Introduction to Vietnamese Poetry
By Lý Lãng Nhân
Translated by Thomas D. Le

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.]

Ví dầu con cá nấu canh
Bỏ tiêu cho ngọt bỏ hành cho thơm.

When cooking fish soup
Add pepper for flavor, add onion for aroma.

[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.]

Ví dầu cầu ván đóng đinh
Cầu tre lắc lẻo gập ghình khó đi.

The board bridge is held by nails.
But the rickety bamboo bridge is difficult to cross.

Or consider the more lyrical song of rowers on the river:

Sông dài cá lội biệt tăm,
Phải duyên chống vợ ngàn nam cũng chò.

The fish never returns that swims the long river.
If it's destiny (I'll) wait a thousand years to marry (you).

[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" (.) 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 ( 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:

Vì nhó mà buốn

Đêm qua ra đúng bò' ao,
Trông cá cá la.n trông sao sao '.
Buốn trông con nhện giang to'.
Nhện o'i nhện ho'~i nhện chò' môi ai.

Sad Thoughts

Last night (I) went to the pond side.
(I) looked at the fish, the fish dove; (I) looked at the stars, the stars dimmed.
Saddened (I) looked at the spider weaving his net,
Spider, spider, what prey are you waiting for?

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.

Example 1:

Tuong tu

Nàng thì chiêt bóng song mai,
Đêm thu đang đảng nha.t cài then mây.
Sân rêu cha?ng ve~ dâu giày.
Cỏ cao hon thuóc liê~u gầy mây phân.

Kim Vân Kiê`u


Alone behind her window by the apricot orchard,
For the long autumn nights she firmly latched her door.
The moss-covered courtyard scarcely bore her footprints.
The grass grew feet taller and the willow thinner.

Kim Vân Kiê`u

Example 2:

Ngu ông Tu. Toa.i

Nuóc trong ru?a ruột tron,
Môt câu danh lo.i chi sòn lòng ai.
Này voi mai vi.nh vui vầy.
Ngày kia hóng gió đêm này choi trang.

Luc Vân Tiên

The Contented Fisherman

Clear water washes his heart clean,
Fame and fortune never faze him.
He loves a bay this day, a gulf the next.
One day the breeze, this night the moon.

Luc Vân Tiên

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,

Ma.t mu.n còn có khi ly`,
Tay em cán giá anh trì sao ra.

A pimpled face can still be smoothed out,
But how can I straighten your crooked arm, sweetheart?

Or this teasing of a husband:

Ví dầu chống thâp vợ cao,
Qua sông nuóc lón co~ng tao bó mầy.

Wife is taller than husband.
When the river floods, carry me across, honey, please.

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:

Jouer la carte luy? đánh bài,
Perdu cu?a moả một hai tram đống.
Fini l'argent lu?y dong.
Parti đuo`ng lộ lây chống Hàng Sao.
Thua buốn malade moả đau,
Ne pas dormir nhu~ng thao thúc hoài.

Vô Danh

Play cards she really did,
And lose several hundred piasters of my money.
Then she left me penniless,
And set out for Hàng Sao to take husband.
From this misfortune I got so sick
I lost all sleep.


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.

Trai? vách quê gió vàng hiu hắt,
Mãnh vu~ y la.nh ngắt nhu đống.
Oán chi nhu~ng khách tiêu phòng.
Mà xui phận ba.c nàm trong má đào.

Cung Oán Ngâm Khúc

What autumn breeze over cinnamon-perfumed walls
Has frozen my dance suit as frigid as bronze!
What woe betides in the pepper-heated chamber
To cause so much anguished grief to such great beauty?

Palace Lament

And an anonymous poem.

Nhó nam nọ cùng ai lu~ng thu~ng,
Tay bắt tay lòng nhu~ng da.n lòng.
Tròi khuya một mãnh trang trong
Mây bay phâp phói bóng hống thuót tha.

Sầm Son Buốn - Vô danh

Recall years ago we were strolling together
Hand in hand sharing thoughts,
In the night bathed in clear moonlight,
The clouds drifting and (your) graceful beauty.

Nostalgia of Sam Son - Anonymous

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:

Anh bàn co hội sau
Buốn tênh em lát đầu.
Cá nuóc vói chim tròi
Đâu dê~ thuòng thây nhau.

