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3rd May 1998

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When poetry delighted young minds

Condensed and adapted from a talk given by the writer on 'The place of Poetry in The Learning of English' at the British Council presented by The Sri Lanka Association for the Teaching of English (SLATE).

It gives me great pleasure to address this meeting on the place of poetry in the learning of English, at the invitation of the SLATE President, Dr. Douglas Walatara.

Although I have not had the pleasure of meeting this eminent scholar and teacher I did not think that I should treat his invitation lightly.

Poetry has been a lifelong interest of mine, and for this I am indebted to a small private school called Girton, in Nugegoda.

It was founded in the late nineteen twenties by a remarkable woman called Constance Blacker. Much of what I'm saying here is autobiographical.

With great insight and an understanding of the young, which was at least fifty years ahead of her time, Ms. Blacker made her school a place for learning through enjoyment and self-discovery.

Unimpressed by the concept that four walls had to make a classroom, poetry classes were held in the garden, on the beach at a village railway station or just about anywhere that was rich in character and colours.

Teaching through drama, music, dancing and literature, while still giving a place to the Education Department examination syllabus, this school opened wide the doors of a child's imagination.

School theatre, which included poetry, performed annually at the Regal Theatre over the years, drew enthusiastic audiences of students and teachers from the Colombo schools.

Generations of students who learned English in that era came to it willingly and spontaneously through poetry. They were immersed in the fascinating rhythms and jingles of nursery rhymes.

No amount of poetry on the printed page will make the same sense to a child or anyone, as it does when it falls on the ear in its rhythmic patterns and rhymes.

It is the ear that plays the most important part in the understanding and enjoyment of poetry. That is why the reading of it in the classroom, accurately meaningfully and expressively, is so necessary if it is to be a tool of English learning.

When as children, we were led to the discovery that poetry moved to certain rhythms like music, we marched to the beat of 'Hot Cross Buns', danced to the spoken words of 'The Lobster Quadrille', from Alice in Wonderland and galloped to the lilt of 'Ride-a-cock-horse to Banbury Cross', while it was being recited.

Nursery rhymes and poems were learnt by us in the classroom through constant repetition. No poem was ever taken apart for learning one verse at a time. The result was that the content of the poem was easy to absorb.

It was whole and comprehensible, not disjointed. To the teachers delight the poetry class became a place for children's conversation based on the poems.

A great deal has happened to English since then, and also to the way in which schools of the time gave opportunities for children of different nationalities and religions to converse in a common language-English.

Sadly, the standards of English began to drop drastically during the last few decades and it was no longer possible to use the old materials in English teaching.

During this time, with very young children in mind I ventured into the writing of three books of poetry, which dealt exclusively with sights, sounds, rhythms and occupations with which little children in this country were familiar.

In the first of these, titled Children's Poems, published by Hansa, Sinhala sounds written in English, were used with eg.,

Unchilli Chilli here I go
Up in a swing, now high, now low,
Nangi rides up to the trees now
Picking me fruit from the nelli bough.

As for jingles, ones like athuru mithuru dambadivathuru, took the place of eenie, meenie, minie, mo quite successfully.

Comprehension and enjoyment were the key aims of this experiment and it worked.

Poems like 'The Rabana' 'Kang kang booru' and 'Leakeli Dancers', all written with a juxtaposition of both Sinhala and English lines gave scopes for both conversations and action.

The other two books 'The Peacock Tree' and 'A Bit of Everything' were meant for older children.

It's good to know that this year English has re-entered the Year One classroom.

It's fufilling even to imagine that now older children will once again be able to enhance their vocabularies and imaginative powers by savouring the word-music of such old favourites as Blake, Wordsworth Yeats, Keats, De la Mare and R.L.Stevenson.

The 'difficult' words in these poems should go up on the blackboard for the discussion of their meanings and as an aid to spellings, before the poems are introduced. This would also be a good time to assist them in the use of their dictionaries.

A particular treat of our Girton days for the Senior and Matriculation classes, was a period of Poetry Appreciation at least once a month, where the teacher presented the poetic expression of other countries, and modern writers.

Even more important, the students brought in some of their own work for critical evaluation. These were always read aloud.

The words of the Black American poet Gwendolyn Brooks are significant: "The poem is most fragile. It has to be held.

"Kept close and heard. Allowed to sing beyond its time on the page. To sing in memory.''

- Alfreda de Silva


Book shelf

Capturing the changing scene

In his epic teledrama, Pitagamkarayo, Tissa Abeysekera covered the socio-economic changes he witnessed in the Kelani Valley over three generations. In 'Bringing Tony Home', the Gratiaen Prize winning story (1996), he vividly unfolds the changing scene of the area he lived in his childhood days.

Tissa AbeysekeraIn his first story, 'The Sunset' in this 'story in three movements' Tissa creates the backdrop of the reader with a scene from Pitagamkarayo. "Camera tracks parallel to Gunapala as he moves slowly across the paddy field, bare after the harvest and full of pools of water reflecting the evening light. The main musical theme is played by the horanewa, and emerges on the sound track faintly at first like coming from a great distance and increases in volume. Gunapala stops and the camera stops with him, framing the full expanse of the stubble field stretching across the Kesbewa highway towards Bellanwila, and beyond that the sky, vast and awesomely red and rising in a great big canopy over the Attidiya marshes. As the camera stops, the white car bearing Missie Nona away from the village enters the frame right on the road which cuts across the field in mid -centre distance running parallel to the main highway, and the strings come on the track backing the horanewa building up into a big orchestral score and then the camera begins to crane up all this happening at once". And as he drives home after an editing session, he draws a parallel with the teledrama scene.

Tissa's success is his ability to take the reader right through the book, creating a wide canvas where one could follow every step intimately. Particularly for those in the same vintage it brings back memories of one's childhood days wherever he or she lived, as it happened to me. The setting was more or less the same everywhere. It's so easy for anyone to join the narrator in bringing one's own Tony (the pet dog) home. And many of us shifted house and went through the same movements. Things are so different today to what they were fifty years ago. Tissa very cleverly discusses that era through a down-to-earth human story written simply but vividly.

The family shifts from one house to another. The narrator, along with the mother and sister are off to catch the bus to go to the new place. "Tony, our dog who had been with us for well over seven years, followed us all the way, and packs of vicious mongrels came snarling and howling and he defied them all, swinging deftly every which way with a short clipped bark full of disdain for the hoipolloi. We crossed over from the Old Road beyond the railway station through an ancient gatepost fallen on its side like some historic ruin and which would have stood there long before the High Level Road came and severed it from a large coconut estate, and now we came to a spot on the 'Alut Para' - no one then called it High Level Road, for the new road to Avissawella had to be identified in relation to the old road - and waited for the bus to take us to Wijerama Junction, five miles towards Colombo" When the bus comes they get in leaving Tony behind.

When the narrator (yet a small boy) decides to return and take the dog back it becomes a major assignment. He has to walk back all the way with the dog. The reader joins him in the journey. The observations are recorded in detail. "A mellow amber light falls from the western sky but when I look towards the east from where I came the heavens are dark and foreboding and I think I hear the rumble of distant thunder. But everything is cool and relaxed, and the traffic on the road has increased. There are more carts than motor vehicles and the bulls amble along with the carters nodding under the awning, the ropes gone limp in their hands and they are all moving eastwards where the sky is dark. "

'Bringing Tony Home' is an absorbing story written in a most readable style. Often Tissa writes long sentences but he is clever in getting the reader to easily follow his narration. The clear print on the bright white paper makes one grab it and read from beginning to end in one go. Stanley Kirinde's simple illustrations capture the heart of the story intimately.

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