Thursday, March 23, 2017

Impact of Social Problems on Sri Lankan English Poetry

This study investigates the Impact of Social Issues on Sri Lankan English Poetry. The poets usually compose poems on different themes, such as beauty, love, nature, morality, humanity, war and violence. Sri Lankan English poets also do the same in accordance with their personal, social, cultural, political and religious experience. In this study, much attention is paid to social issues, which had once prevailed in the country.
Anne Ranasinghe, Richard de Zoysa, Jean Arasanayagam, Kamala Wijeratne, LakdasaWickramasinghe, YasmineGoonaratne and Patrick Fernando are some of such prominent and outstanding Sri Lankan poets, who have perceived and experienced such social problems, which were prevalent during their life time. During the recent past, the Sri Lankans have experienced more violent and subversive activities, which were closely observed by the above poets. JVP insurrection in 1971, Black July in 1983, JVP insurrection in 1988/89 and brutal war between LTTE and Sri Lankan forces were some of the most tragic and evil incidents that occurred in Sri Lanka. They were so violent and inhuman that almost all the people of the country suffered in numerous ways. The worst effect of this tragic situation is that even today, some people hate JVP and LTTE, whereas some people hate state terrorism. These three elements created chaos, terror and horror every nook and corner of the country. Those, who are directly or indirectly responsible for this kind of bloodbaths and inhuman activities in the island can hardly, get rid of the curse of the people, who bitterly underwent this pathetic and terrified situation. They have witnessed this detrimental situation in the country, which terrified the whole island for a long time causing violence and terror everywhere. Some poets have perceived this violent atmosphere in an indifferent way, whereas some seem to have been biased and prejudiced. It is also apparent that there are valid reasons for them to be biased or unbiased. However, the majority of the Sri Lankan poets seem to have observed the above social issues in a realistic and justifiable way. 
In general, violent and brutal activities in a country go down in the history. They can neither be forgotten nor deleted from the strong memory of the people, who suffered critically as a result of the evil conduct of the above people. Though these ugly incidents go down in the history of a country, it is much valuable for the poets to compose poems on these violent and inhuman themes, which will never vanish from the memory of the people. That is why it is emphasized that literature of a country is very significant and it always goes with the history of the country. The literate and intellectual people read Sri Lankan poems and come to be aware of the social problems; they had faced during the past.
The research problem found here is whether Sri Lankan poets have successfully identified these issues. For instance, when their poetry is closely read and investigated, the intellectual readers will think whether there were such brutal and violent issues prevailed in the country and they are directly or indirectly related to their poems. It is, therefore, necessary to explore the history of the country and collect information regarding the Sri Lanka poetry.

The objective of the present study is to observe whether the Sri Lankan poets have properly and accurately identified the social issues confronted by the country maintaining their independence and impartiality. Some poets seem to be biased and prejudiced in their observation. This is also another significant matter related to their poetry. 

Collecting information from the relevant sources of Sri Lankan poetry in English from both print and electronic media was the main methodology.  Both Sri Lankan poems in English and comments on them by various critics were deeply studied regarding the impact of social problems on Sri Lankan English Poetry. Relevant articles, which appeared in newspapers, books and web sites, were used as secondary data while interviews were conducted with those, who have really experienced and observed these social problems. Thus, both primary and secondary data were utilized in the present study.
The research was extremely confined only to the Sri Lankan poems based on social issues, which were composed in English. When the close attention is paid to the Sri Lankan poetry, it is apparent that many poems have been composed by various poets on multifarious themes. However, this study is extremely limited only to the poems, which are based on significant crucial social issues alone, which were prevalent all over the country disturbing the human beings and the entire atmosphere.  
