The Writers Post - Volume 9 Double Issue Jan 2007 Jul 2007 - Khe Iem





(ISSN: 1527-5467)
the magazine of Literature & Literature-in-translation.


JAN 2007

JUL 2007












Vietnamese love poetry

from traditional pre-war period to new formalism


translated by Do Vinh


KHE IEM, Vietnamese playwright, storywriter, poet, editor. “Hot Huyet”, his debut literary work, a play, appeared in South Vietnam in 1972. Thirteen years after the Communist conquest of South Vietnam in 1975, he escaped Vietnam by boat in 1988, spending a year in a refugee camp in Malaysia before coming to the United States in 1989, where he settled in California. In 1994, he founded Tap Chi Tho, a very successful poetry magazine which is under his editorship until 2004 (Poetry Magazine, US: Premier Issue launched in Fall 1994). He also published his other books: “Thanh Xuan” (poetry. US, California: Van, 1992), “Loi cua qua khu” (story collection. US, California: Van Moi, 1996), “Dau Que (poetry collection. US, California: Van Moi, 1996), “Tan Hinh Thuc, Tu Khuc va nhung tieu luan khac” (literary essay. US, California: Van Moi, 2003.


The Vietnamese people are a poetic people, with tendencies toward writing emotional poems, especially love poems.  Before the era of the New Poetry (Thơ Mới, 1930s-1945s),  Vietnamese poetry did not have love poems because of the dominating influences of Confucianism and the feudal systems.  Only after the New Poetry era, influenced by the French Romantic movements, did Vietnamese poetry return to its primary character.  All of the famous poets wrote love poems, from Xuân Diệu, Huy Cận (Reminisces -- Ngậm Ngùi), Bích Khê (Nude Portraits -- Tranh Lơa Thể), Hàn Mạc Tử (Love of Homeland -- T́nh Quê), to Đinh Hùng (Tự T́nh Dưới Hoa), Vũ Hoàng Chương (The Twelfth of June -- Mười Hai Tháng Sáu), to Nguyên Sa (The Silk Dress of Hà Đông -- Áo Lụa Hà Đông), as well as many other poets whose poems are easily found at websites featuring Vietnamese literature.

Almost everyone has committed to memory some lines or some poems of the above-named poets. Rhyme-schemes had been an ideal vehicle to convey emotions, so much so that readers assumed only rhyming-verse poems could be successful love poetry.  The themes of the poems centered on love and were gentle in their rhythms, easy to remember and to recite, and required little thought.  But how is it that the love poems that appeared in the 1930s-1945s became so popular?  The majority of the readers and writers of the Traditional Pre-War (New Poetry -- Thơ Mới) were youths in their twenties, thus, love was a great passion and inspiration for them.  Around the same time, the National Script (Chữ Quốc Ngữ) had just begun to come into use, and society was emerging from the austerities of the feudal systems period.  There was a strong inclination toward adopting Western ideas.  Furthermore, there was peace, albeit under French colonial rule.  In part, anti-French rebellions had failed, while revolutionary intellectuals were espousing education programs to raise the public’s level of sophistication.  The young poets of this period were French-educated and accepted the ideals of Romanticism (Lăng mạn) and Symbolism (Tượng trưng).  Therefore, love poetry had a unique opportunity to flower.

But peace only lasted a little more than a decade before war broke out.  The entire country was engulfed in flames, and poetry took on a more distressed tone, romantic and tragic at the same time.  Examples of this poetry are Quang Dũng’s Advance of The West (Tây Tiến), and The Two Shores (Đôi Bờ).  The love poems of the Traditional Pre-War era were melancholy and trite, and no longer suited the changing times.  The legacy of World War II, of various political movements, of war and the struggle for independence preoccupied all segments of society.  Once the war ended, the country was partitioned. North Vietnam was cut off from the rest of the West, while South Vietnam came under the influence of the Free World.  The young poets in the South, thirsting for new knowledge, with a renewed peace, readily absorbed the post-war trends of Western thought such as Surrealism and Existentialism and began to work on a new course of free style poetry.  They were more concerned with language and the nature of poetry itself than with the subject of the poems, even while tumultuous events encircled them.

