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.
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.
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!
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.
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.