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Anti-materialism and anti-consumerism

Teardrops of Time: Buddhist Aesthetics in the Poetry of Angkarn Kalayanapong
Forfatter: Arnika Fuhrmann
Forlag: Suny Press (USA)
POETRY / The social criticism of poet Angkarn Kalayanapong can be so caustic that he is said to repel Thai readers, where he rages against Western influence, against prostitution, destruction of nature, substandard urban planning, greed and corruption.


We do not always perceive the social criticism hidden in non-European poetry. It can hide in symbolism and imagery, or behind ideological forms that we cannot quite decipher. This applies to Muhammad Iqbal, Pakistan's national poet, who brought Nietzsche home from his studies in Heidelberg. And so it is for Cirilo Bautista, the great contemporary poet of the Philippines, whose solidarity with the Filipino people is conveyed behind a shield of nationalist understanding of history. A further complicated example is the poet we will look at in more detail here, Thailand's Angkarn Kalayanapong (1926–2012).

Kalayanapong is a poet and thinker full of contradictions. An early proponent of a form of modernism in Thai poetry, but a strong opponent of the modernization and westernization of Thailand. Buddhists and monarchist, yet a radical democrat who is not without interest in the political left. Modernist poesi arrived late in Thailand, as in Norway, in the 1950s. Kalayanapong received much criticism for breaking traditional Thai verse forms (he does so, as we shall see, by going even further back in time). But he was also criticized for his opposition to American influence in Thailand during the Cold War, and then the corresponding opposition to Japanese economic influence.

Kalayanapong is reminiscent of Pier Paolo Pasolini in the way he uses the past to criticize the present.

Another paradox is that this defender of a Thai cultural originality and folk culture belongs to the first generation of artists who were trained in Western drawing, the legacy of the Renaissance. (The teacher was the Italian artist Corrado Feroci, who lived in Thailand from the 1940s onwards.) Kalayanapong can be reminiscent of Pier Paolo Pasolini in the way he uses the past to criticize the present. The awareness of tradition strengthens a sharper view in the face of reification and alienation in contemporary social processes. While Pasolini's background was art history studies at the University of Bologna with some specialization in fresco painting, Kalayanapong learned the craft with a restoration of temple frescoes: "Poetry is the color of language, art is the color of the world."

Heaven's Garbage Patch

Kalayanapong was, as we hear, both a poet and an artist. He came from one of the southern provinces, near the border with Malaysia, and always maintained a hostile relationship with the capital.

Angkarn Kalayanapong

Author Arnika Fuhrmann by Teardrops of Time: Buddhist Aesthetics in the Poetry of Angkarn Kalayanapong has filled his work with poetic interpretations, and it is clear how sarcastic and venomous the poet Kalayanapong becomes as soon as Bangkok appears as a subject: "Cool capital, the garbage dump of the sky ... / In search of a single thing / and that thing can be rented, even the soul" (from "Bangkok Kaeo Kamsuan / Five Precepts" [all poem quotations have been translated into Norwegian by Sandell, editor's note]. Or as here: "You are only sorrow, born to perdition, / through days and nights, mad by the coups d'état …/ where predatory teeth cut into our Thailand" (From "Awake") But one aspect of the poems is lost in translation in that Kalayanpong plays with older vocabulary that makes associations with classical literature.

He is against the bureaucrats, against the academics. In one poem it is said: "Thailand means only Bangkok.n/ The rest of the country is the forgotten Siam." He even deliberately misspells the Thai word for Thailand, leaving out the last consonant, so that the word instead means 'Land of the Reptiles'. His social criticism can be so caustic that he is said to repel Thai readers where he rages against Western influence, against prostitution, destruction of nature, substandard urban planning, greed and corruption. The country's technocratic elites characterized as "western scum", and the arrogant inhabitants of the capital are told in the poem "Those who look down on art" that they will be reincarnated as animals that live on excrement!

Nostalgia for 'Ayuthaya'-tiden

Fuhrmann goes on to show, in this the first proper Western review of Kalayanapong's writings, how the military-backed Thai regimes during the Cold War promoted technological modernization. And how Kalayanapong, through his invocation of an original Thailand and older cultural eras – especially 'Ayuthaya' (1300th to 1700th century), and with his historical nostalgia, actually expresses a critique of the regime. Just as Pasolini in Italy adopted the old vernacular of the people that did not follow the Renaissance, Kalayanapong increasingly composes within the ancient and native Thai versforms, khlong, as opposed to later classical forms (which are borrowed from Sanskrit). He also resumes the 'nirat' genre, a kind of poetic travelogue in verse that anyone who has read classical Thai poetry has come across – but writes it in a freer form.

Historical nostalgia for the 'Ayuthaya' era, as opposed to enthusiasm for 'Bangkok', is thus one of Kalayanapong's strategies for opposition in his modern day (1950s and 1960s). Buddhist philosophy is another such starting point, something he shares with South Korea's great poet Ko A (1933–), who is still on the list of candidates for the Nobel Prize in Literature. Both have lived as Buddhist monks for long periods. Even Kalayanapong's Buddhism becomes a critique of modernity, and a critique of linear cultural evolutionism. Art becomes part of the religious expression, and religion becomes part of his anti-materialism and anti-consumerism. Strategies that are not always immediately visible to us Western readers, who at first may only see reactionary attitudes.

For Kalayanapong, nostalgic conservatism and democratization are not opposites.

Thailand was an important player in Southeast Asia during the Cold War. The headquarters of SEATO (Southeast Asia Treaty Organization) was stationed in Bangkok, in a Thailand ruled by military juntas. Despite his relative monarchism and his historical nostalgia, Kalayanapong is just as much a staunch opponent of the regime. He protests intensely against the military violence against students and other citizens in 1973 and 1976. For Kalayanapong is nostalgic conservatism and democratization thus no contradiction. In the poem "The People's Right to Freedom" ("Sith Isara Seri Khong Puang Pracharat") he writes, again with a certain Buddhist color: "A true human being is self-determining / ... / In a just society where freedom prevails / there shines a new the world emerges from every soul.”



Håkan Sandell
Håkan Sandell
Sandell is now MODERN TIMES' regular poetry critic. He is a Swedish poet and literary critic. He is now a regular poetry critic in MODERN TIMES. Sandell has published around 30 books, and for several decades he has also worked as a culture writer for the Swedish morning newspaper Sydsvenskan. His latest book is the collection of poems The world opens the gates (2023).

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