To Vietnamese original
To Vietnamese Poetry
Lately there has been a surge of interest in the value of Vietnamese poetry among some of my American and Vietnamese friends. I have noticed the work of certain American scholars on the Vietnamese poet Ho Xuan Huong, whom they translated into English. Yet any translation faces the difficulty of capturing the true literary merit of the original and at the same time reflecting its beauty. The challenge becomes greater for any work that presents Vietnamese poetry to a Western audience.
My purpose in writing this brief introduction is threefold:
First, I want to highlight the characteristic features of Vietnamese poetry over time along with excerpts of the works of representative poets. I hope this approach will benefit foreign readers as well as young Vietnamese expatriates in their effort to understand and appreciate the richness of Vietnamese poetry.
Second, I will present a synoptic view of Vietnamese prosody and versification ranging from the classical to the modern as an aid for those interested to begin writing their own poems and to gain a rewarding appreciation of Vietnamese poetry in its splendor.
And finally, to those Vietnamese poets whose oeuvres are well established and well known in the literature, I offer my apology for the shortcomings and audacity of this work, to whose topic only full-length treatises can truly do justice. My only justification is the profound love I have for Vietnamese poetry, and my desire to share its charm and beauty with others.
Popular Styles of Vietnamese Poetry
For simplicity's sake Vietnamese poetry may be divided into three formal styles based on metrical patterns: (1) the pure native style, (2) the classical style, and (3) the modern style.
1. The Native Vietnamese Style
1.1 The Six-Eight Metrical Lines or Hexameter-Octameter Couplet (Luc bát)
The native style springs from a popular oral tradition closest to the genius of the Vietnamese language unadulterated by foreign influence. It is the spontaneous form of lullabies that Vietnamese mothers sing to put their babies to sleep. It is therefore the first verse form that Vietnamese babies hear. The topics come from daily scenes of agricultural work in the village, the rice paddies, the rivers, and the land.
[Translator's note: This metrical form consists of a verse of six words or syllables followed by a verse of eight words or syllables. Concepts of metrical feet, iamb, trochee, dactyl, anapest, and so on are not relevant in Vietnamese prosody.]
[Translator's note: Vietnamese are fond of generic statements without reference to any particular agent or subject. Rather akin to the use of the indefinite pronoun "on" in French, or reminiscent of the agentless passive voice in English. It may be disconcerting for a Western reader to find scarcely any overt reference to the speaker or agent in the poem itself. In the majority of cases, the poem is intensely subjective, and so the speaker is understood as "I," which is almost never made explicit. If the "I" is not expressed in the original, it is enclosed in parentheses in the translation, if needed. Modern poets, however, tend to be much less accustomed to this kind of self-effacement, and will inject themselves into the fabric of the poem in an assertive fashion.
The phrase Ví dầu, that frequently begins a lullaby, is practically devoid of denotation, and merely fulfills an introductory function.]
Or consider the more lyrical song of rowers on the river:
[Translator's note: Above is the illustration of another trait of Vietnamese culture: indirection in speech and social interactions, a kind of social balm to soothe rough spots that might result in the subsequent exchange. This characteristic, coupled with the non-referentiality observed above, may take a little getting used to. There is no necessary, direct or logical link between the first verse, which serves as a crutch, an icebreaker, a general statement, or a seemingly purposeless premise, and the second verse, which is the crux of the poem. Here it is a courtship song in disguise.]
The hexameter-octameter couplet, in popular songs sung in the vernacular as well as in written literature, consists of two lines of verse, the hexameter containing six syllables (or "words" surrounded by blank spaces), whose last syllable rhymes with the sixth syllable of the octameter in the couplet. The rhyme is internal within the six-eight pair. A group of these pairs continues the rhyming scheme by having the eighth syllable of the octameter of the previous couplet riming with the sixth (last) syllable of the hexameter of the following couplet.
[Translator's note: As a tone language, Vietnamese requires not only recurrence of the sound pattern of words/syllables but also a concordance of tones or voice pitches in rimes. Tones are a feature of vowels. The Northern dialect has six tones. The neutral không tone (no diacritical mark) is located at around the middle of the pitch range. The "high" sắc (´) tone nears the top of the range. The "low" huyê`n (`) tone nears the bottom of the range. The "low-rising" hỏi (?) tone starts from slightly below the mid range and rises asymptotically toward the mid-range. The "mid-rising" ngã (~) tone starts from the mid range, with the wowel constricted by a glottal stop, then continues to rise slightly above the mid range. And the "low-stop" na.ng (.) tone starts in the low middle pitch with the vowel cut off by a glottal stop. The Southern dialect neutralizes the "low-rising" and "mid-rising" tones into one "rising" tone to distinguish only five tones.
