[This article was published in the Sunday Observer on 14 November 2021 as a correspondence by Vihanga Perera]
Let this fact stagger you a bit: Vivimarie Vanderpoorten exempted, the English language poets taught in our school rooms (and in most university courses), by now, are done with their fleeting existence on earth. If one considered what begins with Patrick Fernando and ends with Richard de Zoysa as the elite canon of Sri Lankan English poetry (except Yasmine Gooneratne who migrated in the 1970s), none of them are here with us anymore. Nor do many in English studies show too much interest in the contemporary status of Sri Lankan poetry; not at least the trouble that was taken over Anne Ranasinghe (1925-2016), Patrick Fernando (1931-1983), Jean Arasanayagam (1931-2019), Lakdas Wikkramasinha (1941-1978), Richard de Zoysa (1958-1990) and Yasmine Gooneratne (b. 1935).
Surely, no one writes academically of Malinda Seneviratne, or Vanderpoorten in the same way they do of the “canon”. But, when that canon was still in formation in the 1970s and 1980s, its very birthing was done through well-mediated critical and academic interventions. Back issues of journals such as New Ceylon Writing, Navasilu, Journal of Commonwealth Literature and so on testify to the critical culture that supported this new arrival.
Let us dismiss the idea that the “great Sri Lankan English poets” were born great. To the contrary, they were a carefully and painstakingly constructed set of brand ambassadors: children of an emerging post-independence culture of a new nation that needed to prove its ability to make on its own. The midwifery of the academy in shaping the cultural agenda of the new nation, at one level, reflected its own existence.
In the 1960s, having relocated to Ceylon after World War II, Anne Ranasinghe was trained as a journalist. It is said that her emergence as a poet in the big stage was encouraged by Yasmine Gooneratne. When, in 1990, the state paramilitary killed Richard de Zoysa, Rajiva Wijesinha collected de Zoysa’s poetry into a single anthology in 1998. Carl Muller – arguably the most articulate Sri Lankan fiction writer in English to date – acknowledged Ashley Halpé as a mentor who encouraged him to submit the manuscript of The Jam Fruit Tree for the inaugural Gratiaen Prize which it won. These indicative examples provide evidence for the personal interest the academy had in shaping and in sustaining an emerging literary space. However, it by no way denies the existence of academics who thoroughly discourage creative writers and convert them into bonsai trees.
However, from the 1990s, the interest to groom a home-literature and a critical enterprise to support it began to gradually diminish. While the critical interest in resident writing ebbed as a whole, in particular, poetry has suffered in being looked over as an academic discourse. Despite the presence of academics who also write poetry, the academy’s role in nurturing poetry and grounding it with critical purchase has abated.
It has caved in to a degree where what supports the academy in a feast of dead poets at present is the canon that dates from Fernando to de Zoysa. Does this imply that people who compose at present are of a poor quality? Does it suggest people have lost interest in composing poetry at all? What caused the search for and encouragement, grooming, and benchmarking of new poetry – the prerogative of the English academy through the 1970s and 1980s – to seemingly terminate that function 25 or 30 years ago?
Up to the 1990s, even though individual collections were not too many, poets published in journals and anthologies which – more often than not – were quality-controlled by men and women in the academy. However, English poetry (in the conventional sense) has gradually dried up in the past 30 years. The preferred genre of the epoch seems to be the novel. Even the short story (which was popular in the 1980s and 1990s) has, like the Majestic City, recast itself as an abandoned plot.
In the past 30 years, who are the poets in Sri Lanka with at least two or three collections for a reader to set a measurement? Other than Seneviratne and Vanderpoorten (mentioned earlier), a few names such as Chamali Kariyawasam, Ramya Jirasinghe, Krishanthi Anandawansa come to mind. But I am someone who has dedicated life to keep track of the work of these people. Does the non-specialised reader also remember their works?
