THE WRITERS POST
VOLUME 8 NUMBER 2
the beat of a new era
AN INTRODUCTION TO NEW FORMALISM POETRY
Dang Tien started writing at the beginning of 60’s, and had works published in the Saigon-based literary magazines Tin Sách, Văn, and Bách Khoa. In the overseas, he contributed to the magazines Diễn Đàn, Thông Luận, Đoàn Kết (Paris), Hợp Lưu, Văn, and Văn Học (USA).
He is the author or co-autohr of ‘Vu tru Tho’ (Vietnam: Giao Diem, 1972). ‘Xuan Dieu’ (co-authored, Hanoi: Tac Pham Moi Publishing House, 1987), ‘The Lu’ (co-authored, Hanoi: Hoi Nha Van Publishing House, 1991), ‘Vu Ngoc Phan’ (co-authored, Hanoi: Hoi Nha Van Publishing House, 1995).
Vietnamese New Formalism is a new school of poetry which has been spreading in recent years, beginning with the Vietnamese Journal of Poetry (Tạp Chí Thơ) which is published in the United States. Most notable was the publication of issue18, spring 2000, “The Change of Centuries”, demonstrating its growing influence with the enthusiastic participation of many writers and poets from within Vietnam and abroad. The name “Vietnamese New Formalism” coined from New Formalism which was flourished in USA during the 1980-1990 period.
Vietnamese New Formalism poetry has these particular characteristics:
– Consists of non-rhyming verses, entirely different from the rhyme-schemes of classical poetry, yet presented on the page in a manner similar to that of a traditional poem; easily recognizable as a poem.
– Each classical verse of poetry includes five, six, usually seven, or eight words (syllables), sometimes alternating 6-8 syllable verses, organized into stanzas of four lines or of multiple lines. Enjambments occur at the exact number in the syllable count, without deference to the grammar or to the meaning of a sentence. From the first to the last verse, it is the same throughout, sometimes punctuated, sometimes not.
– Strings sentences together as the author tells a story, one story overlapping the next, sometimes clear, sometimes unclear.
– Employs the vernacular, common and sometimes profane, of the average person using everyday language in normal daily activities. Lacks the classical usage of flowery words found in methaphors, metonymy, and parallel constructions, but employs repetition to create rhythm in a verse.
These poets appear to take pride in bringing normal, everyday life into poetry and in breathing poetry into life, thus reforming and even revolutionizing it. Tạp Chí Thơ wrote:
If we are unable to bring normal every day sayings into poetry, then how can we bring life into poetry? And thus, how are we able to share the joy and pain of every sector of society, so that poetry can become the voice of this new era?1
In some sense, they are right. Vietnamese New Formalism poetry is a type of modern folk poetry, not the kind of poetry that has become literature and selected for lectures in the schools under intellectual scrutiny, but the kind of poetry that permeates the common folk, reflecting their ordinary daily activities. For instance, these two sayings are from lullabies:
Saying A, similar to New Formalism poetry:
Hai tay cầm bốn tao nôi
Tao mô thẳng th́ thôi
Tao mô dùi th́ sửa lại cho cân.
Two hands gripping four ropes’cradle
Let them be, the ropes that are tight
Pull hard to fix the ones that aren’t.
Saying B, similar to classical poetry:
Hai tay cầm bốn tao nôi
Tao thẳng, tao dùi, tao nhớ, tao thương.
Two hands gripping four ropes’ cradle
One tight, one loose, one to remember, one to love.
Nôm poetry by Nguyễn Khuyến:
Năm nay cày cấy vẫn chân thua
Chiêm mất đằng chiêm, mùa mất mùa
Phần thuế quan thu, phần trả nợ
Nửa công đứa ở, nửa thuê ḅ
Sớm trưa dưa muối cho qua bữa
Chợ búa trầu chè chẳng dám mua.
This year farm work has truly failed
Season after season, loss of rice
Part goes to taxes, part goes to debts
Half pays a servant, half pays a cow’s rent
Breakfast and lunch of salty pickles
At the market, betel and tea we cannot dare to buy.
This is a poem written in the conforming classical Tang-style, very exact in its format. But if we look beyond the confines of its formalities, we will find it to be a most “New Formalism” poem, in the deepest sense: bringing ordinary language and life into poetry. If the late great Tam Nguyên was alive in this day and age of New Formalism, perhaps the prolific poets Đỗ Kh. and Nguyễn Đăng Thường would not be so bold, and Khế Iêm would not have to spend hundreds of pages to discuss “the butterfly effect.”2
In addition, I believe that the first poet of Vietnamese New Formalism was Nguyễn Văn Vĩnh, when he wrote the line ‘The ve cry ve-ve’ (ve = cicada) in 1914, very new formalism.
On the contrary, a common saying of common folk is: ‘Hear ye, hear ye / The sounds of gambling / Fluttering in the mornings... ’ again, a very classical verse, in the vein of traditional poetry.
Nguyễn Văn Vĩnh revealed that before he translated La Fontaine’s fable, The Cicada and the Ant, he had never written poetry, nor even tried his hand at it. The verse ‘The ve cry ve-ve’ perhaps came to him naturally, arising out of the original French, Nguyễn Văn Vĩnh did not intend to reform or mordernize literature at all. Yet indirectly, he had changed the paradigm between poetry and life and cut a new course in the literary psyche of the Vietnamese although, in reality, that particular verse did not have any significant affect upon our literature. It was the later poets who were conscious of the efforts to reform Vietnamese literature in more direct ways.
The use of enjambment techniques to accent a certain word or image, often encountered in Thơ Mới (New Poetry), is an approach adopted from French poetry. By the time of Bích Khê (1915-1946) enjambment had become a perfected technique, with its own aesthetic value, such as that found in the poem Duy Tân (1941):
Người họa điệu với thiên nhiên, ân ái
Buồn, và xanh trời. (Tôi trôi với bờ
Êm biếc – khóc với thu – lời úa ngô
Vàng & Khi cách biệt – giữa hồn xây mộ –
T́nh hôm qua – dài hôm nay thương nhớ...
Humans in harmony with nature, passionate, sad, and blue
As the heavens. (I float like the shorelines that are clear
Green – crying with the autumn – wilting words,
yellow maple Leaves & Once separated – a cemetery amidst
souls – Yesterday’s love – extending long into today’s memory...
In his foreword to The Poetry of Bích Khê (1988), Chế Lan Viên confesses Bích Khê’s influence in his own poetry; an example appears in the poem Tập Qua Hàng (Passing By the Lines):
Chỉ một ngày nữa thôi. Em sẽ
Trở về. Nắng sáng cũng mong. Cây
Cũng nhớ. Ngơ cũng chờ. Và bướm
Cũng thêm màu trên cánh đang bay 3
Just one more day. You will
Return. The morning sun longs for you. The
Trees also remember. The roads await.
And butterflies’ wings fly more colorfully
This poem is not quite New Formalism yet because it still has the rhyme cây – bay, but this rhyme does not have any function here. Minus the rhyme, by replacing the word cây with the word vườn, for instance, and re-ordering the verse, we can make:
Chỉ một ngày nữa thôi em sẽ
trở về nắng sáng cũng mong vườn
cũng nhớ ngơ cũng chờ và bướm
cũng thêm màu trên cánh đang bay
In this revised format, it would be a great addition to the Vietnamese Journal of Poetry (Tạp Chí Thơ) publication!
When we cite these examples, it is to show that oftentimes, it is unclear where the boundaries between schools and delineations between periods of modern and classical poetry really are. In that spirit, it could be said that Vietnamese New Formalism is a variation of folk poetry; and we agree whole heartedly with Khế Iêm when he wrote, “Looking back upon past eras, from the traditional to free-style, and to new formalism, poetry has always been a vital thread that is dynamic and ever changing, becoming the beat of each and every era”.4 As one of the original proponents of New Formalism, and perhaps its most devoted advocate, Khế Iêm wrote:
Each literary period bears its own unique aesthetic sensibility and historical values. Yet the paradox is there, the creative process is also the negation process. What we express about pre-war (traditional) poetry or free-style is just a deconstruction of ourselves because we had in the past composed poetry in the traditional and free-style form before switching to New Formalism.5
(Khế Iêm has published two collections of poetry Thanh Xuân, ‘Youth’ 1992, in rhymed verses and Dấu Quê ‘Vestiges of The Homeland’ 1996, in free-verse form.)
While in America, New Formalism only emerged as a new form of writing in the 1980s under the auspices of Neo-formalism. It was not until 1996 that 25 poets came together under the label of New Formalism and took center stage with their collection of poetry, Rebel Angels.6 But apparently New Formalism poetry had its origins in France, starting with the works of Jean Ristat, Từ Khúc Giục Mùa Xuân Rảo Bước (Ode pour hâter la venue du Printemps) published in a series in the magazine La Nouvelle Critique from 1977 to1978. A popular form of French poetry is the Alexandrin, twelve syllables in length as French is a polysyllabic language. With every twelve-syllable count, there is enjambment and a new line is started below, regardless of the grammar and word structures. Đỗ Kh. had translated this poem, also using the same enjambment technique, but with 6-8 syllable verses, since they appear more “traditional” (to Vietnamese): a new line is entered after every sixth or eighth word, and this can continue for a thousand lines.7 The excerpts of these translations were published sporadically in magazines such as Hợp Lưu, and Tạp Chí Thơ, issue 2 (1994), issue 18 (2000). The poet Nguyễn Đăng Thường, residing in London, who contributed to the translations, was inspired by the translated poems and wrote his own poem of thirty-one stanzas of five lines each, also using the enjambment format of New Formalism poetry, but in the seven-syllable style. That is the poem Những Nụ Hồng của Máu (Roses of Blood), critically acclaimed for its avant garde and original quality. This poem was published in the magazine Thế Kỷ 21, issue 27, July 1991, in California. Perhaps this is the first New Formalist poem, appearing about the same time as that of Đỗ Kh. whose translations recently were reprinted by Nguyễn Đăng Thường in an arts-and-craft format, by the Giọt Sương Hoa publishing house.
