Category Archives: Poets

The Poetry of Vietnam

Seeing the Ken Burns Vietnam War documentary film recently, I wondered afterwards about the poetic voice of the Vietnamese people.  It turns out a nearby library has an anthology created in 1975 entitled A Thousand Years of Vietnamese Poetry (edited by Nguyen Ngoc Bich).  I learned from this book that while the Vietnamese were influenced by Chinese culture, they were able to retain their own distinct culture.  Drawing often from Chinese allusions, plots and poetic forms, the Vietnamese poets were fully aware that their audience was Vietnamese and that their poetry must serve that audience.

To understand the poetry of Vietnam, and what is perhaps complicated from the standpoint of Western culture, is that historically Vietnamese poetry actually has a three language tradition.  The first written language was a version of Chinese called “Sino-Vietnamese,” and it was called this as it was the Chinese language read in a Vietnamese way.  This “Sino-Vietnamese” language was the primary means of literary expression until the end of the 13th century.

As Vietnamese poetry began to compete with Chinese literature and flourish, the Chinese called Vietnam Van Hien Chi Bang, the “Cultured State” in acknowledgement of their literary achievements.  When the language “Sino-Vietnamese, the country’s version of Chinese, slowly faded, a new language for poetry eventually evolved known as “chu nom.”  Sanctioned by the government of Vietnam in the 15th century as the country’s chief language, chu nom remained until the 20th century the principal language of Vietnamese poetry.

When Portuguese trade ships started arriving in Vietnam carrying Jesuit missionaries from France and elsewhere beginning as early as the 17th century, the Europeans began transcribing Vietnamese into a Romanized script/lettering.  Eventually, this Romanized alphabet in the 20th century, with the encouragement of the French, replaced chu nom.  This Romanized script, known as “quoc ngu,” then became the universal language or “National language” in Vietnam. Both chu nom and quoc ngu are actually systems for transcribing the same language – vernacular Vietnamese.

The following poems range from as early as the 12th century up to and including the 20th century.  In many instances these poems are translated by two scholar/translators, Nguyen Ngoc Bich and Burton Raffel.  Also, while most of these poems included here were written by men, some of them, where known as indicated, were written by women Vietnamese poets.

A NAP 
    by Khong Lo (died 1119)

Huge sky, great green mountains,
Small village of mulberries and smoke.
No one comes,
The ferryman sleeps –-
And wakes, at noon,
In a boatload of snow.

A WIFE’S LAMENT 

by Tran Nhan-tong (1258-1308)

She wakes, rolls up screens, watches flowers fall.
The oriole is silent, hating winter wind.
Beyond the western pavilion the sun slides down
And flowers lean toward the east.

SUMMER
by Tran Thanh-tong (1240-1290)

Shadows linger, even in the dim halls.
How cool at the north window: a scent of lotus.
The rain stops; green vegetables like a screen;
And three, five cicadas sing to disturb the evening sun.

THE STONE DOG 
     by Le Thanh-tong (1442-1497)

With a heavy paw he guards the frontier,
Squatting alone in the middle of the pass,
Paying no heed to the snow or frost,
Never asking for good food or payment.
Staring straight at the visitors’ faces,
He is above listening to their gossiping tongues.
With one mind he serves his lord.
A thousand-weight strong, he cannot be swayed.

THE TEMPLE OF FRAGRANCE
    by Ho Xuan Huong (a Vietnamese woman poet, late 18th century)

Who could have fashioned this marvel?
The mountain cracks into a wide, hollow cave.
Pious Buddhists struggle to set foot inside,
others gaze at it tirelessly.
Drippings form a sweet streamlet,
as sailors on incoming junks bend their heads.
City folk also flock to these springs and woods.
Clever, indeed, the Old Man in Heaven!

CROSSING THE NGANG PASS 
    by The Lady of Thanh Quan (a Vietnamese woman poet, mid 19th century)

The sun sets just as I reach the Ngang Pass,
Where plants jostle with rocks, flowers with leaves.
Below the hill, woodcutters bend under their loads,
Scattered market stalls dot the river bank.
The moorhen calls: Remember, remember your land!
The partridge cries: Only the sky, hills and streams.
And myself?  Communing, talking with myself!

ETERNAL STRUGGLE
    by Tru Vu (born circa 1940)

Light stretches out its hand filled with light
to smash into the face of darkness.
Darkness loses a slice of its body
equivalent to the hand of light.

Darkness stretches out its hand filled with darkness
to smash into the face of light.
Light acquires a portion
equivalent to the hand of darkness.

Between these, man progresses, transfixed.

