Although it is commonplace now to say that “Vietnam is a country, not just the name of a war,” discovering this has been slow for many of us. For anyone of the generation that grew up while the war was still going on, it was the war of course that led us to whatever appreciation we had of Vietnam as a culture with far greater depth and antiquity than we might have witnessed in our ten bloody years of military encounter. Soldiers--especially combat soldiers--often talked of the overwhelming beauty of the country. But few, remembering their intriguing glimpses of natural beauty, ever had the opportunity to discover what the Vietnamese themselves had thought of that familiar beauty in the several thousand years of their cultural identity. Few of us, including almost every reporter who ever went to Vietnam, could actually speak or read the language, much less its poetry, and it is in the poetry of Vietnam that its greatest monuments have been raised. Vietnam is a wet-rice agricultural civilization thousands of years old, but its cities and palaces and great villas were of wood and not much other than exquisite remnants has survived the annual monsoons. Poetry, that fragile construct, is Vietnam’s enduring monument. As Hồ Xuân Hương wrote 200 years ago:
The waterfall plunges in mist.
Who can describe this desolate scene:
the long white river sliding through
the emerald shadows of the ancient canopy
...a shepherd's horn echoing in the valley,
fish nets stretched to dry on sandy flats.
A bell is tolling, fading, fading
just like love. Only poetry lasts.
During the war, I volunteered as a civilian conscientious objector and worked as the field representative for a private agency that treated the most severely wounded children. The children that we brought to U.S. hospitals were riddled by bullets, slashed by cluster bomb flechettes, blinded and deafened by tossed grenades, had their lips and jaws shot away, their spines severed. One teen-aged girl was scalped by boat propeller blades during a mortar attack on the river; others had their limbs blown off; one boy had his chin glued to his chest by napalm; one girl had her eyelids burned off by a white phosphorus artillery shell. One gun-shot toddler survived the massacre of her family in a pit because she was protected by their riddled bodies. The memory of such suffering would have been my sole, unadulterated sense of Vietnam hadn’t my job often taken me into the countryside to talk to parents to explain what we could possibly do for their children at hospitals in the United States. My work afforded me a glimpse of another, more enduring Vietnam. This glimpse came on snatches of song through chance encounters with the sung poetry of the countryside.
Of course, at first, I had no clue on what I was hearing. First, I encountered the sung poetry known as vọng cổ, “lament for things past,”epical poems of lost kings, doomed dynasties, and beautiful princesses. I would be waiting at a Mekong crossing for the ferry to come back, and I’d see a group of farmers back from market, huddled under the palms, gathered about a blind singer seated on the smooth earth tamped by bare and sandaled feet, a singer with a white wispy beard who was playing a 6-string, steel guitar, accompanied by a blind woman, perhaps his wife, who kept rhythm with one foot on a wooden clapper, both of them attended by a sighted boy who watched the crowd and passed the hat. The steel strings had a bluesy quality as the singer bent his notes and his voice filled the riverbank with sadness. I wondered what it was all about. And then, back in Saigon at the zoo and botanical gardens, I saw another bedraggled blind pair, this time not playing a steel guitar, but rather the more traditional single-string viol, and I convinced them to come to my apartment so I could record them. My education in sung poetry began that day, to the dismay of my landlady who did not let such people into her house. Đi một ngầy đàng, hộc một sàng khôn. “Go out one day,” the proverb says, “and come back with a basket full of wisdom.”
Other times, I would be standing by a river as a little skiff motored by and I would hear a bit of song float past me, sometimes without ever even seeing the singer’s face under the conical, leaf hat from where the song emerged to disappear in the wave wash on the bank and stutter of the boat’s two-cycle engine. Sometimes, I would catch the sunlight coming through the bamboo leaves of such a hat and I’d glimpse a couple of lines of poetry written in the old calligraphy known as chữ Nôm. Peasants with poetry sewn into their hats? Vietnam was always widening its mystery. Sometimes, I would be waiting in an orchard behind a family’s house as they all came to a decision about sending their injured child to America in our care and, off in the distance, lost in the bananas and papaya, a woman’s voice would start up in song…usually a lone voice because, except for the blind vọng cổ singers, most of what I heard was ca dao: brief lyric poems in a tradition at least 1000 years old, passed down by song and polished by each new singer who wished to make a change. The sung poetry of ca dao seemed to belong to the most ordinary of country people.
