Poetry in Transitional Myanmar

Contemporary poetry in transitional Burma/Myanmar manifests a literary trend that has been suddenly exposed to, and stirred up by, a barrage of globalization from the outside and a political transition from the inside.This essay argues that even though ‘lobby and advocacy verses’ responding to the political issue of the day abound in transitional Myanmar, ideological or anti-hegemonic critical rigour is missing in the contemporary poetry of the 'post-ideological' Burmese poets.


Keywords: Burma/Myanmar—contemporary Burmese poetry—contemporary Burmese poetics—transition­—post-Marxism, Meaowism  

At a workshop on postmodernism at the Irrawaddy Literary Festival (ILF) in Yangon in February, Zaw Zaw Aung—one of the harbingers of the movement in Myanmar—reveals that he views postmodernism as simply a version of post-Marxism. If Marxism, as his detractors argue, is already in ‘the dustbin of history’, he will be the first one to salvage it, and put it back into its rightful place. He says this as a senior literary critic who, under the previous repressive regimes, was not able to disclose his ideological underpinnings.

Postmodernism was all the rage in Myanmar in the 1990s, which was probably the darkest decade for freedom of all sorts in the country, in the wake of the 1988 countrywide democracy uprising. As the junta tightened its grip on Burmese political and social life, the postmodernists responded with a war against dramatic monologues, and with the deconstruction of linear narratives. Their work, characterised by fragments of their angst presented in abstract and absurdist terms, was hardly seen in the mainstream media. Many postmodernists, who were not prepared to comply with the censorship laws, sought to publish illegal chapbooks out of university campuses (Ko Ko Thett 2012a).

Zaw Zaw Aung, an ardent advocate of radical democracy, is most certainly aware that in transitional Myanmar, the zeitgeist is no longer Marxist. The hermit kingdom has recently opened up to economic globalisation, with the effect that there has been both an influx of cultural imports, and a neoliberal ‘gold rush’, in the country.1 Zaw Zaw Aung’s concern with the depoliticisation of Burmese poetry over recent decade is justifiable, because alongside this economic change is the emergence of a collective of junior poets, who have been socialised in the internet-savvy culture of the 2000s, and who are explicitly weary of what they consider ‘ideological poems’.

Poet Lun Set Noe Myat, for example, frets about the general wellbeing of Burmese poetry in what he calls the ‘poetic spring’. He claims that poems written by well-known dissidents, such as opposition leaders Aung San Suu Kyi and Min Ko Naing, whose sacrifices are exemplary and who are therefore loved by the people, should be welcome. But, he goes on to observe, ‘many people who have not been noted in politics nor known for their craft’ have simply ‘wasted many a magazine page with too many of their ideological poems’ (Lun Sat Noe Myat 2012). Whether a ‘lobby and advocacy’ poem by a famed dissident should be considered superior to any other political piece is certainly moot. Suffice it to say—you know a good poem when you see one.

Arguably Lun Set Noe Myat is speaking for a post-ideological ‘Facebook Nation’ which is trying to come to terms with itself. A case in point is Revo Cat. This small anthology marks the 2013 World Poetry Day in March, and features 24 poets including Pandora, Lun Set Noe Myat and Han Lynn. Revo Cat or Meow, the Little Red Book turns out to be a mirror image of Chairman Meow. The image is directly lifted from the product homepage, which reads, ‘This is Chairman Meow, leader of the feline revolution, imitated by many, revered by all, equaled by none’ (Chairman Meow 2004–2009). The book’s cover tells that Revo Cat is a ‘collector’s item’ and is part of Lost Civilization Poetry series, published under an unequivocal ã. To his credit, editor Ye Myint Thu, who may have taken to heart TS Eliot’s assurance that ‘good poets borrow, great poets steal’,2 claims responsibility and stresses that ‘we, junior poets, are neither neo-liberal, nor anti-communist, nor communist …’ (Ye Myint Thu 2013).

Faced with such adolescent irreverence to the ideological traditions of Burmese poetry, senior khitpor3 poets, who were no less avant-garde in their heyday, have had to fight for their own legacy. Since the late 1960s when the khitpor movement first emerged against the backdrop of the American war in Vietnam, anti-imperialist khitpor poetry has tenaciously undermined Burmese military authoritarianism. Moe Zaw, the Frank O’Hara of the khitpor tradition, went so far as to claim that:

Khitpor poetry has persistently fought for human rights and democracy. As such khitpor is a new poetic, one that has little to do with international poetics and poetical isms. Khitpor has sprung out of our lived experience under [authoritarian] political systems and our struggle against repression. (Moe Zaw 2012)

His claim that khitpor is an indigenous poetic form is far from accurate—the Russian futurist Mayakovsky has had as much influence on the khitpor school as on the New York school (Ko Ko Thett 2012b).