More crucially, why haven’t those who periodically write to papers and journals or scribe on the walls of their backyards taken the next step to publish for an audience? This last question is a tormenting one. For, there is no textual evidence to suggest that the “canon” had any superior poetry powers when compared with its contemporary counterparts. To the contrary, unsighted and unacknowledged, there is at least the better part of a dozen poets in Sri Lanka right now who, short of being conventionally-published, demonstrate a brilliance that has the potential to redefine the field. In the 1970s and 1980s, in an age in search of an identity post-empire, the academy supported the quest for an independent new expression. Responses of one epoch cannot be replicated in another. But, that historical awareness, nonetheless, is important in addressing abandoned machinery and lands allowed to waste. In the 1990s, Sri Lankan English Literature was seduced by globalisation. Borders crossed, part of it was relocated by trans-national capital in the global literary industry that power-brokered in big publishing businesses. The age of Tisara Publication and KVG de Silva covers – dull covers – was over. The glitz age of glossy covers, subtle paginated scents, and Penguin stickers had coming in. The global literary enterprise was never that high on poetry. Where the Third World was concerned, the global publisher relied more on fiction. As if the narrators of English books dealing with the Third World up until then hadn’t been so, the narrator of new global literature (we were told) was “migrant”.
Global capital sucked in the promise of post-colonial criticism and turned it into cosmopolitan theory that validated everything about the migrant writer. To satisfy the demands of global capitalism that cradled the book industry (to which the academy was connected in providing endorsement and reaping rewards) the post-national, cosmopolitan migrant writer, like Hamlet, had to be made complicated. Therefore, the “locality of the gendered, travelling, transnational, postcolonial, migrant self” kept changing like an amoebic microorganism and, in turn, defining what the global academy theorised and dished out as good literature.
For writers who wrote weird things about Sri Lanka – the kind of men and women who were once looked on with a certain doubt – were now called “dislocated transnational subjects” who were “spatially and temporally torn by the multiple forces of their ruptured status” as they, inhabiting a traumatic present (preferably in uptown New York, London or Toronto) tried to “reconcile with a past” that was no longer theirs. However, a necessary clarification: the global writer cannot and must not be blamed for making a life out of what s/he does for a living. The underlying fact is that as globalisation kicked in, our academy no longer had to preoccupy itself with what was homegrown. The global product as the better product was a tempting fetishism.
The theory that came with it helped to connect with the world and be a part of a bigger critical industry. Only that, the new order of things post-1990s backfired on what interest was left for the resident writers’ literature. Today, if you asked an average Sri Lankan reader to name some of the current poets in business, one wouldn’t be surprised if s/he struggled for five names that had sufficient critical reception. By sheer perseverance and charisma, Malinda Seneviratne has published and maintained a presence as a poet. From among his six collections to-date, four made the Gratiaen finals between 2008 and 2013 while winning the prize once. Perhaps, they exist somewhere in some form, but I am yet to come across serious academic reflections on Seneviratne’s work. Of course, in several essays and interviews, Vanderpoorten receives focus. But, Dushyanthi Mendis (who, in 2011, analysed the themes of love and death in Vanderpoorten’s poems) aside, whether anyone has produced an original thesis on Vanderpoorten’s writing is a reasonable question.
As mentioned before, short of being published, there are men and women who compose brilliant stuff in blogs, notebooks, online platforms, and social media spaces. What prevents them from moving to the next stage could be lack of finance, self-doubt (shockingly such a part of the present time), or – in an age of overwhelming mediocrity-made-brilliant – a distrust of being assessed the wrong way. The academy has to return in pioneering engagement with new and good writing and in creating a critical network for such writing to flourish. While older writers (“the ancients”) should be preserved through collaborations with good publishers, the academy must be selfless in its guidance and encouragement for new writers. Discounting a motely crew whose publications are done exclusively targeting the State Literary Award, there is tremendous potential in the English poetry scene under the uninterested radar.
Among the potential poets waiting to be born to the national stage in the ongoing decade are some who demonstrate a studied understanding of poetry as a craft, a sound reading of the English and local “tradition”, and – most crucially – an aversion to fake lit glitz. Among the few journals that periodically come and disappear, it is heartening to see New Ceylon Writing having digitised its archives and resuscitated itself for a new era. Except, unlike in the case of tea (which is inherently a colonial enterprise), the journal’s moniker stands to gain from a decolonising kiss.