Historically speaking, Burmese poetry has always played a critical role in Burmese society. Burma became a British colony in 1885 and during the colonial era, poets, including Sayargyi Thakin Kodaw Hmaing, ZawGyi, Min Thu Wun, Dagon Taryar, wrote poems on liberation and nationalism to oppose the British government. Though Burma became independent in 1948, Burmese Army seized power in 1962 and the situation of Burma, with sugar-coated socialism, became worse and worse. To oppose the juntas, poets craving democracy not only wrote poems through a very extreme censorship but involved in political issues. Their belief was “Art for People” and their poetry did reflect the oppressed people. So many poets were detained because of their poetry. There was no Freedom of Expression all along.
In 2010, the quasi-civilian government won the election and the censorship became pretty much softer. During those years, internet opened the gates to the world in every aspect. People, including poets, started to see what is happening in the world, and their attitudes and beliefs changed. Finally, in 2016, genuine civilian government has been elected because of the unity of Burmese people. It is much interesting that how contemporary Burmese poets will consider their responsibility for the society in this democratic era. In this paper, instead of writing much about the past, I would like to express the real voices nowadays. So I have made a small survey with five contemporary Burmese poets from different age and background. They talked about their opinions upon social function of poetry. They are Phyu Mon, Aung Yin Nyein, Sam, Salai Myat Noe Thu, and San Nyein Oo. I am not judging any of them: the readers can judge them on their own.
Phyu Mon (b-1960) is a 56-year-old poet and artist. She said:
“It is impossible to define poetry. It is always a huge part of every individual, otherwise of culture, religion, society and political issues. Women’s role in poetry is very important in society since they, in today society, are considered to be the same as men.”
“Poetry is a kind of art where subjects are very deep in a wide range. A poet’s intense feelings, emotions, philosophy, psychology, and hypothesis make poetry filled with magical fascination.”
“Poetry impacts not only the individual but the whole society in numerous ways. Poetry, being society-centered, reflects the people and the world. Poetry is very vital because it gives us a best sense of history.”
“The driving forces of poetry and culture are current situations of our environment that depend on society and politics. Poets need to understand how creative practice strength is to reflect and promote, or challenge to immoral cultural statures and political situations. Then the message of any poem would reflect the society very well whether the work is created with text and metaphors to present the world.”
And the next is Aung Yin Nyein. Aung Yin Nyein (b-1973) is a 43-year-old poet and writer. He said:
“In fact, to write poetry is a poet’s responsibility for the society. The responsibility that produces cultural products. A poet writing poetry is almost the same as a scientist experimenting new things, Mr. President working for the country, a weather-expert forecasting the weather. Since poets produce cultural things, the society they live will never be “uncivilized society that lacks poetry.”
“A poet writes poetry and a businessman earns money. I think that it is the same. But there would be a question for it. Are only writing poetry and earning money their responsibilities or not? Even if they were, it would only fulfill their desire and please their ego, I suppose.”
“I believe that poets have other responsibilities for the society. Responsibilities here don’t mean that they are must-obey laws or rules and regulations. You may have already understood that poets have to take such responsibilities on their own.”
“If poets are aware of philosophy, psychology, and politics, and put these things into their poetry, they could be considered working as philosophers, psychologists, and politicians.”
“If a poet could involve in political issues, environmental issues, educational reformation issues, poverty issues, and social awareness issues, that would be very very great for the society. But it depends on each individual. Some poets may think that poets need not to do such things.”
Sam (b-1994) is a 22-year-old poet. She is a medical student. She said:
“It’s impossible for me to discuss the duties of poets in our society, representing all poets. So let me just share my experiences, turns and twists in my life reflecting my poems.”
“As for me, there were times that I thought poetry doesn’t need to contribute something to the public. I started writing poems in 2012, and before that, I was more into writing novels. At that time, my fundamental rule of writing was to give something beneficial to the readers.”
“But then around 2014, I encountered some personal strikes in my life and lost faith in such things. That was when I first stepped into the poetry world because most of the poets around me were shouting out loud that poetry was not for the readers but for themselves, their outlet, their escape and the only effort they put was their feelings. Since I was the one with serious mental devastations, it became my favorite idea to throw away the people and drift alone endlessly.”
“However, I lost the feeling of my existence gradually and finally left blank. I could no longer write any poem.”
“As I have said, poetry is a reflection for me. Times passed by. Then I tried to step into the society again, looking for a meaning to live on, and I found my first happiness again by volunteering in a health project. That was when I wrote a rhythmic poem about how to brush your teeth for the children in that village. I made them recite it and practice it in real life. But I could not take it as an artwork. It was just a kind of creation for volunteer work.”
“But I do believe that poetry has definitely something to offer the people and is very unique to express in words. It could be everything in your life. It could be the very essence of your life; it could be your driven force, your meaning of existence. It can also reflect so many things like a country, a soul mate, a loner, etc. I cannot really give a specific insight into its role. So giving comments which represent all poets would be more unwise. But based on my experiences, this is the best answer I can think of.”
Salai Myat Noe Thu (b-1995) is a 21-year-old poet studying at Yezin Agricultural University. He said:
“Poets have no responsibility for the society. You might ask, ‘Do you write for the animals then’, and I might mock back, ‘Yes’. Everyone might think that writing poetry is a duty for a poet. I believe that things like duty, responsibility, and commitment are in another league when it comes to poetry. Poetry is an ever-free independent area. What kind of rulers would you use to judge whether poets have responsibilities or not? There are many things to think of. Is it of influencing people? Is it of artsy roles? Is this of historic facts and documentations? There, between poets and normal people, are some differences: absorbing, language, and creativity. Everyone has already known it roughly.”
“There could be lots and lots of emotions and feelings after reading a poem. Like mind changing, feeling happy or sad, staying in one’s shoes, being optimistic, knowing right and wrong, hatred on dictators, getting sick of being wrong, etc. These are business of the readers. Poets make their work with feelings, with thoughts, with the help of language.”
“If I must say about the duty of a poet, I believe it would be treasuring the old ones and finding new forms of poetry. It also includes commenting on society, government and the others, referring the era, making new forms on writing documentaries. I mentioned these as some mocks that ‘new’ is just imaginary or a fiction. My conclusion is ‘Poets have no responsibilities for the society’.”
And the final one is San Nyein Oo. San Nyein Oo (b-1976) is a 40-year-old poet and activist. He said:
Now you have seen their different, provoking, interesting, and controversial words. I Han Lynn would like to conclude this paper only with a sentence.
A poet, not only in his poetry but in his real life, must always be against and fight the injustice.
– This paper was read by the author at Asean Poetry Forum (2016), Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia