Modern Burmese Poetry
by Maung Tha Noe
October 21, 2008
When the BBC asked me in a recent interview what books the youth in Burma today are reading, I told them our boys and girls are too busy looking for means of survival to bother about literature. The interviewer retorted to the effect that someone in a Rangoon bookshop had told her they do read computer books and economics books. I told her that computer books or books on business management are not literature, at least not imaginative literature. The young people today are not reading the kinds of books we used to read in our student days – books by Shwe-udaung or Bhamo Tin Aung, novels by D.H. Lawrence or George Orwell, or the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam or Mayakovskiy's Cloud in Trousers.
This is the state of affairs in our country's literature today. In a country of about fifty-two million, if a novel sells about three thousand copies, we call it a best-seller. If a book of poetry sells five hundred copies, it is a hit. A magazine is said to be doing fine if two thousand copies are sold out each month. Most of them are happy to have a monthly circulation of six hundred. But on the other side of the coin are get-rich-quick books called Tek-kyans in Burmese, which sell by tens of thousands, and astrology and occult magazines that have circulations of twelve or fifteen thousand. Another kind of book that hits the literary market is again the occult or books of charms and amulets. Farcical or humorous stories also top eight thousand copies or so each.
We had had pulp fiction, occult books, books on how to get rich all along from the British colonial days to Ne Win's Burmese Way to Socialism, but then we had novels and short story collections and poetry anthologies too. People read novels alongside horoscopes and black magic. Despite strict censorship serious books managed to come out of our press. With the introduction of the "open-door" economic policy in our country, the tables turned.
It is not that serious novels or short story collections have ceased publication altogether. There are a few coming out occasionally. But one thing is conspicuous by absence. So-called literary magazines no longer carry as many long stories and short as they used to a few years back. It was the custom for our magazines to publish one long short story – called "magazine long story" in Burmese – and several shorter stories along with articles on criticism and news reportages. No longer. Today they feature interviews with models and pop stars and film stars fortified by full-page color spreads, gossip columns, horoscopes and a very short story or two – some so short they take up just one page – plus a few poems and cartoon strips. That is all.
This being the case, poets, short story writers and writers of such serious topics as art or literary criticism, have nowhere to send their contributions to. Their works are often found sandwiched between those pop stars and models talking about their latest albums and live shows or their ideas of love – when it is everyone's knowledge she has been the center of a scandal involving some big wig. Collections of short stories do come out – but just once in a while. And if a thousand copies are sold out, it is considered a fortune. As for novels, it is quite a long time since we have witnessed a serious composition see the light of day. There are poetry books, very thin volumes of forty or fifty pages and only five hundred or so copies of each are printed – about half of which will go to friends with the compliments of the author.
The Burmese were a very literary people long before the coming of the printing press towards the end of the nineteenth century. Most of the poetry and drama was oral as were religious sermons and folk tales. What they sang and intoned was sometimes put on palm-leaves scratched with a stylus. That is why the Burmese word for literature is sa pei, sa meaning writing and pei meaning palm-leaf. Novels were unknown. What stories we had were folk tales and Jataka or birth-stories of Buddhist scriptures, ten very long tales and about 550 short, stories that read like Aesop's Fables. From the days of Pugam (11th to 14th century) these Buddhist tales have been told millions of times over, parents to children, teachers to pupils, monks to Sabbath keeping congregations, performance story tellers to audiences, acted on the stage and painted on the walls of temples and on the covers of lacquer and silverware boxes and utensils.
So great was the religious hold on literature that even when the printing press had got firmly established itself in our daily life at the turn of the 20th century, and plays on non-Buddhist themes began to find avid readership, the old conservative folks scoffed at them and forbade their children to have anything to do with these heretic obscenities. The author of the first Burmese novel (1904), an adaptation from Alexandre Dumas' The Count of Monte-Cristo, dared not end his story in the way the Count did, because Buddhism disapproved of revenge. The greatest novel of those early days, and the great poet-novelist's masterpiece, Hmatopoun (The Message) (1916) by Thakhin Kotaw Hmaing, is interspersed with quotations from the Buddhist scriptures and other moralistic tomes.
Later writings do not carry such quotes from the scriptures but embedded in the text are axioms that tell the reader what the duties of a son or daughter are towards the parents or what good results will be brought about by good deeds, how sorrows will never end until one reaches Nirvana and so on and so forth. The same thing happened to our poetry. Our long poems from the classical days of Ava (1450 to 1750) and Kounbaung Periods (1751 to 1885) are elaborations of Buddhist Jataka stories while shorter lyricist poems usually deal with the philosophical thoughts of Buddhism, especially impermanence and suffering, the first two out of the three characteristics of existence, but not the third one or no-self, which seemed a little bit beyond them. Even lovelorn verses contain lines to complain of his or her heart's yearnings and sorrows to the Buddha. These Buddhist flavored verses continued well into the colonial days of the 20th century until the emergence of nationalist Thakhin Kotaw Hmaing and the social conscious western educated Khitsam poets.
