The Modern Poetry Movement In Vietnam


With profuse quotations from Vietnamese poets of the twentieth century, Vo Thu Tinh's article discusses the modern poetry movement in Vietnam, whose banner was carried by the authors cited, against the backdrop of French occupation.

From 1859 to 1883, France had completed the conquest of the Southern part of Vietnam as a colony, and in 1885 the North and Central regions became its "protectorates." In 1887 France established the French Indochinese Union, which included all the French-created regions of conquered Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos.

Vietnamese resistance to French colonialism, which did not take long to emerge, was ruthlessly suppressed. The French began the task of pacification and with it the establishment of colonial government, which they ran with the aid of a newly-educated Vietnamese administrative class in the French colonial civil service.

Life under colonial rule was harsh, and extremely difficult for the majority of the Vietnamese, who were divided by region to foster a spirit of regionalism that presumably worked at loggerheads with the national consciousness and a concerted nationwide effort to overthrow French control. Yet the fight continued with the only weapon still available to Vietnamese poets, their pen, albeit a restricted and controlled one. The colonial authorities wasted no time to institute laws against sedition, and severely restricted freedom of any kind, notably freedom of expression. The French knew that the pen was mightier than the sword.

While action-oriented patriots took up their arms against the French and paid dearly for their struggle, Vietnamese poets and writers quietly wielded the power of their ideas. It is ironic that the very institution of colonialism bore with it the seed of its own destruction. France could not govern its colonies without an indigenous elite schooled in French culture, administration, law, and politics. This indigenous educated class was in fact the very infrastructure upon which the French built its colonial empire, although the force of arms maintained a semblance of law and order.

Among this local elite, many were bound to be angry, upon exposure to the ideals of liberty, equality, and fraternity of the French Revolution of 1789, that the French had in fact paid lip service to these ideals when it came to their national interests. The concepts of freedom and democracy that Vietnamese came in contact with in local schools as well as in those in France did not fail to inflame Vietnamese patriotism; and it was only a matter of time when the French had to deal with the demands for independence, sovereignty, and freedom from the Vietnamese.

By concluding his paper with a question mark, Vo Thu Tinh hesitantly advanced the thesis that the new poetry movement in Vietnam at the beginning of the twentieth century might just be the start of the socio-political revolution that culminated in an open armed struggle in the aftermath of World War II. He offered no direct link between the new poetry and the revolution that led to the demise of French colonial rule in Vietnam. However, even veiled allusions and hidden meanings in the poems unmistakably conveyed the spirit of resistance in spite of the colonial authorities' effort to stamp out any hint of seditious acts.

There is sufficient material quoted herein to support the hypothesis that modern Vietnamese poetry helped keep the national spirit alive, under the guise of romanticism and even maudlin sentimentality. A curious mix of genuine expressions of anger and despair as well as of a spirit of abandon and hedonism born of hopelessness and powerlessness permeated the poetic and literary scenes of the days. Yet somehow the political consciousness and the national will of the Vietnamese never lost sight of their ultimate goal of ridding the country of foreign domination. This is an enduring underlying strength of the Vietnamese people throughout their history.

I acknowledge with gratitude the tireless and diligent effort of my poet-friend, Giang N. Trinh, whose judgment and suggestions have guided me throughout the translation.

Thomas D. Le
25 May 2003

The Modern Poetry Movement in Vietnam:
The Revolution in Poetry at the Beginning of the 20th Century

By Vo Thu Tinh

Translated by Thomas D. Le

To Vietnamese Original - A l'original vietnamien

At the beginning of the 20th century, contact with the Western world, and the adoption of the Romanized national writing system (chu quoc ngu) brought about the unsettling and collapse of the solid cultural, social and literary traditions of our country. Everyday life as it impinged on outward manifestations, emotional responses and inner thought processes underwent a radical transformation among the population. Writers and poets suddenly realized they had to break free from the narrow Confucian tenet of "literature as a vehicle of virtue," and from the rigid demanding rules of prosody, especially those of the Duong model, to allow the flowering of vitality, authenticity, and richness in inspiration and expression. This realization is at the root of the new movement in poetry.

The first shot of this revolutionary movement came in early 1914, when the Dong Duong Tap Chi (The Indochinese Journal), Issue No. 40, published in the national script a poem by Nguyen Van Vinh entitled "Con ve va con kien" (The Cicada and the Ant), which was a translation from La Fontaine's fable. Contemporaries quickly called it "new poetry" for its non-observance of any known existing rules of versification. A number of scholars took advantage of the new script to produce poems exhibiting tendencies of resistance against colonial tyranny, as demonstrated in works that ridiculed human foibles and social ills, or those that reminded the people of the current tragedy facing their country. Tan Da utilized the voice of Miss Chu Kieu Oanh, a character in the poem A Small Dream, to publicize and foster the development of the new genre of commentary on current events. "The ancients should know that literature has substantive value, and is not just for private enjoyment, giving pleasure by its virtuosity, but has implications for the people and society. A male citizen is not just a private individual; he also belongs to the four-thousand-year-old Hong Lac nation, now under a fifty-year rule by the protectorate authorities (1), to a society with 25 million people and a country of 340 thousand square ly (leagues)."

