Long faced by the permafrost of dictatorship, Burma's poets have deployed metaphor to ingenious effect
The modernist phase of Burmese poetry, known as khitsan (meaning "testing the times"), emerged in the 1930s from Rangoon University and was associated with opposition to British colonial rule. Since then, poetry in Burma has retained a political significance unthinkable in the west. The odd dim schoolteacher aside, who would seek to censor poets in Britain, for example? When the military seized power in 1962, Burma became in many respects a closed country, culturally as well as politically – "a Stone Age cave sealed by stones", in the words of Maung yu Pi in 'The Great Ice Sheet', leaving "a great culture, dilapidated and yellowing". Poetry, with a long and distinguished history in Burma, is a form to which the country's readers naturally turn. Under the permafrost of dictatorship, poets needed ways to write without finding half the words inked out. They proved as ingenious in metaphor as the times required.
This is not a new story: eastern Europe was the same before 1989 (and eastern European poets were among those read by Burmese writers). We must wait to see if the same price – the collapse of the literary audience – is paid for liberty in Burma, although the deeply embedded traditions of Buddhism, which appear frequently in the poems, might arrest that process. Zeyar Lynn's introduction to Bones Will Crow, the first anthology of contemporary Burmese poetry, sketches various contemporary positions that have grown out of the movement away from the traditional poetic form of the internally rhymed, four-syllable line. There is a broad church approach, as well as 1970s innovation (khitpor) and the contemporary postmodern (does this sound familiar?). It sets the scene for future disappointment without directly invoking the possibility.
The editors, ko ko thett (himself an important poet) and James Byrne, point out that their sample of 15 poets is taken from perhaps a thousand: Bones Will Crow should not, then, be the only project in the field, especially in light of Burma's recent tentative liberalisation. The book opens with the prolific Tin Moe, who was jailed by the regime before escaping to the US. 'The Years We Didn't See the Dawn' evokes "A time of getting nowhere" and the realisation that, though life may have been unlived, the clock has ticked on and old age approaches: "I have passed through all this / Unheeding, as in a train / One passes stations by".
For Thitsar Ni, described as "a Buddhist with no spouse, no bank account and no master", while people neglect spiritual traditions by seeking "comfort in conformity" – whether under dictatorship or in material aspiration – "Tomorrow / has been buried right there". This might seem too direct for Anglophone readers, but its sombre analysis is part of our own tradition, too – in Wordsworth, in Derek Mahon, or in the Catholic convert Robert Lowell in 'Waking Early Sunday Morning', with its vision of "the blind / swipe of the pruner and his knife / busy about the tree of life".
Ma Ei is the oldest of the three female poets included here, a former Communist and prisoner of war. The editors record that "having been reincarnated as a rebel, a widow, a divorcee and a poet laureate [she] believes that she has earned more materials than she can possibly use in her lifetime". Her abrasive comic spirit shows her determined to escape categorisation: "It was me! I was such a handful, / Such a flirt, such a red. / I've had no reward, just fingers pointing. / Dying ain't much of a living! / The lady is a crank." In a book that often (if understandably) inclines to solemnity, Ma Ei's fellow female poets Eaindra and Pandora find room for sharp-eyed idiosyncrasy in their treatment of sexual politics, as in Eaindra's terse 'Lullaby for a night' ('Here you go … / The generosity of my dead sobs / Until the shoulders of night give in') and Pandora's attack on the legions of 'the daft' and young women bought off with material trivia.
The poets in Bones Will Crow tend to reveal a strong sense of the society to which they belong, and of a sense of responsibility towards it, which would be hard for an Anglophone poet to match with confidence. Even the most alienated of these writers still seem alienated with, rather than from, their fellow citizens. If they speak from the margin, it's a crowded place. It would be interesting to see how this plays out over time. As the anthology proceeds, there is an unavoidable sense that we have read some of this work before elsewhere, among American language poets and other postmodernists whose methods and attitudes provide a ready fit for the political and aesthetic discontents of some younger Burmese writers. This may be liberating, but it can also look and sound like a kind of mirror-imperialism, a Code Napoleon of dissent, perhaps in its way as intolerant of cultural difference as other US exports such as Coca-Cola or Walmart. It makes one long to see 20 years ahead: when the mechanisms of "innovation" exhaust themselves, what survives will have to be art rather than gesture.
• Sean O'Brien's November is published by Picador.