Literature Review
As indicated above, the whole study is entirely dependent on literature related to the social issues, which occurred in Sri Lanka during the recent past. Professor, D.C.R.A. Goonetilleke (1998) and Professor RajiwaWijesinha (1988) have commented on the Sri Lankan poems in their anthologies with some examples. As Ashley Halpe[1] points out, Sri Lankan writers in English make their own particular contribution to Sri Lankan reality and to the exploration of human potentiality that is central to art of any importance. Their writings represented different situations that occurred during the eras they write. Sri Lankan writers in English explore human potentiality through exposé of characters. These characters have distinctive characteristics that make them different from the characters of other literatures. Through their writing, they make their audience aware of Sri Lankan history including the eras of colonialism and post colonialism and social issues like internal riots and ethnic conflicts of the country. Among those writers the poets like LakdasaWikkramasinha, YasmineGooneratne and Patrick Fernando can be taken as Sri Lankan writers, who addressed different perspective views of human beings as well as social issues.  
 In LakdasaWikkramasinha’s poetry, he deals with native problems of Sri Lanka. He is a distinctive character among good local poets. As Suresh Canagarajah indicates LakdasaWikkramasinha as a better example of a Sri Lankan poet, who succeeds in reconciling the discourses in his own terms. His stand point is clearly in the rural, folk, native cultural and literary traditions. In fact in being a poet of no mean stature in one of the indigenous languages (i.e., Sinhala) he is unique among Sri Lanka Lankan English poets in his literary bilinguality. Besides, he is a relatively committed poet with a fairly clear and consistent socio-political stand point. [Canagarajah, 1995]
As a poet, he is essentially native. His use of language is essentially and outstanding colored by local idioms. For example, the opening lines of the second stanza of the From the life of the Folk Poet, Ysinno,
            ‘He made his way to the Walauwa at Iddamalgoda
and to the Menike said ‘how poor he was.’
Those native words emphasize the controlling local interpretations of the poem. The most important fact is that this line shows something unusual in British English, but common and economical in the Sri Lankan Standard English. By using such contrast, he has managed to build up a simple and natural language that makes easy for Sri Lankans to understand. Through this poem, LakdasaWikkramasinha criticizes the adverse consequences of feudalism.
‘So she said, wait for the yala
Harvest and take the straw.
                    Ysinno said, O the rains are coming near
                     my woman fretting, her kid will get wet’
Suresh Canagarajah depicts Wikkramasinha as a politically committed and socially conscious poet in Sri Lankan English poetry.
YasmineGooneratne is an outstanding female poet of Sri Lanka, who belongs to the Western educated minority. During the time she wrote, the social patterns of Sri Lanka have changed from her childhood. At that time, mother tongue oriented culture and education emerged in the country and that affected the anglicized minority of the country. [Raheem and Fernando, 1978] So, it is clearly evident the fact that this situation has an effect on Gooneratne’s poetry.
YasmineGooneratne’sPeace Game shows the class distinction. There, we see the upper class people’s attitude towards the working class people. And also, she presents the snobbish and contemptuous qualities of the upper class people. Her Peace Game is a mildly suggestive satire on war. She satirizes the inequality of the sides playing the peace game, or the inequality of the sides fighting for war. Here, the poet presents class distinction and there we see two side ‘Odds’ and ‘Evens’. ‘Evens’ belong to the upper class people, who were ‘swell’, ‘upright’, ‘regular guys’ and poet represents them. ‘Odds’ in the poem represent the lower class people, who were ‘little, patched and scrawny’ were not given a voice.
“We Evens were a well-fed lot
           and tough, so that the little patched
                and scrawny Odds would never dare.”
 On more universal term the meaning of the poem seems to be that wars are not fought on equal terms. It is one party, the more powerful that chooses the ground and makes the rules and plays the game, not for war but for peace.
 Patrick Fernando is another famous Sri Lankan poet, whose writings contributed to display Sri Lankan reality and to the exploration of human potentiality. He wrote with a certain confidence. We see a vivid imagination working through his poems. That has a peculiar originality of its own. In point of actual achievement, Patrick Fernando is one of the most talented poets belonging to the period after 1956. He is not exclusively Sri Lankan or Western. His poems can be read by anyone anywhere as they have a universal appeal. Suresh Canagarajah introduces Patrick Fernando’s poetry represent the dominant ethos of Sri Lankan English poetry. [Canagarajah, 1995] He is a native writer and deals with themes typically native in the West coast of Sri Lanka.