However, Nguyen Van Vinh opposed this current-event trend in poetry in the Annam Nouveau (New Annam) magazine, on the grounds that the press is not a venue for poets to arouse patriotism, or to criticize or satirize the authorities. Poets should not engage in politics, instead should concentrate on cultural and educational issues only. Pressure from the colonial government succeeded gradually in driving these satirical and political trends underground. However, Tran Tuan Khai and a number of other poets continued to disguise a call to patriotism under systematic ambiguity, as in the poem Ganh nuoc dem (Drawing Well-water at Night) cited below:

Em bu'ó'c chân ra
Con ðu'ò'ng xa tít
Bên vai ki~u ki.t gánh em tro'? ra vê`,
Em ngoa?nh cô? trong sông rô.ng trò'i khuya
Vì chu'ng nu'ó'c ca.n, nê` em dám kêu ai
Em nhu'~ng tiê'c công bà Nu'~ Oa (a) ðô.i ðá vá trò'i,
Con dã tràng (b) lâ'p biê?n biê't ðò'i nào xong.
Bu'ó'c ðêm khuya thân gái ngâ.p ngù'ng,
Nu'ó'c non gánh, ðú'c ông chông hay ho'?i có hay!

I stepped out
On the endless road,
The burden on the squeaking pole
Weighing down on my way back.
Gazing over across the river in the dead of night,
With water running low, though burdened I didn't complain.
I regretted Lady Nu Oa's (a) effort to mend the heavens,
And the fiddler crabs (b) futilely trying to fill the ocean.
In the night I felt a young woman's fright,
Carrying the water load, unbeknownst to my husband.


(a) Nu Oa, younger sister of an ancient king in China, who fabricated variegated stones to repair the heavens. This alludes to a person with great vision and an achiever of grand projects.

(b) Da trang: a small species of crab living on the seashore (perhaps, a fiddler crab of the genus Uca) which digs burrows in the sand only to see them filled up by the waves washing ashore. The phrase cong da trang (da trang's labor) thus designates a useless, thankless task that can never be accomplished.

[Translator's Note: The following quote from, The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, Columbia University Press, best fits the description of the da trang:

fiddler crab, common name for small, amphibious crabs belonging to the genus Uca. Some species of fiddler crabs live on sandy beaches that are somewhat protected from extreme wave action. Others live in muddy marshes and estuaries. The Uca species living on sandy beaches, such as the common Atlantic fiddler, U. pugilator, make burrows about 1 ft (30 cm) deep, just below the high tide line. The sand is carried to the surface by specialized legs of the crab, and pushed away from the entrance. Fiddler crabs are poor swimmers and rarely enter the water during their adult lives. During the spring and summer, the fiddlers remain in their burrows only during high tide periods. The entrances of the burrows are covered with sand, and the burrows contain a bubble of air, which the crabs use for respiration. When the tide ebbs, the fiddlers emerge and scurry about, collecting food in the drift lines left by the ebbing water. Both claws of the female and the smaller claw of the male are used to scoop up sand and pass the grains to the mouthparts. Certain specialized appendages (the first and second maxillipeds) have spoon-shaped setae, used to scour organic matter from the sand grains and pass it to the mouth. The sand grains are then rejected in the form of small sand balls. After mating, the female fiddler crab carries the fertilized eggs under her flexed abdomen.]

Tan Da, in his narratives Small Dreams (1917), Small Love (1920), and other poems such as The Mountains' and the Rivers' Oath, On Tatters, continued his open intimations to the people about the country's plight:

[Translator's Note: The effect of Tan Da's poem below resides in the metaphor he developed around the term "nuoc non," i.e., literally, waters and mountains, but more generally, the nation, the country. In this poem, he split the term and had one part of the "nation" talking to the other.]

Nu'ó'c non mô.t lò'i thê`,
Nu'ó'c ði ði mãi không vê` cùng non,
Nhó' lò'i nguyê.n nu'ó'c thê` non
Nu'ó'c ði chu'a la.i, non còn ðú'ng trông...

There is an oath between the waters and the mountains.
The waters keep flowing away from the mountains.
Remember the oath.
The waters have not returned, the mountains still keep waiting.

Only two literary trends were deliberately condoned or encouraged by the colonial authorities:

The ethical strain was apolitical, and purely cultural and educational. Poets concerned themselves with historical narratives and commentaries as well as with children's education. For example, Tan Da belongs in this group with works such as Age Six and Age Eight . Nguyen Trong Thuat wrote fables to teach morals to children, impart a sense of national pride in their history, and preserve the dignity of the individual.

The romantic strain given to sentimentality of all kinds laments the human condition in the face of fate, the Vietnamese people under tyranny and exploitation, and the country being trampled upon by foreign invaders. An overarching melancholy permeates the poets' consciousness and their works. Representative of this trend were Bà Tuong Pho, Tran Tuan Khai, Dong Ho, Tan Da in the journals and magazines with names like Huu Thanh, Annam Journal (Annam Tap Chi), Modern Woman (Phu Nu Tan Van), and South Wind (Nam Phong).

It was not until 1932 that Phan Khoi really initiated the New Poetry movement with his publication in the Modern Woman of a poem titled, Elderly Love. Other magazines such as South Wind and Culture followed suit to foster the movement. Soon they were joined by The Megaphone (Loa), Modern Day (Nhat Tan), and Youth (Ban Tre), which published and advocated the new verse forms, flouting classical models. Nguyen Thi Kiem in Saigon and Luu Trong Lu in Hanoi raised the banner for the new poetry. In the period 1933-1934, poets from the Tu Luc Van Doan (The Self-Reliants) group added criticism and theoretical discussion of the new literary trend. Seeing that their rear-guard action became ineffectual, the "Ancients" began to change their tune, "There is no such thing as old or new poetry; there is only good or bad poetry."

Works by The Lu, Luu Trong Lu, Vu Dinh Lien, Xuan Dieu, and others followed one another into the poetic arena. Ten years later, in 1942, in his volume on Vietnamese Poets Hoai Thanh showcased 40 of the most outstanding poets since 1932. From this moment on the new poetry and the new poets had become part of the history of Vietnamese literature.

An issue of the journal Culture (Phong Hoa) of March 1932 loudly proclaimed, "Our poetry must be modern, modern in form, and modern in substance."

Modern in Form. In form new poetry differs from old poetry. Old poetry follows fixed patterns whereas new poetry is completely free: each poem may contain any number of verses, any number of stanzas, with each stanza containing any number of words.

Sáng nay tiê'ng chim thanh (5 words)
Trong gió xanh (3 words)
Diê`u vu'o'ng hu'o'ng â'm thoa?ng xuân tình (7 words)
Ngàn xu'a không la.nh nu'~a, Tâ`n phi. (7 words)
Ta dâng nàng (4 words)
Trò'i mây pha?ng phâ't nhuô'm tho'`i gian (7 words)

This morning with the mellow bird song
Riding the breeze,
The perfumed warmth wafting gently with spring love,
The distant old days no longer so cold, my lady,
I quietly offer you
The time-colored clouds and sky.

Doan Phu Tu (Màu Thò'i Gian, The Color of Time)

Rhyme patterns of any kind was acceptable, and observed no specific rules. At first, though, the French rhyme patterns were followed, as in:

Enveloping rhymes

Chính hôm nay gió da.i ðê'n trên ðô`i
Cây không he.n ðê? ngày mai se~ mát,
Trò'i ða~ thám, le~ ðâu vu'ò'n cu' nha.t?
Ða'n ðo gì cho lo'~ mô.ng song ðôi

Today the unruly wind came over the hill,
The trees didn't promise to give shade tomorrow.
The sun was red, so why was the garden pale still?
Why waver to see the dream of union fall through?

Xuan Dieu ( Tho', Poetry Gift)

Alternating rhymes

Cu?a ong bu'ó'm nâ`y ðây tuâ`n tháng mâ.t;
Nâ`y ðây hoa cu?a ðô`ng nô.i xanh ri`;
Nâ`y ðây là cu?a cành to' pho' phâ't
Cu?a yê'n anh nâ`y ðây khúc tình si.

For bees and butterflies 'tis the honey season,
And these here blossoms of the green fields,
And these leaves dancing on young limbs,
And for the swallows and orioles 'tis their love song.

Xuan Dieu

Rhythm too is different from before, especially with the use of enjambment:

Hôm nay tôi ða~ chê't trong ngu'ò'i
xu'a he.n nghìn nam yêu mê'n tôi.

Today I have died in the person
who promised to love me to eternity.

Xuan Dieu

Though the new poetic paradigm drops most of the old rules, it still retains certain rhyme patterns to make it more enduring. In a 1942 discussion of rhyming patterns in the new poetry, Hoai Thanh noticed a tone alternation phenomenon that occurs very naturally in Vietnamese poems and cuts across all genres. He said, " a verse with several natural breaking points, the last word of each segment alternates in tone patterns with the last word of the next segment." (2). Thus, the bang B ( even, long) tone that ends one segment is followed by a trac T (uneven, clipped and short) tone that terminates the next segment, and so on:

Gâ.m môt mô'i (T) cam hò'n (B) trong cu~i sát (T)
Ta nàm dài (B) trong ngày tháng (T) dâ`n qua (B)
Khinh lu~ ngu'ò'i kia (B) nga.o ma.n, (T) ngâ?n ngo' (B)
Giu'o'ng mát be' (T) giê~u oai linh (B) rù'ng tha?m (T)

My heart seethes with hatred, in the iron cage
I lie for long slow months,
Despising the gang of addle swaggerers
Who through tiny eyes dare to mock the jungle's majesty.