The internet age has effectively ended the hegemony of khitpor and postmodern poetry. In the Myanmar poetic spring, ‘contemporary poetics’ such as experimental, LANGUAGE/post-LANGUAGE, conceptual/post-conceptual, flarf, visual, performance, hybrid, identity, digital and anti-poetry, are flourishing, especially in the blogosphere. But since ‘the literary Kempeitai’, or censorship, ceased to exist in 2012, there has also been a surge of lobby and advocacy poems in all forms and shapes, reacting to social and political issues of the day.

Even characteristically apolitical poets such as Khin Aung Aye and Zeyar Lynn, who have called for the depoliticisation and deideologisation of poetry, have responded to the newfound freedom with a couple of lobby and advocacy verses. Most of the poems read at an event organised by Zeyar Lynn at the ILF are delightfully scornful of incompetent authorities. ‘In Search of A State’, by Win Myint (2013), is a collage of seemingly innocent phrases he had published previously under the censorship regime:

The State said ‘Censored.’
I said ‘Echo!’, so we could learn a lesson.
This time, the State said, ‘Of course I too
Am afraid of what you call comeuppance …’
Then the State settled me down.
The State also gave me some responsibilities, known as ‘a wife.’
And a few benefits, known as ‘a son.’
Yet the State explicitly decreed,
‘Don’t make noise.

Win Myint’s message might well be that what matters is ‘ways of reading’.4

At the other end of the spectrum, there are poets whose identity has been shaped their lifelong struggle against military tyranny. ‘I have been writing with my hidden claws for long. Now I don’t know how to open them up …’—a remark by Ma Ei (2013), a senior poet and a former rebel—is telling about the poetical anxiety associated with political transitions. Another voice from the same corner is found in Politics is added since Poetry Itself is Infrequent, a 2013 collection by Moe Oo Swe Nyein, a thoroughbred political poet who emerged out of the 1988 uprising. Noting what he calls the ‘commitment and irony’ of Burmese poets, critic Min Khet Ye urges:

This new [political/social] theme might possibly lead us to the reinvention of Burmese poetics. On the other hand, it is likely that poetry will become a victim of some social and political [agenda] if it falls completely within the new theme. To avoid this pitfall it is imperative we come up with new forms and techniques that suit the new subject. (Min Khet Ye 2012)

Some of the Burmese poets who had been force-fed jingoist propaganda in authoritarian Myanmar may have unconsciously fallen prey to what the Burmese call ‘ideological castration’ by the State. Lobby and advocacy poetry may abound in transitional Myanmar, but few post-ideological poets have spoken up against institutionalised injustice in the country in the manner of Sein Khat Soe:

In the throat of Unpeace
Peace is being choked.
There will be bashing and battering,
Nagging and blackmailing, until he can throw up.
In an age when widows and orphans anticipate
The symbolism of a son who will come back
With a gold pot on his shoulder at sunrise …
Democracy sits in the living room and
Roasts racist green chillies in open fire. (Sein Khat Soe 2012)

Perhaps, after Chantal Mouffe, it would help to draw a line between ‘politics’ in terms of sovereignty, war, foreign policy—the business of state—and ‘the political’, or the business of citizens.5 The poetical is always the political in this latter sense. Inasmuch as the khitsan movement in the 1930s was a mode of expression against colonialism, the khitpor poetry in the 1970s and Burmese postmodernism in the 1990s by and large involved protest poetry written in ‘hidden transcripts’ (see Scott 1990). The diversification of poetics in transitional Myanmar manifests a literary trend that has been suddenly exposed to, and stirred up by, a barrage of globalisation. Hopefully it is also a sign of a democratising polity inching towards the values of pluralism and toleration. Decades ago, khitsan poet Min Thu Wun (1909–2004) dictated that writers ‘collate and imitate to create’. Derek Walcott has echoed the Burmese bard with his ‘Imitation is a way to be original’ (Walcott 2009). There is no such thing as an original idea in an age where cultures migrate at the click of a mouse. Yet this should not be an excuse to buy too much into what Sean O’Brien (2013) calls ‘mirror imperialism’, or as we shall call it, Meowism.   


