MONSOON 1992, YANGON
Seikkantha Street smelled the way that much of downtown Yangon usually smelled in early mornings in the rainy season: jasmine and other seasonal flowers from the shrines, and sewage from beneath the pavement.
Since the break of dawn, scores of high school graduates had been forming an impatient queue in front of an apartment building in Upper Seikkantha. They were there to enroll in the famous U Tha Noe English Grammar School. They would have to run up four or five steep flights of stairs to arrive at the school door once the clock struck 9 a.m. First come, first served for a placement test. I was one of a few students who was fortunate and fit enough to earn a place in the U Tha Noe English class that year.
Saya Noe, as he was known, was a highly accomplished linguist and a very articulate language teacher. He was a schoolmaster whose mere presence in the class inspired obedience and silence. With arms akimbo, he lectured us, his eyes staring down at us from behind his square glasses. He was stout. So was his enormous head. He was always in a longyi, neatly tied just below his chest, and a pressed, white shirt.
He was uptight about grammar and correct use of English (the British brand) both inside and outside the class. One time, he got fed up with ubiquitous ‘hair saloons’ in the country and published an essay pointing out the difference between ‘saloon’ and ‘salon.’ He didn’t mind making enemies. In a culture where criticism was always taken personally, he remained a vocal critic of all things he considered improper.
At his class we learned ‘r’ is redundant in ‘Myanmar.’ We learned how to use ‘rifle’ as a verb. We learned wondrous notions such as inversion and pentameter. We learned phonetics (the Oxford brand). He taught us how to pronounce ‘Yeats,’ as in W. B. Yeats. He told us about Maud Gonne, who repeatedly broke Yeats’ heart until Yeats resorted to marrying Gonne’s daughter. He convinced us that there was rhythm in Burmese poetry. He wrote that, as in Japanese, Russian (a language he knew ‘a little’), or Pali, ‘Burmese has only the verb to be and lacks have.’ He counted the linguists John Okell and Anna Allott and the poets Tin Moe, Maung Swan Yi, and Christopher Merrill amongst his friends and fans.
MONSOON 2012, YANGON
Maung Tha Noe had been a towering figure in the Burmese literary world since the 1960s. Having hailed from Sagaing, he studied English, Pali, and Burmese at Mandalay University and worked as an editor at Mandalay Ludu and Mannzat journals. He was one of the earliest proponents for the use of speech-style Burmese in writing. He was jailed for student activism for some years in the 1960s, but he hardly talked about that.
He moved to Rangoon in 1967. One year later, he published the seminal Shade of a Pine [ထင်းရှူးပင်ရိပ်], an assortment of translations of English romantic poems and modern poems. The book is often credited with introducing ‘modernism’ to Burmese poetry. However, it was his samizdat translation in free verse of ‘A Cloud in Trousers’ by Vladimir Mayakovsky that launched the khitpor poetry movement in the ’70s. As Maung Thainga, he also penned his own poems, standing with other knitpor poets against the American War in Vietnam.
Maung Tha Noe was also an ardent advocate of poetry reading circles. He was a staple at the Thabyay Nyo poetry club hosted at the Yangon Hledan residence of the national poet Min Thu Wun. In 2004 he made perhaps his very first trip abroad when he was invited to the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa.
In 2011, my co-editor James Byrne and I sought his counsel over the making of Bones will Crow: Fifteen Contemporary Burmese Poets. In the same year, I dedicated my poem ‘a walk with history’ to him; ‘how do you write history / in a language that has no past tense …’
I was very pleased that he approved the poem.
Bones will Crow was launched at the New Zero art space in Yangon in monsoon 2012. Saya Noe, despite his health and mobility issues, showed up. Perhaps it was his old schoolmaster aura, or perhaps it was his heavyweight literary stature, but regardless the whole room went silent as he arrived. Even the antisocial khitpor poet Aung Chemit stood up and greeted him, looking like a meek schoolboy.
Maung Tha Noe didn’t receive any government literary awards under the successive military regimes. Only in 2016, when the National League for Democracy took over, was his ‘lifetime achievement’ recognised with a national literary award. In an interview with the BBC following the award ceremony, Maung Tha Noe lamented the sorry state of contemporary Myanmar fiction but said that he felt very good about contemporary Myanmar poetry.
Maung Tha Noe’s oeuvre of over twenty major books can be divided into his twin passions: poetry in translation (including Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, a collection of Haiku poems, and his English translations of numerous Burmese poets) and English grammar.
MONSOON 2022, YANGON
I received a text message from a friend in Paris: ‘On the full moon day of the month of Waso at about 6:30 pm Saya Noe passed away peacefully at the SCC hospital in Yangon.’
Rest in poetry, Saya Noe.