May 11, 2020

Monologue morphs into dialogue

Novelist, poet, theatre director, Sinhala radio playwright and Emeritus Professor at the University of Kelaniya, SunandaMahendra recently launched his second poetry book in English namely 'Monologues' published by Godage Publishers. Though Sinhala is his main literary medium, he writes newspaper articles, columns, reviews, poems, memoirs in English. The Sunday Observer spoke to him to discuss his book, art of poetry and current issues in Sinhala poetry.

Q: The title of this book is 'Monologues'. Generally, monologues come under fiction, though you use it in poetry. Could you elaborate on this?

A: The book is 'Monologues', but there is a subtitle as 'Perhaps the Words Never Come'. To answer your question, first I should thank the American poet Robert Frost, because I borrowed this term from him. He says poetry is nothing but a series of internal monologues or soliloquies in a meditative mood. Frost is also the person who said poetry should begin in delight and end in wisdom. When he was addressing a group of undergraduates at Cambridge University, he titled his paper as 'Meditative Monologues'. He didn't name it as metaphysical poetry or romantic poetry. I partly translated his script into Sinhala as well. I am not sure whether the Sri Lankan English reading public will try to understand what Robert Frost wanted to say. Frost is more oriental than occidental. He is more easternised thanwesternised in attitudes to his poetry.

There aren't separate poems in my book in which each has a separate title. There are separate poems, but they are one single monologue without titles.

Q: How do you translate your monologue into a dialogue?

A: When I was writing my diaries, I never attempted to write long texts or documents. Naturally, the monologue becomes a dialogue.

Veteran poet ParakramaKodithuwakku stated in his Sinhala review on my book 'Monologues' that at times it is a dialogue and at times it is a monologue.He was correct from various points of view.

If you read some pages of the book, you will see an unobsessed way of writing. For instance, the book starts with recalling a seminar. It's a seminar that I attended some years ago. When I was there, I talked to myself what these learned people were doing. So I went on jotting down:

1. Sessions are in full swing.

Literati / Illuminati

Indulging in ceaseless chatter

I am isolated,

Scribbling down…

Have we not come

A long way

From the very inception

Of learning and teaching?

I hear their voices faintly.

Today we need to discuss…

Discuss what?

A discussion done and dusted

Once upon a time.

They come and go.

Once again a starting point

Is this a path from A to Z?

2. We need a change…

The chairperson insists!

What is the change?

Who makes the change?

For what benefit?

In what possible way?

3. We got around

Terms, theories


Learning skills

Group activities.

Round and round we go

Beating about the bush.

4. How little we know

How much have we learned

How far can we go

In this mighty discourse?

5. Can we save ourselves

Can we save our children

From the bonds

And barriers?

Are we not bound together?

Wherever we go

We are bound by chains…

Some visible

Some invisible.

6. A man makes a mess of himself

In order to

Win through

The academic sphere.

7. Did I not get up

Quite early today?

For what purpose?

To prepare notes

To get ready

To sit and wait

Waiting for what?

Waiting for whom?

Waiting for Godot


The monologue becomes a dialogue in the end.

Q: How do you define your poetry?

A: I talk to myself in poetry. I am not thinking there. I can think, but when I start a poem, my thinking stops. Even in Gutthilaya, pundit Vaatthewethera talks to himself. If I see a flower, I would ask the flower, "From where did you come?", "Did you come to meet me?", or "Are you going to see me tomorrow?" It is like that. Most modern poets in Sri Lanka, especially Sinhala poets fail to understand this phenomenon. They feel they should write lines after lines and express their views in poetry. Poetry is not expressing views but expressing your own self, experiences. Ancient people called it“Poetic experiences”. My definition of poetry would be the expression of inner self.

Q: T.S. Eliot says one cannot write poetry in his second language?

A: I was born and bred in Sri Lanka. But I received an English education. My father got me groomed in English poetry. During my childhood days, I started to read nursery rhymes in English. Though I studied at Ananda College, we had English teachers. Shakespeare was one of our favourites in our school days. Some teachers used to read Shakespeare as if it were their first language. This injected me. First time I became Hamlet. To be or not to be, that's the question I asked myself. When I later met Sir Lawrence Olivier - he was teaching us in our drama class - he was also raising the question whether one could write poetry in his second language. He raised this question, because some of our Indian friends failed to recite English poems well. That is where Eliot is correct. But if a person, whose mother tongue is not English, has been given the chance of getting influenced by English poetry, he can write in English as well.