 Patrick Fernando in his poem Fisherman Mourned by His Wife draws a realistic picture of the hardships of their lives. Most of his imageries are drawn from the sea.  
“…not yet tanned…you in old boat brown”
The line shows how fisherman is conditioned by the life he leads. Next, the narrator analyses the nature of their marriage. It is a union arranged by their elders. She recalls the first days of their marriage and its consummation while his chastity and inexperience in sex are revealed. Their love blossomed forth after marriage.  The relationship portrayed reflects the typical native ethos. And also, both fisherman and his wife’s characters represent folk culture of Sri Lanka. Moreover, Suresh Canagarajah depicts his ideas about their relationship as follows;
“Fernando succeeds to a great extent in capturing the specificity of the relationship of the fisherman and his wife as a conservative arranged marriage. However, he goes beyond simple stereotypes to show how the relationship blossoms into deep understanding- and love. He also evokes the psychological complexities in the emotions and attitudes of the partners, which depict the relationship as humanity alive.” [Canagarajah, 1995]
            Prof. Ashley Halpe further says that Patrick Fernando highlights a different theme in his poem Life and Death of a Hawk.   He speaks   about power, strength and other talents people have and the way they are abused by some people in the society. Ultimately, such powerful people are killed as animals. The poet compares such treacherous and inhuman people to a hawk, which is also detrimental and dangerous in their community.
Though there can be seen slight differences among the above mentioned Sri Lankan writers in English all of them have taken a certain effort to explore human potentiality. With direct and indirect messages they portray characters. The characters that they portray and social, economic and political issues that they brought out are more familiar to the Sri Lankan audience rather than Western literature
Prof. WimalDissanayake[2] has the paradox that those, who cared nothing when Jayewardene presided over the burning of the Jaffna Public Library and the pogrom of 1983, the deprivation of Mrs. Bandaranaike’s Civic Rights and the Referendum of 1982 that put off elections for six years, the nullification through hasty legislation of Appeal Court judgments and the intimidation of Supreme Court judges, now appear as champions of the minorities and democracy and the rule of law. Of course, there is a new generation involved, and we cannot really blame them for their ignorance, in a society, which remembers nothing, except grudges and prejudices. But, their paymasters are those who relished authoritarianism when it seemed to promote their interests, and that is why we should not be surprised that they flirted with authoritarianism again. Bizarrely, they were also prepared, in promoting this, to ally themselves with the JVP, which had been hunted down with such relish twenty years earlier. 
Between the ethnic Tamils in the north and the Sinhala people in the south, while ultra-left groups like JVP were leading uprisings against the state. Matters came to a head between 1987 and 1989, when the JVP stirred up a new wave of violence and began to terrorize the government.
In retaliation, the authorities began to crack down on JVP activists and anybody suspected of having an affiliation to the group. Disappearances, murders and mutilation of bodies Sri Lanka in the 1970s and 1980s was in crisis. A civil war was raging became widespread. One commentator in the play noted how newspaper headlines routinely used the term ‘tyre pyre’ to describe piled-up bodies of people set on fire along with rubber tyres.
It was in this environment that de Zoysa lived and worked. A well-known reporter and TV broadcaster, he belonged to the English-speaking elite of Colombo and was active in the city’s arts scene. He was fond of theatre and used it as a medium to put forward his own anxieties about the state and the condition of his country.
Contributors to the documentary remember a man, who was educated, cultured and eager to connect with the Sri Lankan masses. His kidnapping and murder were all the more distressing because this was the first time an upper-middle class journalist from Colombo had been killed in such circumstances.
Anne Ranasinghe born of a German-speaking Jewish family in Essen, left Germany for England in January 1939. Her parents and most of her family circle died in Nazi concentration camps. Her education, begun in Cologne, was completed at Parkstone Girls' Grammar School in Britain.