Lác đác chòm sao thua
La.nh le~o ánh trang mo`
Một buóc tiê~n em ra
Tram tình càng ngâ?n ngo

I raised the expectation,
You shook your head sadly.
Like fish in water and fowl in the air
It's not easy to meet.

Sparse stars hung scattered,
The cold moon shone feebly.
(I) saw you off on your way
And felt hundreds of jumbled feelings.

Ly Lang Nhan's two-stanza poem, Mây thu thoáng mộng, also falls in this pattern:

Mây thu thoáng mộng

Xuân nào ta ga.p em,
Hoa no? muộn bên thê`m.
Hè nầy im bóng lá,
Tay gôi mộng xua tìm.

Tình kia duo`ng bóng mây
Một thoáng rối đô?i thay
Mây tròi không tro? la.i
Sao lòng nhó nhung hoài.

Dreams of Autumn Clouds

That spring I met you,
Flowers bloomed late by the porch.
This summer leaves were still.
Resting on my arm I dreamed old dreams.

Our love is like clouds,
In moments they change.
The clouds won't return;
Why just keep yearning?

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:

Giọt suong trong nhuy. hống

Nu. hống hé nhu.y đón xuân phong,
Môt giọt suong sa giu~a đáy lòng.
Âp u? tình riêng xuân mây độ,
Hu~ng hò chiêc lá luo.n ngoài song.

Lý Lãng Nhân

A Dewdrop in the Rose

Behold the rose in bloom amid spring breeze
That blows the dewdrop tumbling in my heart.
For long years have I kept my love in peace
Till autumn leaves fly past the pane and part.

Lý Lãng Nhân

A charming request:

Gió thô?i hôm nay lá nhiê`u,
Cậy em đan hộ tâm tình yêu
Đêm vê` âp u? lòng anh la.nh,
Cho khoản đêm truo`ng đo~ qua.nh hiu.

Luu Trong Lu

The wind today felled down huge loads of leaves.
Pray weave me up a blanket full of love
To keep me good and warm this chilly eve
Away from loneliness throughout the night.

Luu Trong Lu

And a soaring vision of love.

Huyê`n Trân Ca

Anh vói Huyê`n Trân tuy cách xa,
He.n cùng non nuóc bôn mùa hoa,
Là đôi nha.n trắng tròi xanh biêc,
Nhi.p cánh tung mây vuo.t hải hà.

Lý Lãng Nhân

The Song of Huyen Tran

Though distance keeps my dear Huyen Tran from me
We swear to this our land and four seasons
To be the white swallows in azure sky
That fly through clouds over the vast ocean.

Lý Lãng Nhân

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.

Có tiê`n sắm lây đê? mà coi
Tói mu'o'.n không cho nói hep hòi
Quân tu'? trao ra lòng cha?ng nga.i,
Mât công cho mu'o'.n mât công đòi.

Le Van Hanh

This book sure cost money to buy.
Don't fret if it's not for lending.
(I) will lend to honest people.
Yet if (I) don't, (I) don't have to collect.

Le Van Hanh

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 (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.

Đập cô? kính ra tìm lâý bóng
Xêp tàn y la.i đê? dành hoi

Vua Tu Đúc khóc Thi Bàng

(I) Break the ancient mirror to find her image,
(I) Fold the faded clothes to preserve her scent.

In Memory of Thi Bang by King Tu đuc

In the following complete Đuòng Luât poems note the parallelism and balance that are characteristic of this style.

Mùa thu ngối câu cá

Ao thu la.nh le~o nuóc trong veo,
Một chiêc thuyê`n câu bé tẻo teo.
Sóng biêc theo làn hoi gọn tí,
Lá vàng truóc gió sẻ đua vèo,
Tùng mây lo lu~ng tròi xanh ngát,
Ngo~ trúc quanh co khách vắng teo.
Tu.a gôi ôm cầm lâu cha?ng đ,
Cá đâu đóp động duoi chân bèo.

Nguyê~n Khuyên

Fishing in Autumn

On the clear water of a chilly autumn pond
There sits a tiny fishing boat.
Blue waves move in gentle ripples,
Yellow leaves fall on breezy gusts.
Cloud masses float in azure sky,
Bamboo paths meander in lonely quiet.
Leaning on the pillow (I) hold my lyre.
Fish bite somewhere beneath the hyacynth.