For purposes of riming the tones are divided into two tonal patterns dictated by melodic compatibility: the bàng or low-pitch group comprises the neutral (không) and the low (huyê`n) tones, and the trắc or clipped high-pitch group consists of the high (sắc) and the low-rising (hỏi), the mid-rising (ngã), and the low-stop (na.ng) tones. In the bàng scheme vowels may be sustained over a period of time whereas vowels in the trắc group tend to be short and clipped. The riming rule, which requires recurrence of the sound successions as well as membership of the vocalic tones in the same tonal group, insures melodic compatibility of the riming words and avoids cacophony. The offshoot of this prosodic rule is that Vietnamese verses exhibit a melodic quality that is absent in the poetry of non-tonal languages.
The terms syllable and word are used indifferently in this translation. Vietnamese is a largely monosyllabic language with reduplicatives qualifying as polysyllables.]
Let us look at an example:
So popular is the hexameter-octameter couplet that the best Vietnamese narrative and epic poems adopted it. Kim Vân Kiê`u, a narrative poem about a maiden whose great beauty was equalled only by the dire fate that overtook her, and Lu.c Vân Tiên, a love poem of two star-crossed lovers whose story is a litany of woes, were written in this style.
The hexameter-octameter couplet is so spontaneous to a Vietnamese that it becomes the preferred form of work songs, and of poetry of humor, courtship and banter. Take for example,
Or this teasing of a husband:
The ease with which this verse form can be handled accounts for its ubiquity in a very special kind of humor, in which French words are mixed with Vietnamese to produce the desired effect. In the following passage, taken from a collection on Sau Trong, the main character, he recounts the crime he suffered at the hands of his treacherous ex-wife to a French police chief thus:
1.2 The Double-Seven Six-Eight Quatrain (Song That Luc Bát)
Less popular than the six-eight couplet, but still quite important in Vietnamese poetry, is the double-seven six-eight quatrain. It consists of a stanza of four verses, the first two having seven words each, followed by a six-word verse and ending in an eight-word verse. The rhyme scheme is: The last syllable of the first heptameter rhymes with the fifth of the second heptameter following the trắc tonal scheme. The last syllable of the second heptameter rhymes with the last syllable of the third verse (the hexameter). Finally the last syllable of the hexameter rhymes with the sixth syllable of the fourth verse (the octameter). These rhymes follow the bàng tonal pattern.
Examples of the Song That Luc Bat quatrain. The following comes from a classic.
And an anonymous poem.
2. The Classical Style
The classical style is embodied in two kinds of verses: the five-word verse and the seven-word verse. It is so called because of its official stamp, and was taught in schools before French colonial rule as opposed to the hexameter-octameter couplet, which prevailed in popular literature.
2.1 The Five-Word Metrical Line or Pentameter
This short verse is easy to write and has only end rhymes.
The following lyrical passage from a pre-War poet, Nguyen Binh, shows the expressive capability of the pentameter when handled with flair:
Ly Lang Nhan's two-stanza poem, Mây thu thoáng mộng, also falls in this pattern:
2.2 The Seven-Word Metrical Line or Heptameter
The heptameter, popular among the antebellum intelligentsia, is a challenging verse form. Two varieties exist of the heptameter: the Tú Tuyệt heptameter quatrain and the Duong Luat or Tang model, which consists of eight heptameters.
The short variety consists of a stanza of four seven-syllable verses, known as the Tú Tuyệt heptameter quatrain. Terse and concise, this configuration forces the poet to express images, sounds, and feelings in just four heptameters. It is the preferred style for posting on rocky surfaces and walls, or for decorating dinnerware and vases.
Following are some illustrations of the heptameter quatrain.
A secret love:
A charming request:
And a soaring vision of love.
Relative ease of handling vis-à-vis the Duong verse accounts for the popularity of the heptameter quatrain in humor or satire. One such example is found on the title page of a book as follows.
The other variation of the seven-word form, the Eight-Heptameter Stanza, involves eight verses, known as the đuo`ng Luật, the Tang model. Structurally it is divided into four pairs of verses: the first couplet serves as an introduction, and the last couplet as a conclusion that summarizes the author's feelings. The main theme is developed by the second couplet or ca.p tra.ng (the expository couplet), and the third couplet or ca.p luận (the discursive couplet), which can be just an extension of the preceding exposition. These middle pairs abide by strict rules of parallelism and balance in sound and sense on the word or syllable level while maintaining rhyming scheme, tonal pattern and symmetrical rhythm.
[Translator's note: For all its constraints the rhyming pattern of this model is fairly straightforward, consisting only of end rimes falling on the first, second, fourth, sixth and eighth verses.]
Observe the word-for-word parallelism in images, sounds and emotions in the following pair of discursive verses from a moving elegy written by King Tu Duc in memory of his deceased concubine Thi Bang. It illustrates the author's command of prosodic techniques as well as the authenticity and depth of emotions he felt for the loss. This example has been cited in the classical literature as the paragon of prosodic and expressive perfection.
In the following complete Đuòng Luât poems note the parallelism and balance that are characteristic of this style.
