What is a Pyo?
Pyo is a form of poetry from Burma, which is now Myanmar, that originated in monasteries.
The Pyo was originally developed in Buddhist monasteries, and the earliest written poetry in the Burmese language can be found as far back as 1450. In 1989 the country became Myanmar, however due to the history of the form this essay will refer to the language as Burmese and the country—where appropriate—as Burma.
The Burmese language lends itself quite naturally to musicality, so it may come as no surprise that there is a rich poetic history from Burma. Much of this was preserved by monasteries, which functioned as colleges for many writers.
The most widely known Pyo is Shin Raṭṭhasāra’s 1523 ‘Kogan Pyo,’ which retells the life of the Buddha, based on Hatthipāla Jātaka. It is now taught in Myanmar schools.
The Pyo rose to prominence in the 1600s and remained popular through the 1700s, enjoying a renaissance in modern times, where it has evolved into a positive tool for protest poetry, through moral lessons.
The First Nawade, a title given to the first King of Burma, was the first recorded layperson to write Pyo, though he spent a considerable time studying at monastery colleges. Padethayaza, a minister who served the last three kings of the Nyaungyan Restoration dramatically expanded the scope of Pyo, drawing on Hindu mythology as well as historical events such as the arrival of Thai envoys at the Burmese court in 1746.
In March of 1988, students from Yangon University began leading protests that soon spread throughout the country, eventually overthrowing the dictatorship that had ruled Burma as a one party state since 1962. Since this liberation, and the lifting of heavy censorship, the poetry of Myanmar has explored new themes and directions, which is seen in the modern adaption of Pyo, no longer constrained by religious messages.
Burmese is a highly prosodic language, with emphasis placed on tone, pitch and syllable timing, though it also is mostly monosyllabic.
Literary Burmese uses archaic grammatical structures no longer used in the colloquial form of the language. In English, this would be the equivalent of using Thou or Thee. While most of us understand these words, you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who uses them in everyday speech.
The language in a Pyo will vary from colloquial to formal, and it is in the formal element of the poem that we find most of its metaphorical content. This creates contrast between the practical and spiritual lessons of the form.
Pyos follow much of Burmese poetry, which are made of four syllables lines. There is no limit to the number of lines a stanza may have. A Pyo may feature a chain of these verses, sometimes to the hundreds, with thirty-five to forty lines per verse.
Rhymes tend to appear towards the end of a line and will pop-up throughout a verse.
Sometimes Pyo will make statements only to invert or subvert the message in a subsequent verse, creating dense, esoteric poetry, ripe for interpretation.
As Pyo originated in monasteries, it is unsurprising that the majority of them retell Buddhist tales. However, since becoming Myanmar, the poetry of the country has been undergoing rapid evolution, as if making up for lost time. Because of this, it’s tricky to say what a modern Pyo is. Poetry is at the heart of modern-day Myanmar and this is reflected in the ever-expanding themes, topics and language of the Pyo.
When writing your own, it’s worth exploring one’s cultural history. Many of the readers of this piece will have been raised in a religious context, even if they never considered themselves to practice that religion. Take a look at where you own morals evolve from and how your current politics shape them. The Pyo is a simple and easy to approach form that works perfectly for easy expression of complex problems.
© 2019 Connor Sansby
Available under the Thanet Writers Education Policy
Connor Sansby is a Margate-based writer, editor, poet and publisher through his super-indie Whisky & Beards publishing label.