Khitsam is a Burmese name for a movement at the University of Rangoon coined by its principal and the movement's chief sponsor U Pe Maung Tin to christen the writings of his students when he published, in the 1930s, an anthology of their stories: Khitsam Poumpyin, stories to test the times or to meet the test of the times. The poems are called Khitsam Kabya and the young poets came to be called Khitsam poets. Among those who wrote stories were Sein Tin (pen name Theippam Maung Wa), Toe Aung (pen name Kutha), Thein Han (pen name Zawgyi), Maung Wun (pen name Min Thuwun).
Khitsam poets, both Zawgyi and Min Thuwun, tried their hands at fiction, but limited their skills to short pieces. One member of Khitsam who made quite a name for himself writing short stories was Theippan Maung Wa. The novel was left to other talents at the university: Tek Hpongyi Thein Pe and Dagon Taya, also a poet. Other well-known novelists prewar outside the university campus were U Lat, Leti Pandita U Maung Kyi, P.Monin, Maha Swe, Shwe-udaung, Zawanaq, Yan Aung, Gyane-kyaw Maq Maq Lay, Dagon Shwe Hmya. Except for the first two the others continued their sway over the literary scene postwar alongside Bhamo Tin Oung, Mya Than Tinq, Aung Lin, Tinq Te, Thota Swe, Khin Hnin Yuq, Khin Swe U, Tekkathol Hpoun Naing, Min Kyaw, Tinq San, Nat Nwė. Tek Hpongyi Thein Pe later changed his name to Thein Pe Myinq.
The majority of the Burmese people are Buddhists, professing a religion imported from India. As such it brought along with it the beliefs and practices of the other great Indian religion – Hinduism, out of which it grew. The division of society into four classes or castes, not felt so harshly in Burma, male chauvinism, reincarnation, pantheism, a pantheon of gods like Vishnu, Siva and goddess Swarasti, cosmology with Mount Meru in the centre of the Universe, astrology, all these come from Hindu scriptures. Notwithstanding Kamashastra, sex is a taboo in Hindu culture, so is it in Burma. Explicit display of love has been forbidden in literature as well as in the theatre. In a duet the male and the female dancer had to stand "a scarf length away," as they used to say, from each other. Burmese film stars cannot kiss on the silver screen even today. When Nu Nu Yiy Inwa published a short story in a magazine in which a coed works as a mistress of some rich guy to support herself, the entire hosts of writers and journalists rose against her, clamoring Nu Nu Yiy was misleading young Burmese girls to work as mistresses. Some were naive enough to even go so far as to say there is no mistress or concubine in Burma. The same thing happened when Gyu wrote about an unmarried doctor couple living together. One writer claimed: "Living together is in the imagination of some Burmese writers only. It doesn't exist even in the west. I've asked some (foreigner) tourists and they tell me there isn't any in their countries." When Aids broke loose, first the government denied its existence in the country, then said it was caused by drug abuse, not sex, then forbade the word condom when educating the people against the epidemic.
The Burmese people's struggles for independence from the British yoke began in the 1920s. As elsewhere in Asia and Africa, nationalist sentiments came imbued with Socialist ideas. From those early days to the recent decades Socialist Realism dominated our literary thinking. "Literature for the people" or "Literature is for the people," as they phrase the slogan, continues to be the watchword of most of our serious novelists, story-writers, poets, and critics to this day. In the opinion of certain critics it is a good realistic novel that portrays the struggles of the working class and the peasantry and extols their merits and successes. Likewise a good short story helps people understand their own destitution and find ways to search for a way out. Some critics have now changed their ways and outlooks but some others remain stubborn die-hards. But one must say their number is dwindling.
These days a new literary mode is robbing the place of this shrinking socialist realist ideology – post-modernism. The funny thing, however, is that these people who shout loudest about post-modernism don't bother to read Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49 or Donald Bathelme's The Dead Father. Nor do they pick up a Nabokov. Except that their language sounds quizzical or peculiar, I see nothing postmodernist in the writings of our "postmodernist" story-tellers like Taya Min Wei or Ni Ko Ye. Most serious novelists, Dagon Taya, Nu Nu Yiy (Inwa), Than Myinq Aung, Gyu, among others, like to tackle social themes and show little or no interest at all in the exploration of language.
