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Sunday, 9 May 2010





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Listening to language and the experience of poetry - 1

For the past fifty years or so, modern Sinhala poetry has been a site of intense, at times acrimonious, debate. Two themes that have figured prominently in these debates are the validity of free verse as opposed to metrical verse and the need for poetry to be a vehicle of social analysis as opposed to highly individualistic imaginings. These are, no doubt, interesting issues and demand discussion. However, the critical explorations into Sinhala poetry did not rise to higher levels of exegetical advances because they were inhibited by a narrow frame of reference. Gunadasa Amarasekera is one writer and critic who sought to widen the discursive boundaries of critical discussions of modern poetry. In books such as "Sinhala Kavya Sampradaya", which should have been the focus of sustained discussion, he raised a number of significant issues. One of them is the uniqueness of language, the identity of semantic fields, in this case that of Sinhala, and how it relates to poetic creativity. This is indeed a theme well worth exploring.

In the next few columns, I wish to present an extended and somewhat complex argument regarding the uniqueness of languages, the centrality of sound and the experience of poetry with particular reference to Sinhala literature. This theme, it seems to me, invites a fuller discussion the kind of which it has not received, by and large, from Sinhala literary commentators. The focus on the uniqueness of a given language is the logical starting point for such a project. If we can come up with the genetic structure, a genome map if you like, of a language, our task will be that much clearer.

Graham Hough, in "An Essay on Criticism", which was recently translated into Sinhala, makes the point that each language, whether it be English or German or Chinese, has its own distinctive phonetic and semantic features which demand close attention. These features could constitute the basis for a productive exploration into the complexities of the poetic experience and the nature of poetry. Similarly, George Steiner, in many of his critical essays, has drawn attention to the lexical, syntactic, phonetic features of different languages and what these mean for the understanding of poetry. This linguistic uniqueness, in my judgment, can become a useful point of departure in investigating the defining and constitutive features of poetry. Perceptive poets are sustained by the conviction that recognition of the uniqueness of his or her linguistic terrain is a prelude to poetic achievement.

In order to understand the distinctiveness of Sinhala poetry, we need to understand the distinctiveness of Sinhala as a language. This is not a call for a naive form of linguistic essentialism; rather, it is an invitation to confront one of the central pillars of the poetic experience. There is a vital and intimate relationship between the texture of a given language, its sound patterns, their capacity to evoke cultural memory and poetic meaning. Very often, we are led to think that metres, rhythms, sound patterns are external embellishments rather than constitutive features that have an intimate bearing on the experience of reading poetry.

Let us, for example, consider the meter which is very often regarded as a formal and outward trait. However, in good poetry, in the hands of talented writers, metre becomes an essential part of the meaning of the poem. The function of meter is to provide an understructure against which various deviations and variations can be usefully effected. It is clear that if we are not aware of the operation of that metrical understructure, we will not be in a position to appreciate the variations introduced, thereby robbing the poetic experience of much of its vibrancy. A passage of poetry, such as the following, will allow us to understand this better. In the following passage, taken from Andrew Marvell's "The Garden", the interesting ways in which variations function can be seen vividly.

How vainly men themselves amaze

To win the palm, the oak, or bays,

And their incessant labors see

Crowned from some single herb or tree,

Whose short and narrow-verged shade

Does prudently their toils upbraid;

While all flowers and all trees do close

To weave the garland of repose.

In this passage, the first two lines are clearly regular and the informed reader would arrive at the conclusion, without much effort, that it is iambic tetrametre. In the third line, we observe that the first foot is weak, and which has the effect of stressing the word "crowned" in the fourth line. Line seven carries a certain metaphorical and rhythmic richness and we note that the first two feet are inverted; this has the effect generating a sense of unexpected strangeness. These variations are not only important as vehicles of communication of the meaning of the poem but are actually constitutive of that very act. Therefore, meter is not to be dismissed as an external ornamentation, but rather an integral element of the structure and meaning of the poem.

Derek Attridge who has done important work on the topic English metre and rhyme made the following apposite remark. "Rhythm participates in the greater semantic density of poetic language not only by establishing its own connections between the poem and the physical and mental world, but also by functioning within the poem as a formal network that acts directly upon the semantic level." One obvious mode of rhythmic emphasis is the use of variations to create local tension."

