessors, perhaps partly because they do not draw upon the
Western traditions available to them as their predecessors did. But
the very fact that the output of our recent poets is abundant, including
good poems such as Jean Arasanayagam’s ” A Question of
Identity” and ” A Country at War” augurs well for the future.

NOTES
1 The character in E. M . Forster’s A Passage to India.
2 “The Blue Page was actually a four-page pull-out on light-blue newsprint
which came out each Friday as a magazine of features. Three-quarters of
52 D. C. R. A. GOONETILLEKE
it were taken up with longish pieces on art and architecture, photographs
by Lionel Wendt and essays by the famous Lankan writers of that time such
as Andreas Nell, Major Raven-Hart, Dr. R. L. Spittel, D. B. Dhanapala
and E. M . W. (Sooty) Joseph. The back page was given over to young
writers of English.” Tarzie Vittachi, “Short Takes from the Past,” The
New Lankan Review 4 . 2 3 ( 1 9 8 6 ).

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