Nguyen Khuyen

Huo?ng Nhàn

Một mai một cuôc một cần câu
Tho thâ?n dù ai đên thê nào.
Ta da.i ta tìm noi vắng vẻ,
Nguo`i khôn nguo`i đên chôn lao xao.

Thu an man truc đông an giá,
Xuân tắm hố sen ha. tắm ao.
Ruo.u đên gôc cây ta se~ nhap,
Nhìn xem phú quí to. chiêm bao.

Nguyê~n Bi?nh Khiêm

Joy of Leisure

With a pick, a shovel, a fishing pole,
Loafing around with regard for no one,
I am a fool, I seek solitude;
You are smart, you prefer activity.

(I) eat bamboo shoot in autumn, bean sprout in winter;
In spring bathe in the lotus pond, in summer the fish pond.
Wine (I) sip under the tree,
Eying riches as just a dream.

Nguyen Binh Khiem

Thu tha huong

Lâm tâm mua bay phu? dậm ngàn
Nghe hốn cô qua.nh mô~i thu sang
Đêm suong gieo cành xo xác
Ngày lá bay dầy da. ngô?n ngang

Lua? ha. tro vùi non nuoc cu~
Mây thu bo.t biê?n giâc Luong Hoàn
Ngậm ngùi liê~u ru~ hố man mác
Ghê đá riêng ngối ta tho? than

Lý Lãng Nhân

Autumn Nostalgia

As the drizzly mist covers the thousand-mile road
I feel the loneliness of my soul when comes fall.
The foggy night rests heavy on the spindly boughs
Throwing my heart in turmoil when the dead leaves fall.

Where are the summer's heat, my home in time's deep ash?
Where are the fall's clouds and the sea foams of years past?
By the willows of the doleful lake languish I,
And on the rocky perch I heave my lonely sigh.

Lý Lãng Nhân

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.

Đánh Đu

Bôn cột khen ai khéo khéo trống
Nguo`i thì lên đánh kẻ ngối trông
Trai cong gôi ha.c khom khom cật
Gái uôn lung ong ngu~a ngu~a lòng
Bôn mãnh quần hống bay phâp phói
Đôi hàng chân ngo.c duô~i song song
Choi xuân có biêt xuân chang tá
Cột nhô? đi rôi lô~ bỏ không.

Hố Xuân Huong

The Swing

Four posts skillfully erected.
Some people swing while others watch.
Boys with long legs arch their loins.
Girls with bee's waist open their haunch.
Four flaps of red pants fly wildly.
Two shapely legs extend straightly.
Do those enjoying spring know its meaning
When the removed posts leave the holes empty?

Ho Xuan Huong

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 Nhât 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.]

Ngu? trua

Tiêng gà bên vách tẻ tè te
Bóng ác đã xuyên hé kẻ hè
Non một chống cao chon chót vót
Hoa tuoi nam sắc toẻ toè toe.
Chim tình bầu ba.n kia kìa ki?a
Ong nghi~a vua tôi vẻ vẻ vè
Danh lo.i cha?ng màng ti tí ti?
Ngu? trua tru`a dậy khoẻ khoè khoe

Vô danh

The Siesta

Next door's rooster crows cock-a-doodle-doo.
Through doors the sun plays peek-a-boo.
Mountain ranges rise up up up.
Colorful flowers bloom ooh ooh ooh.
Bird's friendship goes chirp-chirp-chirp
Bee's loyalty goes buzz-buzz-buzz.
Wealth, fame make itsy-itty-bitty sense.
After siesta (I) feel in tiptop shape.


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":

Nu~ng niu

Trang thanh gió mát dê~ màng chi
Ma.c âm an no la.i ngu? khì
Mì`nh oi chô?i dậy em nhò tí

Vô danh

Sweet Talk

Bright moon, cool breeze, not a care,
Warm and well fed (he) sleeps there.
Up, honey-do, got something for you to


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:

Trải bao nam hoa đào rung máu lu?a
Cỏ đông đa lai láng trải màu xanh
Khap non song đuom ve~ khí tinh anh
Thi no`i giông hỏi đâu hon Nguyê~n Huệ

Trận Đông Đa - Phan Bôi Châu

For years were cherry blooms shaken in war
The Dong Da grass spread its green everywhere.
The country steeped its spirit in valor,
Who among our people surpassed Nguyen Hue?