Realistically, free style poetry is not an ideal vehicle to carry love poetry.  We know that the very first free style love poem, Old Love (T́nh Già) by Phan Khôi, was a failure, while a successful love poem by Hữu Loan, The Purple of Sim Blossoms (Màu Tím Hoa Sim), in fact, preserved the rhythms and rhyme-schemes of Traditional Pre-War poetry.  It became popular as a song when the poem was set to music.  The very nature of free style poetry is to reject the rhyme-schemes of Traditional Pre-War poetry, similar to the way that the West’s free verse poetry rebelled against traditional western forms.  When poetry in the West rejected traditional forms of poetry, it was an artistic search to redefine poetry at its very core.  The meaning in analysis supplanted the importance of rhythm and rhymes.  The reader became actively involved with the poems and interpreted the poems in their own particular ways.  Multi-level meaning and interpretation occurred with each reading, not necessarily following the word meanings.  Finding a way to attain fulfillment of the new out of the old is indeed a respectable accomplishment of modern poetry.  This success rests in part on the logical foundation of Western civilizations.  In all their endeavors, a scientific need to understand is fundamental.  Analytical reasoning had become deeply ingrained in the Western psyche.  It has become second nature and part of culture.  For nearly a century, free verse poetry enjoyed the dynamic variations of many diverse schools.  Dadaism and Surrealism, based on the incidental and coincidental, explored new imageries and new ideas, creating a strange sense with the readers.  In both poetry and visual arts, these trends developed concurrently with the drive to make new art the primary vehicle of expression in the modern world.

And with each school crashing onto the scene, rebelling against tradition and form, in the classical sense, the artists became obsessed with finding their own style, their own imagery, their own word usage to create new thoughts and feelings. Cubism (Lập th), Abstractionism (Trừu tượng), and Pop Art or Conceptual Art in the visual (plastic) arts are examples.  The craft is not found in the talent of the artist, except in the unique brush strokes, color composition and strange new concepts.  As for poetry, although more analytical in its search for meaning and in its use of words to create strangeness, in the final account, its zenith is no higher than that reached in the visual arts. That is, they both express the meaninglessness of life.  And the art absorbs life, expressing itself, the meaninglessness. It is surprising that modern artists have converged on quite the same path to artistic expression.

Yet, no matter how awesome that is, change is inevitable.  It is not that modern art is more advanced or more valuable than any art preceding it.  It is only more appropriate to its own age.  Western free verse poetry, with nearly a century of rebellion, testifies to one thing: that each era has its own value and is relative, not universal or superior.  Art and literature are products of human activity, no different from life, ever-changing with time. 

Then came post-modernism at the later half of the century; considered an excessive outgrowth of the modern era, it was washed away by the technologies of the information age that arose in the 1980s -- from architecture, to visual/plastic art, to poetry, all self-destructing.  Without any struggle, traditional poetry remained dormant for nearly a century, only to make a comeback to greater heights, metamorphosing into new traditions.  Life itself, by its nature, is meaningless.  Yet in order to survive, humans must seek to give it meaning.  Each generation is given a blank sheet of paper and starts anew to mark its own existence, not to affirm or negate any other sheet of paper that preceded it.  Meaninglessness is actually meaning written on the blank pages of the present.

