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From panegyrics to the end of poetry

A laconic introduction to Burmese verse

© Timo Virtala.

The Burmese word for poem or poetry is kavya, derived from the Sanskrit term kavya, an ancient poetic style from India. Just like Sanskrit kavya, traditional Burmese poetry was inspired by the court, the patron of Burmese literature, and by Buddhism – with the possible exception of the sixteenth century tya-chins by Minister Padethayaza, whose muse was the proletariat of his time: peasants, toddy climbers and boatmen.

Other genres of long verses in pre-modern Burma were the didactic pyo, a rendition of Pali Buddhist stories into Burmese; mawgun, or the panegyric records of notable events in the public life of a king; ei-chin, lullabies for the royal children, and more mundane yadu, romantic runes, usually about nature and love.

Since the commoners' speech was different from the court patois in pre-modern Burma, yadu, which employs a four-syllable 'climbing rhyme' scheme, and which makes use of universal content and dialect, was hugely popular and became a model for later poems. Soon after the annexation of Burma to British India in 1885, a new type of Burmese poem, pa-daw-mu, lamenting the dethronement and deportation of King Thibaw to India, became the rally cry for the first generation of Burmese anti-colonial resistance.

In the 1900s, Burmanised Western novels and plays began to be published. The bard who sought to revive the classics was Thakin Kodaw Hmaing. Hmaing's htikas, written in a mixed style of prose and poetry, were new in form and content – he was sublimely subversive and astutely ironic in mimicking the colonial authorities and nationalist politicians. Widely regarded as the most important patriotic writer Burma has ever produced, Hmaing is also credited with having invented a whole new genre of poetry called laycho gyi, or the grand laycho, an extension of classical laycho.

In the 1930s, the publications of Khitsan Stories (1933) and Khitsan Poems (1934) by Rangoon University students were met with mixed reactions. Khitsan literature was fresh in its use of everyday language and its view of the world from a new angle. Traditionalists were stunned. Progressives saw khitsan, which means 'to test the age', as appropriate to the times.

Inasmuch as Hmaing was influenced by his monastic schooling, khitsan writers were swayed by their colonial education. This is not to say that the khitsan movement was not conscious of its Burmese origins. True to the times, nationalist sentiment was a key characteristic of khitsan poetry. Yet khitsan poets modernised Burmese verse, in terms of both form and content, introducing Western poetic techniques as well as the line breaks seen in English poetry. Traditional Burmese poems had always been written in 'block form' on dried palm leaves with a stylus.

Min Yu Way, Bamaw Nyo Nwe, Tin Moe, Maung Swan Yi, Kyi Aung, Htilar Sitthu, Nu Yin, Kyi Aye and Ngwetayi were direct products of the khitsan movement, which was pioneered by Zawgyi, Minthuwun and Dagon Taya. Many khitsan writers had studied under Pe Maung Tin, the first professor of Burmese literature at Rangoon University, who strived to improve the position of Burmese language within the colonial education system.

In the post-war years, Dagon Taya (b. 1919) launched his New Literature Movement, based on the philosophy that literature is the reflection of politics under the banner of 'socialist realism'. A living legend today, Dagon Taya says that his philosophy had been built up through his experiences of 1936 student protests and the 1938 proletarian uprising for independence.

The literature of independent Burma after 1948 was by and large khitsan, but the freedom of expression available to the writers reflects a diversity of unsuppressed ideas. The counter-cultural movement that shook the West in the 1960s had little impact on Burma, as the 1962 military coup turned the country into a hermit state. In response to military censorship, a new generation of Burmese poets in search of new modes of expression emerged from university campuses.

Burmese linguist and critic Maung Tha Noe's 1968 anthology of Western poems, Under the Shade of the Pine Tree and his translation of 'The Cloud in Trousers' by Mayakovsky were seminal to junior avant-gardists who had had little direct exposure to Western literature in their reclusive country. Like Mayakovsky, the street language of the Moe Wei movement of the 1970s scorned the idealistic and romantic notion of poetry. Moe Wei poetry is heavily politicised, its content ranging from depictions the harsh life in a quasi-socialist state and expression of anti-Vietnam War themes to the call for the establishment of people's democratic governments throughout the developing world.