The Lu (Nhó' Rù'ng, Yearning for the Jungle)

Em không nghe mùa thu
Du'ó'i trang mò' (B) thô?n thú'c (T)
Em không nghe (B) ra.o ru'.c (T)
Hình a?nh (T) ke? chinh phu (B)
Trong lòng (B) ngu'ò'i cô phu. (T)

Do you hear autumn, sweetheart,
Under the pale moon sobbing?
Do you hear the throbbing, sweetheart,
Of a warrior's image
In his lady's lonely heart?

Luu Trong Lu (Tiê'ng Thu, Sounds of Autumn)

Lá ðào (B) ro'i rác (T) lô'i Thiên Thai (B)
Suô'i tiê~n (T) oanh ðu'a (B) nhu'~ng ngâ.m ngùi (B)
Nu'?a nam (B) tiên ca?nh (T)
Mô.t bu'ó'c (T) trâ`n ai (B)
U'óc cu~ (T) duyên thù'a (B) có thê' thôi (B)

Peach leaves carpet the path to Paradise.
Let the spring and oriole bid good-bye.
For half the year in fairyland I rise.
And one minute fresh back to earth I sigh.
Old dreams and faded bliss just last so long.

Tan Da (Tô'ng Biê.t, Farewell to Paradise)

Sometimes tone change occurs while rhyme does not:

Duyên tram nam (B) ðú't ðoa.n (T)
Tình muôn thuo'? (T) còn vu'o'ng (B)
Hu'o'ng thò'i gian thanh thanh (B)
Màu thò'i gian tím ngát (T)

The hundred-year bond of fate was severed,
Yet the one-time love still lingered.
The perfume of time was a gentle scent,
And the color of time a deep purple.

Doan Phu Tu (Màu Thò'i Gian, The Color of Time)

In his article, "Word Choice in The Old and New Poetry," (Culture, No. 63, October 1933), Nhat Linh maintained that "poets of the old school selected each word with care to insure appropriateness, euphony, word-for-word balance, and virtuosity. Poets of the new school also selected each word carefully for its ability to express their feelings most accurately, and its capacity to mirror faithfully the deepest stirrings of their soul." The innovation, which at first manifested itself by its rejection of the old poetic rules, came eventually to imitate the French model. "Partir c'est mourir un peu" (Leaving is dying a little) by Edmond Haraucourt gives rise to "Yêu là chê't trong lòng mô.t ít" (Loving is dying in the heart a little) by Xuan Dieu. Vaguely reminiscent of Félix Arvers' "N'osant rien demander et n'ayant rien recu" (Daring to ask for nothing, nothing to receive) is another of Xuan Dieu's lines, "Cho râ't nhiê`u, song nhâ.n cha?ng bao nhiêu" (You give a lot but receive so little).

The language that appeared in the new poetry could have seemed irrational to readers of the period 1932-1945. Witness such phrases as, the sun goes to bed, bite into the spring season, a bundle of longings, a fascicle of love, the shouts of light, from Xuan Dieu:

Ðêm nay la.nh ma.t trò'i ði ngu? só'm.
Tonight is cold, the sun goes to bed early.

Ho'~i xuân hô`ng, ta muô'n cán vào ngu'o'i.
O red spring, I want to bite into thee.

Ðây chùm mong nhó', khóm yêu ðu'o'ng
Ðây em cành the.n, lâ~n cành thu'o'ng
Nhu'~ng tiê'ng tung hô bàng ánh sáng.

Here is a bundle of longings, a fascicle of love.
Here is my token of shyness and my token of love.
The loud cries made with the light.

In modern times, however, the mixing of disparate objects and emotions gives rise to a rich creative imagery. As André Breton wrote, in his Premier manifeste du surréalisme (The First Manifesto of Surrealism), "Images are pure creations of the mind. They do not spring from comparison, but from a juxtaposition of two unrelated realities. The more distant and genuine their relationship is, the stronger the imagery is, and the more it is endowed with emotive power and poetic reality." (3)

Take this image from Xuan Dieu (Ca, Adoration):

Trang vú mô.ng muôn ðò'i thi si~.
Do' hai tay mo'n tró'n ve~ tràn ðâ`y.

The moon's two breasts are the poet's eternal dream.
He caresses their fullness with extended hands.

which seems to have come straight out of Beaudelaire's poem "Le balcon" (The Balcony). Elsewhere Xuan Dieu made a startling revelation:

Tôi nhó' Rimbaud vó'i Verlaine
Hai chà'ng thi si~ choáng ho'i men
Say tho' xa la., mê tình ba.n
Khinh re? khuôn mòn, bo? lô'i quen.