The Battle of Dong Da - Phan Bôi Châu

[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.

Trong đêm tôi toàn quân đi hô'i hả
Chúa điê`m nhiên lang le~ lâ'y con dao
Trong mi`nh đã dâu kín tu. khi nào
Kê` gần cô? nguo`i toan bê` tu. sát. Nguyê~n Huê - Màn Chúa Tri.nh Doan tu sát
Vô danh

With the army on hasty march at night
The calm Prince quietly pulled out the dagger
He had long before hidden on himself
And aimed it at his neck ready to die.

Nguyen Hue - Scene of suicide of Prince Tri.nh Doan

The octameter has increasingly become a medium for lyrical and romantic poetry.

Đêm rùng thông Phan Ri

Phan Rí Chàm đêm rùng thông ta.m trú,
Ánh trang buốn suong nhỏ giọt trên cành.
Gió thì thầm nhu' gọi mãi tên anh,
Trong giâ'c ngu~ xô bố em cho.t đê'n.
Anh mo'? mắt nhìn sao khuya lâp lánh.
Ba-lô đầy anh tu'.a gôi đêm thanh.

Lý Lãng Nhân

Evening in the Phan Ri Pine Forest

Sheltered in the Phan Ri pine groves of Chamland eve,
As the dew dropped from the trees in the sad moonlight,
I was listening to the wind murmur my name,
When you appeared all sudden in my troubled sleep.
I woke up and beheld the bright stars shine,
My head at rest against the duffel bag.

Lý Lãng Nhân

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:

Mùa Thu Cho Anh

Em cho anh mùa thu vàng ru.c sáng
Mùa lá màu thay đô?i ngát rùng xanh
Mùa uót mi khi mộng cu~ không thành
Mùa tan võ tùng cánh tim se sắt.

Em cho anh mùa thu nhiê`u thắc mắc
Mùa luói tình ôm trọn cả đòi em
Mùa đắng cay chua xót nhu~ng đêm đen
Mùa gắng sông qua ngày le~.

Em cho anh mùa thu tình thỏ thẻ
Mùa thật buốn ta đã có cùng nhau
Mùa ruo.u say cho quên nô~i khô? đau
Mùa hò he.n nàm yên tay anh ngu?.

Em cho anh mùa thu đòi thác lu~
Mùa nu~a vòi nghe ha.nh phúc đi qua
Mùa chập chòn đê? ta tro? vê` ta
Mùa châp nhận biên giói tình ngang trái.

Em cho anh mùa thu lòng tê tái
Mùa cỏ sầu trải thảm lá thu sang
Mùa cây cao thâp nên bóng hai hàng
Mùa thu đó tay đan nhau trìu mên.

Em cho anh mùa thu tàn chuyê?n bên
Mùa trang tròn ky? niêm bóng hoàng hôn
Mùa nhó nhung thuong tiêc dậy cả hốn
Mùa tình tu. quên đât tròi hiu qua.nh.

Em cho anh mùa thu vê` rât la.nh
Mùa tuong tu ôm gôi mộng bo vo
Mùa chua đi đã nhúc nhói o hò
Mùa suy gâ~m cho đông sang hiu hắt.

Em cho anh thu nống nàng son sắt
Giâc mo tình đã trọn nghi~a ái ân
Dầu xa nhau đành nhu ta.i sô phần
Mùa thu ây go?i vê` anh trọn ve.n

Em cho anh mãnh tình thu lô~i he.n
Đã trê~ ròi, đòi đã xê anh oi
Ngọn tóc mây đã chẻ nhánh đôi đòi
Giòng sông mát vãn chò anh mãi mãi.

Dã Thao

I Give You Autumn

I give you the brilliant gold colors of autumn,
The season that turns the leaves in the green forests,
That sheds my tears for a love unconsummated,
And shatters my heart into thousands of pieces.

I give you autumn. Ask me unanswered questions,
About a love that ensnares my entire poor life,
The bitterness I felt through the long and dark nights,
The reluctant existence day by dreary day.

I give you autumn. Take my whispered tender love,
And the deep melancholy we together share,
The drunken bouts to forget the sadly-felt pains,
And sweet dreams in moments' sleep nestled in your arms.

