Contemporary Burmese Poetry
Modern Burmese poets and prose writers emerged in colonial Burma in Rangoon and Mandalay in the 1930s, as part of the Khit San literary movement. There had been a long established literary scene in Burma under royal patronage, but after the expulsion by the British of Thibaw, the last Burmese king, from Mandalay in 1885, patrons declined and with them, the arts. In the intervening decades, there were still some popular plays written in verse. Some Burmese artists and writers attempted pale versions of Western art, adapting Western novels to Burmese settings, and learning watercolour at the Royal Academy. But it was the emergence of a nationalist movement, led largely by Rangoon university students, together with an increasing number of civilian patrons of the arts in the 1920s, and an expansion of literary magazines, which marked a Burmese renaissance in modern novels, short stories, and poems.
The poetry of Khit San, which meant ‘testing the times’ or ‘experiment for a new age’, was characterised by four syllables per foot (with each syllable generally equivalent to a word or single meaning), and—as with much Asian poetry—an internal ‘climbing rhyme’. In this system, the same rhyme appears in the 4th syllable of line 1, the 3rd syllable of line 2 and the 2nd syllable of line 3. This is called the 4-3-2 scheme; its characteristic stair-step gave rise to its name, climbing rhyme. The last syllable of line 3 begins a new series of rhymes, continuing the 4-3-2 pattern.
The two leading Khit San poets were Min Thu Wun (U Wun) (1909-2004) and Zaw Gyi (U Thein Han) (1907-1990), author of one of Burma’s most famous series of poems ‘Bayda Lan’ (‘The Hyacinth Way’) from the 1960s. They both remained prominent and were still writing until their deaths. The content of the poems was less ornate than the royal verse that preceded it, and focussed on romance, philosophy, daily life and metaphors, rather than on praising the king. Khit San prose writing also strove for the same simplicity, directness, and purity of language. The movement as a whole has been compared to the Anglo-American Imagists of the 1910s, although it sought its inspiration from Burmese art, such as classical pagoda inscriptions, not Western art.
The content of Khit San writing was not political or explicitly anti-colonial, unlike another famous poet and nationalist of the time, Thakin Kodaw Hmaing (1875-1964), whose patriotic and satirical verses used a classical poetry form called lay-gyo gyi with four stanzas, and highly disciplined rhyming.
The Khit San style remained popular into the 1960s, and influenced the next generation of poets including Tin Moe, Maung Swan Yi and Kyi Aung. For most of the 20th century, Burma was a highly literate country and poems were taught from primary school onwards as part of the core curriculum, and read in villages as well as by the elite. Poetry continues to be central to many young people’s lives as they move on to university, where they may write in the hope of publication, or to incite fellow students to confront the government, or just to impress a lover.
Tin Moe was involved in designing the school literature syllabus in which Khit San poets predominate. But over time some have dropped off the list as they fell out of favour with the military regime. These include Min Thu Wun, who stood as an MP for Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy in the 1990 elections, Tin Moe who was jailed for working closely with the NLD and student activists. He and Maung Swan Yi both went into exile in the USA.
In the 1960s and 1970s, a new group of ‘kayan-méh’ (or rhymeless’) poets began to emerge, led by figures such as Thu Kamein Hlaing, Hpaw Wai, Maung Chaw Nweh, Paing So Wai, Maung Lay Aung and Aung Cheimt. These contemporary poets discarded rhyming verse in favour of poems written in the voice of the ordinary person.
The establishment poets such as Tin Moe, who under the socialist government of the time were committed to social realism and ‘enriching literature’, did not approve of this new wave of poets and sought to discourage magazines from giving them space. They claimed that their works were not original but were copied from foreign works. There was some truth in that, in so far as foreign poets were a major influence on this group, who were particularly inspired by Vladimir Mayakovsky’s poem ‘A Cloud in Trousers’, translated by Maung Tha Noe. Noe’s translations of poets such as T.S. Eliot, Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes were published in 1968 under the title In the shade of a pine tree*. The influence of these translations can be seen in subsequent collections such as Thu Kamein Hlaing’s June Shower (1972) and Cruel Music from Dead Leaves (1974), a collection by Aung Cheimt, Paw Wai and Maung Chaw Nweh.
After the 1988 democracy movement, this kind of poetry became increasingly dominant in the many monthly magazines. Popular poets of the last two decades—all male—include Hla Than a.k.a. Kyi Maung Than, Moe Zaw, Maung Di, Maung Thein Zaw (also a dancer), Nay Myo, Saing Win Myint, San Oo, Min Htet Maung (who will shortly attend the Iowa Writing programme) and Aung Wai, who fled Burma after the Saffron Revolution and is now a refugee in Michigan**.
After the death of Maung Chaw Nweh in 2000, Zeyar Lin has arguably taken on the mantle as Burma’s most influential contemporary poet. A successful English teacher, he has translated foreign poets such as Wyslawa Szymborska, Nicanor Parra and Donald Justice, and has largely been responsible for bringing postmodern and language poetry to the Burmese***. Zeya Lin rejects poetry about feelings and the heart and focuses on poetry from the brain. This was a radical move for Burmese poets in the 1990s, but after struggling for many years to be accepted by magazine editors, Zeya Lin’s popularity has now taken off, his style is highly regarded, and other poets who follow it are referred to as his ‘gang’.