Poetry is a common language. Whether it is written in Sanskrit or Pali or any other language, it has a common language. The big problem in poetry is, it is difficult to translate. As the English poet Robert Graves says, when you are translating a poem from Greek to English, what is lost in translation is poetry. Poetry is what is lost in translation. But this is not always correct. If you are translating T.S. Eliot's Waste Land, there is a chance that you may be successful. For example, Rabindranath Tagore was successful in translating his poems into English. He wrote poems in English as well. Khalil Gibran was also successful in translating his poems into English. Gibran was originally from Lebanon, but later came to Massachusetts and New York. When Gibran came from Lebanon to the United States, he knew no English. But he learned English and attempted to translate.

Q: What are your thoughts about GunadasaAmarasekara'sHadaBasa concept in poetry?

In HadaBasa concept, he says socio-political theme is not suitable for poetry, but fiction. However, Russian poets, such as Pushkin, Mayakovsky, Levtushenko, Boris Pasternack and Latin American poet Pablo Neruda were successful on the socio-political theme. They speak to our heart though their theme is socio-political. Any poet can be successful on the socio-political theme.

However, in terms of poetic language, I partly agree with GunadasaAmarasekara, because without the poetic language, we cannot speak to readers’ heart.

Q: We do not see meter poetry in your poems. Do you reject meter poetry?

A: Meter is one way of seeing. It is the way you write. Meter comes without much knowledge of the poet. But poetry can be written without meter. Non-meter may be unconventional or not an accepted mode, but there are conventionaland unconventional poetry in creative writing. Meter is like a rhythm. We cannot see the same rhythm everywhere. Leonardo Da Vinci was different from Picasso, but both were geniuses. ManjuSri who was a famous painter, was one of my uncles. He used to tell me, "Son, poetry is like painting".

Q: As you are a poet in Sinhala mainly, how difficult was it to write in English?

A: I have been writing poetry for decades. Either in English or Sinhala, it automatically comes. But nothing is easy for me. I never say I finish a poem by half an hour or one hour. Poetry is nothing but learning. Learning has not yet stopped for me. Poetry is learning as well as teaching, because poetry teaches something. When ParakramaKodithuwakku was reading my poems, he translated some of the poems into Sinhala. He said it just happened.

Q: What inspired you to create these poems in English?

A: It just happened because I was reading poetry in English. John Milton, D.H. Lawrence, Robert Frost, W.B. Yates, Shakespeare, Emily Dickinson, John Brough and Haikus inspired me to write in English. Chauser'sCanterbury Tales especially influenced me. Its narrative form and poetic expression stunned me. The translations of Sinhala classical poetry, Chinese poetry also persuaded me.

Q: What is the most difficult task in poetry?

A: The most difficult task is concentration, because people may disturb you. Sometimes over-activities disturb you. But on the other hand, disturbance may help you. A poem comes in a moment and vanishesin a moment. You have to grasp it when it comes. You have to manage disturbance.

Q: What are the basic components of a poem?

A: Firstly, experience. Secondly, word selection. However, I am not a person who is obsessed with words. Words come to me automatically when I start a poem. But I have to select appropriate words when I edit a poem. You cannot go in search of experiences for poetry. Poetry comes naturally when you have to live in experience. In other words, with the passage of time, poems come out through experience.

Q: Do you think that poetry in Sri Lanka has degraded?

A: Yes. I think so. But there are good young poets too.

Q: What can a young poet gain from classical poetry?

A: All the good things in poetry come through the association of classical poetry. Reading SelalihiniSandeshaya, Gutthilaya and other Sandeshakawya are compulsory in developing your poetry. Falk poetry too is inalienable.

Q: What are your present engagements in writing?

A: I am engaged in writing two books. One is 100 profiles as SiyakWatha, starting from Paranavithane, Sarachchandra, Prof Ashley Halpe, YakkaduweThera. The other one is a critical writing book, 'Literary Insights'. I hope to publish the books at the end of this year.