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An Anthology of Vietnamese Poems: From the Eleventh through the Twentieth Centuries.

Following A Thousand Years of Vietnamese Poetry, edited and translated by Nguyen Ngoc Bich (Knopf, 1975), Yale University Press brought out in 1979 The Heritage of Vietnamese Poetry, a collection of premodern poems edited and translated by Huynh Sanh Thong, a Vietnamese scholar based in New Haven. Now the latter professional translator provides the English reader with another superb collection of Vietnamese verse - 322 works by some 150 Vietnamese poets.

As pointed out in the preface, of the 125 poems here that appeared in the earlier volume, many have now been revised. The editor has also added "The Marvelous Encounter at Blue Creek" and "The Constant Mouse," two long narratives in verse which had been published separately, and five other traditional poems composed in the vernacular six-eight meter or the double seven-six-eight elegy style. Students of classical Vietnamese literature are indeed grateful for exquisite renditions of "Calling All Souls" by Nguyen Du, "A Song of Sorrow Inside the Royal Harem" by Nguyen Gia Thieu, "The Song of a Soldier's Wife" by Dang Tran Con and Phan Huy Ich, "Catfish and Toad," and "The Quarrel of the Six Beasts." The first of these gems is a moving call to "ten categories of wandering souls" (those neglected spirits that people try annually, on the fifteenth day of the seventh lunar month, to mollify by prayers and offerings), and its author is none other than the narrator of The Tale of Kieu (see WLT 58:2, p. 329). Both "The Song of a Soldier's Wife" and "The Quarrel of the Six Beasts" have been published separately (see WLT 63:1, p. 168).

Most of the poems composed in Chinese by monarchs, ministers, Buddhist monks, and Confucian scholars have been omitted so as to make room for hundreds of works written during the twentieth century. This is a good idea. Following a revised historical and critical introduction, all the poems are organized into nine main sections, under whose headings poets treating the same theme are grouped chronologically. This categorization is judicious, for it allows the reader to fully appreciate Vietnamese views of society, responses to Chinese and Western influences, and feelings about heterosexual relationships, the role of art in life, and social conflicts among the "four classes" (scholars, farmers, artisans, and merchants). A bibliography follows an index of poets and poems at the volume's conclusion.

Nationalism, relations between men and women, and the issue of war and peace (in feudal Vietnam as well as through modern wars of independence) are the themes most thoroughly treated by Vietnamese poets old and young. The editor has shown an eclectic taste in his choice of poets and works to be featured, juxtaposing significant classical works by major traditional poets and notable works by those living in the transitional period between the last national dynasties and Vietnam's painful entry into the modern world. Many of the works represented here reflect well the strategy of cultural assimilation that Vietnam has used when confronting waves of colonialist, capitalist, and communist incursions and the resilient struggle to maintain her national identity amid the profound changes in a society disrupted by constant war and its concomitant socioeconomic changes - the price of westernization and modernization. Just as the former colonial territory is determined to assert its dignified existence under the sun, so its sons have used their mother tongue well in folk songs and popular verse - and in sonnets and stanzas about steel, blood and tears, and love. Huynh Sanh Thong has artfully - and seemingly without difficulty - rendered their efforts in a lucid yet sensitive, plebeian yet graceful English. Huynh's predecessors such as Phan Huy Ich (1750 - 1822) and Nguyen Khac Hieu (1888-1939) succeeded in fulfilling the three criteria (fidelity, expressiveness, and elegance) of a good translation. Huynh has nobly emulated those two masters.

One much-appreciated feature of the book is its copious explanations of pithy expressions and literary allusions. The spherical banh troi (nuoc) dumplings described in Poem 188 are the size of meatballs but are made of rice flour, contain each a solid cube of brown sugar, and are served in a bowl filled with plain water; only the banh chay or larger flat dumplings have a mashed mung bean filling and are served in a syrup. Elsewhere, the original name of the League for the Independence of Vietnam is not "VietNam Doc-lap Dong-minh Hoi" but only "Viet-Nam Doc-lap Dong-minh," with the first and last syllables making up the contraction "Viet-Minh." On page 2 of the introduction, the country's name is twice misspelled as "Vietname." Despite such minor inaccuracies, the collection is truly a rare compendium of Vietnamese poetry and will be much in demand for use in college courses on Vietnamese history and culture.

Dinh-Hoa Nguyen Southern Illinois University, Carbondale
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Author:Nguyen, Dinh-Hoa
Publication:World Literature Today
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1997
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