Martin Wickramasinghe and modern Sinhala poetry


By Ariyawansa Ranaweera

Martin Wickramasinghe’s immense contribution to Sri Lankan culture, in general, and Sinhala literature, in particular, gains increasing validity. His 125th Birth anniversary fell on May 28, 2015. Almost all newspapers, both Sinhala and English, paid respect to the savant evaluating positively his role in the Sri Lankan culture. There is practically no area he has not delved into in the sphere of human sciences be it literary history, literary criticism, religion, history, archaeology, anthropology, philosophy and the like. He is also regarded as the pioneer who introduced realism to Sinhala fiction.

He was truly a renaissance man with a vast store of knowledge gathered by his study of available knowledge of his day, both oriental and occidental. A self-educated man, his mission during the entire intellectual life was to impart his knowledge to the Sinhala reading public. He was not only a purveyor who gathered knowledge but also an original thinker. His insights into any subject he examined were truly rational and thought provoking. In fact, he moulded all most single-handed generations of Sinhala literati during the entire 20th century. For that he had successfully fine-tuned an archaic and moribund language into a vehicle of lucidity and clarity.

Poetry, both classical and modern, was one of his favourite areas. In fact, he was the first to analyse our classical poetry based on sound principles of literary criticism. His theory of criticism was a blend of Indian, Western and Buddhist concepts on good literature. By adopting such an approach he was able to spurn the dross and highlight what was to be valued in our classical literature, both prose and verse. The aim of this article is not to discuss the whole gamut of his views on poetry but to examine the way he used his critical acumen to assess modern Sinhala poetry.

It is difficult to draw a line, demarcating when modern poetry was introduced to the Sinhala poetic stream. But, it is generally accepted that it was the so-called Colombo 2 poets who ushered in the new age of Sinhala poetry in the earlier part of the 20th century.

Unlike their immediate predecessors who firmly struck to the norms and precepts of classical poetry these new poets dared compose poetry on secular themes. They gave a new vibrancy to the language by departing from the classical lexicon, and using words of common parlance and inventing new similes which evinced freshness and sometimes scant respect for traditional values. Human love, feminine beauty, and nature were their favourite themes.

But, in one aspect, they still held on firmly to the old poetic tradition. They did not deviate from the old form of the poems passed down from the Kotte Period. The four line verses, with similar endings and rhyme (elisamaya).

Although G.B. Senanayake deviated from this pattern by introducing free verse pattern and made a dent in this trend in the 1940s, the real revolt to the Colombo School of poetry came from Peradeniya University spearheaded by Dr. Siri Gunasinghe and Dr. Gunadasa Amarasekara. Influenced mainly by the new poets of the Western world, who mainly composed their poems in free-verse (vers libre). They completely deviated from the metrical patterns of the Colombo poets, but also their search for new and varied themes were quite evident. The paucity of themes and their repetitive nature, ornate language of the Colombo poets were main weaknesses as pointed out by the Peradeniya School of poetry. They boldly broke themselves free from the age old tradition of sticking to given metrical patterns. They did not respect the poetic lines, where they felt appropriate to enhance the depth of the theme, while attempting to maintain a rhythm intrinsic to the theme. Their poetic treatment went beyond the few themes adumbrated by the Colombo poets, and attempted to cover varied themes of modern life.

It is no surprise that these modernists came under virulent attack both by the Colombo poets, and their predecessors of the classical school. Nevertheless, this new genre caught the imagination of the younger poets and has become the major trend in modern Sinhala poetry.

It is a truism that any literary trend needs the evaluative and guiding hand of the critics to prosper. An established, vigorous, critical tradition is a dire need as far as the Sinhala literature in general and Sinhala poetry in particular are concerned. The sad fact is that senior writers who possess the erudition and capacity to evaluate modern poetry deliberately shun such a responsibility. Some of them hold on to the extreme view that modern Sinhala poetry field is such a wasteland that is not worth wasting time on reading and reviewing modern Sinhala poetry.

During the 1950 and 60s Sinhala poetry was undergoing a tremendous change. It was a veritable cauldron where poets of rival schools vied with one another to gain ascendency. The Colombo poets, the Hela poets, and the free-verse poets were in the fray. A sober mind with a sound knowledge of all critical traditions and balanced impartial points of view were the need of the day. Martin Wickramasinghe fulfilled this need in full measure.