I recall Rimbaud and Verlaine.
The two poets who were dead drunk,
Drunk with strange poetry, friendly passion,
Scornful of worn paths, forsaking old ways.

Modern in Substance. As Paul Mus observed, "From Vietnam's inception, the main theme of its historical issues seems to reside precisely in the spirit of resistance that paradoxically unites astonishing capacities to assimilate and an unyielding national will in the face of defeats, dismemberments, and conquests." (5)

At the beginning of the twentieth century, through contact with the West and in spite of it, our poets and writers manifested a spirit of opposition to French colonialism as well as to Chinese rules of versification, mingled with an attitude of receptivity towards the ideas of liberty and democracy, which came either indirectly through the new writings of Chinese thinkers such as Khang Huu Vy and Luong Khai Sieu, or directly through French literature, to seek modernization of society and the creation of the "new poetry."

In the area of social modernization arose the Live Happy, Live Young movement among major urban areas, which embodied the young generation's rejection of their elders' antiquated ideas.

At that time the new generations of educated men and women were fired up and encouraged by the return on 8 September 1932 of Bao Dai, a young French-educated king who had married Nguyen Thi Lan, who was also young and French-educated. She was a Catholic from a wealthy family in the South. On 10 September 1932, the king announced that "from now on I will reign with the cooperation of the people, in a constitutional monarchy, and will introduce necessary reforms in the civil service, education, and the judicial system." On 2 May 1933, he promulgated a decree to establish a new cabinet, headed by thirty-one-year-old Ngo Dinh Diem, who was appointed Minister of Rites and Secretary of the Joint Franco-Vietnamese Committee to study the reform measures announced earlier. Unfortunately, about four months later in November, Ngo Dinh Diem resigned citing "the French insistence on holding all powers to govern Vietnam directly." From then on, Bao Dai let the forty-one-year-old Pham Quynh take over the front stage. Because of the French's intentions, all reform efforts were stymied, and the king was relegated to a ceremonial role only. (6)

In a separate development, the efforts to fight French colonialism mounted in the 1930's by the Viet Nam Quoc Dan Dang (Vietnamese Nationalist Party), which resulted in failure and the execution of 37 resistance fighters, including the 13 executed in Yen Bai, sent a strong shock wave around the country. The French heavy-handed crushing of revolts caused anguish, fear, despair and suspicion among the population. As part of their pacification strategy, the French promoted the Live Happy, Live Young movement mentioned above, to encourage the young generations to party, and enjoy life, thereby deflecting their attention away from the spirit of national resistance, and to clamp down on current-events literary creations with heavy censorship.

All the hopes pinned on the young king had vanished into thin air. Vietnamese could express their feelings of despair and anger only through veiled allusions and melancholic writings. Witness:

Rô`i ca? thò'i gian tan tác ðô?
Dâ'u oai linh hùng vi~ thâ'y gì ðâu
Thò'i gian cha?y ðá mòn sông núi lo'?
Lòng ta luôn còn ma~i vê't ðau thu'o'ng

Then there was the time of collapse
Wiping out all traces of past exploits.
Time eroded mountains and river rocks,
My heart still smarts with lasting wounds and pain.

Che Lan Vien

The bleak political situation paved the way for romanticism, which was the only escape hatch for poets and writers of the days. This is the romanticism of despair and anguish:

Tram nam theo do~i áng mây trôi.

For a hundred years I follow the floating clouds.

The Lu

Mo' theo trang và vo' vâ?n cùng mây.

I dream with the moon and hang about the clouds.

Xuan Dieu

La.c giu'~a sao trò'i tôi vâ~n mê.

Lost among the stars I go a-dreaming.

Che Lan Vien

Nàm gáng ða~ không thành mô.ng ðu'o'.c
Ngâm tràn cho ðo'~ chút buô`n thôi.

Lingering in bed won't make dreams come true,
Verses I sing to lessen sadness do.

Han Mac Tu (Buô`n Thu, Autumn Sadness)

Say ði em, say ði em,
Say cho lo'i la? ánh ðèn,
Cho cung bu'.c ngã nghiêng ðiên rô` xác thi.t.
Ru'o'.u ru'o'.u nu'~a, vá quên quên hê't...

Ðâ't trò'i nghiêng ngu'?a
Thành sâ`u không su.p ðô?, em o'i.

Get drunk, get drunk, my dear,
Drunk to the lure of the lamplight,
To the jumbled music rhythm,
To the crazed craving of the flesh.
More wine, more wine, and forget, forget all...

Let earth and heaven teeter and totter,
The wall of grief will not crumble, my dear.

