Ariyawansa Ranaweera is a deceptively simple poet. He has an uncanny ability to juxtapose ideas, to take simple imagery from every day life and read a great many things into it. While he gets ready to launch his collected works, it’s worthwhile looking at his ‘Dothak Kavi’ (A Handful of Poems), a copious volume of over 300 poems, published in 2008.
The event, due to be held at the National Archives auditorium, Colombo, on Dec. 17, is an important one. Ranaweera has so far written over 1000 poems. It’s hard to think of any other Lankan poet, in Sinhala or English, with an equally prodigious output.
Ranaweera has been writing poetry for over thirty years. Less well known may be the fact he’s an equally prolific translator, critic and journalist. His translations into Sinhala, include great plays such as Oedipus Rex, Antigone, Trojan Women, Sophocles’ Theban trilogy and the Oresteia trilogy by Aeschylus. His prose translations include George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four. He has translated Russian, Chinese and Japanese poetry into Sinhala, and his critical writings include studies of Ernest Hemingway, Alexander Solzhenitsyn and exploration of American poetry.
He’s a contributor to the Island newspaper. Ironically, some of his poems were translated into German recently, though his poetry remains largely unknown to those mainly English-reading Sri Lankans due to lack of translation. This gulf cannot be bridged until more translations are available, and there is a serious need now for a non-profit, non partisan organization involved in translating Sinhala poetry into English and vice versa.
Ariyawansa Ranaweera attended Mawathagoda Rivisanda Central College at Aranayake. He was fortunate enough to enter the Peradeniya University for his undergraduate studies in 1960, at a time when it was associated with the leading figures of Sinhala drama and literature. But he joined the Sri Lanka Administrative Service after graduation. He was to remain with it for the rest of his working life, and may have retired as an obscure wheel of the bureaucracy except for one happy occurrence. He started writing poetry and published his first book of poems in 1984, at the age of 35. Since then, he has published fifteen books.
From the start, the ability to connect the simple imagery and situation in a poem to a bigger context marks his poetry. Thematically, Ranaweera is highly eclectic. His wide reading and erudition is reflected in some of the titles – ‘Emily Bronte,’ ‘Kasyapa’s Song,’ ‘Mona Lisa,’ ‘Lara: the evening’s lover.’
Readers would trace these titles to well known works of art. Other titles reveal a wry sense of humour: ‘Campus Joker,’ ‘Contemporary Lion,’ ‘The Crow and Singapore,’ ‘Tall or Short,’ ‘To a retired pillar’, ‘Computer Elephants,’ ‘The Geography Teacher and Twenty Five Dwarves’ and ‘Good Morning Mr. Cat’ suggest a lighter side to the poet’s creativity.
Though the mood can occasionally be sombre, there’s no room here for melancholy. Titles such as ‘The July striker’s shop,’ and ‘Death of the Office Assistant’ suggest moods in stark contrast to the above mentioned, but the poet’s ability to use rhetoric and different emotional layers as a vehicle of expression connecting the central idea to higher intellectual planes means that these poems rise above simple lyrical sadness.
Free verse was still a novelty in Sinhala literature when Ranaweera was an undergraduate. But, unlike many other Sinhala poets who introduced this form into Sinhala poetry, Ranaweera never adapted the nationalist line. A Marxist by conviction, he remains an idealist at heart to this day, dreaming of a more just world order and never succumbing to the hard-line nationalist political ethos which has devoured many of his Marxist fellow travellers over the past three decades.
Though his verse may be broadly called free verse, the rhythms and cadences show a thorough grasp of meter, just as it is in the case of T. S. Eliot’s free verse or much of modern American poetry. His influences range from Japanese Haiku to classical Sinhala poetry. The poem titled ‘To A Girl Who Laughs Often’, with its great economy of words – don’t you find it heavy/that mask you wear – is an example of the former, while the poem ‘To You’ with its formal, rhyming quatrains is an example of the latter.
While many writers and poets wrack their brains looking for new themes and subject matter, Ranaweera has the gift of finding inspiration simply by looking out of his window. Many of these poems spring from every day observations and seemingly mundane details.
Ranaweera is a poet who understands the music of words. Listening to him reciting his work is a treat. You wonder why singers looking for lyrics haven’t turned to this rich source. It might be because the ideas expressed here might be too much for our popular singers and listeners, and the relatively simple-minded world they inhabit.