While in Vietnam, after World War II, the readers became bored with traditional Pre-War love poetry.  Yet with a national script literature still in its infancy and lacking the thousands-of-years-accrued Western foundation of systemized learning, Vietnamese poetry could only utilize the concept of strangeness, combined with rhetoric, to create a uniquely Vietnamese free style poetry.  Under the influence of Surrealism (Siêu thực) the best aspects of Pre-War poetry, musical melodies and poetic creativity, were replaced with the written word.  Once rhyme and rhetoric merged, the written word became no different than the concept of the painter Piet Mondrian (1872-1944) at the turn of the 20th century.  Abstract art expressed itself through the relationship between brush strokes and color combinations.  Brush strokes and color schemes liberated the contents of the composition, not necessarily reflecting reality or life but more expressive of the effervescent nature of reality and modern-day life.  Words closed and opened upon a world full of imagery and fantasy, creating strange new feelings and transporting the reader to alternative realities.  Similar to abstract art, poetry eluded interpretation and was a product in and of itself.  The rebellious nature of peacetime literature (1957-1960) was soon overthrown by the brutality and suffering of wartime (1960-1975).  The young readers and writers of the South in the 1960s  returned to rhymed forms, but replaced the Pre-War love themes with spirituality (zen, for instance), in hope of escaping from turbulent times.

Rhythm and rhyme returned, but love poetry was nowhere to be found, except in the works of a select few such as Nguyên Sa and Phạm Thiên Thư, who made great effort to breathe new language and new emotions into poetry.  Yet they were unable to break free of the traditional Pre-War framework because their language was still limited by considerations of rhythm and rhyme, caught up in rhetoric.  Perhaps because society still depended heavily on agriculture, the cultural psychology followed.  There was no fundamental need for changes in expression.  After April 30th, 1975, the country experienced a regime change and closed itself up to the rest of the world.  Poetry became inactive up until the era of Openness, which started in the 1990s.  By then, the young poets from within the country had revived the defunct art of free style poetry, dominant in the 1960s in the South.  Archaic and esoteric words were replaced by the vernacular and the profane, with the intent of shocking the reader.  Yet Vietnamese poetry, as well as other plastic arts, remained stagnant because of its use of the old methods from the western modern period.

Love poetry could only return with appropriate forms.  The talent and creativity of the poets had become regressive and in dire need of a renaissance.  Whereas rhymed-verse poetry conveyed emotions and free-verse conveyed ideas, new formalism balances both tendencies and harmonizes both thoughts and feelings.    Because each age needs its own vehicle and new contents require new forms, Vietnamese love poetry, after undergoing many changes, has finally matured to the point of giving birth to its own new art form.  Still, there are barriers to overcome as the readers have become accustomed to reading traditional verse and free style poems.  Poetry cannot be forced, it must flow naturally.  No one can impose change on another without the other realizing it..  Regardless, we would like to introduce a few New Formalism poems, love-themed and otherwise, for the readers’ enjoyment.


Dă Thảo




I still go by here every day,

buildings tall and old as always,

the balcony a light color

and low where you used to place

your hands talking to the absent-

minded friends while watching me walk

by every morning. But now

you are no longer standing there

in the sun to greet me with smiles

sometimes bright; if I look back at

you by the low balcony,

sometimes I see only a wink

behind my footsteps that passes

by and disappears into your

dark glasses, that would not return

until lunch when we are in the

cafeteria in the fleeting

moments of noon hurried with everyday

things, we speak of the crackbrained and

bragging boss, lay-offs past, now and

coming soon; stories about being

in jail, about world terror, mostly

about broken things (although we

do not miss them we still think of

them), stories about you and a

young girl who speaks the same language

but is not of the same skin

color, about me and a young

boy who is not the same skin

color and speaks the same language

but never stories about us

alone. I go by everyday

buildings, tall as always; the talker

by the balcony is no longer,

the greeting in the sun no longer,

the morning smiles no longer,

eyes quietly warming; you have

left me before I could tell you

about my refugee roots, my first

generation immigration

and the minority community

Chinese, Vietnamese, Spanish,

Cambodians, Indonesians,

Cubans, and Malaysians; and all

you know is that I am a citizen

of a mixed race nation I love

to work I am lazy at playing

I like brad pitt I am not

addicted to soccer I am

not obsessed with football I

like jazz I love hiphop I

am a different skin color, speak

a different language, am with

the same company. Now that

you are gone, I miss you much!!!

