04 October 2023

Obligation as a bomb and an ocean

['The Morning Inspection' is the title of a column I wrote for the Daily News from 2009 to 2011, one article a day, Monday through Saturday. This is the 234th article in the new series that began in December 2022. Links to previous articles are given below] 

 The poet, according to the late Lakdasa Wikkramasinha, is one who, tossing a bomb into the city, takes notes. That’s how his poem ‘The Poet,’ begins. Violent. Callous. But then, it is a poem and as such there’s poetic license as well as the play of metaphor. Lakdasa, in this poem, details what he believes to be the task or obligation of a poet.

A bomb is a destructive device. It can be indiscriminate. It certainly unsettles landscapes and perhaps what Lakdasa proposes is exactly that — cause a rupture that facilitates deeper cuts to force a consideration of complacency. He moves quickly to the source of agitation, the creator of things that require conscious and decisive  intervention: the enemy.

He leaves 'enemy' undefined and rightly so. ‘Enemy’ can take innumerable forms. He hints at the enemy that preoccupies him or, put another way, ought to agitate all poets and therefore all readers; it is ‘the speaker on the platform’ and therefore ‘politician’. Again, it’s a catch-all. What kind of politician and of what ideological persuasion are questions he does not address. He is more specific when he describes the target of this gun-toting preparer of ambush. The poet, he insists, sets traps and awaits an enemy who arrives in a car, seated in the backseat. Thus does Lakdasa work ‘class’ into the story.  

Pablo Neruda had a different understanding of the poet’s task. In ‘The poet’s obligation,’ Neruda proposes an empathetic, sharing and healing role.

So. Drawn on by my destiny, 
I ceaselessly must listen to and keep 
the sea's lamenting in my consciousness, 
I must feel the crash of the hard water 
and gather it up in a perpetual cup 
so that, wherever those in prison may be, 
wherever they suffer the sentence of the autumn, 
I may be present with an errant wave, 
I may move in and out of the windows, 
and hearing me, eyes may lift themselves, 
asking "How can I reach the sea?" 
And I will pass to them, saying nothing, 
the starry echoes of the wave, 
a breaking up of foam and quicksand, 
a rustling of salt withdrawing itself, 
the gray cry of sea birds on the coast.
So, though me, freedom and the sea 
will call in answer to the shrouded heart.

Neruda goes ‘to whoever is not listening to the sea/ this Friday morning, to whoever is cooped up/ in house or office, factory or woman/ or street or mine or dry prison cell.' He takes to them the seas denied them by life’s numerous incarcerations. Poetry is the vessel that contains the waves, foam, sand, salt, bird calls, the music and everything else that is ‘ocean.’ 


Similarly, Lakdasa’s poem and the call of the poem are empowering and advocate empowerment respectively.  It’s different, though. They were both political but in different ways. Being political, they were analytical and often prescriptive; these are occasions when they spoke to their tribe even as they explained why they write and for whom.

Lakdasa describes a role, Neruda an obligation. A kind reading of the former where the metaphorical worth of agitational elements is privileged, would yield a broad field of engagement for the poetic community. Lakdasa, however, despite the broad strokes, offers a very personal testimony. It is not a task or obligation; the business of bomb-throwing and taking notes is something he has to do, he just cannot help it.

The poet is the bomb in the city,
Unable to bear the circle of  the
Seconds in his heart,
Waiting to burst.

So, the poet Lakdasa is forced to do two things: hurl himself into a crowd and, once exploded, take notes. Neruda was explosive in his own right, but it was a choice and one that was made at his discretion. However, if ‘enemy’ and ‘city’ are metaphors then both poets were bombs and both carried in their pockets representatives grains of oceans and their naturally tremendous dimensions so they could share with those who found themselves in unhappy lands far away from the surging waters.

There are enemies. They need to be engaged. Therefore there are battles. It would be a stretch to say all art is about enemies, friends, battles, defeats and victories, but there’s heart always; something that is subliminal or intangible and therefore has to be expressed through signs, the play of light and shadow, the twisting of words, colors, lines and spaces into metaphors.

In the end, I am happy Lakdasa took notes. I am happy that Neruda unclenched his poetic fist and gifted the world the oceans he intimately knew. What tasks they assigned themselves, what they considered to be obligations, in this sense, aren’t important. I don’t know the names of the enemies they targeted and slew, but there are enemies whose names and ways I learned thanks to poets like Lakdasa and Neruda. And I fight my battles in my own right. As do we all.