In 1971-72, after my alternative service was over and I had returned to start a teaching career at Penn State, I received a Younger Humanist Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities and so, while the war was still nattering on, I returned to Vietnam to spend a year recording ca dao. My plan was simple: walking up to farmers and fishermen and women working old Singer pedal sewing machines, I asked them to sing their favorite poems into my tape recorder. I must have seemed very peculiar if not exactly threatening: a lone American, not wearing a uniform, out there in the war zone with my bookbag and tape recorder. I am still amazed that these country people even talked to me, much less agreed to sing poetry into my recorder. But ca dao belongs so naturally to the people who create it that perhaps it seemed to them not the least surprising that a foreigner would also want to know about it. In that whole year of recording, I never encountered anyone who did not know some ca dao. The ubiquity of the poetry (and the concordant tradition of proverbs known tục ngữ) speaks to how much the oral folk poetry has served as a millennial record of Vietnamese aspiration, feeling, and belief. I recorded some five hundred poems that year from about thirty singers from the Mekong Delta, the Central Highlands, and the old capital of Hue. Over the decades since those collecting forays into the war-torn countryside, I have often thought what might have been the parallel luck of a young Vietnamese with a tape-recorder walking up to American farmhouses with the same request.
To have a sense of this poetry and what these unlettered farmers were holding in their heads, one has to understand word tone, something that does not occur in English. But in Vietnamese every syllable has a pitch or tone (indicated in writing by the diacritical marks over or under vowels in the modern roman script). Depending on the regional dialect, there are either six or five pitches possible. Each of them changes the meaning of the syllable, for instance:
la: to shout (high level tone)
là: to be (falling tone)
lả: tired (falling-rising tone)
lã: insipid (high-constricted, broken tone)
lá: leaf (high-rising tone)
lạ: strange (low-constricted tone).
Hỡi cô tát nước bên đàng.
Oh, girl bailing water by roadside,
Sao cô múc ánh trăng vàng đổ đi?
Why (girl) ladle light moon gold pour out?
(Oh, girl, bailing water by the roadside,
why pour off the moon’s golden light?)
While tones fall at random in speech or in prose, in poetry the tones are regulated to fall at certain feet in the prosodic line. Once you have an arrangement of linguistic word pitch it is not a big step to musical pitch. This is where the melodies of ca dao begin. It is the melodies of ca dao that arouse the repertoires of the singers.
Here are some of the “rules” for the above Lục Bát (6/8-syllable) couplet: The second, sixth, and eighth syllables of each line must be “even” tones (la or là, in the above) whereas the fourth syllables must be any one of the other tones, which are all considered “sharp.” Rhymes properly fall only on words that have "even" tones, but these words should not be the same even tone. In the couplet above, the sixth and final syllable of the first line (đàng) rhymes with the sixth syllable of the next line (vàng). The eighth syllable of the second line (đi) is a potential new rhyme that the singer could use to start linking in any number of additional couplets, folding in new rhymes each time. All this is retained in the oral poet’s ear. While it might seem a complex construct for composers who often do not read or write, the six-eight couplet is only one of several prosodic forms available, although perhaps the most common for the past two hundred years or so.
Poetry in Vietnam flows from two great sources. The folk poetry is probably as old as the Vietnamese themselves and may have origins as distant as the Mon-Khmer traditions from which the Vietnamese language emerged thousands of years ago. The other great source of poetry is more recent: the literary tradition which entered Vietnam with the Chinese conquest 2000 years ago, reaching its most enduring influence in the regulated verse form (lu-shih) of the 8th century C.E. Like the Italian sonnet in the West, but more compressed in form, the lu-shih became the vehicle for sophisticated lyric expression in languages as diverse as Tibetan, Korean, Japanese, and Vietnamese. Syntactic similarities between Chinese and Vietnamese made the form a natural acquisition for the Vietnamese even before they threw out the Chinese invaders in 939 C.E. And when the newly independent Vietnamese court fashioned itself on the Chinese imperial model, the form became the intellectual index for anyone hoping to enter the civil service and polite society. As a vehicle for “what is on the mind intently,” it had lyrical use in Vietnam into the 1930s with its last great practitioner, the poet and journalist Tản Đà.