The same thing can be said about our short story writers, who can be counted on your fingers. The above novelists also write short stories and beside them we find Nyi Pu Lay, Kyaw Yin Myint, Ma Winq Myitnge, Win Pe, and one or two others. Moe Moe Inlya, a prolific writer of social novels as well as short-stories, is dead. So is Tekkathol Hpoun Naing, another prolific writer of romance type novels. So is Win Siythu, who tried his hand at short stories only. Win Pe, first working with the Burmese section of Radio Free Asia, then leaving it and giving short talks on the VOA and the BBC, now lives in the United States and is an expat writer along with Maung Thayaq, a one-time popular novelist, the late Tin Moe, one of the most popular poets, and Maung Swam Yiy, a poet-cum-critic. Their influence still lingers on the readers as well as writers in this country.
As pointed out above, Burmese poetry began its new course with Khitsam and Thakhin Kotaw Hmaing. Khitsam broke away from the old practice of using established verse forms like three-stanza Yatu and sonnet-like 18-line teihtaps. They started writing as many stanzas as they pleased, as short or as long verses as they fancied fit but retained the four-syllable line, and their medium was, to a certain extent, the language of the common people, though not the living colloquial. Their themes too ranged from a house cat and a quacking duck to students waiting for money orders from home. But they seldom took up political issues. It was Thakhin Kotaw Hmaing who, though he employed old forms of versification, used the colloquial language of the upcountry peasant and introduced political and social themes into poetry. His poems concerned themselves with the plights of poor peasants groaning under heavy taxes and debts, the greed of some nationalist leaders betraying the downtrodden people to secure a remunerative post in the British-appointed government, the appeal to the Burmese poor to end racial wars with fellow Indian down-and-outs.
Some poets followed suit, especially young university students writing in the student union's prestigious magazine Oway. Outside of the university, the poets' pages in magazines and weeklies were usually overwhelmed with poems on love, war (imaginary wars), rain, forests, mountains, strictly following the rules and practices of classical versifiers. Critics were loud labeling Khitsam and university writers anglophiles who ignored Burmese language and culture. Because they dared not attack Hmaing for his patriotism, they often ridiculed some of his references to ancient Burmese history.
The number of poets writing for the nationalist, anti-imperialist cause grew in the post war years. Newspapers and weeklies and monthlies were full of their outpourings. These nationalist poems were often flavored with socialist ideas; for to struggle for national independence meant to fight against imperialism or the big capital. This continued to post-colonial days and our poets, if they were not bursting out their personal experiences of broken hearts, turned to socialist themes. Then came the Korean War, and then the Vietnam War, both of which provided our bards with new topics to indulge in. If you have learnt some such stock phrases as imperialists, expansionists, warmongers, exploiters, the masses of people, proletariat, the peasantry, class struggle, the exploited, courageous, down-trodden, ban the atomic bomb, peace, unity, victory, and so forth, and know some simple rhyme schemes, you just thread the phrases in the way you think fit, and you become a poet straightaway. Someone has said socialism is the scourge of Burma's literary talent. Knowing as he did how obsessed the intelligentsia was with things socialist, Ne Win launched his Burmese Way to Socialism, and won over quite a drove of so-called left- wing politicians and left-leaning writers, although he himself had not an iota of serious thoughts socialist or populist or otherwise.
Fed up with all these clichés and hackneyed phrases of Socialist Realism, a search for new poetry began in earnest in the late 1960s. The veteran poet of Khitsam fame Min Thuwun ran a weekly poetry workshop at his home in the university campus. Mya Zin, a translator who usually renders Burmese poetry into English, Maung Maung Nyunt a.k.a. Nyunt Kyu, a poet and a language scholar, wrote articles on modern poetry. I myself published an anthology of translated verse (English, European, and American, Romantic as well as modernist) the first of its kind in the country. One anthology followed another. A great hullabaloo ensued – those who opposed anything modern and were self-appointed custodians of old values railing against those who advocated modernity. Against all such odds modern Burmese poetry was embarked on a new course.
Maung Chaw Nwė and Zaw Pyinmana, both now dead, were traditional poets who came to embrace modernism in their later years. Khin Aung Aye began as a modernist poet as did most of the younger poets writing today. Maung Chaw Nwė had published several collected poems, Zaw Pyinmana had one and Khin Aung Aye has yet to compile one.
With only 101 poems from 27 poets, our Selection cannot of course claim to be comprehensive or representative but we do hope the reader will have some idea of what the present-day Burmese poets are busying themselves with. To get a better panoramic view of the poetry today, however, one will have to read more of Zawgyi, Min Thuwun, both hailing from Khitsam days and both now dead, the former a decade and a half ago and the latter just four years ago, Dagon Taya, who has now turned eighty-nine, Tin Moe, now dead, Maung Swam Yiy, Aung Wei, who are now expat poets, Aung Cheimt, Thukhamein Hlaing, Aung Baq Nyo, Maung Shin Saw, Maung Aung Pwint, and a few others.