Vu Hoang Chuong (Say i Em, Get Drunk, Baby!)

Dogging the steps of the moon, dreaming the moon, getting lost among the stars, reciting poetry to alleviate sadness, getting drunk to forget, forgetting everything, the walls of sorrow not crumbling... All the dark suffocating reality induced among poets a thirst for an escape. But escaping whereto?

Ði, ði ...ði mãi no'i vô ði.nh
Ti`m cái phi thu'ò'ng, cái u'ó'c mo'.

Go, go, go to some unknown place afar,
Seek the extraordinary, unfulfilled dreams.

Han Mac Tu

Ði cùng anh tó'i Cô Tô thành cu~,
Chò' trang lên mo' nhu'~ng giâ'c mo' xu'a.

Come with me to the old town of Co To,
And wait for moonrise to resume old dreams.

Huy Thong

Thú hô` bê? quyê'n mò'i du tu?
Niê`m thê nhi khôn giu'~ ðu'o'.c lò'i!
Biê't sao trái vò'i tình trò'i,
Giang hô` kiê'p â'y tro.n ðò'i phiêu lu'u.

His wanderlust seduced the wanderer
Into breaking his oath to family!
Though knowing it's against morality,
He will throughout his life idly wander.

Luu Trong Lu

No matter where their steps led them, they could not forget the suffering of an enslaved people, of a people traumatized by fate. Sufferings and pains gave poets an opportunity to examine their "inner selves," to return to their own conscience, to fathom the depths and dark recesses of their psyche, where they confronted their own despair, and doubted the reason of their very existence, one which was characterized by self-doubt, loneliness, daze, and disorientation.

Mô.t linh hô`n nho?
Mang mang thiên cô? sâ`u.

A small soul
Beset by a vague, eternal sadness.

Huy Can

Ai ba?o dùm: Ta có, có Ta không?

Please tell me: Am I or am I not?

Che Lan Vien

Chó' ðê? riêng em pha?i ga.p lòng em !

Don't you let your self meet your heart!

Xuan Dieu

Thô quá, sám vai gì trên sân khâ'u?
Hô`n cô ðo'n, trông ngo' ngác cho'. trò'i.

Too awkward to play a role on the stage,
So lonely and lost in the marketplace.

Phan Khac Khoan

Mênh mông ðâu ðo' ngoài vô tâ.n
Mô.t cánh thuyê`n say la.c hu'ó'ng ðêm!

Out in the infinite immensity
A small drunken boat is lost in the night.

Vu Hoang Chuong

In all circumstances the "self" became so powerless it did not even understand its own motives and emotions.

Rô`i mô.t ngày mai tôi se~ ði
Vi` sao? Ai no'~ ho?i làm chi!
Tôi khò' kha.o lám, ngu ngo' quá
Chi? biê't yêu thôi cha?ng hiê?u gì!

Then tomorrow I will set out.
Why ? Please don't ask.
I am too simple-minded, too doltish.
I know only love, nothing else!

Xuan Dieu (Vì Sao, Why?)

Ai ðem phân châ't mô.t mùi hu'o'ng
Hay ba?n câ`m ca. Tôi chi? thu'o'ng.
Chi? chuôi theo giòng ca?m xu'c,
Nhu' thuyê`n ngu' phu? la.c trong su'o'ng.

Who'll ever want to analyze a scent,
Or a piece of music? I know only to love,
And to quietly follow my feelings
Like a fisherman's boat lost in the fog.

Xuan Dieu (Vì Sao, Why?)

Hôm nay trò'i nhe. lên cao,
Tôi buô`n không hiê?u vi` sao tôi buô`n.

Today the sun glides up the sky,
I feel so sad, but know not why.

Xuan Dieu (Chiê`u, Eventide)

It is often said that pre-war poets gravitated only around the topic of love, and were given completely to lamenting their tortured romantic "self." But suffering is the teacher of human existence, and the tragedy of love helps them to gain a deeper understanding of the meaning of life, and to feel a need to express their hidden, repressed emotions in the literature and poetry, leading to a romantic attitude and highly lyrical and individualistic stance.

At the same time, there was felt a need to express the misfortune of the ordinary folks.

Trò'i ho'~i! Nhò' ai cho kho?i ðói,
Gió trang có sa~n làm sao an.

Good heavens! Who do we turn to to ease hunger ?
The wind and the moon at hand cannot be eaten.

Han Mac Tu

Nô~i ðò'i co' cu'.c ðang gio' vuô't
Co'm áo không ðùa vó'i khách tho'.

Life's misery bares its claws,
And its basic needs are no trifle to poets.

Xuan Dieu

Mô~i lâ`n câ`m bút nói van chu'o'ng
Nhi`n ðàn chó ðói ga.m tro' xu'o'ng
Rô`i nhi`n chúng mi`nh hì hu.c viê't
Suô't mâ'y nam trò'i kiê't vâ~n kiê't
Mà thu'o'ng cho tôi, thu'o'ng cho anh
Ðã bao nhiêu mó' tóc xanh.