The use of rhyme had been indispensable in Burmese poetry until the Moe Wei poets discarded it. Many critics mourned free verse as the living corpse of Burmese poetry. Dagon Taya intervened by saying "You may do away with rhyme, not with ideology." To Moe Wei proponents, the rhythm found in the street language, or the speech rhythm, of Moe Wei poetry is no less inferior to rhyme when it comes to the embellishment of the sound. When it comes to the embellishment of the sense, Moe Wei poets, whose imagination was not confined to rigid rhyme schemes, took Burmese poetry into a higher ground. As such, Moe Wei magazine is seen as a seedbed for 'modern' or khitpaw poetry, championed by Phaw Way, Aung Cheimt, Maung Chaw Nwe, Myay Chit Thu and Thitsar Ni.

Maung Swan Yi describes how hard it is to get published in Burma: "Before publishing our books and research papers, we have to submit at least three typed copies of our work to the literary censor board (Press Scrutiny Board) along with a detailed biography, which must include the writer's wife or husband, grandparents, parents, children, grandchildren, as well as birth dates and addresses. Texts are then scrutinised with no definite rules in place. They search for 'politics' in the writing." Nonetheless, by the early 1970s, subversive verses, disguised in the imagery of modern poetry, were routinely published and distributed clandestinely on the campuses.

In the aftermath of the 1988 democratic uprising that had been brutally crushed by the socialist regime, and with the collapse of the Soviet bloc, many khitpaw poets shed their ideology to become postmodernists informed by Dadaist, conceptual and post-structural schools. In the early 2000s, Burmese poet and critic Zeyar Lynn reshaped the scene through his introduction of American L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets to Burmese readers.

The recent tectonic shift in Burmese poetry is attributed to the willy-nilly arrival of the worldwide web in the military-controlled Burma in 2000. "Access to the internet was definitely a major cause for international poetry to enter the Myanmar poetry scene, which previously had been cut off from the world at large," says Zeyar Lynn. For the first time in history Burmese bloggers can stretch their language as much as they want. The internet, now teeming with an estimated 100 Burmese poetry blogs from both inside and outside the country, will no doubt take Burmese poetry into exciting directions in the following decades.

Zeyar Lynn makes a distinction between 'contemporary' and 'Contemporary'. The latter refers to what he calls "post-khitpaw poetry", an expression of ideas rather than emotionally- or ideologically-drenched khitpaw verses. Leading poets Moe Way, Win Myint, Lu Hsan, Maung Day, Nyein Way, Aung Pyiyt Sone,and the PEM Skool online poets are 'Contemporary' in this sense. There are also hybrid poets such as Maung Pyiyt Min and Khin Aung Aye and 'contemporary' poets who have maintained their particular styles, such as Maung Thein Zaw, Ne Myo, Moe Zaw, Ma Ei and Khet Mar to the extent that Thitsar Ni has termed the phenomenon "the end of poetry".

The idea of the end of poetry may be as baffling as any endism. Since the time of yadu, however, what has caught on and lived on in Burmese poetry has been the language of the day, spoken by the populace. The speech rhythms, the particular sound of a Burmese dialect, be it urban or ethnic Arakan or Tavoy Burmese or the Burmese of other ethnic areas, remains the defining feature of current Burmese poetry. The way a Burmese poet writes or reads, the way she expresses ideas to make a particular sound specific to her style, will always distinguish her from her contemporaries in Burmese poetry. The speech rhythm has been a crucial parameter in selecting a band of Burmese poets who we believe fairly represent all post-khitsan schools of Burmese poetry in Bones Will Crow: Fifteen Contemporary Burmese Poets. We are proud to present a number of these poets on Poetry International Web.

Bones Will Crow: Fifteen Contemporary Burmese Poets, edited by ko ko thett and James Byrne, will be published by Arc (Todmorden, UK) in June 2012.


© ko ko thett  

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