Poetry and its possibilities

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By 2017-04-02

By Prof. Wimal Dissanayake

Eric Illayapparachchi has emerged as a major voice in modern Slnhala literature. He has distinguished himself, among others, as a poet, novelist, short story writer and cultural critic. 'Kaputa Saha Sitano ( an interesting title) is his thirteenth and latest collection of poetry. In it, Illayapparachchi displays his characteristic strengths that we have now come to associate with his poetry – verbal energy, inventiveness, sensitivity to social issues and the desire for poetic compression. Very often, his tropes have the power to signify something larger than themselves. As a poet, Illayapparachchi has great faith in the intelligence of his readers and therefore is unafraid to offer challenges to them and to invite their vigilance.

His latest volume of poetry consists of forty five poems. They deal with aspects of urban living, the reach of the consumer society, social disparities, and the power of memory. His poems are acutely observational and socially responsible. The desire for compactness, for poetic compression, clearly marks many of his poems such as 'pushkim movemi' –' highway music' –'tharuna kaviyekuta'. In the process he displays the diverse ways in which imagination can apprehend the world making it larger and more expansive.

In order to understand the true significance of 'Kaputa Saha Sitano', one has to place it against the backdrop of modern Sinhala poetry. Today we see the production of a large body of Sinhala poetry much of it mediocre and uninspiring. What is disconcerting is that this poetry is at times hypocritically valorized at the expense of the efforts of more gifted and serious poets. A kind of naive populism is at work here, and it has to be said categorically that naive populism can never be an adequate substitute for serious literary assessment.

In this regard, there are three important features that characterize Illayapparachchi's poetry. The first is that this manifests a clear understanding of the distinction between rawness of personal and social experience and its transformation into achieved poetry. This is a crucial distinction that many poets and critics seem to ignore. How social experiences gain fuller life in poems through the deft deployment of images, symbols, meter, rhythm, deserve very close attention.

His latest volume of poetry consists of forty five poems. They deal with aspects of urban living, the reach of the consumer society, social disparities, and the power of memory. His poems are acutely observational and socially responsible. The desire for compactness, for poetic compression, clearly marks many of his poems such as 'pushkim movemi' –' highway music' –'tharuna kaviyekuta'. In the process he displays the diverse ways in which imagination can apprehend the world making it larger and more expansive.

The swift mutation of ideas and images within a poem is a complex phenomenon that talented poets like Illyapparachchi are sensitive to . He is deeply concerned with the aesthetic shape of his poems.


Second, as a poet he exercises a great sense of discipline which fuels the tautness and controlled intensity that mark his poems. This discipline, unfortunately, is conspicuously lacking in much Sinhala poetry that is produced today. In the case of Illayapparachci, his discipline is manifestly connected to a powerful auditory imagination that recognizes the disciplining power of meter, rhythm and felicity of cadence. This feature is evident in poems such as 'sitanagama –govi upatha – maname samuluva –davadasi'. In some of his more successful compositions, poems move convincingly through the demands of meter.

Third, there is a certain gravitas to his poetry which is once again lacking in some contemporary Sinhala poetry .This gravitas is secured through the careful fusion of thought and imagination, the meeting of the thinking mind and the feeling heart. In poems such as 'handak labe davaddata –adara aparadhaya – alakapuraya –minis goniya', this feature is evident as an animating presence. To be sure, this emphasis on gravitas can lead to a certain cerebral aridity, and some of his poems with their metaphorical abstraction come perilously close to it. However, I for one admire Eric Illayapparacchi's desire to invest his poems with weight and intellectual resonance .

Several readers have told me that his latest book of poems is at times too difficult or hard to comprehend. Some poems lie 'Yukio Mishima' can be beyond the ken of the average reader. I can understand why some would feel so. This is, of course, a charge leveled against some of the most outstanding modern poets such as Wallace Stevens, John Ashbery, Paul Celan and Geoffrey Hill. One reason why Illayapparachchi's poems are seen as difficult is because he is keen to convert his poems into sites with contest of meaning, a staging ground for the meeting of rival forces, both historical and linguistic. His collocations surprise and enlarge the amity among words which also have the effect of being cognitively challenging. In this regard I wish to invoke the topos of a field of force as a way of illumination Illayaparachchi's effort.

The term field of force was put into wider circulation by scientists, mostly physicists. James Clark Maxwell's discovery of a phenomenon that could not be explained in Newtonian terms was referred to as the electrical field of force. His ideas were later developed by thinkers such as Albert Einstein and Louis de Broglie. This was a meta-world. This meta-world was different from the physical reality explored by classical physics; it was composed of decentered, multi-faceted fluctuating energies rather than centered, regularly orbiting particles. Furthermore, as Steve Giles explained, 'far from being linear or continuous with itself, that meta-world was observed to involve leaps, jerks, gaps, irregularities, and discontinuities.'

