15 July, 2020

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The Complex Art Of Teaching Poetry

By Wimal Dissanayake

Prof. Wimal Dissanayake

Prof. Wimal Dissanayake

As a novelist, a filmmaker, a painter and cultural critic Prof. Siri Gunasinghe has made an indelible impression on the thought and imagination of his times. He blazed new trails, opened up newer spaces for artistic exploration, and in the process generated intense debate and discussion, much of it healthy. He introduced a new imaginative vitality to designing of costumes for stage plays and re-invigorated the art of book-covers. He was a formidable and unsettling presence in the Sri Lankan cultural scene in the 1960s and 1970s. He was emblematic of Sinhala literary modernism. Over the years, some of these aspects of his creative and critical life have been discussed in numerous writings in Sinhala. In my short essay, I wish to focus on a facet of his life that has not yet received adequate attention – his influence and consequentiality as a university teacher of literature.

I was a student of Prof. Siri Gunasinghe in the early 1960s at Peradeniya University. In my first year, I read Sanskrit as one of my chosen subjects, and Siri Guasinghe taught us Sanskrit poetry. The prescribed text for the class was Kalidasa’s The Cloud Messenger (Meghaduta) – a delightful poem that displays Kalidasa’s verbal ingenuity and his conjunction of melancholy and exuberance. Siri Gunasinghe made the poem come alive by attending to its multivalent imagination and intricate tropology. Siri Gunasinghe entered into the poetic universe of Kalidasa along with us; as the involvement became intense, he used to light one cigarette after another while discussing the poem, displaying both a passionate attachment and a cerebral detachment at the same time. A young and attractive fellow-student told me that she found Siri Gunasinghe’s way of lecturing then deeply erotic! Unfortunately, I did not pursue this topic any further with her – come to think of it, a mistake on my part.

The two favorite teachers of mine at Peradeniya were Ediriweera Sarachchandra and Siri Gunasinghe. Both of them, in their different ways, made the university class-room a site of creative participation and critical engagement. Standardly, teachers fed us with information which we absorbed rapidly and willingly. Frozen thoughts were doled out as immutable and final truths; Siri Gunasinghe and Sarachchandra, on the other hand, made us a part of the thinking process. We were, therefore, as students involved in an exhilarating quest for meaning and truth, which was open-ended, nuanced, non-linear and which operated on a number of different registers. We were certain that we are not going to arrive at a final poetic truth; rather, it was the journey with its uncertainties, ambiguities and occasional unanticipated rewards that mattered. I have sought to follow this principle in my own university teaching career.

Siri Gunasinghe Colombo telegraphAs a teacher, Dr. Gunasinghe was never dogmatic or high-handed; he allowed free flow of discussion in the classroom. I distinctly remember, once while discussing imagery in The Cloud Messenger, Siri Gunasinghe identified one trope as a synecdoche; I said that it was an instance of metonymy. I am sure he knew all along that I was wrong, but he encouraged a discussion. Later when I went back to the library and consulted an authoritative text, I realized that Prof. Gunasinghe was right.

Siri Gunasinghe treated students as if they were his equals. During the 1960s when there was a great upsurge of interest in Free Verse, largely due to the poetry of Gunasinghe, we decided to launch a new poetry magazine called ‘Nisandasa’ H.L. Seneviratne, Sarath Amunugama and I were to be the co-editors. And Siri Gunasinghe was the moving spirit behind it. We met occasionally at his residence in Mahakanda. He generously served us with Arrack. Indeed, it was Sri Gunasinghe who introduced me to the forbidden pleasures of liquor. (I am sure he would not count this among his major achievements!)

