Poets and their visions 29 – John Betjeman


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Sir_John_Betjeman_(1906-1984)Almost the last poet of the 20th century whom I shall discuss may seem a most unusual choice. He certainly would not qualify as a genius, but he was not only a most entertaining writer, he also had a delightful sense of nostalgia. This I think serves to make his vision of the process of age and change well worth recording.

His subject matter was essentially England, and he was easily the most popular Poet Laureate in that country since Tennyson. His evocation of long lost country pastimes, if not quite as preposterous as that of P G Wodehouse, is unreal but compelling. There is no way, having read of her, that one can forget Joan Hunter Dunn of A Subaltern’s Love Song

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Poets and their visions 28 – D H Lawrence


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Lawrence is much better known as a novelist, but his poetry is also certainly worth reading. Though I do not think he deserves the adulation that the Leavis school of criticism, so dominant for so long in Sri Lanka, bestowed on him in the middle of the last century, the neglect from which he suffers, in the world if not here where old habits die hard, is also unfair.

His fame rested for a long time on the sexual aspect of his work, both the openness which sometimes came close to pornography and so appealed much to the young, and also his passionate belief in sexual relations as providing spiritual satisfaction in a bleak and restrictive world. Bloom, though he believes Lawrence needs to be read more, has a rather upsetting take on the matter, since he categorically claims that salvation for Lawrence lay in heterosexual buggery, which seems to me an extreme position.

I would hesitate to challenge so eminent a critic, but this seems to me like those teachers in Sri Lanka who cannot teach one of Lawrence’s best poems, Snake, without stressing phallic symbolism. I am sure that element is in the poem, but it also conveys a more general message too, about the need to accept the world as it is, instead of fighting against natural phenomena.

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Poets and their visions 27 – Wilfred Owen


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Wilfred_Owen_plate_from_Poems_(1920)The First World War inspired a lot of writing in England, understandably so, for it was the first war in which the elite was actively involved. Conscription, and also the patriotic fervor that was whipped up in the first war to be fought as much by the media as the military, led to a number of literary figures being actively involved.

English fiction however is not as memorable as that of other countries, with the writer of war stories who has lasted longest being John Buchan with his Boy’s Own Adventure type of tale. The poetry however was remarkable, and a range of writers taken together express the angst of a generation led to what in retrospect seems unnecessary slaughter.

I will look in this series however at only a single writer, who was far and away the best. Though many such as Rupert Brooke and Raymond Asquith (son of the Prime Minister, killed in battle, a phenomenon that we have not seen repeated since in wars we know of) and Julian Grenfell wrote individual poems that are moving and memorable, it is only Wilfred Owen who presented a wider perspective as to the whole ghastly business.

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Poets and their visions 26 – Hilaire Belloc


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Belloc_sideI think the poet I am least confident about including here, in a series about great writers, is Hilaire Belloc. Though an eminently serious writer in prose, his poems were largely playful. And they are not playful in the unusually creative manner of Carroll or Lear, but are designed for simple amusement.

He is best known for his cautionary tales, about Jack who disobeyed his nurse and was eaten by a lion, and Georgie who ate string, but on looking through them I thought they did not really merit quotation. They were clearly written for children, and there is not much subtle or thought provoking about them, entertaining as they are.

Much more fun I think are his excursions into the adult world, when he engaged in sly satire that resonates even today. His poem about the great hope of the government who wept in Parliament can be an object lesson for aspiring politicians even today – Continue reading

Poets and their visions 25 – Yeats


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Yeats_BoughtonAs with Tennyson and Browning, Eliot and Yeats were long considered a pair of poets who best represented their age. As with Browning, Yeats now is considered far less important than his more enduring contemporary. This judgment is largely true, but nevertheless Yeats like Browning was a considerable writer and well deserves to be read even now.

Though more orthodox than Eliot in style and subject matter, Yeats too had a wide range. Yet many of his best poems deal with the subject of age and transition. The beautiful Wild Swans at Coole exemplifies the manner in which he transits from scenic description to cognizance of the years passing.

The trees are in their autumn beauty,
The woodland paths are dry,
Under the October twilight the water
Mirrors a still sky;
Upon the brimming water among the stones
Are nine-and-fifty swans.

The nineteenth autumn has come upon me
Since I first made my count;
I saw, before I had well finished,
All suddenly mount
And scatter wheeling in great broken rings
Upon their clamorous wings.

I have looked upon those brilliant creatures,
And now my heart is sore.
All’s changed since I, hearing at twilight,
The first time on this shore,
The bell-beat of their wings above my head,
Trod with a lighter tread.

Unwearied still, lover by lover,
They paddle in the cold
Companionable streams or climb the air;
Their hearts have not grown old;
Passion or conquest, wander where they will,
Attend upon them still.

But now they drift on the still water,
Mysterious, beautiful;
Among what rushes will they build,
By what lake’s edge or pool
Delight men’s eyes when I awake some day
To find they have flown away?

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Poets and their visions 24 – T S Eliot


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Thomas_Stearns_Eliot_by_Lady_Ottoline_Morrell_(1934)The other great example of American poetic genius, and indeed the most important and influential English language poet of the 20th century, was T S Eliot. Bloom is not quite as enthusiastic about him as I am, but he grants that this is also a personal judgment relating to what he sees as Eliot’s anti-Semitism. I am not so sure that it is fair to dismiss Eliot as anti-Semitic, since he seems rather to have reflected the prevalent view in Western society about Jews, before their undoubted economc power provided invaluable assistance to the Allies in the First World War, and they became respectable.

