A Brief History of Burmese Poetry
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Today in Burma, we see a poetry scene with a large number of poets vigorously writing their poems in a wide range of aesthetic directions. Poetry has always been a popular literary genre and a formidable force in this Southeast Asian country. It has been associated with various social and political movements from the independence struggle of the 1930s to the recent people’s movement against the damming projects on the Irrawaddy.
The history of Burmese poetry began in Bagan Period (1044–1289). Mya-Kan (Emerald Lake) and Popa Nat Taung Bwe (An Ode to Sacred Mt Popa) have been documented as the earliest poetic verses. Burmese poetry has developed and evolved from that point encompassing six dynasties of Burmese kings and nine centuries. The characteristics of the four-syllable ‘climbing rhyme’ scheme can be traced back in the earliest verses, and early Burmese poets attempted to refine this scheme to make it a more perfect poetic form, resulting in new poetic forms such as yadu, pyo, mawgun, taw-lar, ei-chin and so on.
By the time of Konbaung Dynasty (1752–1885), which was also the last dynasty of Burmese kings, there were as many as thirty poetic forms.
Then the country fell under the British rule and ushered in a new poetry movement called khitsan (literally translated as ‘testing the times’). Khitsan, which came out of Yangon University in the 1930s, was the earliest modernist phase of Burmese poetry. Khitsan poets played an important role in the independence fight through their direct involvement in the anti-colonial activities and through their poetry.
Dagon Taya, a revered figure in the history of Burmese poetry and literature, extended the tradition of social engagement in poetry. He launched his own ‘New Literature Movement’ in the following decades, stressing the significant place of ideology in poetry. His motto ‘You may get rid of rhyme, but not ideology’ has influenced many poets, past and present. This motto was first heard in the 1970s when khitpor kabyar — a new modernist poetry movement that favors poetic experimentation, but also holds social engagement in its heart dearly — was emerging in the poetry scene. [The book] Htinn Yuu Pin Yeik (The Shade of the Pine Tree, 1968) was probably the most important contributor and the biggest influence for the emergence of khitpor kabyar.
Htinn Yuu Pin Yeik is a book of translations of Western modernist and romantic poets, put out by Burmese writer and literary scholar Maung Tha Noe. This book received widespread praise in the local poetry scene and changed the course of Burmese poetry. It influenced poets such as Aung Cheimt, Maung Chaw Nwe and Thukhamein Hlaing who, drawing influences from the translations of this book, parted way with the traditional rhyme schemes and adopted a more contemporary and experimental approach to their writing.
The other scholars who contributed to this aesthetic shift included Mya Zin with his Manifesto of Modern Burmese Poetry and Min Hla Nyunt Kyu with his concept of ‘modern sensibility’. Khitpor kabyar — rich in imagery generated from everyday social realities and ingenious metaphors, and informed by French Surrealism, Imagism and Romanticism — has been the most dominant poetry practiced by a great number of Burmese poets for decades.
However, at the turn of the new millennium and especially in the late 2000s — the decade in which poet and critic Zayer Lynn put out a series of books that introduced new poetic experimentations and avant-garde poetry movements around the world and especially in the United States — new species of poetry sprang up in the scene, and the dominance of khitpor kabyar started to wane.
In the later part of the 2000s, essays on and poetry translations of the New York School Poets, the Language Poets, and European avant-gardists were regularly found in local literary magazines and journals. The bulk of the work came from Zayer Lynn, and some of it from poet Aung Khin Myint and myself.
Poets formerly known as khitpor kabyar saya such as Moe Way, Lu Sann, Win Myint and Sai Win Myint started to write with more cutting-edge and experimental approaches. Their poetic language changed from the transparent to the opaque, from the predetermined to the unpredictable, from being linear to disjunctive and fragmented, and from being easy to difficult. Thus, new forms of poetry emerged in the scene. Younger poets such as The Maw Naing, Aung Pyi Sone, Maung Yu Py and myself were also the members of this pioneering avant-gardist group.
Today a number of poets, many of them born in the 1980s and 1990s, have come up with new species of poetry. They reject received forms and experiment with a variety of avant-garde poetics. It should also be noted that some of them have redefined and incorporated older poetic traditions, especially khitpor kabyar, in their works.