In a footnote to the translation, Đỗ Kh. carefully noted the political context of the poem, wherein the poet Jean Ristat had composed the poem with the ambition to “reform” the Communist Party of France ahead of its 22nd Convention in the year 1977. That explains the images of a “hurried spring” giục giă mùa xuân. He also notes that it is an Ode, thus, of course, it is also a love poem. Jean Ristat was the boyfriend of Aragon, his secretary and the heir to Aragon’s literary legacy. The poem has homosexual inuendos. Generally speaking, New Formalism poetry in Europe and America falls into a special cultural category alongside the Women’s Rights Movement, Homosexual Rights, Anti-War Movements and even the Vietnam Syndrome Movement.
Thus, when the Vietnamese poetry journal Tạp Chí Thơ proclaims:
New Formalism is the harmonious continuity between the past and the present, between traditional and free verse, between diverse cultures, and to a deeper degree, a conciliation of the conflicts that had long been ingrained in the subconscious, not only of any single race of people, but all of humanity for from centuries past. We have had the good fortune in the past quarter of a century to learn and absorb the best that world civilizations has to offer and to apply them through appropriate means of communication and languages, thereby enriching Vietnamese poetry. 8
It appears presumptious, yet it is an honest ambition. The authors are people who have deep understanding of literature and of their role in it. They are willing to sacrifice themselves (financially, in some instances) to promote the cause of poetry without any ulterior political or literary motives. Even a decade later, they are still quiety working in solitude and sometimes may be envied by people who have negative preconceptions and biases, without enjoying acclaim like the Dadaists in Europe at the turn of the last century, or the Xuân Thu Nhă Tập (Spring-Autumn Literary Movement) group in Việt Nam around the same period.
In the final estimate, life and poetry both have their destinies. Phan Khôi rose to fame with the poem T́nh Già (Old Love) published in 1932 in Phụ Nữ Tân Văn. Today, it would be difficult to find a magazine willing to print a poem like T́nh Già; and even if one did publish it, it would not receive the same acclaim. Should there be such a clamor, it would only further frustrate the author. A reincarnated Phan would probably just swear it off.
More recently, the poet Chân Phương, previously associated with the Tạp Chí Thơ poetry circle, wrote a critical essay about Vietnamese New Formalism poetry, regarding it as “an inappropriate copy, turning enjambment techniques into a mechanical trick devoid of any thinking.” 9 I believe the Vietnamese New Formalism poets do indeed “respect the rules and regulations,” at least subconsciously. Take for example, an analysis appearing in Tạp Chí Thơ issue 20, in the poem Giữa Những Ḍng Thơ (Between The Verses) written by Phan Tấn Hải; the hidden structure is a five-word verse. Khế Iêm’s Con Mèo Đen (The Black Cat) is a poem comprised of eight-word lines, Nguyễn Thị Thanh B́nh’s Mưa Muộn (A Late Rain) is a poem of seven-word lines. Some will ask: so why make enjambment at all? Answer: the enjambment technique is an essential component within the whole formality of Vietnamese New Formalism poetry. Sometimes it is intended to evoke emotions, such as in the poem Những Nụ Hồng của Máu (Roses of Blood) by Nguyễn Đăng Thường, referred to in an earlier paragraph, which contains these opening verses:
Ten thousand and one rainy nights before
When Christ was crucified on the cross
In the noontime violin that day appeared
A ray of sunshine meekly shining through
The arched door suddenly striking...
The beauty of these verses is, no matter how you read it, with or without enjambments, the poem would still be enjoyable. Thus, we could praise the author for his clever talent, or criticize him for his trickery, having his cake and eating it too. He explains himself:
The poem is lengthy because I wanted to create the impression with some people that it was a kind of Chanson du Mal Aimé, or Giây phút chạnh ḷng (Affected Moments) or Le condamné à Mort of a past era, a time of turmoil. Những Nụ Hồng của Máu (Roses of Blood) is a ballad full of ‘sound and fury’, a love poem, romantic, comic, sarcastic, realist, surrealist, of the highest calibre, of the lowest grade, perhaps not even poetry, (depending on the reader), a kind of pulp fiction, soap opera, film noir, reformed theatre, kabuki, TV, documentary film, a confused collage painting, or masterpiece (depending on the observer) with all the allusions of things past and present, east and west.10
(The poems that Nguyễn Đăng Thường alludes to are of Apollinaire, Thế Lữ and Genet).