Zawgyi left two volumes of collected poems and was the first to use allegory in his poetry. In 1984, in the height of Burmese Way to Socialism, he wrote Widhura's Dukkha (Widura's Suffering). Depicting the sufferings of Widhura, a hero in the Buddhist Jataka stories, who was wrongly maltreated because his tormentor misread his instructions, the poem in fact tells the sad story of the Burmese under the iron heels of Ne Win and his cadres who, loud-mouthed as they were with socialist slogans, knew nothing about or cared about socialist tenets. It became very popular at once. Another short poem he wrote at the time was very popular too:
Zawgyi and Invisibility
On the marionette stage
a zawgyi with a wand
how he leaps and soars
watching his antics
Super art invisibility
the power to make your body disappear
I dread invisibility
I fear you will next have your mind disappear
trans Maung Tha Noe
[ Zawgyi, from which the poet takes his pen name, is a puppet, a representation of an accomplished alchemist-magician, a super wizard, who can fly through the air and make himself invisible. The belief comes from vidyadhar of the Indian epic Mahabharata.]
There is no mistaking who the proud puppet in the poem stands for.
Although most Khitsam poets shrank from things nationalistic or political, Min Thuwun put nationalist ideas even into his early poems. The best known of such poems was Thabyenyo, which cheered on the Burmese people in their march towards independence. His later poems included very realistic sketches of human follies and misery. He translated King Lear from English and Dhammapada from Pali. He did some Haiku translations from Japanese too. He led the translation department of the Rangoon University and was a pioneer lexicographer.
Dagon Taya writes novels along with poems. He is an innovator but refuses to accept the linguistic experiments and surrealist imagery of the modernists. His poems are improvements on Khitsam forms with new social, political content. He styles his works "new literature."
Tin Moe hails from a remote village, Kammye Zagyan, in Upper Burma and was educated at Mandalay University. He had written poems since very young and some of his pre-university poems were published by the People Daily of Mandalay. At university he continued writing poems and published a book of collected poems, The Glass Lantern, which won a national poetry prize. In the mid sixties he went to work for the University Translation and Publication Department under Min Thuwun and, once in Rangoon, published one collection of poems after another, including children's poetry books. He was put in prison for his love of freedom. On his release from jail, he left Burma to make his home in California, where he died of a heart stroke. Maung Swam Yiy too is from Upper Burma and a Mandalay University product. He wrote book reviews in The People Daily, which were later collected and printed in book form. He was a high school teacher. He had worked for the text-book committee of the Education Ministry before he went to self-exile in the United States.
Aung Cheimt does no other work than write poetry, and has published a number of collected poems. Critics claim he is, if not the most sensuous, one of the most sensuous of contemporary Burmese poets. Thukhamein Hlaing, who comes from Prome, a small town 175 miles north of Rangoon, began as a poet but he is better known as a pop song writer. Of late, he has returned to poetry writing and has published three collected works. Aung Baq Nyo, the youngest of the three, comes from Mandalay. Kyiy Aung and Ko Lay (Inwa) are natives of an old town ten miles from Mandalay, Ava (Inwa), home of classical geniuses like Shin Maha Ratthathara and Maha Thilawuntha. Both were educated at Mandalay University. Maung Thin Khaing, a one-time student activist from Pyinmana, which lies close to the new capital Naypyidaw, has two collected poems to his credit. With Zaw Pyinmana and O Aung – a collection of whose poems A Frustrated Person's Festival has just come out – and Hlaing Htek, he is one of the leading bards of the mid-country town. Another up-and-coming Pyinmana poet is Miaung Shin Saw. Ko Nyein, Maung Thin Pan, Paing Soe Wei, along with Aung Baq Nyo, belong to the younger generation of Mandalay Poets.
Dagon Taya, Tin Moe and Maung Swam Yiy, along with Kyiy Aung, Ko Lay (Inwa), Maung Aung Pwint, and a few others remain traditionalists; Aung Cheimt and Thukhamein Hlaing, Maung Chaw Nwe, Zaw Pyinmana, Khin Aung Aye, Maung Pyiyt Min, Aung Wei and Aung Baq Nyo are modernists as are the other young poets.
Maung Tha Noe is a student of linguistics and poetry. Educated in Mandalay University and Rangoon University, a BA with Burmese, English and Pali, and an MA with Burmese, he began as a journalist working for the People Daily and the Mandalay Times. When the newspapers were closed down he became a language teacher and began contributing articles on language and poetry criticism to various magazines. He has published two books on language Burmese Spoken and Written (1972) and Myanma, Language and Literature (2001). His translations from English include Edwin Arnold's The Light of Asia (1977, 1992, 2000), Fitzgerald's Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam (1994), and Jostein Gaader's Sophie's World (2002). He has published several collections of translated poems, the best known being Pine Tree's Shade, which, first published in 1968, has run into three editions. His books of translations into English include Mahasi Sayataw, Tin Moe, Maung Swan Yiy, Aung Cheimt, Thukhamein Hlaing, Maung Aung Pwint.