Here I was focusing in English poetry. The same point could be made in relation to Sinhala poetry. Clearly, in terms of phonetics, syntax, sound patterns there is a world of difference between English and Sinhala language. However, the functionality and constitutive nature of metre can be illustrated by a poem like the "Selalihini Sandeshaya." Here, the preferred movement is orchestrated by the "Samudra Ghosha" metre. However, the poet, through the deft deployment of sound patterns, and syntactical innovations, introduces variations that are intimately linked to the intended meaning of the poems. Rev. Sri Rahula was a master at playing off the metrical movement against the syntactical movement.

This fact is closely related to the function of rhythm in poetry. Most discerning literary critics believe that rhythm is one of the defining features of poetry, and the way the metre and rhythm interact is central to the production of meaning. As commentators like Eliot have acutely observed, even in the best free verse there is a ghost of metre present, and against which the work of rhythm gains energy; experiencing poetry is listening to language; it is only when we are able to listen intently to the music of language that the full force of the given rhythm is registered in the reader's imagination. The French poet Stephane Mallarme was of the opinion that what we experience when we experience poetry is the distinctive word patterns and rhythms. Hence he was moved to remark that a poem is not made out of ideas but words. It is indeed true that metrical study can prove to be tedious and technical. However, if we learn to listen to language, we could develop a sensitive ear to it.

The rhythm is not only a part of the auditory imagination; it is also vitally connected to the linguistic meaning. It is this desire for linguistic meaning that powers the rhythm.

One can legitimately assert that poetry privileges the materiality of language; it foregrounds it. This materiality consists of the sound patterns, aural movements, shape of words as they interact within the linguistic universe of the poem. A poet like Rev. Sri Rahula was able to exploit these resources to the full to infuse his poetics compositions with an exquisite lyricism and a fund of reverberative meaning.

So far, what I have sought to underline is the fact that metre, rhythm, sound patterns are inextricably linked with the construction of the linguistic universe that is the poem. The distinctiveness of this linguistic universe and the functionalities of the elements that I alluded to in the earlier sentence are dependent on the uniqueness of the given language, its distinctive resources. What this means is that no simple division is available between internal and external features; they are inseparably linked. Let us consider the question of syntax, which is conceptualized large as a linguistic issue. This is true so far as it goes. But it is important to bear in mind that syntax is also an integral part of poetic form.

The investigation into poetic syntax has largely belongs to the province of stylistics. However, it is equally related to formal elements, the architecture of the poem. Syntax deals with the arrangement of words in a certain order. There are certain conventions associated with it. In the English the basic structure is subject/verb/object. In Sinhala, it is subject/object/verb. However, innovative poets change this syntax in order to achieve certain preferred poetic effects. This has a direct bearing on the form and structure of the poem as well. Let us consider this passage from W.B. Yeats' poem "Leda and the Swan".

A sudden blow; the get wings beating still

Above the staggering girl, her thighs caressed.

By the dark webs, her nape caught in his bill,

He holds her helpless breast upon his breast

Here the passage begins with a fragment of a sentence, "a sudden blow", which has the effect of jolting the reader into a new linguistic awareness. This unannounced act of startling is intimately related to the formal structure of the poem. The way grammatical effects, formal innovations and linguistic memory are combined serves to underline the importance of the complex interactions between the uniqueness of a language, the acoustical texture of a poem and its meaning.

Similarly, verse forms are more than formal indicators; there a vital part of the constructed linguistic universe of the poem. For example, Emily Dickinson very often used the form of religious humans in her poetry. However, she deployed this form not in order to buttress the inherited religious sentiments, but to challenge them, gloss them afresh, and re-possess that representational space in order to articulate newer structures of feeling. Similarly when Gunadasa Amarasekera makes use of diverse forms of folk poetry in his volume of poems, "Amal Biso", he is undertaking an analogous project of creative re-interpretation.

The theme that I have been pursuing so far in relation to the uniqueness of languages, acoustical textures, aural memories is significantly related to the nature and significance of auditory imagination in poetry. For example, the complex ways in which auditory imaginations activates cultural memory and energizes flows of meaning in Sinhala poetry is an area that invites close and sustained study. The eminent German philosopher Martin Heidegger put into circulation the phrase "listening to language." Clearly, he has certain metaphysical imperatives in mind. However, in order to reach those metaphysical heights, we should start with the physical act of listening to language. This is what I have sought to stress. The experience of poetry involves, for the most part, listening to language intently. I propose to develop this line of thinking in the next few columns.

(To be continued)


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