“Poetry is my breath; poems are my bread,” Tin Moe once declared. He dedicated his life to poetry and the search for truth. Born in 1933 in a town in central Burma, Tin Moe began writing poetry for local magazines when he was 17. He went on to write poems regularly for local literary publications as a novice. Tin Moe’s early poems were influenced by leading Burmese writers of his day, who broke from the florid tradition of past Burmese literature and adopted a simpler, more straightforward style. After high school, Tin Moe went to Mandalay, the historical centre of Burmese culture, to major in Burmese at Mandalay University.
Later on, Tin Moe became a Burmese teacher at several high schools and universities while he continued writing poetry. In 1959, at the age of twenty-six, Tin Moe published his first collection of poems, called Hpan-mee-ein (The Glass Lantern), which won that year’s prestigious National Literary Award for poetry. He moved to Yangon, the then-capital city, in 1967, where he worked in the translation and publication department of Rangoon University for twenty years.
Tin Moe’s writing style was not overtly political, but was focused on the beauty of nature and everyday life in the country. Some of his poems pushed readers to see and appreciate the beauty of Burma and its culture. “Culture is the heritage of the people, indestructible and forever,” Tin Moe has said.
Also under the influence of his mentors, Tin Moe explored the genre of children’s verse, and published several collections in his style. Some of his poems for children were turned into songs for films, while others appeared in school text books. His children’s verse made him a household name. He learned just how influential his works were when he was arrested for his role in politics in 1991 and detained in a police station prior to trial. The place was filthy, and the food served to prisoners was barely 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 verse to their children.
Tin Moe became an Intellectual Committee member of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy, the winning party of the 1990 general elections (although the elections results were not honoured by the ruling military). Due to Tin Moe's political opposition, he was arrested in 1991 and held without charge for six months, then confined to four years in prison under the 1962 Printers and Publishers Registration Law. Just before another possible arrest in 1999, he managed to escape Burma after obtaining a passport under his less-known real name, Ba Gyan. He never returned to Burma, living in political asylum in Europe and the United States. He traveled through the U.S., Europe, Japan, and Southeast Asia attending literary events. In 2004, the Netherlands honoured him with the Prince Claus Award. Three years later, just months before the historic people’s uprising popularly known as the Saffron Revolution, he died in Los Angeles on January 22, 2007.
Nature is a determinant for the rhythm of life, and is a theme often seen in Tin Moe’s work. In this way he kept pace with the developments in Burma. In ‘Each with Its Own Beauty’, a poem Tin Moe wrote in 1963, he describes everything in nature as beautiful. Later, with the rise of the dictatorship, nature comes to a standstill, as seen in the poem ‘Desert Years’ (1976): ‘the honey wasn’t sweet, mushrooms wouldn’t sprout. Farmlands were parched’ [translation by Anna J Allott].
The political turmoil of 1988 served as a turning point for Tin Moe. The scene of hundreds of thousands of people taking to the street and demanding democracy, and the violent suppression of the uprising affected his writing. Tin Moe shifted towards political poetry.
During his years in exile, Tin Moe kept writing poems every day, without restrictions. “But I miss the language,” he said, “the way it sounds.” The optimist Tin Moe still had hope: “Some of the generals are really good people.” His thoughts reached Burma through shortwave radio, and were received by an audience longing for freedom of expression
His poems in exile show how much he missed home, and his cautious optimism for the future, as in ‘With a Lantern of Hope’ (1999):
on the Norwegian beach.
Wearing the robe of mist
going up the Scandinavian mountain
with a shaken, broken voice
singing a home-sick song.
I will surely arrive at some point.
Though our homeland is under darkness
it will be short-lived.
Tin Moe also showed through his words how much he loathed the military junta and felt sad for his own country as in ‘Meeting with the Buddha’ (2000):
don't know the truth
they don't keep promises
all kinds of lies
come out of their foul mouths
they have no respect for the nation
with their childish mentality
they're too dirty
An army exists to oppress the people
who flatter them
they ask them to sharpen the swords
it's a haven for thugs
the king of the master gangsters
Bo Ne Win's army
only knows how to shoot and cheat
The people are paupers now
the monks are beggars now
The scoundrels are monsters
weapons matter most
weapons are paramount
weapons reign supreme that's militarism
[translation by Anna J Allott]
Although the great poet could not see his motherland again, he is still alive among his fellow countrypeople through is work. His poems continue to inspire through his love for beauty, philosophy and freedom. During times of dictatorship, many regarded his poetry as revolutionary.
Hpan Mee Eain (The Glass Lantern), Mandalay University Writers Association Press, Mandalay, 1959
Hlay Ta Sin Hnint Thachin Theh (A Singer in a Boat), 1963
Amay Kyaung (Mother’s School), Moe Oo Pan Press, 1965
Pan Zay Khin (Flowers Market), 1967
Padauk mha Tharaphi tho (From Padauk to Tharaphi), Natha Daik Publishing, 1967
Sein Lan Thaw Einmat (Green Dream), 1969
Htee Kalay neh Ma Ni (Ma Ni with a Little Umbrella), Lin Kyat Book Publishing, 1970. Pyo Khin Tay Than (Melodies from Paddy Farms), 1971
Khun na sin kyeh: Sah pay yin kyay mhu saung pa su (The Plough: A Collection of Articles on Literary Culture), 1972
Hninsi pwint paw eitpyaw chin (Falling Asleep on a Rose), Soe San Htike Publishing, 1973
Bagan kyaung ka khaung laung than (Sounds of a Tinkling Bell from the Bagan Monastery), Amay Kyaung Publishing, Yangon, 1977
Nadi Nga Thwe (The Five Rivers), 1991 (co-author)
Kantkaw yeik mha einmat mya (Dreams Under the Shade of the Kantkaw Tree), 1997
Kantara hnit myah (Desert Years), Monywe Book Publishing, Yangon, 1998
Buddha hnint twae son chin hnint acha kabya mya (Meeting With the Buddha and Other Poems), La Min Taya Sarpay Publishing, 2000
Khut daung alan khawya tho (Following the Call of the Fighting Peacock Flag), Shwe Thingaha Myanmar Association Library, Korea, 2002
Kabya paung choat-1999 (A Collection of Tin Moe’s Poems – 1999), Alinga Publishing, 2004
Anya lann ka tamah dann (Rows of Tamah Trees in Upper Burma), Shwe Thingaha Myanmar Association Library, Korea, 2006
Thit ywat kyway lay paw mha yey deh mhattan mya (Memoirs Written on a Fallen Leaf), Linn Thit Yaung Sin Publishing, 2012
Featured in the anthology Bones Will Crow (translated and edited by ko ko thett and James Byrne), Arc Publishing, 2012
Myanma bawa Myanma wunkyin hnint Myanmar kabya (sahdan)-Myanma kabya phwe nee (Myanmar Lifestyle, Myanmar surroundings and Myanmar poems (essays): How to Write Myanmar Poems), 2013