Language-oriented poetry in Myanmar

by Zeyar Lynn

To many people outside Myanmar (Burma), it might come as a surprise that there is such a thing as Language-oriented Poetry in contemporary Myanmar poetry scene. As I happen to be the person responsible (‘the instigator’ / ‘the culprit’) of so-called Language-oriented Poetry in Myanmar, I feel that I should have my say on how this has come about in Myanmar, a country that has been under a military regime for the past 20 years or so.

To give the reader a background of contemporary (a loaded term here in Myanmar, too) Myanmar poetry, I would have to take the reader back to the thirties when the first Experimental Poetry Movement started in Yangon, specifically by some literature students of Yangon University. They started to write a new kind of poetry that had never existed before in form or content. Their poetry broke away from the traditional/classical style of writing about the old Burmese monarchy and the old Burmese way of life before the British annexation of Burma in 1886. No doubt, there was a much venerated elderly poet, Thakhin Ko Daw Hmaing, who wrote poems that stirred the latent patriotism of the people, but he was writing in the traditional way. The ‘Khit San’ or the ‘Experimental’ Poets invented a new poetic form by writing in lines and stanzas for the first time in the history of Myanmar Poetry. This new form was based on a rigid rhyme scheme, called ‘4-3-2 rhyme’, i.e., there were 4 syllables per line with the last or 4th syllable of the 1st line rhyming with the 3rd syllable of the 2nd line and the 2nd syllable of the 3rd line, and starting again with another 4-3-2 rhyming lines, more often than not, ending with a line of 7 syllables. The contents dealt with mundane, daily life topics, but with a strong flavour of Myanmar cultural icons. Min Thu Wun and Zaw Gyi were the two leading Experimental poets who influenced Myanmar poetry for the next 30 years or so.

If Experimental Poetry was the 1st poetry movement of the 20th century, the 2nd was the New Writing Movement, started and led by Dagon Tayar (who is in his 90s now and blind), after the end of the 2nd World War. Influenced by the leftist ideology of the historical period, he introduced People’s Poetry, a Marxist-oriented realism, during the late 40s. There was at that time an ideological struggle between the so-called ‘art for art’s sake’ bourgeois poetry and ‘art for people’s sake’ leftist poetry. Those who did not support New Writing were branded ‘bourgeois’ and severely attacked by the ‘progressives’. Although New Writing carried on Experimental Poetry’s 4-3-2 rhyme scheme with some changes in the number of syllables per line making the rhyme scheme more flexible, its aim, intention, and content were revolutionary. Art was for the masses, and poetry was the weapon of the masses against the national landowners and capitalists. It was unfortunate that New Writing, while winning over the hearts and minds of a whole generation of younger poets, sometimes became mere propaganda, as the dictum was that poetry must be less aesthetic and more utilitarian so that even the common person of low education would ‘appreciate’ the poem with ease. Compared to New Writing poems, Experimental poetry became pale and anaemic, bereft of ‘reality’, of the daily ‘heroic’ struggles of the masses for a socialist democratic state.

Then came Modern Poetry, the third wave of 20th century Myanmar poetry, around 1968. A noted writer-translator of Western poetry, Maung Tha Noe wrote in his preface to a collection of translations of Western poetry (mostly Romantic but also including some modernist poets, such as Eliot) that “there was no modern poetry at all for one so dizzy and sick to inhale.” His was a call for Modern Poetry in Myanmar, and he was supported by Mya Zin , a Harvard scholar, and Nyunt Kyuu, a well-known poet. The trio then came to be notoriously called the ‘Zin-Noe-Kyuu’ gang, notorious because ‘modern’ in poetry implied Western, bourgeois poetry. Mya Zin introduced the term ‘modern sensibility’ to Myanmar poetry, but without the modernist sense of Western poetry. The idea it espoused was more ‘contemporaneous’, i.e, ‘of the times’, than Modernist a la Modernism. The trio, sensing the danger of poetry degenerating into propagandistic verse, called for a revival of poetry more skillfully crafted, rather than New Writing poetry that emphasized ideological edge over ‘artistic/poetic’ techniques. This started a poetry war between the ‘decadent, bourgeois, Western-longing’ moderns with ‘revolutionary’,’progressive’, ‘people’s’ poets, but with the intervention of the highly-respected New Writing leader Dagon Tayar, a compromise was made with the result that a new kind of poetry was born, the ‘modern’ or (in Myanmar) the ‘Khit Por’ poetry. Even to this day, some scholar poets lament that the road to (Myanmar) modernism was lost to ‘Khit Por’ poetry, which carried on New Writing’s leftist orientation in content but written in free verse, another revolutionary aspect of form in the history of Myanmar poetry. However, till today, many old guard poets consider free verse as ‘chopped up prose rather than poetry’.