To ascribe moral inadequacy to those who were contemptuous of the Jews before that is as silly as it would be to find reprehensible those who were contemptuous during colonial times of people whose colour was darker than their own. One can certainly find admirable those who resisted the common prejudices of their times, but Jews tend to be ultra-sensitive, and can afford to be, in a manner that is not open to those who do not exercise similar economic and political power.

Asian and African critics cannot then ascribe racism to great writers reflecting the common perspectives of their times, and assert that this takes away from their genius. Fortunately, despite Bloom’s moral fervor, he does grant Eliot’s genius, and provides useful insights into some of his poetry.

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Poets and their visions 23 – Robert Frost


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460px-Robert_Frost_NYWTSRobert Frost is for me the most appealing of American writers, always excepting the two who got away, as it were, Henry James and T S Eliot. I should note though, in fairness to the Americans, or perhaps to avoid any charges of prejudice, that I find their modern dramatists, Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams, as good as any British playwrights of the same period.

Frost however stands out, for the range of his poetry, for a simplicity of language that conveys extremely subtle and complex ideas, for deep understanding of some key human relationships, and for a plethora of memorable phrases that expand our understanding of the world in which we live. ‘Good fences make good neighbours’ and ‘Home is where, when you have nowhere else to go, they have to take you in’ are a couple that will serve to introduce two very different but equally striking poems.

The first line is taken from Mending Wall, which describes a supposedly common New England habit, the rebuilding of fences between properties after the depradations caused by winter. But the narrator thinks there are other reasons for walls being broken down, perhaps because nature abhors barriers between people. His neighbor however comes out with the blunt aphorism I cited, and often this is taken to indicate that Frost himself subscribes to this orthodoxy.

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Poets and their visions 22 – Emily Dickinson


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483px-Emily_Dickinson_daguerreotypeEmily Dickinson was yet another idiosyncratic New Englander, remarkable for her poetic innovations. If Gerald Manley Hopkins introduced a concept called sprung rhythm, Dickinson engaged in what might be termed sprung language. A simple but delightful example of her technique occurs in Nobody

I’m nobody! Who are you?
Are you nobody, too?
Then there’s a pair of us — don’t tell!
They’d banish us, you know.

How dreary to be somebody!
How public, like a frog
To tell your name the livelong day
To an admiring bog!

The technique is delightful, using words and phrases (too, pair, us) to involve the reader with the writer. The conspiracy is entrenched by the startling use of ‘frog’ for those in the public eye, followed by the splendidly illuminating comparison of their activities to croaking to an admiring bog,

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Reconciliation through Poetry


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dsc00588-1Kamala Wijeratne

Can poetry reconcile people of different ethnic, religious and cultural backgrounds to each other? Can poetry heal the wounds left behind by conflict and wipe away the tears? Can poetry build bridges and bond people together?

Professor K. Satchithanadan of Delhi University, one time secretary of the prestigious Sahitya Academy of India, had no direct answers but made it clear that poetry gave voice to the voiceless, power to challenge injustice and oppression and pricked the conscience of humanity. This massage of humanity was conveyed by him and a team of Sri Lankan poets, So Pathmanathan from Jaffna, Ariyawansa Ranaweera from Colombo, and myself from Kandy. Led by him, we visited three higher institutions of learning- namely the University of Peradeniya, the Eastern University and the University of Sabaragamuwa, Belihuloya.

The three poets represented the three languages used in Sri Lanka- Sinhala, Tamil and English. Significantly, they were bilingual and bonded with each other culturally and aesthetically. Above all they shared the enthusiasm to reach out to each other and facilitate others to reach out to them and to each other. The three contexts in which this sensitizing and humanizing activity took place were well selected in terms of background, audience and response. They also formed a cross section of the Sri Lankan population Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim. At the University of Peradeniya something akin to this session had been done by Professor Rajiva Wijesinha when his book ‘Mirrored Images’ was made familiar to the academic community and the alumni there. But this session had vertical proportions in that the participant audience comprised senior academics, academics and students. The audience was participatory and as was to be expected critical. Professor Satchithanandan took them on intellectually as well as poetically. He raised awareness through his very erudite lecture, taking the audience through the ages from Ramayana to Faustus, from Neruda to modern poets who write poetry of violence. He charmed with his recital of his own poetry. He showed without doubt the power of poetry. Continue reading

The Moonemalle Inheritance: From DAYS OF DESPAIR – Part 2


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Somehow she must finally have fallen asleep. When she awoke the crown was gone, and Tom was lying innocently beside her, his eyes tight shut. They opened slowly as she looked at him, and for an instant she thought she glimpsed a trace of guilt in them, and then he smiled and began to behave just as he had done during the last few months.

But something had changed. Little by little it began to show. Perhaps it was not his fault, she told herself, and therefore not hers, the increasing violence in the North and the East even while he and many of those he had summoned to his Round Table Conference, including many of those who had marched with her, tried to find a solution to the racial tensions that had led her to march. It was not his fault, she repeated, when first one and then another of the terrorist groups, the Tigers and Wolves and Bears in the North, the Lions and Shadows in the South, as they called themselves, declared that they would not accept any solution that emerged from the talks; in her heart of hearts however she had for some time now begun to feel that, if Tom had finalised an agreement on the basis of the discussions and shown himself determined to implement it, the sheer relief of the vast majority of the population would have strengthened him and all would have been well.

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