by Christopher Norris
His words captured the unflinching determination of the Myanmar public in the face of military brutality: ‘They shoot in the head, but they don’t know revolution dwells in the heart’. The poet Khet Thi was taken from his home last Saturday. The next day, his wife collected his body from the hospital. Myanmar’s rich poetic heritage is deeply intertwined with politics. Poets used verse to resist British colonial rule, as well as the previous military regime, which censored and imprisoned writers. Many will remember Khet Thi by one of his famous lines: ‘You try so hard to bury us underground, because you don’t know that we are the seeds’. - Rebecca Ratcliffe, ‘Revolution Dwells in the Heart’, The Guardian, May 17th 2021
You generals, you shoot us in the head,
Though it’s not there that revolutions start
But in the poet’s, then the people’s heart
Where no assassin’s bullet strikes them dead.
Let’s junk the myth that poetry’s an art
For peaceful times, that handy slogans spread
The message faster so it’s time to shed
Our poet-talk and look the rebel’s part.
You try to bury us deep underground,
Us poets, yet beware: our words are seeds
Of hope reborn, a living force that feeds
The heart and mind with energies new-found.
For it’s a precious liberty that bleeds
In Myanmar, a freedom closely bound
To Burmese poetry where sense and sound
Are interlaced with prayer like a monk’s beads.
You generals, be warned: we poets bear
Enduring witness, call to mind the crimes
Of other generals, other shameful times,
And - then as now - take our appointed share
In the long haul by which a nation climbs
From dark to daylight and the open air
Of lives now freed, like poems, to prepare
For happier days with soul-restoring rhymes.
It’s just that euphony, that deep desire
For peace in words and action that so fits
Our Burmese poetry to offer its
Strong consolation when the times are dire,
But also the verse-melody that pits
Our native tongue against the blanket fire
Of these new tyrants, as those guns-for-hire
Once held us captive to the scheming Brits.
And you Rohingya, you who suffer worst,
You victims of the victims: how shall we
Oppressed oppressors ever hope to free
Our daily lives from an existence cursed
By such demonic twists of destiny,
Such woes long shared yet cruelly interspersed
With times, like these, when closest ties can burst
Like bombs as rival zealots bend the knee.
Still it’s the poets, those with keenest ear
To future harmonies, who best can tell
Both parties how to find their way from hell,
If not to heaven-on-earth, then some place near
Enough where our verse-accents may dispel
More strident tones and every listener hear
A way beyond old enmity and fear
As songs recall when that last junta fell.
Christopher Norris is Distinguished Research Professor in Philosophy at the University of Cardiff. He is the author of more than thirty books on aspects of philosophy, politics, literature, the history of ideas, and music.