Every time the urge to write arises,
I look at the hungry and skinny dogs,
Then look at us all hard at work
Year in year out to stay penniless still,
And feel sorry for me, sorry for you
For having lost so much of our young hair.

Nguyen Vy (Gu'?i Tru'o'ng Tu'?u, To Truong Tuu)

And if the poets felt the need to voice the pains and sufferings of a subjugated people in poetry, they had to do so in a veiled, indirect fashion so as to avoid the colonial authorities' reprisals and imprisonment.

Nn ðau thu'o'ng, vu'o'ng ngâ.m ngùi se~ kê?
Niê`m ngao ngán vô biên nhu' trò'i bê?.
Ôi! Tâ'm gan bê`n cha.t nhu' Thái So'n,
Bao nhiêu cay ða'ng cha?ng hê` sò'n!
Ôi! Nhu'~ng trâ.n ma.c khiê'n trò'i long ðâ't lo'~,
Nhu'~ng chiê'n tha'ng tu'ng bù'ng!
Nhu'~ng vinh quang ru'.c ro'~!
Ôi! Nhu'~ng vo~ công oanh liê.t chô'n sa tru'ò`ng
Nhu'~ng buô?i tung hoành lan lô.n trong ru'`ng thu'o'ng
Nhu'~ng tu'ó'ng du~ng bi. ðâ`u vang tru'ó'c trâ.n.
Nhu'ng than ôi! Vâ.n trò'i khi ðã tâ.n,
Sú'c lay thành nhô? núi có làm chi?

Let's silence the smarting pain to recount
The heavens-high and ocean-deep disappointment.
O courage! thou art as steadfast as Mount Thai Son,
Which endured unfazed all bitter experiences!
O! All those earth-shattering battles,
All those resounding victories!
All those shining glories!
O! All those exploits on the battlefields!
The long fights amidst a forest of lances,
Those brave warriors decapitated in action!
But alas! When heaven's fate so ordains,
What use is the wall-crumbling and mountain-moving strength?

Huy Thong (Tiê'ng Ð Sông Ô. The Flute of River O)

On the esthetic value of poetry, The Lu had made an enduring statement in The Versatile Instrument (Cây Ðàn Muôn Ðiê.u) thus:

Tô i chi? là mô.t khách tình si
Ham cái Ðe.p có muôn hình muôn ve~,
Mu'o'.n lâ'y bút nàng Ly Tao, tôi ve~
Mu'o'.n cây ðàn ngàn phím, tôi ca
Ve? ðe.p u trâ`m, ða'm ðuô'i hay ngây tho'
Cu~ng nhu' ve? ðe.p cao siêu hùng tráng
Cu?a non nu'ó'c, cu?a thi van tu' tu'o'?ng...

I am but a lovesick man,
Falling in love with Beauty with its myriad faces.
With a brush borrowed from Lady Ly Tao I paint.
To the tune of the thousand-fretted instrument I sing
Of Beauty quiet, passionate, or innocent
As of the Beauty grandiose and heroic
Of nature, of literature and of thoughts...

The Lu (Cây Ðàn Muôn Ðiê.u, The Versatile Instrument)

To The Lu, the object of poetry is Beauty. Poetry is where painting and music converge in their respective pursuit of beauty, which poets celebrate: from the quiet, innocent beauty of emotions to the sublime and grand beauty of nature, of language, and of philosophy.

Yet for all its dreamy and detached nature, poetry has to seek its materials from the earthy, workaday life:

Vó'i nàng Tho' tôi có ðàn muôn ðiê.u
Vó'i nàng Tho' tôi có bút muôn màu
Tôi muô'n làm nhà nghê. si~ nhiê.m mâ`u
Lâ'y thanh sa'c trâ`n gian làm tài liê.u.

With my Muse I have an instrument of a thousand melodies.
With my Muse I have a brush of a thousand colors.
I want to be a magical artist
Using the world's sounds and colors as ingredients.

The Lu (Cây Ðàn Muôn Ðiê.u, The Versatile Instrument)

Such a conception of poetry, encapsulated in a few concise lines, still carries a valuable message today.

Legally and openly, the new poets, through the agency of the Xuan Thu Nha Tap (The Spring and Autumn Review) (1941), promoted complete freedom of expression. The new poetry demands liberty, and demands the emancipation of the self in poetry.

In former times, Vietnamese poets used the "self" in their lamentation and self-pity.

Nghi~ mình la.i thêm thu'o'ng nô~i mình.

The more I think about myself, the more I pity myself.

Cung Oan

Giâ.t mình, mình la.i thu'o'ng mình xót xa!

All of a sudden I feel pain for my sorry lot!


