The Power of Poetry: Learning from Ashley Halpé

Aparna Halpé, in The Island, 23 May 2021, where the title reads  “Learning from My Father, Five Years After his Passing”

I was mingling with the audience at a poetry reading in Toronto, where I had been reading some of my new poems, when I was approached by an audience member. He asked me a question that I’ve encountered before in some form or another throughout my entire artistic and professional career… “Excuse me, are you by any chance related to Professor Ashley Halpé?” When I answered that I was his youngest daughter, the gentleman proceeded to tell me this story.

In 1970, he was a young student at Peradeniya, and had been in a literature course taught by my father. He had no intention of studying literature seriously, and when my father asked his students to memorize poems, he found the exercise tedious. One day, he brought this up with my father, asking him what earthly use a poem could ever have in the real world. My father answered that once a poem was folded into one’s deep memory, it could never be taken away. Our memory is always our freedom; it cannot be stolen by governments, nor ideologues. It is the last bastion of the self in circumstances when one is forced into otherness, robbed of will and agency.

This young student would remember those words as the insurgency unfolded, and his friends disappeared into jail cells; he would remember them again as a young Tamil refugee, when he was forced to abandon his home and live in exile in Europe and then Canada. He had traveled an hour to come to my poetry reading to tell me this story, to remind me that, for my father, poetry was a quiet and yet wholly radical form of resistance that could never be stripped away.

I believe that my father found his politics in poetry. Not the kind of politics that toe party lines, but the kind of politics that persistently fights for social justice (before it was even called that). My father’s politics made him determined to give his students the access and power of the word, even when governments and systems would deny them that, even when he was forced to give his lectures in a “takarang” shed. It’s not surprising that among the many generations of his students, those who made it through the reorganization of the 70s became the fiercest intellectuals and activists, making their mark all over the world as scholars of literature, as artists and writers, as poets in their own right.

And even if his legacy is associated with the “kaduwa,” and the privilege that the English language affords the educated middle class, he was able to provoke and probe the hegemonies of his time through this colonizer’s language, whether it was through supporting writers like Lakdhas Wikkramasinha or Carl Muller as they emerged, or through staging subversive theatre productions that ended with him and his students being detained by censorship authorities.

Perhaps as important to me, was his unflagging commitment to the “Wala” festival at Peradeniya, which brought luminaries like Sarachchandra and Henry Jayasena to an audience of thousands of hungry youngsters, who were as ready to hoot as they were to brave the rain and the leeches to sit in rapt silence as a child was pulled between two mothers in “Hunu Wataye Kathawa.” I was eight years old when I saw that production, and even as a child, I understood the difference between the force of greed and the radical, sacrificial power of love. This was my father’s legacy: one that was intimately tied to a time and a place, and to the kind of human being he strived to be.

As I pen these words in the midst of a pandemic that has shut down our world and forced us to pace the length and breadth of our homes like caged animals, I linger over the poems that are folded into my memory like a well-loved aerogramme from a father to a daughter. His voice returns to me:

I am knit into your tala, make

My words supple as Suramba’s bones,

Forged in a hunger for exactitude,

Bright as hill water, still as your lake,

Full in the mouth as ela-rounded stones,

Intense as sages in beatitude

Ashley Halpé, from “Fall Poem, Looking Homeward” Homing and Other Poems (1993)

Pic by Sean Amosa

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Michael Roberts: The Halpes of Kandy

Ashley Halpe was a senior coleague in the Department of Arts when I was a Lecturer in the Dept of History from 1960-62 and therafter forom 1966-75. His collegiality was as limitless as his erudition. Our friendship was bolstered by the fact that Bridgette had resised in Galle and was the sister of Clarence Abeykoon, a fellow student at St aloysius college — and not only a fellw student but also part of Murphy house and its athletic squad at intra-college sport competition –so that we were part of the Murphy relay team .

This mateship was an asstto me in y reasearches. In the mid-1980s when I was on sabbatical leve research in Sri Lanka for about 13 months readymade board and lodging was offered to me by the Halpes……

…. and guess what! One fine day when I referred to my interest in the use of pejoratives in Sinhala during badinage or sharp conflict between people in the island, Aparna (then at a student at the Convent) told us (Ashley, Bridget and myself) that the girls at the convent used to tease or refer to a sallow-fair-skinned Burgher teenager who walked past on the way to hisschool as “polkudu suddha” (coconut refuse white). This was stret-level ethnography at one remove which entered the repertoire of pejoratives that was central to one branch of work that entered the book People Inbetween (Ratmalana, Sarvodaya Book Publishing Services, 1989).

I add HERE another nugget: the term Thuppahi was (AND IS) also part of the repertoire of pejoratives in Sinhala-talk and that ethnographic information was picked up by me in a variety of quarters. Little nuggestsof ethnoraphic information on te waya battery of pejoratives has been deployed in the by-wys of the island led to a theses encoded in the frist chapter of People Inbetween — a title that begins thus: “Pejorative Phrases”


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2 responses to “The Power of Poetry: Learning from Ashley Halpé

  1. Sumith Hettipathirane

    Very interesting article. I new Ashley as a senior member of the CCF – Sigiriya Steering committee for nearly five years. A very dedicated personality who loved our heritage. I could recollect that he did a book on “Sigiriya Graffiti and poems found in it.

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