The ‘Great Guest’ of Burmese Literature
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Monday, August 19, 2019
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CULTURE

The ‘Great Guest’ of Burmese Literature


By Khin Maung Soe APRIL, 2007 - VOLUME 15 NO.4


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Burma’s best-loved poet Tin Moe passed away in California. Until his last breath, poetry was his love and life

Cigar’s burnt down
The sun is brown
Will somebody take me home?

 

Desert Years
By Tin Moe

Tears
a strand of grey hair
a decade gone

In those years
the honey wasn’t sweet
mushrooms wouldn’t sprout
farmlands were parched

The mist hung low
the skies were gloomy
Clouds of dust
on the cart tracks
Acacia and creepers
and thorn-spiral blossoms
But it never rained
and when it did rain,
it never poured

At the village front monastery
no bells rang
no music for the ear
no novice monks
no voices reading aloud
Only the old servant with a shaved head
sprawled among the posts

And the earth
like fruit too shy to emerge
without fruit
in shame and sorrow
glances at me
When will the tears change and
the bells ring sweet?

Translated by Anna J Allott

It is a simple three-line poem from Tin Moe, o­ne of Burma’s best-loved poets. The title is “The Great Guest” (1959), and it provides each reader with a wealth of possible interpretations. But the great poet himself was at a loss for words when he saw his poem etched o­n a prison wall by an unknown inmate.

Tin Moe served five years in prison for daring to write about Burma’s democracy movement—something that earned him the adoration of the Burmese people and the hatred of the country’s ruling military dictatorship.

Like many young Burmese in rural areas, Tin Moe began his education at a monastery in his native village of Kan Mye Zagyan in the Myingyan District of upper Burma. As a novice, he studied the Buddhist scriptures at the renowned Shweyesaung monastery in Mandalay, the seat of Burmese Buddhist learning.

By the age of 20, Tin Moe had developed a taste for poetry and began writing his own verses, as well as keeping up with works of other writers in the region. He spent the next half-century honing his craft, writing poetry every day until his death in exile in January 2007.

Tin Moe’s early poems were influenced by Zawgyi and Min Thu Wun—two leading Burmese writers of their day who broke from the florid tradition of past Burmese literature and adopted a simpler, straightforward style, later termed khit san sarpay, or “new writing.”

Writing in this style was not overtly political but focused o­n the beauty of nature and the events of everyday country living. Tin Moe’s poems made people see and appreciate the beauty of Burma and its culture. “Culture is the heritage of the people, indestructible and forever,” the poet was fond of saying.

Also under the influence of his mentors, Tin Moe explored the genre of children’s verse and published several collections in this style. Some of his poems for children were turned into songs for films, while others appeared in school textbooks.

Tin Moe’s reputation began to spread. He would later be given Burma’s highest literature prize, the National Literary Award, but his children’s verse made him a household name. He learned just how influential his works were when he was arrested in 1991 and detained in a police station prior to trial. The place was filthy, and the food served to prisoners was not fit to eat. At lunchtime, however, a fine meal was brought to him. He learned later that it was provided by the mothers and wives of the station’s police officers because they loved reading his verses to their children.

The political upheaval of 1988 served as a turning point for Tin Moe. He watched as hundreds of thousands took to the streets to overthrow Burma’s corrupt socialist government. He saw young men and women demanding democracy and human rights. And he watched the massacre of students, monks and children. These events could not help but affect his writing.

Some literary critics in Burma criticized Tin Moe’s shift toward political poetry, saying that it had lost the “sweetness and soft tone” of his earlier work. They concluded that the harshness of Burmese politics had stolen the music from his poetry.

But Tin Moe countered such criticism by referring to Thakin Kodaw Hmaing, whose patriotic and satirical poetry spawned a powerful anti-colonial literary movement while Burma remained under British rule. “The works of Hmaing are a mixture of political thought and poetry.



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