I give you autumn, and live my turbulent life,
Transient and half-filled with the sounds of passing bliss,
To return to the twilight of my solitude,
And accept the boundaries of a frustrated love.

I give you autumn, and nurse my poor bleeding heart
In the tapestry of the coming fallen leaves,
Between rows of trees with their sun-lit summits
Where our hearts are entwined in our claspéd hands

I give you autumn, by the harbor deserted
In the full moon and in memory of passing days,
The longings and regrets that permeate my soul,
Passionate love oblivious of the wretched world.

I give you autumn. For me a very cold life
In love-sickness dreaming desperate and lonely dreams
Of a separation to come in anguished pains
And thoughts of winter's bleak, dreary and gloomy days.

I give you autumn. Accept my unswerving love,
A love that fulfills your dreams to their full extent,
To face separation ordained by destiny
I send you my dreams of complete and happy love.

I give you my love, and its broken promises,
For life is waning at this a belated hour
As my hair is taking on its dread twin colors
Yet I abide you by Life's river forever.

Da Thao

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.


Tro`i nuoc
Mo hố
Cá đop trang.


Amid silent sky and water
the fish bit the moon.

This free verse, haiku-like, composition shows a novel approach.

Buo`m trắng trong suong chiê`u

Bu'o'`m suong trắng
Trong chiê`u lắng
Xa bên bo'`

Thuyê`n theo sóng
Trôi vê` chôn
Ai uóc mong

Bu'o'`m say gió
Đu'a hốn đên
Bên chân tro'`i

Thuyê`n re~ lôi
Xuyên mù kho'i
Ru tuyệt vo'`i

Hoàng hôn xuông
Đêm dzần tôi
Suong đầy tro'`i

Thuyê`n anh đã
Xa ro'`i bên
Xa ái ân

Thuyê`n luót sóng
Phai hình bóng
Trong suong mo'`

Nguòi nghệ si~
Lắng hốn tho'
Trong tiêng to'

Tình yêu mo'i
Êm tu'.a khói
Mái tranh chiê`u

Tình đã thâm
Nghe đầm âm
Trong nho' nhung

Nguòi yêu hoi'?
Thôi đùng khóc
Khi phân ky`

Ngày mai đó
Vui đầy hoa
Nhu giâc mo'

Lý Lãng Nhân

White Sail In Evening Fog

Sail in white fog,
as dusk falls
leave the shores,

ride the waves
to the land
of my dreams;

filled with wind,
take my soul
to earth's end;

slice your way
through the waves
in rapt music.

Dusk settles
gathering night
in dense fog.

My boat has
left harbor
and my love

riding waves,
in the fog.

The artist
drowns his poems
in music.

Renewed love
light as smoke
from eve's roof.

Tender love
mellow sound
deep longing.

My sweetheart
weep ye not
when we part.

like flowers
like a dream.

Lý Lãng Nhân

And another foray into the free verse arena:

Thu cảm 2000

Mu`a thu lá bay
Nào em có hay
Tình anh tri~u
Buốn dâng theo lá đô~ tràn đầy.

Mu`a thu đên đây
Hốn anh ngât ngây
Tình xua đau xót
Ngày đi đêm chot tôi suong dzầy.

Bình Minh

Autumn Feelings 2000

Autumn leaves fly.
Do you know, sweetheart,
my heavy heart
falls sadly with the leaves?

Here comes fall,
my soul in ecstasy,
old love in pain,
the last night's farewell in dense fog.

Bình Minh

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.

Chim hoàng hôn

Chiê`u nhe. lan
Trên đối hoang
Ta lắng nghe
Trong không gian
Bóng tôi âm thầm tràn dâng lên khắp ne~o.

Và đó đây
Bát ngát
ánh tà duong luu luyên đi?nh cao
Nhu thãm nha.c
Muôn cánh chim tro`i vội vã thâp đèn sao.

Lý Lãng Nhân

The Twilight Birds

As the evening gloom spreads
Over the wild hills,
I listen
Across vast expanses
To the darkness silently engulf the world.

Hither thither
Clings to the lingering rays on the heights
With pervasive music,
While the birds speedily wing home like myriad stars.

Lý Lãng Nhân


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

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