Tôi ngô`i tôi nghi~ cái tha`ng tôi.

Sitting here I think about my poor self.

Tu Xuong

The first "self" refers to the collective self, the second "self" to the objective self, and the third to the subjective self.

To define the self's proud position in the universe, Nguyen Cong Tru declared:

Ngã kim nhâ.t ta.i to.a chi ði.a
Cô? chi nhân ta`ng chi ngã to.a chi
Ngàn muôn nam âu cu~ng thê' ni.
Không Phâ.t, không Tiên, không nhuô'm tu.c.
(Chô~ ngày nay ta ngô`i
Tru'ó'c ðây nguòi xu+a cu~ng ðã ngô`i ta.i ðó
Nghìn nam âu cu~ng nhu' thê' ca?)

Where I am sitting now
Is where past generations sat.
For perpetuity will it be so,
Neither a Buddha, nor an immortal, just unspoiled by earthly things.

It was so in the past and will be so in the future through time; man is neither Buddha or immortal nor phantom in space.

The self in the ancient poets was face to face with a mystical fate, amid boundless space and time. Whether their soul was in a tragic or heroic state, it was immersed in the hidden self, submerged in the collectivity, the family, and the nation. But the self in the new poets sheds its breadth in favor of depth. Today's poets dig deep into their own consciousness in search of understanding while analyzing and exposing the most profound recesses of the self.

Exposing the poet's feelings is tantamount to expressing those of the readers, of the masses. As Victor Hugo said, "When I talk about myself, I talk to you about yourself. How can you avoid knowing it?" And Paul Valery chimed in, "You are insane who think I am not you." (7)

The state of mind of the Vietnamese people of the days was one of anger and extreme discontent over their country's foreign occupation. Yet under colonial rule, poets and writers were not at liberty to discuss social and political issues. So they resorted to indirect allusions to the misery of the people, and to brilliant military exploits on the battlefield whose splendor and glory outshone anything else.

Henri Lemaitre, in his Poésie depuis Beaudelaire (Poetry Since Beaudelaire), thought that in a historical conjuncture when society comes into conflict with the individual, who has gained an awareness of his self, and his social environment, "the poet identifies poetry with revolt." (8). George Jean in La Poésie likewise affirms, "The revolt of the oppressed peoples has often started as a revolt in poetry." (9)

Is the new poetry movement a revolt, a revolution? Did this poetic revolution contribute significantly to the effort to emancipate the Vietnamese people? Did the fight for freedom and the liberation of the self gradually spread to the social and political arenas from literature and poetry?

Paris, 2001


     (1) Tan Da added this segment to appease the colonial authorities.

     (2) Hoai Thanh, Vietnamese Poets, Hanoi, 1942, p. 41.

     (3) André Breton, Premier manifeste du surréalisme. "L'image est une création pure de l'esprit. Elle ne peut naître d'une comparaison mais du rapprochement de deux réalités éloignées. Plus le rapport de deux realités seront lointaines et justes, plus l'image sera forte, plus elle aura de puissance émotive et de réalité poétique." (Quoted by Jean-Louis Joubert, from La poésie, Paris, Armand Colin, 1988, pp. 45-46.)

     (4) Thuy Khe, The Structure of Poetry, "Literature", 1995, p.87.

     (5) Paul Mus, Vietnam, Sociologie d'une guerre. "Dès que commence le Vietnam, le maître-mot de ses problèmes historiques paraît justement se trouver dans cet esprit de résistance qui associe, de façon paradoxale, à d'étonnantes facultés d'assimiliation, une irréductibilite nationale à l'épreuve des défaites, des démembrements et des conquêtes."

     (6) Bao Dai, Le Dragon d'Annam, Paris, Plon, 1980, pp. 33-61.

     (7) Victor Hugo, Contemplations, Préface: "Quand je parle de moi, je vous parle de vous. Comment ne le sentez-vous pas?" Paul Valéry: "Insensé qui crois que je ne suis pas toi."

     (8) Henri Lemaître, La poésie depuis Beaudelaire: La poésie en conflit, Paris, Armand Colin, 1993, p. 9. "En conflit avec la société, le poète identifie poésie et révolte."

     (9) Georges Jean, La Poésie, Paris, Seuil, 1966, p. 148. "La révolte des peuples opprimés a été souvent d'abord une révolte poétique."

Final Translator's Note, courtesy Giang N. Trinh:

The quotations in this article may be found in the following works:

1. Trâ`n Tuâ'n Kiê.t , Thi Ca Viê.t Nam Hiê.n Ða.i , Volume I, Nhà Xuâ't Ba?n Sô'ng Mó'i, Garden Grove, CA

2. Thi ca Viê.t Nam cho.n lo.c, Tho' Tình Xuân Diê.u, Kiê`u Vân gió'i thiê.u, Nhà Xuâ't Ba?n Ðô`ng Nai, 1996.

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