End notes

  • 1. With the change of regime I Myanmar came a relaxation of the formerly highly controlled foreign investment regulations, and the acceleration of investment in that country by multinational corporations has all the markers of a traditional gold rush. See Rajiv Biswas 2013 Future Asia: The new gold rush in the East, New York: Macmillan.
  • 2. A version of Eliot’s argument in his 1921 work ‘Philip Massinger’, The Sacred Wood: Essays on poetry and criticism, New York: Alfred A Knopf.
  • 3. Khitpor poetry is the name for modern, lyric poetry that adopted ‘New Writing’s leftist orientation in content but written in free verse’. See Zeyar Lynn 2011 ‘Language-oriented poetry in Myanmar’, https://jacket2.org/commentary/language-oriented-poetry-myanmar.
  • 4. Charles Bernstein, writing for Jacket 2, makes the point that Marjorie Perloff’s analysis sets out the foundations for ‘ways of reading’ poetry, always sensitive to the fact that ‘all literary interpretations are fungible. There cannot be a final and definitive interpretation of a poem.’ Instead, we can learn to read work in its context, and to probe poems for details of their elements. See Bernstein 2012.
  • 5. Writing in her On the Political (2005), Chantal Mouffe notes that current discourse insists that political differences must be put aside because the real struggle is now not between left and right, but between good and evil. This ‘post-political’ view is one she challenges because, as she argues, it heightens the real problems of politics and its antagonistic relationships.
Works cited: 

(all references to Burmese articles are translated by the author)

Bernstein, Charles 2012 ‘Ways of Reading: Marjorie Perloff and the Sublimity of Pragmatic Criticism’ Jacket 2, 8 November, https://jacket2.org/article/ways-reading-marjorie-perloff-and-sublimity-pragmatic-criticism (accessed 3 April 2013)

Chairman Meow 2004-2009 ‘This is Chairman Meow’, http://www.vivachairmanmeow.com/ (accessed 3 April 2013)

Ko Ko Thett 2012a ‘Funeral of the Rugged Gold’ Sibila, 17 September at http://sibila.com.br/english/funeral-of-the-rugged-gold/7322 (accessed 3 April 2013)

Ko Ko Thett 2012b ‘From Panegyric to the End of Poetry: A Laconic Introduction to Burmese Verse’, Poetry International, January, http://www.poetryinternationalweb.net/pi/site/cou_article/item/21270/From-panegyrics-to-the-end-of-poetry  (accessed 3 April 2013)

Ko Phone 2013 ‘Politics is Added since Poetry Itself is Infrequent: Moe Oo Swe Nyein’s Poems’, Kaungkin magazine, 13 February, http://www.kaungkin.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=1058:news&catid=53:absdfnbs-articles&Itemid=103 (accessed 3 April 2013)

Lun Sat Noe Myat 2012 ‘An Introduction to Contemporary Burmese Poetry, The Myanmar Poetic Spring’, Kaungkin magazine, 24 April, http://www.kaungkin.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&catid=35%3A2009-04-17-01-29-53&id=763%3Aarticle&Itemid=61 (accessed 3 April 2013)

Ma Ei 2013, in conversation with Pandora, Moe Way and Zeyar Lynn, Rangoon, 26 February

Min Khet Ye 2012 ‘Political Poems in the Age of Politics’, Kaungkin magazine,  13 October, http://www.kaungkin.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&catid=35%3A2009-04-17-01-29-53&id=861%3Aarticle&Itemid=61 (accessed 3 April 2013)

Moe Zaw 2012 ‘The Birth and Death of Khitpor Poetry’, Kaungkin magazine, 21 September, http://www.kaungkin.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&catid=35%3A2009-04-17-01-29-53&id=850%3Aarticle&Itemid=61  (accessed 3 April 2013)

Mouffe, Chantal (ed) 2005 On the Political, London: Routledge

O’Brien, Sean 2013 ‘Bones will Crow: 15 Contemporary Burmese Poets, Review’, The Guardian, 8 February, http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2013/feb/08/bones-crow-burmese-poets-review (accessed 3 April 2013)

Scott, James C 1990 Domination and the Art of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts, New Haven CT: Yale University Press

Sein Khat Soe 2012 ‘The Age that Craves for Democracy’ (trans Ko Ko Thett), International Times, 2 October, http://internationaltimes.it/the-age-that-craves-for-democracy/ (accessed 7 April 2013)

Walcott, Derek 2009 interview with Dante Micheaux, The Wolf 21 (August), http://www.wolfmagazine.co.uk/21_walcott.php (accessed 7 April 2013)

Win Myint 2013 In Search of A State (trans Ko Ko Thett), Kaungkin magazine, 1 March, http://www.kaungkin.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=1081:poem&catid=53:absdfnbs-articles&Itemid=103 (accessed 3 April 2013)

Ye Myint Thu (editor of Revo Cat) 2013, personal communication, 6 February