Ranasinghe trained as a nurse in London, studied journalism, and speaks five languages. Settling in Colombo following her marriage in 1949 to a Sri Lankan physician, she began writing poetry in 1968 and published her first poems in 1971 . Her experience of the Nazi holocaust helped her to write of Sri Lanka's 1971 insurrection in powerful poems that have imparted a new strength to Sri Lankan poetry, especially that written by women.
Writing articles about Hitler's Germany for a Sri Lankan newspaper, Ranasinghe began a journey back into her past, which culminated in a return to Essen in 1983 that has profoundly influenced her subsequent writing. She has won several awards and prizes, including the Sri Lanka Arts Council Prize for Poetry (1985). Her publications, all printed in Colombo, include Poems ( 1971 ), With Words We Write Our Lives Past Present Future ( 1972 ), Plead Mercy ( 1976 ), Love, Sex and Parenthood ( 1977 ), Of Charred- Wood Midnight-Fear ( 1983 ), Against Eternity and Darkness ( 1985 ), and Not Even Shadows ( 1989 ). Her work has been translated into four languages, and is included in Y. Gooneratne (ed.), Poems From India, Sri Lanka, Malaysia and Singapore (Hong Kong, 1979).

Findings and Discussion
When the literature related to the present study is closely examined, it is clear that some Sri Lankan poets have composed their poetry, with the experience they underwent during that particular period. Prof. Ashley Halpe and Prof. WimalDissanayake have comprehensively discussed this matter through their keen observation. Both have referred to violent activities, which occurred during the recent past. Mainly, LTTE, JVP and state terrorism were behind all these tragic events. Even the interviews with those, who observed these violent activities with their own eyes, substantiate the fact that what Sri Lankan poets convey is accurate. Jean Arasanayagam, who composed Ruined Gopuram reveals how the kovil was attacked by militants. She highlights the brutal behavior of the militants, who caused massive damage to the kovil. This is   related to the political situation then. She further says that even god is helpless before such inhuman acts:
“Unknown goddess, guardian
Of the freshwater spring
Is silent”
In her poem, Nallurshe emphasizes this fact much effectively:
“… the gods are blinded by the rain of bullets.”
This is regarding their attack on the NallurKovil.
Remembering Nallur 1984, Political prisoner, 1958,’71,’77,’81,’83,In the month of July, Refugees-old man – old woman, the dark civilization are the other poems Jean Arasanayagam has composed, They are all related to social issues, specially war and violence.
Prof. WimalDissanayake in his newspaper article as discussed earlier, concentrates much on Richad de Zoysa and the way he was brutally assassinated by the government forces during the JVP insurrection. This indicates that the media personnel did not have any freedom to express their respective and independent attitudes or opinions regarding the social problems the country had been undergoing. His poem, Animal crackers is highly critical of the political situation of the country during 1980s and 1990s. Through the symbols of animals such as elephants, tigers and lions, he observes the weaknesses of the human beings. Elephant represents the government while the lion and tiger represent Sinhala community and LTTE militants respectively.  Any way, he needs peace and justice. He wanted to reveal the truth, but ultimately, he was abducted and brutally murdered. Prof. WimalDissanayake has realistically elaborated it in his article.
As Prof. Halpe says, Anne Ranasinghe is another key poetic figure in Sri Lanka, who perceives the social problems prevalent in the island though she is alien to Sri Lanka. She, too, highlights much on war and its violent consequences. Plead mercy, On the beach, At what dark point? Fear grows like a cactus, Vivere in pace and July, 1983 are some of her masterpieces, which are closely associated with war and violence in Sri Lanka, which developed into controversial and much blood stained issues in the country. For instance, her poem, On the beach speaks about a puppy, which is brutally tortured and killed by three inhuman and treacherous boys. While the puppy is tortured, the people, who are enjoying swimming in the sea, ignore this tragic incident. But, the poet feels it very much. However, she fails to get involved in this incident as she is a foreigner. This is really a social problem, which resulted in the uprising of the young people of the country during the Sirimavo Bandaranaike regime in 1971. Three boys represent some government forces, who brutally burnt and killed some youth, who were involved in the JVP campaign to topple the then government. When interviews were conducted with the people, who observed these tragic and brutal incidents with their own eyes, it is apparent what Anne Ranasinghe admits is accurate.