Other articles in this series: 

In the land of insomnial poets

In and out of shadows

Over to Eve

When you don't need an invitation, it's home

When the Canadian House of Commons applauded a Nazi...

Touching the touch-me-nots

The importance of not skipping steps

No free passes to the Land of Integrity

Hector Kobbekaduwa is not a building, statue, street or stamp

Rajagala and the Parable of the Panner

Let's show love to Starbucks employees!

You've got mail?

Octavio Paz and Arthur C Clarke in the stratosphere 

Enduring solidarities 

Coco 'Quotes' Gauff!

9/11 and the calm metal instrument of Salvador Allende's voice 

What a memory-keeper foregoes 

Whitman, Neruda and things that wait in all things

Thilina Kaluthotage's eyes keep watch

Those made of love will fly

Profit: the peragamankaru of major wars

Helplessness and innocence

The parameters of entirety

In loving memory of Carrie Lee (1956-2020)

Mobsters on and off the screen

Transfixing and freeing dawns

We're here because we're here because we're here

Life signatures

Sha'Carri Richardson versus and with Sha'Carri Richardson  

A canvas for a mind-brush

Sybil Wettasinghe's shoes

Love is...

A stroll with Pragg and Arjun along a boulevard in Baku

Meditation on tree-art

Daya Sahabandu ran out of partners but must have smiled to the end

Gentle intrusions 

Sleeping well

The unleashing of inspiration

Write, for Pete's sake

Autumn Leaves Safeness

 Sapan and voices that erase borders

Problem elephants and problem humans

Songs from the vaekanda

The 'inhuman' elephant in a human zoo

Ivan Art: Ivanthi Fernando's efforts to align meaning

Arwa Turra, heart-stitcher

Let's help Jagana Krishnakumar rebuild our ancestral home

True national anthems

Do you have a friend in Pennsylvania (or anywhere?)

A gateway to illumination in West Virginia

Through strange fissures into magical orchards

There's sea glass love few will see 

Re-residencing Lakdasa Wikkramasinha

Poisoning poets and shredding books of verse

The responsible will not be broken

Home worlds

Ownership and tenuriality of the Wissahickon

Did you notice the 'tiny, tiny wayside flowers'?

Gifts, gifting and their rubbishing

History is new(s)

Journalism inadvertently learned

Reflections on the young poetic heart

Wordaholic, trynasty and other portmanteaus

The 'Loku Aiya' of all 'Paththara Mallis'

Subverting the indecency of the mind

Character theft and the perennial question 'who am I?'


A degree in people

Faces dripping with time

Saji Coomaraswamy and rewards that matter

Revolutionary unburdening

Seeing, unseeing and seeing again

Alex Carey and the (small) matter of legacy

The Edelweiss of Mirissa 

The insomnial dreams of Kapila Kumara Kalinga 

The clothes we wear and the clothes that wear us (down) 

Every mountain, every rock, is sacred 

Manufacturing passivity and obedience 

Precept and practice 

Sanjeew Lonliyes: rawness unplugged, unlimited 

In praise of courage, determination and insanity 

The relative values of life and death 

Feet that walk 

Sarinda's eyes 

Poetry and poets will not be buried 

Sunny Dayananda 

Reunion Peradeniya (1980-1990) 

What makes Oxygen breathable?  

Sorrowing and delighting the world 

The greatest fallacy  

Encounters with Liyanage Amarakeerthi 

Beyond praise and blame 

Letters that cut and heal the heart 

Vanished and vanishing trails 


A forgotten dawn song from Embilipitiya 

The soft rain of neighbourliness  

The Gold Medals of being 

Jaya Sri Ratna Sri 

All those we've loved before 

Reflections on waves and markings 

A chorus of National Anthems 

Saying what and how 

'Say when' 

Respond to insults in line with the Akkosa Sutra 

The loves of our lives 

The right time, the right person 

The silent equivalent of a thousand words 

Crazy cousins are besties for life 

Unities, free and endearing 

Free verse and the return key

"Sorry, Earth!" 