As I started earlier, Prof. Gunasinghe explored with us the strengths and limitations of Kalisadsa’s celebrated elegy The Cloud Messenger. Here I am using the word elegy in the weaker sense in that there is no death involved as in the case of most elegies. For those not familiar with classical Sanskrit literary works, this is a delightful poem that gives full rein to Kalidasa’s indubitable powers of imagination and creativity. This work consists of 114 four line stanzas; it narrates the predicament of a demi-god (yaksha), who was banished as punishment for neglect of duty. As a result he is separated from his wife. The poem seeks to reconfigure the way in which he in desperation and utter helplessness requests a cloud to carry a message from him to her. This is the narrative backbone of the poem and the author succeeds in elaborating it magnificently to produce an exquisitely lyrical work. He has deployed the –manda kranta meter ( literally slowly moving meter) to convey the celebratory and reflective mind-set of the protagonist.

The poem consists of two parts – the purva megha and uttara megha. The first part ends with the sixty-fifth stanza and depicts the journey of the cloud; the second half is devoted to a description of Alaka where his beloved is. This poem represents a sub-genre of poetry referred to as message-poetry in classical India. I wish to focus on this poem as a way of reminiscing about the way in which Siri Gunasinghe taught this poem in class and made it come alive.

Prof. Gunasinghe himself being a distinguished poet was able to enter Kalidasa’s poetic world and display the poet’s unrivalled imaginative powers with great sensitivity and cogency. Anyone reading The Cloud Messenger, even in translation, is bound to be impressed by its pervasive lyrical beauty. Part of this beauty is embedded in the dexterity with which he was able to capture through vivid tropes the physical landscape and infuse it with a transcendental aura. Passages such as the following, which I have translated from the original Sanskrit, I am sure, would enforce this point.

The slopes covered with the glow of ripened mangoes

And you on the mountain peak, darkly sibling like a glossy coil of hair

It will indeed attract the gaze of celestial lovers

Like a great breast of the earth, dark at the center, a golden gleam around.

As Prof. Gunasinghe analyzed this text, he made it a point to focus on the way in which verbal beauty and, the lyrical intensity of the text are wedded to a complex poetic texture and an evolving artifice. He emphasized the importance of the architecture of this poem and how in it un-freedom becomes a condition of possibility for a larger freedom. Siri Gunasinghe was remarkably insightful in uncovering for us this complex poetic art of Kalidasa and the poem’s growing resistance to its own unifying impulses. Let me cite one example. In the opening stanza, the demi-god’s fall from grace and the concomitant fading of glory is captured in the trope of ‘ astam gamita mahima’, which suggests that the sun of his glory has set. What is interesting about this trope for those deconstructively oriented readers like me is that it puts into a play a self-cancelling imperative . The thing about the setting sun is that it is bound to rise in the sky the following morning. Kalidasa, masterfully, has coalesced the protagonist’s forlornness and hope into a powerfully memorable trope .

What is also noteworthy about this trope is that it returns in the final stanza of The Cloud Messenger, bringing the text to a circular completion. This is emblematic of the larger return signified by the poem. The reader is made aware of the fact that they are still perched on Ramagiri and that the dark cloud is still hugging the peak of the mountain. Has anything changed? It is indeed a question that invites close consideration. But what is clear is that the poem has retuned to the location from where it started. Throughout the poetic text, Kalidasa has succeeded in establishing symmetries, both big and small, such as these and he persuades words, tropes, events, phonetic reverberations to echo each other manifesting the powers of a supremely organized creative intelligence operating behind the lines. Siri Gunasinghe was very perceptive in uncovering these symmetries, which any deconstructioinist would point out also contain unavoidable tensions.

Standardly, in teaching texts such as The Cloud Messenger, the preferred approach has been to focus on the narrative content, life and times of the poet, philological interests, and the geographies recounted in the text. Quite frankly, I was bored by this approach. Therefore, when Gunasinghe opted to discard the shopworn, and in many ways counter-productive approach and focus on the poem’s tropes as the center of interest, I felt a breath of fresh air had entered the classroom. As a teacher of literature I have adopted Siri Gunasinghe’s approach, making relevant adjustments as I proceeded.