Kamala Wijeratne’s poem, A Soldier’s Wife Weeps is another good example for highlighting the social issues, which existed in the country during war. She refers to the matter how a poor soldier was killed in the battle field and his dead body came home in a sealed coffin. Many such traumatic incidents occurred in the island during war in North and East. Thousands of such tragic events virtually took place in Sri Lanka. This is only one example regarding the evil consequences of war and violence. On seen a white flag across a by road, A mother laments, Farewell and White sareeare some of the poems Kamala Wijeratne has composed regarding social issues. Even the ordinary people of rural villages are aware that many such untimely and cruel deaths were caused by war, which wants to quench the blood thirst of some inhuman elements of the country. Though it seems to be over presently, the people, who were confronted with such tragedies, are still living in great fear.
Prof. Ashley Halpe points out that through the poem; From the Life of the Folk poet YsinnoLakdasaWikkramasinha dramatizes the feudal relationship between the folk poet, Ysinno and the mistress Menike of the house. We see the rudeness and egoism of Menike and poorness, loyalty and faithfulness of Ysinno.
But, at the same time the poem ends by showing the generosity of Menike. The poem is like a reminder of past, where we remember the social inequalities that occurred due to feudalism.
Prof. Ashley Halpe also admits that YasmineGooneratne’sPeace Game shows the class distinction. There, we see the upper class people’s attitude towards the working class people. And also, she presents the snobbish and contemptuous qualities of the upper class people. This poem is directly related to the JVP insurrection, which occurred in 1971 killing at least 20,000 people. The majority of that number was young people of the country.
Patrick Fernando in his poem Fisherman Mourned by His Wife deals with the theme of love and marriage between a young fisherman and his wife. The fisherman is dead and the wife in her grief analyses the various stages of their relationship. Through images the poet draws a realistic picture of the hardships of their lives. This is a poem composed on the reality of the fishing community in Sri Lanka. As Prof. Ashley Halpe observes, it is clear how much these poor and innocent people suffer silently before the unpleasant challenges they face every day.  Patrick Fernando has highlighted this social issue with great sympathy and compassion towards the fishing folk.
Patrick Fernando expresses a different theme in his poem Life and Death of a Hawk. It is the enigmatic nature of the highly elevated life and the pathetic death of the hawk that form the subject of the poem. Patrick Fernando shows his own bafflement at the enigmatic nature of the great men ending in meanness. The poet uses the image of a hawk that often can be seen in the Sri Lankan sky. According to the poet hawk is a very powerful, strong and cruel animal. It dominates the whole sky. However, the truth is that one day all such inhuman elements have to be confronted with the evil consequences of their cruel activates. No one can easily escape from the sins they have committed. Thus, the theme of the poem is universal as it can be applied to any society.  According to Prof. Ashley Halpe, the whole poem carries the theme of however majesty, however powerful this is the common end of all living creatures. The poem is a symbolic of destruction of things beautiful and splendid by violent and incongruous forces.
It is now obvious that the present study has substantiated the fact that there is a great link between prominent social issues occurred in Sri Lanka and Sri Lankan poetry.  As discussed earlier, many Sri Lankan poets like Jean Arasanayagam, Richard de Zoysa, Patrick Fernando, LakdasaWickramasinghe and Kamala Wijeratne seemed to have observed these social issues very carefully and capable of revealing the reality of such issues. Great literary scholars, Prof. WimalDissanayake and Prof. Ashley Halpe have also investigated this matter in detail in their respective literary works as pointed earlier. Accordingly, it is obvious that the Sri Lankan poets mentioned above are much more sensitive to the social issues, which are closely associated with the citizens of the country. In other words, they feel the pulse of the poor and innocent people, who are harassed and tortured by the evil and selfish elements of the country.


  1. very useful for my higher studies ,thanks alot sir.U have done a great work,normally it is very difficult to find facts on srrilankan literature,rarely we got like this way.