The lost lyrics of Premakeerthi de Alwis 

The revolution is the song 

Consolation prizes in competitions no one ever wins 

The day I won a Pulitzer 


Ella Deloria's silences 

Blackness, whiteness and black-whiteness 

Inscriptions: stubborn and erasable  


Deveni: a priceless one-word koan 

Enlightening geometries 

Let's meet at 'The Commons' 

It all begins with a dot 

Recovering run-on lines and lost punctuation 

'Wetness' is not the preserve of the Dry Zone 

On sweeping close to one's feet 

Kumkum Fernando installs Sri Lanka in Coachella, California

To be an island like the Roberts... 

Debts that can never be repaid in full

An island which no flood can overwhelm 

Who really wrote 'Mother'? 

A melody faint and yet not beyond hearing 

Heart dances that cannot be choreographed 

Remembering to forget and forgetting to remember 

On loving, always 

Authors are assassinated, readers are immortal 

When you turn 80... 

It is good to be conscious of nudities  

Saturday slides in after Monday and Sunday somersaults into Friday  

There's a one in a million and a one in ten 

Gunadasa Kapuge is calling 

Kumkum Fernando installs Sri Lanka in Coachella, California 

Hemantha Gunawardena's signature 

Pathways missed 

Architectures of the demolished 

The exotic lunacy of parting gifts 

Who the heck do you think I am? 

Those fascinating 'Chitra Katha' 

The Mangala Sabhava 

So how are things in Sri Lanka? 

The most beautiful father 

Palmam qui meruit ferat 

The sweetest three-letter poem 

Buddhangala Kamatahan 

An Irish and Sri Lankan Hello 

Teams, team-thinking, team-spirit and leadership 

The songs we could sing in lifeboats when we are shipwrecked 

Pure-Rathna, a class act 

Jekhan Aruliah set a ball rolling in Jaffna 

Awaiting arrivals unlike any other 

Teachers and students sometimes reverse roles 

Matters of honor and dignity 

Yet another Mother's Day 

A cockroach named 'Don't' 

Colombo, Colombo, Colombo and so forth 

The slowest road to Kumarigama, Ampara 

Sweeping the clutter away 

Some play music, others listen 

Completing unfinished texts 

Mind and hearts, loquacious and taciturn 

I am at Jaga Food, where are you? 

On separating the missing from the disappeared 

Moments without tenses 

And intangible republics will save the day (as they always have) 

The world is made of waves 


The circuitous logic of Tony Muller 

Rohana Kalyanaratne, an unforgettable 'Loku Aiya' 

Mowgli, the Greatest Archaeologist 

Figures and disfigurement, rocks and roses 

Sujith Rathnayake and incarcerations imposed and embraced 

Some stories are written on the covers themselves 

A poetic enclave in the Republic of Literature 

Landcapes of gone-time and going-time  

The best insurance against the loud and repeated lie 

So what if the best flutes will not go to the best flautists? 

There's dust and words awaiting us at crossroads and crosswords 

The books of disquiet 

A song of terraced paddy fields 

Of ants, bridges and possibilities 

From A through Aardvark to Zyzzyva  

World's End 

Words, their potency, appropriation and abuse 

Street corner stories 

Who did not listen, who's not listening still? 

The book of layering 

If you remember Kobe, visit GOAT Mountain 

The world is made for re-colouring 

The gift and yoke of bastardy 

The 'English Smile' 

No 27, Dickman's Road, Colombo 5 

Visual cartographers and cartography 

Ithaca from a long ago and right now 

Lessons written in invisible ink 

The amazing quality of 'equal-kindness' 

A tea-maker story seldom told 

On academic activism 

The interchangeability of light and darkness 

Back to TRADITIONAL rice 

Sisterhood: moments, just moments 

Chess is my life and perhaps your too

Reflections on ownership and belonging 

The integrity of Nadeesha Rajapaksha 

Signatures in the seasons of love

To Maceo Martinet as he flies over rainbows 

Sirith, like pirith, persist 

Fragrances that will not be bottled  

Colours and textures of living heritage 

Countries of the past, present and future 

A degree in creative excuses

Books launched and not-yet-launched 

The sunrise as viewed from sacred mountains 

The ways of the lotus 

Isaiah 58: 12-16 and the true meaning of grace 

The age of Frederick Algernon Trotteville 

Live and tell the tale as you will 

Between struggle and cooperation 

Of love and other intangibles 

Neruda, Sekara and literary dimensions 

The universe of smallness 

Paul Christopher's heart of many chambers 

Calmness gracefully cascades in the Dumbara Hills 

Serendipitous amber rules the world 

Continents of the heart
The allegory of the slow road