As a teacher of poetry, Prof. Gunasinghe was deeply aware of and sensitive to poetry being a site of discursive production. Hence he focused on ontological and epistemological issues in an unobtrusive way. For example, interestingly, he focused attention to the relationship between the demi-god who has been exiled for dereliction of sanctioned duty and the cloud that is to carry a message to his wife. It might appear, at a superficial level, that the relationship between the demi-god and the cloud is simple, even primitive. However, Prof. Gunasinghe convinced us that that was not the case. As we read the poem we come to the realization that there is a complex relationship between the two which lends great imaginative power to the text. While the poet lavishes praise on the cloud for its generosity and kindness, he also advances the question whether the cloud is not merely part of nature consisting of elements. Indeed this tension is a condition of its own power. This doubt and uncertainty about the efficaciousness of the cloud and its valorization as a generous entity puts in play an ambiguity that invests a sense of complexity with the musings of the demi-god. There is an interesting deconstructive play here. His confidence erases itself even as it re-inscribes itself in the text.

What is interesting about the presence of the cloud is that the plight of the demi-god has been displaced on to the cloud; the cloud becomes his alter-ego. While he remains in seclusion in exile, the cloud roams over the landscape freely. Here there is an interesting interplay between the memory of landscape and landscape of memory. As the poem unfolds itself, it is as if the poet is keen to forge an erotic relationship between cloud and the landscape. This, it seems to me, becomes a supplement in the Derridean sense to the agonizing experience of the demi-god and his beloved. As the narrative discourse of the poem advances, it becomes clear that the separation and re-union of the cloud and the mountain become symbolic of the relationship between the protagonist and his wife. Looking back over the five decades that have elapsed, it has to be said that Prof. Gunasinghe was astute in illuminating these scarcely trodden hermeneutical paths, which in many ways, are surprisingly new even now.

The juxtaposition of the demi-god and the cloud has the effect of obtaining another form of solace. As we saw earlier, the yaksha has been banished for neglecting his duties. It is evident that he is overwhelmed by anxieties and anguishes of separation from his beloved. He is presented as a person of passionate disposition – kami. At the same time, the cloud is configured as being the generous, kind and endowed with a desire to help others; he is associated with the traditional cultural value of dutifulness – dharma.

According to traditional axiology, the demigod has transgressed the norms of dharma while the cloud emerges as an upholder of the dharma; however, the poet has also sought to present the cloud as the alter ego of the protagonist. What this does is to introduce the idea of supplement in the manner that Derrida has glossed it – an extension and replacement at the same time. Therefore the dharmic elements in his alter-ego’s character bring in the much needed consolation to the grieving protagonist.

The kind of approach to this poem advocated by Siri Gunasinghe in his literary pedagogy also served to open up another interesting line of inquiry – the intersection of freedom and un-freedom. The protagonist of the poem is imprisoned in Ramagiri; his freedom has been severely curtailed. On the contrary, the cloud is free to roam high above in the sky observing the beauty of vast stretches of land experiencing unfettered joy. The cloud is free to move along the pathways described by the demi-god while he himself is condemned to immobility. At the same time, though, through his descriptions offered to the cloud, he can vicariously participate in the journey.

As he explored with us the intricate verbal texture of The Cloud Messenger, Prof. Gunasinghe reminded us of the fact that the poem is bathed in religious imagery. It is as if Kalidasa is gesturing towards a higher reality that surpassed the anxieties, tensions and uncertainties of worldly existence. It can be said that Kalidasa being the great Shaivite he was, the idea of divine law is a sub-text in the poem. What this does is to introduce a note of certainty to the poetic text. In other words, a sense of certainty trumps over the uncertainty precipitated by the banishment of the demi-god. The poet seems to open an ostensibly secure transcendental space. However as Siri Gunasinghe was quick to point out the sense of tranquility is unsettled by the fact that this transcendental space is ultimately a product of human imagination, and therefore of worldly existence. This was a deconstructive move before its time.

