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Lyrical voyage

``I like my poems to be lucid. I think wit and humour are an intrinsic part of poetry, and it should be serious but not solemn", says 74-year old poet, literary critic and former diplomat, Guy Amirthanayagam.

"A LONG and frantic search it has been
To find the face to match the dream
Natasha! now that the face is seen,
The dream recedes, it would seem
Another frantic search must start apace
To find the dream to match the face."

The title poem from his latest collection, ``The Face and the Dream'', was among the poems read by Prof. Guy Amirthanayagam at the Madras Book Club recently.

The poet-literary critic and former diplomat preceded his reading with a talk on ``Sri Lankan Writing in English".

Earlier in the day, he was at the Loyola College, comparing and contrasting ``Contemporary Indian and American poetry". The previous morning, he presented a lecture at the University of Madras on ``T.S. Eliot: Pontifex and Scapegoat".

A packed itinerary and a punishing pace for even a man in his twenties, one would think. But the 74-year old was as spry as ever the following noon at the interview at his son's residence.

This is an unusual family of administrators with a flair for poetry and a passion for literature. While Guy Amirthanayagam retired after a distinguished career in the Ceylon Civil Service and the Sri Lankan Foreign Service, his son, Indran J. Amirthanayagam, Consul for Public Affairs at the U.S. Consulate General, Chennai, has recently published a collection of poems.

"I began writing while I was at high school and at college, I was editor of the Ceylon University Magazine in Colombo," says Guy Amirthanayagam.

``I passed the Ceylon Civil Service examinations and was later sent as Deputy High Commissioner in London in the early 1970s. The cultural climate in England was very conducive to writing since I was writing in English.''

He then decided to take up the job of founder-director of the Culture Learning Institute at the East-West Center, Hawaii. ``The eight years I spent there were stimulating as the conferences I organised brought me in contact with the best writers in the East and West. Nissim Ezekiel, A. K. Ramanujam, C. D. Narasimhiah and Nobel prize winners such as Kenzaburo Oe of Japan as well as Sir Malcolm Bradbury and others.

The East-West Center offers scholarships to those in the Asia-Pacific region and the University of Hawaii awards the degrees.

("The literature programme has been discontinued and the concentration is now on political science and polity".)

With this rich experience, Guy Amirthanayagam's attention naturally turned to inter-cultural studies as an area of specialisation.

"One of the greatest adventures of the 20th Century is the growing contact of cultures. A rich fruit of this multiple meeting of cultures, both within and among nations, is a type of modern literature which has great artistic merit and social significance,'' he says.

``And Indian writing is a classic case of the effect of multi-culturalism.'' Several extremely well written books, displaying a depth of scholarship and distinguished by a crisp analytical style are the result of his interest in multi-culturalism.

In ``The Marriage of Continents: Multi-culturalism in Modern Literature,'' he examines among others, the works of Leonard Woolf, Rudyard Kipling, E.M. Forster and George Orwell.

The author of ``Writers in East-West Encounter: New Cultural Beginnings", Guy Amirthanayagam is also the editor of ``Asian and Western Writers in Dialogue: New Cultural Identities''. He holds a Master's degree in American Studies from the Maxwell School, Syracuse University, New York.

Guy Amirthanayagam's poems described ``as an urbane blend of emotion and ironic reflection", deal with love, marriage, ageing and the familiar rhythm of daily life.

What set him off on this lyrical voyage of verse? "Love affairs gave the initial impetus. Most poets begin that way,'' he smiles.

Diaspora does not figure much in the poetry of a man who has travelled widely and has now made his home in the U.S.

``I was not directly affected by the fighting in Sri Lanka. I worked for the Sinhalese Government and I didn't go as a poor immigrant to England and America but as a person in a certain position,'' he points out. ``Now that I've gone back and seen the trouble there, I'm in a mood to write about it."

In poetry, he does not favour free verse but is formal, believing in the importance of rhyme and metre.

``I like my poems to be lucid. I think wit and humour are an intrinsic part of poetry and that it should be serious but not solemn".

Indians are quite sentimental in their approach to poetry and seem to like poems that appeal to them in a direct way, says the senior Amirthanayagam who is quite taken with Chennai and its vibrant cultural ambience.


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