The end of the Soviet empire and the coming down of the Berlin Wall had direct repercussions on remnants of New Writing poets. With the demise of Communism, their ideological basis for poetry was gone, but soon it was replaced by ‘individualism’, ‘liberalism’, and ‘democracy’. Some New Writing poets joined the ranks of Khit Por, which was basically Lyric poetry, not unlike the ‘official verse’/ ‘Workshop’ poetry kind attacked by the LANGUAGE Poets in the US. It had/has a confessional tone expressing the self’s agony in the face of the unfair powers that be controlling and manipulating the lives of the people. The people’s poet now/then became an individual suffering the atrocities of society and this self-expression was supposed to reflect the people’s suffering. Indeed, the poet’s individual suffering ‘represented’ that of the masses. During the 90s, there was a surge of Khit Por poetry and poets to the point that it became mainstream poetry. For every ten poems published in magazines at least eight were Khit Por with the remaining two of ‘old’ experimental type or a much watered down version of ‘a reflection of people’s lives’ type. Khit Por poetry was the modern, the new, the up-to-the-moment contemporary poetry based on the poet’s ego-psychology or his/her ‘true, honest, original, and authentic’ emotions. Poetry soon became the art of expressing the poet’s emotions.

This was the situation in Myanmar poetry till the beginning of the 21st century when cracks began to show through. One was the result of an interest in Postmodernism, which was and is still being ‘imported’ (i.e., ‘yet another move to bring in Western decadent ideas into pristine traditional Myanmar culture, especially the culture of the mind and the intellect, with the aim of poisoning the pure minds of the youth’) by a noted scholar, Zaw Zaw Aung. Although he had been explaining the many and complex theories of Postmodernism/Post-structuralism to the local reading public, Postmodern Poetry was still something vague hovering over the horizon. Young and budding poets who could not find an identity or a platform for their voice started looking for something new, anything non-Khit Por. They wanted to know about and to write ‘Postmodern Poetry’ without actually having any idea of what it was. Another crack was seen in Khit Por itself. Though it had achieved the prestigious status of being mainstream, the focus on the poet’s emotion started to take its toll to the point that poets were reproducing the same emotions in the same ways so much so that an editor of a magazine wrote that poems were becoming almost identical. Except for the different pen names of the different poets, the poems had the same tone, color, content, and expression. In other words, Khit Por had come to a stand still instead of evolving or ‘progressing’. Myanmar poetry had reached an impasse!

This was where I came in. I, too, had been writing Khit Por poems but had become disillusioned with what I was doing, which was what everyone who called him/herself a Khit Por poet was doing, churning out the same emotions of personal pain and suffering in startling images. It soon reached the point when the whole idea of writing a poem rested on the discovery of a suitable image on which to hang the poem. As an attempt to find something ‘new’, I first translated some Post-Soviet Russian poetry and later introduced John Ashbery and the New York school poets. I received some flak from old school poets for ‘importing’ decadent American poets. Then around 2004 when I started writing articles on LANGUAGE Poetry/Writing in the US, followed by publishing a book of my own poems titled ‘Distinguishing Features’, I came to be labeled as ‘LP’, Language poet, and a group of poets who were close to me and who also started ‘experimenting’ with LANGUAGE Writing were promptly labeled LP gang with me as the gang leader. For the next few years, there were heated debates in magazines between myself and (it seemed) the whole of Khit Por poetry. It was a battle between KP (Khit Por) and LP (Language Poetry). I defended the poetics of LANGUAGE Writing and our group’s attempts to invent that kind of poetry in Myanmar. Zaw Zaw Aung supported me all the way, explaining to readers that this was what they had been wanting, Postmodern poetry, but what they said was interesting in a way : ‘We want Postmodern poetry but not Language poetry.’

The heat has somewhat died down with my loudest critics reluctantly accepting our (Myanmar) brand of Language (-oriented) poetry since younger poets are copying this kind of writing en masse and magazines are publishing them. Some editors are even saying that LP is showing signs of becoming ‘mainstream’. God forbid! Have these younger writers pretended to overlook Bernadette Mayer’s last point to ‘work your ass off and don’t ever get famous’, which I translated in 2004? Now, this (Myanmar version) of Language-oriented poetry has also appeared online, with the example of Pem skool, a group of Myanmar online poets who are also fiercely into Flarf (again introduced by me).

Provided I get some space, I would like to go into more detail concerning this phenomenon of Myanmar version of Language-oriented Poetry sometime in the near future, hopefully with some translations.

Zeyar Lynn is poet, critic, writer, translator, language instructor, living in Yangon (Rangoon). With James Byrne and Ko Ko Thett, he is currently editing the first anthology of Burmese poetry in English. See also a related essay on contemporary Burmese poetry by Htein Lin and Vicky Bowman, published in Byrne's The Wolf. Lynn trasnalted and edited Charles Bernstein: Interviews and Writings (Yangon: The Eras' Publishing House, July 2009). [Edn 500. Inverviews: Manuel Brito, Eric Denut, Hannah Mockel-Rieke, and Tom Beckett; extracts of 'The Value of  Sulfur,' 'The Revenge of the Poet-Critic,' and 'Three or Four Things I Know About Him.'