THE WRITERS POST
VOLUME 9 DOUBLE ISSUE
Vietnamese love poetry
from traditional pre-war period to new formalism
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 thể), 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.
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
and the minority community
Chinese, Vietnamese, Spanish,
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.)
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
A wanderlust time in Nha Trang.
LIFE IS SO GOOD ALREADY!
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,
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.
THE EYES OF BRUCE LEE
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).
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).
Translation copyright © Khe Iem & The Writers Post.
Copyright for the original © by the individuals involved.
Nothing in this magazine may be downloaded, distributed, or reproduced without the permission of the author/ translator/ artist/ The Writers Post/ and Wordbridge magazine. Creating links to place The Writers Post or any of its pages within other framesets or in other documents is copyright violation, and is not permitted.