(but I do not say as much because it

does not count for anything anyway.)


Quốc Sinh




Phở at Đề Thám junction is the best and

a bean ice-cream at Cung Ứng is the best.

Isn’t it so? When we are together         

no matter if it’s sweet or bitter, it’s best.


Afternoon on the stone benches of a park,

we invite each other to sit. Đá Chồng’s

waves wake up in the middle of the night.

The fruits and the flowers of Đầm Market


are sweet with honey. I look to the north

and see Bà Nằm Mountain in the horizon,

letting her hair down (all her life) I look

south and see Cầu Đá Palace amidst trees.


Why is H sick and silent like Bà Nằm

Mountain, all her life letting her hair down?

Why is H sick for this room to be sad

like the Palace fading amidst forests?


Let me run up to Long Sơn Temple and

ring bells for a while. I will light ten-thousand

incense sticks and pray for color to return

to your face. I remember when your laughter


was like the waves crashing onto a

beach. I remember when your outstretched arms

were as long as the seagulls’ wings flapping

in the open skies. And I took you out


to go stand by Bóng Bridge where we walked beneath

the Tháp Bà Tower, to wander on golden

beaches under moonlight, the passions before

we parted.


A wanderlust time in Nha Trang.      



Trà Đóa




Right, life is so good already,

why keep complaining only

to add to our misery?

Before we didn’t have enough


to eat. Now... right, it’s so good

already. So good already,

my brother. My family

will drink beers out of cans this


new year. Right, so very good

already, I am able to buy

an American-made bra, a

name-brand. Right, it’s indescribably


good. So good my mother couldn’t

believe it. She keeps wondering,

staring at sausages and the new

coat I just bought. The poor old


lady... it’s really so good

already. Very good sir,

better than all things I’ve ever

dreamt of, so good already,


really, really, good, good, sir,

unexpectedly so...



Nguyễn Phan Thịnh




I dream of meeting myself across a river,

crossing a spring, sometimes going uphill

sometimes going downhill but never sitting.

I dream of meeting myself in my dream


asking myself where I am going, looking

for whom, to do what. I befriend myself

and the both of us go down a hill, across

a river, up a mountain, the two of


us crossing a spring, going forward, up

a mountain, down a mountain, not seeing

anyone. I ask myself in my dream

where is our home, where was our home town?

We keep going from dusk to dawn without

beginning or ending, without hope or despair.

Just me and myself, the two of us alone

with each other. I dream of meeting myself


in my dream. Not one chance to sit down, but

certainly on the other side of this

dream, we will both lie down in the same grave.




Xích Long




Eyes sharp as swords slanted arrogantly

as if mocking a world lacking in the

adventurism of the ancients.

If the eyes are the windows of the soul


then, those eyes are like two doors facing

an ocean, shimmering with sadness.

The sadness heavy on the eyelashes.

Furious while the eyes stare even harder?


Sharp eyes, like two very precise lines

cutting through a foolish love like the love

between An Lộc Sơn and Dương Quí Phi,

pointing to a flag, fearless in the face


of death, marching toward Trường An

to lay claim to a beauty! Oh!

Those eyes shoving us into the past,

reminiscent of half-Chinese eyes,


innocently gazing back to a time.

When a lover would come to tear apart

Heaven and Earth like the eyes of Bruce Lee?


    The poems are taken from the Anthology of Vietnamese New Formalism Poetry.  (Thơ Không Vần, Tuyển Tập Tân H́nh Thức).


                                               KHE IEM



The Writers Post
the magazine of literature

& literature-in-translation,

founded 1999, based in the US.




Editorial note: Works published in this issue are simultaneously published in the printed Wordbridge magazine (ISSN: 1540-1723).


Translation copyright © Khe Iem & The Writers Post.

Copyright for the original © by the individuals involved.

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