CRAFT OF VERSE
Here are Reflections that span a long period, four decades. Add to this the long wait for publication and the time seem to stretch even further. The long wait was worth it. The reflections soon become our own, and we find ourselves reflecting on these reflections, over and over.
This, however is not a review of Dr. Lakshmi de Silva’s recently published collection of poems, ‘Reflections’. My only intention here is to give an introduction to the book and the author. The reviewing the poetry of one of the greatest names in English literature in our country today, I leave to scholars far erudite than I. However quoting from the back cover of Dr. de Silva’s ’12 Centuries of Sinhala Poetry’, Reflections too is what Yeats termed ‘The Craft of Verse’.
I have always believed and will always believe that small is more beautiful. The ‘slim collection of verse’, as Dr. Lakshmi de Silva, introduces Reflections, is one more instance to convince us of this truth. Long before Shakespeare, and long before Dejan Stojanovi, the Serbian-American poet, who said “To write good poems is the secret of brevity”, we were writing such great poetry, using just a few words as far back as the 5th Century. As she herself writes in the introduction to her book, “The Sinhalese in brief had devised a precision tool, a diction that combined maximum expressiveness with euphony”. Similar to what we find in our ancient inscriptions, in Sihigiri Graffiti Dr. de Silva too knows how to use words to maximum effect.
She has dedicated Reflections to Marion Abeysuriya her teacher.
Jack Higgins has been accused of misquoting the Quaran, when he wrote “One sword is worth ten thousand words”. In reality one word could be worth much more than ten thousand swords. In a world where we have poets writing a poem, (or more than one poem) a day, here we meet a poet who had written 26 poems over a span of 40 years, and each of them a gem reflecting a million thoughts.
Poets outside Japan try to write Haiku, and now Twihaiku on Twitter. Others try micropoetry. To read and appreciate ‘Reflections’, we do not have to give these poems any labels or try to categorize them. Poets do not have to imitate other poets or other poetic styles.
Many have written about one of the 20th century greats, Prof. E.R.Sarachandra. They have written pages and pages, in Sinhala and in English, but perhaps none could match what Dr. Lakshmi de Silva had written in eleven brief lines in her poem. She has also paid homage to Martin Wickramasinghe in the same manner, ending her fourteen line verse, with one poignant sentence, “he gave your stones a voice”.
In addition to writing poetry Dr de Silva seems to thrive on translating Sinhala works which many would dare not touch for translation into English. She won the Gratiaen and the State Literary Award in 2001 for her translation of Henry Jayasena’s Kuweni. She has also translated Sarachandra’s Sinhabahu, which won the 2003 State Award, and the ever popular Maname. Dayananda Gunawardena’s Gajaman Puwatha was her next translation. ‘Twelve Centuries of Sinhala Poetry’ won the State Award 2005. An admirer of Martin Wickramasinghe, she has translated Apegama, and Gamperaliya. The latter won her and Dr. Ranga Wickramasinghe the State Award for the Best Translation 2011.
2011 was also the year Lakshmi de Silva was awarded the highest literary recognition in our country, the ‘Sahitya Rathana’ for her contribution to English literature and education.
But we need not judge Dr. de Silva’s skills as a writer by the awards she has won. That is why I picked Anne Ranasinghe’s ‘After the Fall’ and Dr. de Silva’s ‘Tangalle, 9th April 1971′ as the two poems to represent modern Sri Lankan poetry in English at the International Poetry Fair in Bangladesh 2012. Prof. D. C. R. A. Goonetilleke describes Dr. de Silva’s poem “In a beautiful Southern coastal town, the surface tranquility exploded with the realization that the insurrection too ‘was real’. The sense of actuality in this poem is a contrast to ……’s poetry written in complete ignorance of the insurgency.” (Sri Lankan English Literature and Sri Lankan People. p.76)
The Kelaniya University website mentions, “In the 1980s Dr. Lakshmi de Silva, the well known translator, critic and ‘woman of words’ joined the department, adding to the illustrious list of personalities the university had attracted.” She is a ‘woman of words’, not only in English, but also in Sinhala.
“One of the many valuable attributes of Lakshmi de Silva (English/Sinhala bilingual, teacher, translator, critic and poet) is that the active support and encouragement of literature rate high among her greatest interests”. Thus wrote Prof. Yasmine Gooneratne, in ‘Celebrating Sri Lankan Women’s English Writing’. About one of the poems in this collection, ‘Addition and Subtraction’, Prof. Gooneratne wrote, “(the poem)…conveys a good idea of Lakshmi de Silva’s distinctive combination of concentrated intellectual power and deep feeling, and her ability to keep a complex image in play throughout a perfectly phrased and regulated piece of rhymed verse…”
Dr. Lakshmi de Silva owes it to this country to write her memoir from her early childhood, so that our grand children could learn about our culture, our literature and our life styles of the times. She has a remarkable memory which would make this possible within a short time, if only we do not burden her seeking advise on our manuscripts, asking her to write introductions for books and invitations for book launches. For she is one writer, if I may quote Salman Rushdie’s definition of a poet, who has the ability to “ name the unnamable, to start arguments, shape the world and stop it from going to sleep.”