OUR SON’S PROFESSION
     by Ha Thi Thao (born circa 1940)

you ask what our son’s profession should be
I say teach him to paint
so he can sketch maps of Vietnam
where the hate we’re creating will be blotted out
teach him to cut the barbed wire
that pierces the festering waist of our land
teach him medicine
so he can heal the clotted wounds of the past
last teach him the land’s language
of acid fields and saline waters
then you can burn all the rest of the books
I’ll spread my thin arms to hide the fire
as for the ashes just sweep them aside
with the years of bleeding and weeping
let our son remake this land
let him complete the circle
whose diameter now is the river of shame
you and I will stand north and south
and watch over our young boy as he sleeps.

TWENTY YEARS
     by Do Tan (born circa 1940)

The girl grew up to become a woman
the boy grew up to become a man
man met woman in the forbidden wood
their child was the gift of spring.

The spring child joined the revolution
the revolution was a ravening cannibal
man’s portion was exile, prison, bullets,
with sun, roses, and a blood-reeking flag.

The woman weeps for the girl that was
the man weeps for the boy that was
their child sleeps the eternal sleep in the earth
the spring hangs its head and sighs.

AThousandYearsofVietnamesePoetryBk                             VietnameseFolkPoetryBk

 

 

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Paterson, Poetry & William Carlos Williams

Directed by filmmaker Jim Jarmusch and featuring actors Adam Driver and Golshifteh Farahani, “Paterson” is a quiet lyrical movie about day-to-day life and work and poetry and art.  There is in the film, between the characters, some discussion concerning the New Jersey poet, William Carlos Williams, who wrote the poem entitled “Paterson.”  This poem “Paterson” was initially published as an 85 line poem in 1927, and Williams later expanded it into a five volume work.

“Poet, artist, and practicing physician of Rutherford, New Jersey, William Carlos Williams wrote poetry that was experimental in form, ranging from imagism to objectivism, with great originality of idiom and human vitality. Credited with changing and directing American poetry toward a new metric and language, he also wrote a large number of short stories and novels. Paterson (1946–58), about the New Jersey city of that name, was his epic and places him with Ezra Pound (his friend) of the Cantos as one of the great shapers of the long poem in this century.”

(from “About the Author,” two Google “Books” webpages – years cited as 1969 and 2004)

The Hunter

In the flashes and black shadows
of July
the days, locked in each other’s arms,
seem still
so that squirrels and colored birds
go about at ease over
the branches and through the air.

Where will a shoulder split or
a forehead open and victory be?

Nowhere.
Both sides grow older.

And you may be sure
not one leaf will lift itself
from the ground
and become fast to a twig again.

–William Carlos Williams (1883-1963) from Collected Earlier Poems, pub. 1938

SourGrapesWCW        TheEarlierCollectedPoems           Paterson

The Great Figure

Among the rain
and lights
I saw the figure 5
in gold
on a red
firetruck
moving
tense
unheeded
to gong clangs
siren howls
and wheels rumbling
through the dark city.

–William Carlos Williams (1883-1963) from Sour Grapes: A Book of Poems, pub. 1921

428px-Charles_Demuth_-_Figure_5.png    “I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold,” painting by Charles Demuth, 1928
(owned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC)

 

 

 

Robert Creeley — a poet

RobertCreeleyPoetApril2017

On this, the day after the final day of National Poetry Month (April 2017), a poet who wore more than one hat (in that he was affiliated with more than one group of American poets in the 20th century) is Robert Creeley (1926 – 2005).  He was considered among the Beat poets in the 1960s to be a contemporary, and prior to this, when he was a teacher at Black Mountain College when it existed in the 1950s in North Carolina, he was regarded as one of the “Black Mountain Poets.”  Later in the 1980s, and until his death in 2005, Creeley forged his own way, breaking away from the solely spare style he’d been known for, while still creating a distinctive style.  He is also considered influential in shifting poetry from depending on history and tradition as being sources of poetic inspiration and giving instead the ongoing experiences of a person’s life more significance.

I was introduced to Robert Creeley by a friend who gave me a miniature book about him entitled “Robert Creeley Autobiography.”  It turns out this small book is a reprint of Creely’s autobiography that appears in the resource “Contemporary Authors, Autobiography Series,” Volume 10 published in 1989.

I would like to read more of this poet – he is considered fairly prolific and also wrote prose and essays as well.

OLD STORY

Like kid on float
of ice block sinking
in pond the field had made
from winter’s melting snow

so wisdom accumulated
to disintegrate 
in conduits of brain
in neural circuits faded

while gloomy muscles shrank
mind padded the paths
its thought had wrought
its habits had created

till like kid afloat
on ice block broken
on or inside the thing it stood
or was forsaken.

–Robert Creeley, 1994

Mary Norbert Korte, a woman poet

 dance in a loving ring
(for Hilary Ayer Fowler)

Stop
and pattern becomes
feet like drops of
purposive water
their plash deliberate tone
to accompany their each
measure

Stop
and edge becomes
sharply rounded leading
what is the after of our
going before
not bound to arms but
mastered

Stop
and song becomes
sings itself through figure
of arms and feet
so lastly we know
with delight overtaking caught
movement

the dance of realised pattern
on the live edge
of fitting song.