Here is a regulated verse of Hồ Xuân Hương, the aristocratic concubine of the early 1800s who often employed the ancient form with subversive intent by concealing a complete double entendre within the apparent landscape, but nonetheless observing all the traditional rules of a eight-line poem, with seven syllables per line, with rhymes at the end of the 1st, 2nd, 4th, 6th, and 8th lines, and with parallel syntactic structure in the middle four lines:
Đèo Ba Dội
Một đèo, một đèo, lại một đèo,
Khen ai khéo tạc cảnh cheo leo.
Cửa son đỏ loét tùm hum nóc,
Hòn đá xanh rì lún phún rêu.
Lắt lẻo cành thông cơn gió thốc,
Đầm đìa lá liễu giọt sương gieo.
Hiền nhân, quân tử ai mà chẳng...
Mỏi gối, chồn chân vẫn muốn trèo.
Three Mountain Pass
A cliff face. Another. And still a third.
Who was so skilled to carve this craggy scene
the cavern's red door, the ridge's narrow cleft,
the black knoll bearded with little mosses?
A twisting pine bough plunges in the wind,
showering a willow's leaves with glistening drops.
Gentlemen, lords, who could refuse, though weary
and shaky in his knees, to mount once more?
By the 19th century, Vietnamese scholars and royalty were composing palindromes in the form, sometimes in two languages at once as in one poem that, when one comes to its last word and starts reading backwards, shifts languages from Vietnamese to a lu-shih in Chinese. The late French mathematician Pierre Daudin, researching palindromes written for such “intellectual recreation,” discovered the circular (“anacyclique”) palindrome below composed by the Emperor Thiệu-Trị (1841-1847) and set in jade inlay in a wooden panel at the Long-An Palace. It is nothing less than twelve perfect lu-shih that can be unlocked, each with differing meaning, depending on whatever ray one starts with, going left to right, right to left, inside out, or outside in. It fairly defies Western imagination.
These two great streams of poetry—the oral and the literary—often run together and mix, enriching the great flow of Vietnamese poetry over the centuries. Part of the pleasure in reading Hồ Xuân Hương, for example, is finding in her lu-shih verse (with its ancient and noble pedigree) a vocabulary from the street or market place. Nguyễn Du (1765-1820), her famous contemporary, took the Lục Bát couplet from the folk poetry and, using its possibility of rhyme linkage, fashioned his great classical poem, The Tale of Kieu, in 3254 lines of ca dao couplets while borrowing his narrative from a Chinese novel. At its best, the literary poetry was always in touch with the folk tradition, so much so that it is not unusual even today to encounter ordinary Vietnamese who can recite the entire Tale of Kieu from memory. Even in the best fiction writing of modern Vietnam, say, in the short stories of Nguyễn Huy Thiệp one can find the imagistic power and simple word stock of ca dao, while at the same time encountering the complexities of suggestion favored by the 19th century court with its palindromes for “intellectual recreation.”
It is hard for Westerners to fathom a culture where poetry figures so prominently, not just in the lives of the educated, but in the lives of farmers as well. In Vietnam you can court with poetry (the ca dao at the beginning of this little survey is a young man’s attempt at getting the girl’s attention). You can gamble on poetry. Political debates can be won with a poem (“there’s a poem to prove it, too!). Once, to my amazement, I stopped a street fight that was brewing with some cyclo drivers by quoting the proverb: “The wise man shuts his mouth; the strong man folds his arms.” For these sorts of things to happen around poetry, poetry must go pretty deeply into the culture.
Indeed, poetry in Vietnam has often seemed to have greater-than-human power. In 1076 C.E., Marshall Lý Thường Kiệt (1019-1105) ordered the following poem painted in honey on the leaves of banana trees as he gathered his forces to drive out the Chinese.
The southern mountains are the Southern Ruler’s.
This is written in the Celestial Book.
Those who try to conquer this land
Will surely suffer defeat.
