This week I had the opportunity to immerse myself in "Blank Verse- An Anthology of Vietnamese New Formalism Poetry."
Written in both Vietnamese and English, I found myself absorbing the lines of the poems in this book as if reading poetry for the first time. Immersed in the song-like verses that freely expressed the struggles, fears, hopes, and dreams of immigrants in a new world looking back to another time and place.
Poetry can be a powerful literary method of passing oral accounts from one generation to another. The rhythm and sounds of a poem provide the means of delivery and mnemonic (memory)tools. The difficulty with this is that the sounds are linguistically specific. Sounds that flow in the native tongue of one language becomes muddled in translation into another. A poem set to melodies and tunes in a native tongue lose its asthetic appeal in translation. Thus a conundrum is created. In an increasingly mobile society, how does one bridge the gaps between linguistic, cultural, and generational barriers while preserving traditional heritage? With the Vietnamese being a refugee community, the need to create new forms of poetry that bring rise to the Vietnamese voice in the world of literature. Out of this need arises the New Formalism movement.
Vietnamese New Formalism poetry is a form of blank verse While it does not follow traditional rhymes, it does follow specific numbers of syllables within the verse (often 5-8 words with 6-8 syllables)and are organized into stanzas of four lines. In addition to a patterned number of syllables, the use of enjambments at exact syllable counts regardless of the sentence meaning. This means that a thought that begins on one line may continue or suddenly stop on the next. Sometimes enjambments, or stops, will occur to highlight specific words or thoughts. This unnatural stop pattern often enhances the visual and emotional impact of the poem.
An excerpt from Da Thao's "Diary of a Rainy Day" shows this technique:
when the sun goes behind
clouds and rain starts pouring
down my mind returns to
the old rainy days when
i was lonely, walking........
In addition to the use of metrical lines and enjambments, Vietnamese New Formalism Poetry makes use of word repetitions to create rhythms using everyday language. Rather than embellishing the poems with symbolic language, the poems use repetition of words and phrases to create a song-like rhythm while breathing life into the most routine of daily activities. I personally found this to be a fascinating part of this reading. The questions, stories, and folk tales shared in this anthology were profound in meaning and emotional pull without having to dig through the symbolism and metaphorical language found in classical poetry forms. This enhanced the reading experience for me, since the words wrapped themselves around me and transported me to another time and place.
While this Anthology has an amazing collection of poems written in both English and Vietnamese, I was awakened to a new thought by one particular poem called "Making Poetry Also Requires Democracy" written by Vu Huy Quang. A simple declaration that making poetry is a part of life, while going about everyday activities (watering trees) but with a declaration at the end, that "making poetry also requires..... democracy." Quite a profound thought that was also underlined by Khe Iem when he explained that one of the greatest barriers to the Vietnamese New Formalism Movement is the "lack of young readers" here and that the distribution of this literature is limited in Vietnam by a regulated press and government control.
Vietnamese New Formalism Poetry is more than just another poetic writing style. After reading this anthology, I found it to be a liberated voice of an oppressed community taking their stand in the literary community of the world.
NEW FORMALISM AND A STORY
By Khe Iem
Translated by DoVinh
While I sit sipping my coffee
on the curbside and telling my
story passed down the generations--
telling a story like the one
told by every generation,
about a woman and her sorry
brood (on a corner of a city
known as the place of death, on a
corner known as the place of life),
drawn in by dark lines of charcoal;
broken curves, ugly shadows of
old photographs, like today and
tomorrow and the day after
tomorrow, and thatís about it,
who knows if the woman and her
sorry brood, still telling the story
that has been told by so many
others, nothing different from
the story, the story that tells
itself, even though there is no-
thing beside the story that tells
itself, including the woman
and her sorry brood, stepping out-
side of the story being told.
Poem rewritten with permission from the author. For more information, please contact Khe Iem
Preview this anthology in its original script or in English at Blank Verse-An Anthology of Vietnamese New Formalism Poetry
Vietnamese translation of this article can be found here