Another beauty: Nguyễn Đăng Thường coincidentally defined New Formalism poetry in a dynamic yet also specific way, without being aware of it. In addition, New Formalism poetry does not entirely break with tradition, rather, it embraces diversity, chaos and all sorts of baggage from the past.
Aspiring to bring common language, common life into poetry. Unfortunately, how can one know which normal life it refers to?
In the same New Formalism vein, Mai Ninh composed a poem while on a cruise ship touring the Nil River; Trọng Tuyến writes poetry while attending a science convention in Japan; Thanh B́nh writes while riding a back wind in springtime on her way to Đinh Cường’s house on a prairie; and Đinh Cường writes poems while painting in Virginia; Đỗ Minh Tuấn writes poetry while repairing plumbing in Hà Nội; and Đỗ Kh. writes poetry while having fun with making love somewhere around the world and sighs not so much ecstasy. So what is the common life? What is common language?
Thus, Vietnamese New Formalism poetry plods along. In traditional-classical poetry, from Nguyễn Trăi to Xuân Diệu, five hundred years apart, the poetic verse did not undergo much change. Between Lưu Hy Lạc and Phan Nhiên Hạo, only a few afternoons apart, a few streets, and yet their poems are so definintely different!
That is nothing compared to the distances in mountains and rivers, walls and fences, firewalls and bamboo gates. Poetry, intitially, is a playful verse of a song, later taking on speech, and ideations from the greater society, the advantages and power of authority and government. The friends of Tạp Chí Thơ are led by Khế Iêm, who holds only a candle in his hand. For the past decade, he has sought “the butterfly effect”11 with the light of his candle. Khế Iêm understands the difficulties of New Formalism poetry of the greatest concern is the lack of young readers. The overseas Vietnamese diaspora generally does not read Vietnamese. While in Vietnam, few have even heard of New Formalism poetry, not because it lacks literary value, but because its distribution and diffusion is limited by a regulated press that is subject to government control.
As in literature and the arts, a society advances when its politics is a product of culture. Society becomes backward and unable to grow when culture becomes a tool of politics. The future of poetry, including that of New Formalism, lies in the borderlands between these polarities.
From the times of the Book of Poetry of Confucius, to the Poetics of Aristotle, to the modern day, more than two thousand years have transpired; the story of Poetry has been told and retold ad nausium. But these two verses still rings delightfully:
“Fukkit, let’s split this grenade between us. Me, no tough shit. One needs a piece of one’s heart involved in Poetry.”
These lines belong to no one but Đỗ Kh., I just don’t remember which piece he puts them in. Can’t find him anywhere to ask. So, heh Khiêm, you write these lines in which poems?
New Year of the Dog
1. Tạp chí Thơ, issue 20, page 73, 2001, California
2. Khế Iêm, New Formalism, pages 35-74, Văn Mới publishing house, 2003, California. Theory of New Formalism Poetry, 180 pages.
3. Chế Lan Viên, Anthology, page 282, Văn Học Publishing House, 1983, extract from Hái Theo Mùa, 1973-1977
4. Khế Iêm, New Formalism, page 19, Văn Mới publishing house, 2003, California.
5. Khế Iêm, Tạp Chí Thơ, page 114, issue 21, 2001, California.
6. Editors Mark Jarman and David Mason, Rebel Angels, Story Line Press, 1996, Oregon, reprinted 1998.
8. Jean Ristat, Ode pour hâter la venue du Printemps, Gallimard, 1978, translated by Đỗ Kh., Đoản Khúc Để Mùa Xuân Đến Vội, Giọt Sương Hoa, 2001, London. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org, giá 5 Euros.
9. Tạp Chí Thơ, page 75, issue 20, 2001.
10. Chân Phương, Tạp Chí Văn Học, page 74, issue 226, July-August, 2005, California.
11. Nguyễn Đăng Thựng, Tạp Chí Thơ, page 124, issue 18, 2000.
12. Extract from Chaos Theory.
13. As of date, I know of three Vietnamese New Formalism poetry collections that have been published:
In Vietnam: Đoàn Minh Hải, Đại Nguyện của Đá, 2002.
In America: Lưu Hy Lạc, 26 Bài Thơ Tân H́nh Thức, Giọt Sưong Hoa, 2002; Hà Nguyên Du, Gene Đại Dương, nxb Tạp Chí Thơ, 2003.
The Writers Post
founded 1999, based in the US.
Editorial note: Works published in this issue are simultaneously published in the printed Wordbridge magazine (ISSN: 1540-1723).
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