It is this concept that literary and cultural critics have found attractive. For example, Jacques Derrida favors the idea of a political physics where making sense, the production of meaning is achieved by means of powerful interaction of vectors in a field of force committed to signification. As another critic has stated, 'the field of force is a way of explaining how entities, concepts, emotions, and sensations, which are impossible to pinpoint accurately, or to define concretely, can exert a force through which they can be encountered in some way'. Similarly, literary theorists and philosophers such as Theodor Adorno and poets such as Seamus Heaney have found this idea of force-field a useful way of explicating his master concept of negative dialectics.

Eric Illayapparachchi's poetry, can perhaps be profitably interpreted using this notion of force-field. In his more successful poems such as 'pushkin novemi – beauty salonayaka – sel salu – saranagatha magul gedara and chandra chaurayo', there is a palpable poetic energy generated by the complex intersections of diction, tropes, symbols, meter, rhythm, ideological stances and vision.

As in the force-field within his poems there is a ceaseless interaction of contending elements. Let us consider a poem like 'Devavadiya'. Here the shape and sound of words, meter and rhythm, ideas of secularism and religion, worldliness and transcendence enter into a lively dialogue with each other, thereby generating the energy characteristic of this poem. The semiotic anxiety that deconstructive critics like to focus on is clearly present in Illayapparachchi's writing.

Eric Illayapparachchi's newest collection of poems repays close study. Understandably, not all pieces in it are equally strong.

Some appear to be mannered and forced; some of the comparisons and homologies are less than convincing. A few of the poems are too sketchy to engender the intended weight of meaning. However, on the basis of the more successful poems contained in it, of which there are a substantial number, one can state that he represents a poetic talent that is rare in the field of modern Sinhala literature. Many of the poems are short but exude a feeling of amplitude. A deep moral current runs through the poem but there is no unearned wisdom in them. His deep interest in space, as evidenced in poems like kolamba vana sarana, ananga kamarava and sitanagama, leads to a focus on the idea of moral geographies.

Eric Illayaparachi's poems are creatively free and socially answerable. His answerability to the world is reflected in both his socially aware experiences and creatively bold techniques of representation. He sees social evils and verbally reconfigures them in a way that widens our social awareness. He is a ubiquitous spectator both engaged and distant. He sees disorder around him, but as a poet is guided by a faith in man's capacity to order things sensibly and impose patterns of meaning. Illlayapparchchi as a poet, is more interested in the consequences of events than in the events themselves and therefore, the depicted events signify something larger than themselves. This is clearly seen in poems such as 'peralena sanhinda' and 'govi upatha'. His is a poetry of reverberations and constant possibility. His successful poems are unafraid to confront their deeper recognitions. To him, poetry is extension of language into unchartered territories.

Eric Illayappaachchi is constantly struggling to fashion a metaphorically rich language medium, impelled by the desire for compactness, where ambiguity and paradox flourish .His poems are complex structures whose unity is deepened by the presence of ambivalence and hidden articulations; his is a poetic world that is animated by tension and disharmonies, hence the importance of the idea of force field, alluded to earlier. In that sense, his poems are both revealing and concealing. They are ready to contemplate their own incompleteness, that is to say their own textuality. In his poems, observations become memory and memory spurs observation. At the same time, the poet refuses to surrender to illusion. He seems to be saying that poetic truth is its own testimony. This highlights the calm center and confident poise in many of his poems despite the surrounding tensions.

IIllayapparachchi is concerned with everyday and its mysteries. At times, a seemingly simple incident can turn out to be a complex verbal event as in the poem 'Avidina Balala'. He is, as stated earlier, deeply conscious of space, as in poems like 'Kolamba vana saranam ananga kamarava' and 'sitanagama', and this space offers welcome challenges to his poetic imagination.

The consciousness of spatiality and spatiality of consciousness, as manifested in his rhetorical devices, are closely intertwined. He is able to weave deftly, places into landscapes of the mind. As a critic one recognizes the need to paraphrase his poems. But to do so is misleading, to press into service the very frames he has sought to avoid. One has to opt for alternate mappings of meaning such as intuitive apprehension of the authority of metaphors. This is a vital facet of the rhetorical armature of his poetry
In next week's column, we explore the intricate relationship that Eric Illayapparachchi posits among self, desire and language, using a broadly Lacanian approach.
(To be continued )

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