His critical views on poetry are spread over many of his writings on literature. But his Sinhala Vichara Maga, Kawya Vicharaya, Rasawadaya ha Sinhala Kawya are the main works which indicate his critical approaches to Sinhala poetry.

Wickramasinghe faced the initial problem of adopting a suitable theoretical basis to assess Sinhala poetry. Earlier there had been a classical critical system of Indian Alankara tradition, the western theories of criticism, mainly practical criticism of I. A. Richards and the new criticism of T. S. Eliot and the like.

But, Wickramasinghe added to these traditions, the poetic features, he discovered in the religious poems of Buddhism like Thera, Theri Gatha, Jathaka Pali, Dhammapada, etc. He particularly pointed out that the poetic veins of Buddhist works adhered to the principle of propriety (auchitya). He spurned the ornate theories of Indians’ Alankara tradition; where external inappropriate embellishments took precedence over substance. In his Kawya Vicharaya he has this to say on the future of Sinhala Poetry: "There is not much assistance we can gain from strictly adhering to our classical poetic tradition when the life pattern and the human experiences of the present day have radically changed. A person who seeks a suitable poetic foundation for modern poetry must learn not only from good traditional poems, but also from Thera,

Theri Gatha in Buddhist lore, folk poetry, western poetry and poetry by the poets in our neighbouring countries." Thus, his approach to poetry criticism is holistic and not parochial. His critical approach is based on a blend of sound principles gathered from all the appropriate sources.

He also said in his Kawya Vicharaya: "Although modern Sinhala poetry shows some signs of resurgence it has not discovered its true path yet. It looks as if the modern Sinhala poetry had reached a junction where many roads branch off in many directions. Poets who are bold enough should march forth boldly, selecting their own paths, like elephants emerging through the wild trampling the under growth."

His Nawa Padya Sinhalaya (Modern Sinhala Poetry) first published in 1957 is his major contribution to establishing a critical foundation to evaluate modern Sinhala poetry. Based on his critical acumen, sharpened thorough his erudition he has subjected the modern Sinhala poetry of his day, to an impartial, balanced and in many ways an instructive evaluation. It should be mentioned here, as a tribute to him that after his effort not a single critic of worth has chosen to review modern Sinhala poetry. In fact, some of them have even called that a vain effort not worth wasting their time on!

I don’t intend to make a comprehensive analysis of Nawa Padya Sinhalaya. But, suffice it to say that the works of almost all the major Colombo poets and the poets of the free-verse school are subjected to penetrating critical analysis in this work. Their particular poetic approaches and their subject areas are investigated. It is pertinent to mention here that he was not a stickler for the age old metrical poetic pattern. His only yardstick was whether a poem was good or bad according to the poetic principles he adhered to. Whenever he noticed poetic excellence he generously highlighted it and he is also equally strong in pointing out the false steps of the poets.

For instance, he has this succinct evaluation about P.B. Alwis Perera the major Colombo poet after doing a thorough analysis of his poetry. "P.B. Alwis Perera has a broad sense of imagination. He is not a verbal painter who selects only two or three colours in painting. He is like a painter who uses a plethora of colours; and draws a shiny picture.

His weakness is that he has not been able to develop a sense of propriety to discern what is appropriate here and what is not."

He is equally appreciative at times of the two major poets of the Peradeniya School, Gunadasa Amarasekara and Siri Gunasinghe. He considered Gunadasa Amarasekara successful and the latter infused the poetic mores of folk poetry to express his genuine motives. "When Amarasekara is successful in spurning a spurious experience and resorts to a genuine experience his poems flourish. But, when he strives to cloth an inappropriate experience in an emotional garb his immaturity comes to the fore."

On Siri Gunasinghe’s poetry Wickramasinghe’s conclusion was this: "I can see that Siri Gunasinghe is a poet who has new experiences and thoughts to express. In fact, a good poet needs this bold approach but at times his forthrightness exposes his immaturity and indiscipline."

Modern Sinhala poetry has come a long way from its origins. Poets who started writing poem in the 1970s and 80s have helped enrich the Sinhala modern poetry substantially. There are also a good number of young poets who have joined the mainstream of the new poetic movement. These poets are adventurous, creative and at times hot-headed as young men are. But, they are seekers of new modes of expression and experimentation.

The dire need of the hour is a group critics who are erudite, balanced and large-hearted to review this new poetry. Wickramasinghe was the only person who cast a luminous beam in to this new poetic scene. But unfortunately his example has not been emulated.

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