When his troops found the poems, with its characters now eaten by ants that had followed the honey strokes, it seemed to them clearly an expression of divine will and heavenly mandate. They rallied and won the battle. Or so the legend says.
Beside its power to persuade, to entertain, and to express both personal and divine truths, poetry can also be a test of another’s character. This is true even today for government officials for whom, one would imagine, the old poetry would be a thing of the feudal past. During the height of the Cold War, in the mid 1980s, along with the poets Denise Levertov, Roland Flint, and William Meredith, then the Poet to the Library of Congress, I was invited to an international meeting of writers in Sofia, Bulgaria. Along with the American poets, there were fiction writers, including Erskine Caldwell, John Cheever, and William Gaddis. And along with the Americans, there were writers from everywhere on the planet, from Iceland to Vietnam. The Bulgarian Writers Union put up about 400 of us at their government’s expense at the Hotel Parc Moskva. It must have cost them a fortune to feed this artistic battalion, providing us with plane tickets and city tours, and giving each one of us a packet with the equivalent of about one hundred dollars in leva in spending money.
It was the first time I had met North Vietnamese. I was curious about them and had given one of their delegation poets a copy of my first translations of ca dao. They were curious about me. How come this American spoke Vietnamese in the southern dialect? Where did he learn it? Why? Finally, one afternoon about eight of them just sat me down in the hotel lobby and started firing questions. It had been more than a decade since I had spoken Vietnamese and I could hardly understand them. “That’s okay,” one said in French. “Do you know French?”
I knew a little French. So they began again asking me in French about what I had done in Vietnam. It was rapid fire questioning from several people at once and it was bewildering. I flushed when I realized I was being interrogated, albeit in the main lobby. When I tried to explain my alternative service to the military, it seemed I just couldn’t make myself clear enough. My answers weren’t complete, weren’t satisfying. I realized if I got up to go, it would just confirm their probable suspicions that I was a CIA agent sent to spy on them. Now they were slipping some English into the flow of Vietnamese and French.
Finally, the one who seemed to be in charge motioned for the others to stop. He had my first edition of Ca Dao Vietnam in his hand and he began to flip through the poems and translations. He stopped on the last poem in the book:
At the Exiled King’s River Pavilion
Evening, and all around the King’s pavilion
people are sitting, fishing, sad and grieving,
loving, in love, remembering, waiting, watching.
Whose boat plies the river mists
offering so many river songs
to move these mountains and rivers, our nation?
“Who wrote this poem, Professor Balaban?” he asked and smiled.
I smiled back. I could see where this was going. “As you know,” I said, “ca dao are not written. They are oral, passed down by song.”
His smile faded.
“…but this one,” I added, “is unusual. It has a line in it from the The Tale of Kieu and refers to the disappearance of young King Duy Tân…
“Yes, yes,” he said, “who wrote it?”
“Thúc Giạ Thi, pen name: ‘Ưng Bình.’”
Now everyone was smiling. Only a real translator could know a detail like that. I had been vetted through poetry.
Today, that awkward if interesting encounter of nearly twenty years ago seems a world away. Diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Vietnam are now restored. Hanoi is filled with American backpackers while its swankier hotels compare with any in the world. More than half of the Vietnamese alive today were born after the war and a new generation of young Americans who learned quite good Vietnamese in college are taking on new translations. What awaits them is a startling bright range contemporary fiction writing, thousands of folk poems that have never been recorded, and centuries of poetry, some of it in the old script called chữ Nôm, including the regulated verse of the great statesman and humanist Nguyễn Trãi, and the untranslated Zen poetry of the Buddhist “father-mother” kings of the Lý and Trần dynasties (1009-1413). A lot of the poetry, including the ca dao oral poetry, has been preserved in handwritten or woodblock manuscripts in chữ Nôm and remains untransliterated into modern Vietnamese, let alone translated into English . Along with poetry there are vast Nôm manuscript holdings in medicine, religion, philosophy, drama, music, and history and not just in Vietnam, but in national libraries throughout the world: in France, the Vatican, Madrid, Lisbon, Holland, China, Japan, the United States, and England.
The war, which caused pain and anguish for millions, was nonetheless only a part of the story.