–Sister Mary Norbert Korte, 1965  (this poem appears in the anthology 31 New American Poets, pub. 1968)

Eddie Mae the Cook
Dreamed Sister Mary Ran
Off with Allen Ginsberg

The halls long dark hard
enough to have survived
the ’06 Quake where survival
was measured by the sound of
Mother Superior’s Rosary Beads
she dreamed
the cooks dreamed the other nuns
dreamed impossible dreams of silver
visions pelagic noises in the
groaning night
Dreaming was a mission she could not
renounce night as a place to see
all freedoms looming ahead
like a sweet dragon like
a cross with its circling tail

She ran away in everybody’s dreams
calling out like a booming flame
running running into the lines
of bards & lions lovers & birds
running with her arms out wide
into the bright flapping dark

(A true story about a dream really dreamed by the cook at the
St. Rose Convent after Sister Mary Norbert Korte attended the
Berkeley Poetry Conference)

–Mary Norbert Korte, 1988

MaryNorbertKorteYoungWoman                                                     MaryNKorte.jpg
Born in 1934 in the San Francisco Bay area, Mary Norbert Korte was from a strong Catholic
family.  This devout upbringing led Korte to enter the convent after graduating high school
in 1952.  As a nun she furthered her education, earning a Master’s degree in the specialized
field of Silver Latin.

In 1965, Korte awakened to another calling when she attended the Berkeley Poetry
Conference and heard readings by poets Robert Creely, Jack Spice, Charles Olson, Robert
Duncan, Gary Snyder and Allen Ginsburg.  She discovered she felt as at home among the
Beat writers as she did in the convent.  Within a few short years Korte left the convent as
her passion for writing and political activism grew.

Korte was one of the original Poet/Teachers for the California Poets in the Schools
program.  Twenty years ago, in the mid 1990s, she stopped teaching in the Schools
program and shifted her energies into environmental concerns by becoming the
Environmental Director for Coyote Valley Tribe in northern California.  To support herself
Korte began teaching at a California Indian reservation.

Regarded as one of the few women of the Beat Generation, Korte’s publications include Beginning of Lines (1968), Hymn To the Gentle Sun (1967), and Mammals of Delight (1978.)  Among the anthologies that include Korte’s poems are Remember Our Fire:
Poetry by Women
 (1969), 31 New American Poets (1968) and Poems Read in the Spirit of Peace & Gladness (1966).  Today she lives quietly and writes extensively in the Redwood Forest in Mendocino County.

HymntotheGentleSunPoetry                 31NewAmericanPoets                      ThrowingFirecracksOuttheWindowWhenMyExHusbandDrivesByMNK

 

Mary Norbert Korte’s biographical information is taken from the following web page:
http://rbscp.lib.rochester.edu/4729

 

 

 

A snowy night…

Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

— Robert Frost (American poet, 1874-1963)   Published in the collection New Hampshire (1923).  This volume of Frost’s poems is a Pulitzer-prize winning collection.

snowynightquartermoon                         220px-newhampshire

Earth, Earth, Earth Day ~ April 22, 2016

Living_on_the_Earth

Morning Song

Day breaks open artlessly

across a field of switchgrass tossing

wild and easy in the windswell.

The weedy fastness gives way to a widening

brim of eastlight blazing the mist.

Spring is the dangerous season, awakening

this bee-crazed meadow to overgrowing—

and in me awe, and ache, avid to begin

like birds and the earth all over.

— Don Colburn, poet and journalist

 

For more about Don Colburn go to: http://doncolburn.net/

 

 

William Stafford

 WilliamStaffordPhotoWilliamStaffordPoet&Bks

Poet William Stafford (1914-1993) was born and raised in the American Midwest (Kansas) and in his adult life lived in the American West (Oregon).  Reflecting an awareness of where he lived, his first book of poetry is entitled West of Your City (1960). Stafford’s mode of language is considered, for the most part, straightforward and his poems readable.

It was only recently that I was introduced to Stafford and his work.  To critics and those knowledgeable about literary culture, he has the distinction of being one of the more widely known poets in the U.S., having had his poems appear over the years in popular magazines (Reader’s Digest, for example).  While Stafford often focuses on nature and this is why it is believed his poems are considered accessible, his imagination and mystical views also give his work a deeper context.

 Climbing Along the River

Willows never forget how it feels
to be young.

Do you remember where you came from?
Gravel remembers.

Even the upper end of the river
Believes in the ocean.

Exactly at midnight
Yesterday signs away.

What I believe is,
All animals have one soul.