Although in recent years, poets such as Nyein Wai and Manorhary have started to publish via blogging on the internet, being seen in monthly magazines is still the priority for Burma’s poets today. Each month sees the publication of some 70 new poems, which ultimately a poet will aim to have published as a collection. But the payment for a poem in a magazine ranges from 1,000 to 2,000 kyats (the equivalent of 1-2 US Dollars), to 5,000 kyats for a well-known poet. Some poets survive by teaching English. Others such as Thu Kamein Hlaing are able to make a living writing lyrics in Burmese for cover versions of Western songs, at $100 a song (although a movement against cover versions in recent years has reduced their opportunities). Other poets survive on the income of their families, or through support from friends. Maung Chaw Nweh lived an itinerant life, his travel expenses and lodging paid for by friends and fans in towns across Burma.
* Maung Tha Noe, based in Rangoon, is one of the most prolific translators of poetry both to and from English. His thoughts on the perils of translation are included at http://www.uiowa.edu/~iwp/WRIT/documents/MaungThaNoecomposite.doc
** Kyi Maung Than’s poem ‘Dipeyinga’, a covert reference to the attack on Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s convoy at Depayin in May 2003, led to the sacking of Cherry Magazine’s editor in June 2008 after the censors failed to spot it http://www.pcij.org/blog/?p=2381 The poem can be found at http://burmadigest.info/2008/07/05/kyi-maung-thans-poem-on-depeyin-which-led-to-his-arrest/
*** Published in a collection ‘Ananta ma-lo-jin-bu, kya-tha-ba-de-né lo-jin-deh’ (‘I don’t want infinity, I want Thursday’, Unity Sar-pe, Yangon , 2006
The government gives little support to poets other than the handful such as Htila Sithu, who fulfil the same function as the court poets of old, by writing epic poems praising the works of the rulers. Any official poetry prizes avoid the experimental. There are a few privately sponsored poetry prizes catering to contemporary poetry, such as that established with the estate of Tawpalay Lay, a left-wing writer and grandson of King Thibaw, and literature prizes offered annually by magazines such as Shwe-amhyu-te.
Burma’s poets and democracy activists are directly and indirectly connected, although by no means are all poets political. There are some poets, such as Saw Wai, who have been jailed as a direct result of their poems. Other poets have been imprisoned for political activity, and have used their years in jail to write hundreds of poems. Other activists who were not professional poets, such as Min Ko Naing and Zargana, also used their prison time to write.
Poetry is the most common form of literature in Burma, and also the most censored, and poets have to be constantly inventive to evade the censors. Some magazine editors are cautious but others have a reputation for taking risks, sometimes because they also are, or were, activists. Poets whose work pushes the political boundaries will tend to gravitate towards them until the magazine goes a step too far and is closed down or subject to a temporary ban. When new magazines are set up, the editor will seek to headhunt their favourite poets from other magazines.
The majority of the poets chosen for this selection are poets who have lived through difficult times in jail, but have continued to write poetry, no matter how hard their lives. The poems tell of the problems facing Burma today and the feelings of the poets towards their situation. Maung Aung Pwint, Maung Tin Thit and Pone Thet Paing were all political prisoners who wrote poetry while in jail and have continued to do so since their release. Maung Aung Pwint’s poem ‘At the Gate’ speaks of his feelings on the day of his release. He was born in 1945, and had his first poem published in 1968. He has been jailed four times for his political activities in 1967-68, 1978-80, 1997 and from 1999 to 2005, and has worked as a schoolteacher, proof reader, used book dealer, news monitoring editor and video scriptwriter.
Maung Tin Thit was born in 1967, and studied medicine before being expelled for student activism in 1989. He was arrested in 1998 and sentenced to 21 years for his two books of collected poems, but was released in 2005, and has since gone on to edit Padauk-pwin-thit and then to found Myanmar Athit, both literary magazines. His poem ‘It begins today’ talks of his political hopes for a future that is peaceful and simple. Pone Thet Paing is a slightly younger poet, jailed for student activism, who now also works on Myanmar Athit magazine. All three of these poets still live in Rangoon.
The poet writing under a pseudonym Hmya Ein (meaning ‘quiver’) has been in prison since 1998 serving 20 years for pro-opposition activism. His poem ‘Submarine Island’, which was written inside jail and smuggled out, reflects his feelings as an unseen political prisoner. Nay Myo is a poet from Mandalay of the same generation as Maung Tin Thit, but is not politically active. He studied art at Mandalay Culture School and became well known in the 1990s as a prose poet and writer. A collection of his poems is entitled The Wolf Poet.
Manorhary is one of a handful of women contemporary poets in Burma (others include Mya, Phyu Mon and Khin Mya Zin). She is an editor of IDEA magazine, and was married to popular poet and writer and former political prisoner Tayar Min Wai who died in August 2007. Student leader Min Ko Naing read one of his own poems, ‘The Son of Fallen Stars’, at Taya Min Wai’s funeral. He was arrested a couple of weeks later for organising the protests against rising prices which heralded the start of Burma’s Saffron Revolution.
Htein Lin and Vicky Bowman, May 2009