While examining meticulously the poetic text of The Cloud Messenger, Prof. Gunasinghe was also straining towards a larger understanding of literary textuality, an ontology of poetry. Here I was reminded of a statement of the French critic Maurice Blanchot with whose works, I suspect, Siri Gunasinghe was deeply familiar given his French connections. Blanchot said, ‘we rediscover poetry as a powerful universe of words where relations, configurations, forces are affirmed through sound, figure, rhythmic mobility, in a unified and sovereign autonomous space.’ He would have agreed with the general tenor of this statement while modifying the idea of a united and sovereign autonomous space. He was convinced that poetic texts are given to self-cancelling impulses, and that they frequently turn back upon themselves laden with self-doubt; in other words, they are inescapably ambivalent. He demonstrated how images of desire are interlocked with desires of images.

His literary pedagogy was directed towards making interventionist readers out of us. He wanted us to read resistively. What I mean by this is that by encouraging us to go against the grain, by demonstrating that there is no perfect congruence between sign and meaning, by alerting us to the semiotic anxieties felt by literary texts as they experience challenges to heir linguistic authority, he wanted us to be close readers who were capable of fresh discursive production. He pointed out how in The Cloud Messenger, presence is sustained and re-vitalized by absence and that this poem existed at multiple levels of awareness. It was our duty as readers, he contended, to tease out the full implications of this tangled multiplicity.

Looking back over a fifty year period, there is an aspect of his literary pedagogy that I still find attractive; and that is his simultaneous focus on notions on rapture and rupture. When examining poems such as Kalidasa’s The Cloud Messenger which produces literary sublimity, it was customary to underline the rapture it generated. Siri Gunasinghe, however, also chose to focus on the idea of rupture in the text as it ceaselessly questions the validity of its own being. This was indeed a novel strategy. Many years later, when I was introduced to Derrida, Paul de Man, J.Hillis Miller etc., and as I started to grapple with deconstructive acrobatics, I found the ideas implanted in me by Prof. Gunasinghe, who was in some ways a deconstructionist before its time, to be most useful. Siri Gunasinghe was a superb teacher of poetry because he was a meticulously sensitive reader of poetry. The ideas that self-constituting and self-dismantling desires run in texts in tandem, that poetic texts are in continual dialogue with their internal differences, that the self-validating and authenticating center of poems are in constant threat of displacement, were presented to us suggestively in the class room in embryonic form. We developed these ideas later in our own books, perhaps in ways that would not perhaps win his approval.

Anyone reading this article would recognize that there two animating frames of reference in it. The first consists of my memories as an undergraduate at Peradeniya in the early 1960s. The second consists of the newer frames of intelligibility that I have acquired over the decades through reading, teaching and reflection. To be sure, I have deployed the second to inflect the first, knowing full well the dangers in reading present conditions into the past. Today, Siri Gunasinghe celebrates his ninetieth birthday. On this joyous occasion, as a grateful student of his, I wish him good health and long life.

*The writer is Professor, Academy for Creative Media, University of Hawaii and Former Director, Cultural Studies, East West Center, Hawaii.

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Latest comments

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    Your reminiscences of the university days in the early 60s were fascinating.

    But you twisted the essay to blow your horn absolutely paying no attention to its length that it bored me no end.

    You could have paid your tribute to your guru in an essay of half the length with no diminution of meaning. Good communicators avoid the temptation to be long-winded.

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      Dear Village Green Guy,
      It is an excellent piece. There may be some add-ons as usually are in these type of write-ups especially when professors do. That is academically allowable. But your concern about “”twist”, he seems to answer, in part, in his last para.
      Great work, prof. Keep it up.

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    I was reading for my Arts Degree at the Universiltly of Ceylon in early late 60s when Prof.Wimal Dissanayaka had been Assistant Lecturer in Sinhala. His first short story published in a University magazine ‘Aurudhu niwaduwa’ is a replica of the Chekhov’s Vanka. His creative skill showed that he would be a great literary person in future in the Academic world.Now it has proved.

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    I was reading for my Arts Degree at the University of Ceylon in late 60s when Prof.Wimal Dissanayaka had been Assistant Lecturer in Sinhala. His first short story published in a University magazine ‘Aurudhu niwaduwa’ is a replica of the Chekhov’s Vanka. His creative skill showed that he would be a great literary person in future in the Academic world.Now it has proved.

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