For parallelism in images, sounds and thoughts in the Duong model, few can rival the gifted Ho Xuan Huong. The following poem, The Swing, laden with double entendre, captures with great vividness and life the excitement of people flying on a swing during the Tet festivities.
Over the centuries Vietnamese poets have adapted the Duong verse form to the capabilities of their language and their own creative needs. As a result two innovations on this Duong verse pattern were created: the Tam điệp (Triple Reduplication), and the Nhâ´t Tu. (Single-Word Ending).
In the following example of the triple reduplication, the last word or syllable in each line is repeated three times.
[Translator's note: The onomatopoeic repetition is accomplished with tonal variation, sometimes involving a change of the initial or final consonant of the word being reduplicated within allowable phonetic constraints. The reduplicated words, while adding nothing to the denotation of the root word from which they derive, impart a rather mocking tone to the resulting combination. This is a very peculiar and untranslatable linguistic act of legerdemain indulged in by certain Vietnamese poets in a playful mood to express gay light-heartedness and the like. In terms of seriousness and sense this child-like word play probably ranks alongside pig Latin.]
The second invention is referred to as the "Single-Word Ending," where the poem's fourth verse ends abruptly in just one word, which rhymes with the last word of the third verse. This technique requires a solid command of the vocabulary and grammar of the language.
Following is an illustration of the "Single-Word Ending":
The Duong verse was the dominant verse form in the written literature while the hectamater-octameter couplet reigned supreme with the populace. However, along with other changes brought on by the twentieth century, the classical Duong style has gradually yielded to the modern verse due to Western influence and the innovation of younger generations of Vietnamese poets.
3. The Modern Verse
Under the modern style, which has become increasingly prevalent after 1940, are two verse forms: the end-rhymed octameter, and the free verse, which is unrhymed, with no limit on the number of words in each line.
3.1 The Eight-Word Verse or Octameter
Preferred by younger generations, the octameter was also extensively used in drama, especially during the decades of 1940-1960. The octameter still enjoys great popularity along with the hexameter-octameter couplet and other verse forms.
Examples of the octameter follow:
[Translator's note: Dong Da is a hill in North Viet Nam where General Nguyen Hue defeated the Chinese invaders in the eighteenth century.]
Here is a passage from the play Nguyen Hue, in which his enemy, Prince Trinh Doan, committed suicide at his approach.
The octameter has increasingly become a medium for lyrical and romantic poetry.
A discussion of the octameter will not be complete without mentioning Da Thao, a well-known contemporary lyrical poet whose handling of this verse form has reached a rare degree of perfection. Let us see how she achieved that height in her poem I Give You Autumn cited below:
3.2 The Blank Verse, The Free Verse
In their continuing quest for new methods of expression Vietnamese poets have adopted a number of ideas from the West and Asia. The Japanese three-verse haiku along with other Western verse forms from the United States, the United Kingdom and France have all been tried in their experiment. This is the domain of the blank verse and the free verse.
[Translator's note: The haiku is an unrhymed three-line poem of five-, seven-, five-syllable verses. Its terse, spare and laconic character imposes stringent discipline on the poet. Most haiku-like compositions in Vietnamese adhere not so much to the prosody of its original Japanese namesake as to its spirit.]
Here is an attempt by an anonymous author to snatch a glimpse of landscape in a haiku-like piece.
This free verse, haiku-like, composition shows a novel approach.
And another foray into the free verse arena:
The following example illustrates another experiment with the free verse. The author focuses more on images, colors, emotions, and sonority than on rhyme schemes. The rhythm flows seamlessly from one line to the next leaving the author's emotions to decide on the length and force of each line.
This introduction is intended for foreign, American and Vietnamese readers who had not been exposed to, or had little time to explore, Vietnamese culture and poetry. If it has stimulated a greater interest in, and shortened the time they need to gain an understanding and appreciation of, Vietnamese poetry, as I hope, I shall be morally rewarded.
For readers who are interested in writing Vietnamese poetry, let me suggest trying your hand at the six-eight metrical form (hexameter-octameter couplet) first. In my opinion this form is easy to write and amply adequate to convey thoughts and feelings as it is so spontaneous to native speakers. Then attempt the pentameter quatrain and the eight-heptameter stanza for a feel of rhyming schemes.
Readers with a Western literary background can try the more modern octameter, which provides for grace, balance and rhythm while giving enough space for emotive expression without the word and rhyme scheme limitations of the pentameter or the heptameter. (See the Da Thao poem.)
As for the number of lines in a poem, I think four to eight lines would be appropriate for the short composition, sixteen for the medium-length composition, and 24-32 lines for the long one. The main concern should be on poetic quality, sound pattern, rhythm, economy, and feelings rather than on length, except in narratives or drama. A 16-line poem ought to be sufficient in most cases to express the author's thoughts and emotions.
Madison, 2 March, 2002