Today we see different groups of poets with shared poetic tendencies. These groups include PEMSKOOL, RevoCat, and Nyay to name a few.
There are also individual poets such as Lunn Sett Noe Myatt, Maung Phone Myint, Thura Ne, Thura Thit, Nay Myae, Nay Thit, Shein Thu Aung, Shain Wah, Mae Ywayy, Cho Pain Naung, Moon Thu Ein, A Moon Mon and Phyu Hnin Phway, again, to name a few. These poets draw influences from a wide range of poetries (including Flarf, Language Poetry, Post-Language Poetry, Conceptual Poetry, Deep Image, Surrealism, Visual Poetry and post-modern Lyricism) as well as from the works of individual poets writing and publishing today both locally and internationally.
The works of these young Burmese poets are also informed by structuralism, post-structuralism, post-Marxism, feminism, anarchism, environmentalism and emerging social and political debates.
Younger poets such as Zarti (Antima) and Nay Myo Set Lu are drawn towards post-modern Lyricism and New Prose. These are tendencies that we may be seeing more of in the future. Speaking of the future, today we are also seeing more and more established khitpor poets adopting experimental or rather avant-garde poetic techniques in their works, giving rise to a very interesting aesthetic dynamic. Maung Pyiyt Min and Khin Aung Aye have been doing that for a few years, and now Khaing Myae Kyaw Swar is a new addition to the list.
The vibrant Burmese poetry scene has benefitted so much from small independent presses such as The Eras founded by poet Moe Way, and the DIY ethic of young generation poets. Be Untexed is a Yangon-based independent online journal that publishes poetry and poetry translations in English, the first of its kind in Burma. This journal, founded by poet Han Lynn, poet Nyan Lynn, and graphic designer Nyi Sane, accepts submissions from both local and international poets and translators. As poets, writers and artists enjoy a much more improved freedom of expression under the new civilian government, the contemporary Burmese poetry may be headed for better days.
New Old Censorship
Compared to the past few decades, it is much freer today to make any form of artistic expression. Censorship has been lifted and it has improved the condition of freedom of expression to a certain extent. But this is not to say there is no more censorship, because there is, especially one that artists, writers and poets impose on themselves. There is this elephant in the room called ‘nationalist sentiment’.
Another thing largely missing in the art and literary scene is the discussion of ethnic issues. Some poets and writers just don’t have a clue what is going on in the country with ethnic minorities. But they often demand peace in their writings, which is just an abstract idea, totally removed from local realities. Their version of peace is more of a utopian fantasy.
As you may have already known, there has always been a nationalist agenda in the government and its bureaucracy for decades. This dates back to the colonial period where Bamar leaders tried to unite the country by propagating the importance of race, religion and nationality. This is reflected in the Ma Ba Tha Movement led by the fundamentalist Buddhist monk Werathu. It can be considered a colonial legacy, but one that should not be continued.
However, we have seen ethnic minorities and migrant communities being marginalised over the years. This became really bad during Thein Sein’s government as they went as far as banning interfaith marriages. There has been so much hate speech in everyday life as well. But we haven’t seen many poets, writers and artists address this in their works.
I have also said: ‘Another thing largely missing in the art and literary scene is the discussion on ethnic issues.’ I was then referring to the ethnic conflicts and miseries afflicted on ethnic people, especially the Kachin, the Karen, the Shan and so on. In the past we could say we didn’t know much because the military government saw to it that this wasn’t discussed and covered in media. But what’s the excuse today? People apparently know there are armed conflicts, but they don’t know what exactly is going on including the looting, the burning of villages, the raping, the arbitrary arrests, torture, and the land grabbing being carried out by the military.
This is also linked with the Burmanization process. Within the framework of Burmanization, the mainstream education, bureaucracy and state media are systematically embedded in Buddhist values and Bamar identity, undermining the essence of diversity and ultimately denying the voices of other ethnic minority groups.
Education is a very good example where kids learn largely Buddhismized textbooks, reciting verses that propagate the role of Bamar and Bamarsar (Burmese Language) in the making of the nation. Building Buddhist temples by the military in ethnic communities where the entire population believes in Christianity is another obvious example. In sum, the censorship has been lifted, but there is still censorship.