Over the land they love
They crisscross forever.

— William Stafford (from The Way It Is: New and Selected Poems, 1998)

Simple Talk

Spilling themselves in the sun bluebirds

wing-mention their names all day.  If everything

told so clear a life, maybe the sky would

come, maybe heaven; maybe appearance and

truth would be the same.  Maybe whatever seems

to be so, we should speak so from our souls,

never afraid, “Light” when it comes,

“Dark” when it goes away.

–William Stafford (An Oregon Message, 1987)

WilliamStaffordQuote

 

 

“CHORUS”

“Chorus” from the Seamus Heaney play “The Cure at Troy:”

Human beings suffer,
They torture one another,
They get hurt and get hard.
No poem or play or song
Can fully right a wrong
Inflicted and endured.

The innocent in gaols
Beat on their bars together.
A hunger-striker’s father
Stands in the graveyard dumb.
The police widow in veils
Faints at the funeral home.

History says, don’t hope
On this side of the grave.
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up,
And hope and history rhyme.

So hope for a great sea-change
On the far side of revenge.
Believe that further shore
Is reachable from here.
Believe in miracle
And cures and healing wells.

Call miracle self-healing:
The utter, self-revealing
Double-take of feeling.
If there’s fire on the mountain
Or lightning and storm
And a god speaks from the sky

That means someone is hearing
The outcry and the birth-cry
Of new life at its term.

This often quoted excerpt from a 1991 play by this Irish poet sounded to me vaguely familiar when I stumbled upon it recently. The play “The Cure at Troy” is Heaney’s retelling of Sophocles’ Philoctetes, the story of how Odysseus tricked Achilles’ son into joining the Greek forces at Troy towards the end of the Trojan War. A native of northern Ireland, poet Heaney (1939 – 2013) is said to have written “The Cure at Troy” as a parallel to the struggles that Northern Ireland has faced for self-determination.

Cynthia in the Snow

It SHUSHES
It hushes
The loudness in the road.
It flitter-twitters,
And laughs away from me.
It laughs a lovely whiteness,
And whitely whirls away,
To be
Some otherwhere,
Still white as milk or shirts,
So beautiful it hurts.

by Gwendolyn Brooks.

From Bronzeville Boys and Girls by Gwendolyn Brooks, 1956. Brooks (1917-2000) is a 20th century African American poet.

The children’s literature magazine, Cricket, featured in January 2015 this poem
complete with a wintery illustration.

Walt Whitman at Bear Mountain

Contained within a book of poetry “The Poet’s Choice” (published 1962) that I recently bought at a used book sale, is a poem by Jamaican poet, Louis Simpson (1923 – 2012) entitled “Walt Whitman at Bear Mountain.”  Mr. Simpson came to the U.S. when he was 17 to attend college and remained here, eventually teaching at University of California, Berkeley and SUNY at Stony Brook.   He was very interested in understanding America, his adopted country, and his poems at times reflect an investigation into the myths that he believed this country tells itself.

Walt Whitman at Bear Mountain 

. . . life which does not give the preference to any other life, of any previous period, which therefore prefers its own existence . . .   — Ortega y Gasset

Neither on horseback nor seated,

But like himself, squarely on two feet,

The poet of death and lilacs

Loafs by the footpath.  Even the bronze looks alive

Where it is folded like cloth.  And he seems friendly.

 

“Where is the Mississippi panorama

And the girl who played the piano?

Where are you, Walt?

The Open Road goes to the used-parking lot.

 

“Where is the nation you promised?

These houses built of wood sustain

Colossal snows,

And the light above the street is sick to death.

 

“As for the people – see how they neglect you!

Only a poet pauses to read the inscription.”

 

“I am here,” he answered.

“It seems you have found me out.

Yet, did I not warn you that it was Myself

I advertised?  Were my words not sufficiently plain?

 

“I gave no prescriptions,

And those who have taken my moods for prophecies

Mistake the matter.”

Then, vastly amused—“Why do reproach me?

I freely confess I am wholly disreputable.

Yet I am happy, because you have found me out.”

 

A crocodile in wrinkled metal loafing . . .

 

Then all the realtors,

Pickpockets, salesmen, and the actors performing

Official scenarios,

Turned a deaf ear, for they had contracted

American dreams.

 

But the man who keeps a store on a lonely road,

And the housewife who knows she’s dumb,

And the earth, are relieved.

 

All that grave weight of America

Cancelled!  Like Greece and Rome.

The future in ruins!

The castles, the prisons, the cathedrals

Unbuilding, and roses

Blossoming from the stones that are not there . . .

 

The clouds are lifting from the high Sierras.

The Bay mists clearing;

And the angel in the gate, the flowering plum,

Dances like Italy, imagining red.

–published in Louis Simpson’s book of poems “At the End of the Open Road” (1963)