This thesis aims to compare Western and modern Vietnamese poetry. The thesis addresses the ways in which Eastern poetry has been influenced by Western theories and how some Western poets have been inspired by traditional Eastern thinking.
As a person born in 1986 – the first year of economic reforms in Vietnam - I understand the gap between the socialist economy before 1986, which depended on state subsidies, and the market economy after 1986 in my country. I was aware of the social conditions of Vietnamese economy before 1986, when each Vietnamese person regardless of age or what job he did was paid the same and most of the country’s income came from socialist countries’ aid. I then grew up in a new Vietnam, which was being constantly reformed, and which began to learn about the West, established economic co-operation with Western countries and normalised relations with the United States. Thus, the generation after 1986 was allowed to study English instead of Russian in high school and started to explore the West. Through learning the English language, young Vietnamese poets approached British and American poems. Following the redevelopments of 1986, many Vietnamese poets who had written during the American-Vietnamese war were restored. Thus, through my own personal experience and analysis from a Vietnamese perspective, I wish to contribute a mutual understanding between Vietnam, an Eastern country, and Western countries with regard to modern poetry.
I use the term Western ‘Modern poetry’ to mean modern poetry written in English (including poetry from Ireland, the whole of the United Kingdom and the United States). I also refer to poetry translated into English (e.g. from French) to illustrate the ways in which Western poetic theory and practice have been disseminated worldwide and in particular to Vietnam. Another reason for choosing to consider French and American poetry is the extensive passive influences of French and American poetry and culture during the wars in Vietnam in the twentieth century.
Perhaps surprisingly, ‘Modern Vietnamese Poetry’ is still a controversial term to use in researching Vietnamese poetry. Vietnamese poetry does not exactly follow the main theories of Western ‘modern poetry’, and has no known representatives abroad.
There may be some acknowledgment in Vietnam of Western influences on Vietnamese poetry. In ‘Một số vấn đề xung quanh phạm trù chủ nghĩa hiện đại’1 (On the Category of Modernism), Lại Nguyên Ân offers an understanding of Western (mainly French), Russian and American modernist history and gives some examples of pioneers among Vietnamese poetic groups from 1930 onwards. Some translations into Vietnamese of modern Western theory and practice, such as The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge2byJean-Francois Lyotard, and A Room of One’s Own3 by Virginia Woolf, have encouraged understanding of modernism in Vietnam. Trang Ngọc Doãn Cao4 discusses some modernist aspects of typical Vietnamese poets, and Paul Hoover and Nguyen Do present a more detailed picture of contemporary Vietnamese poetry in ‘The New Horizon’5 with poems from before and after 1975 (the time when North and South Vietnam were unified).
Based on my research of leading modern Vietnamese poets Trần Dần, Lê Đạt, Dương Tường, Tố Hữu, Vũ Hoàng Chương, Lưu Trọng Lư and Như Huy in 20076, I would like to identify the Western influences on representatives of modern Vietnamese poetry and to propose a new way of reading, studying and writing a modern poem. I want to suggest that the defining terms and possible influences of Western poetry have often been misunderstood until now (2017) in Vietnam. Therefore, I hope to group modern Western poets into specific periods to compare with groups in the East, bearing in mind the time differentials in terms of development at different moments and at different speeds in different countries.
It cannot be denied that the arrival of the French at the beginning of the twentieth century brought Western ideology to Vietnam. However, it must have been after 1975, when the unification of Vietnam led to a change of ‘authority’ in recognising and publishing poetry, that Vietnamese poets started to deliver a ‘modern’ approach. This was about fifty years later than modernism in Western poetry.
The influence of different modes of writing led to the use of Latin script to put the Vietnamese language on paper. Some Vietnamese poets in ‘Thơ mới’ (New Poetry Movement: 1930-1945) read Baudelaire, Valéry and Rimbaud in French and declared that those Symbolist poets had inspired them7. However, besides French poetry, which used to be taught in high school in Vietnam at the beginning of the twentieth century, Vietnamese poets did not know about Western poetry or groups associated with writers such as T.S. Eliot, F.S. Flint, Hilda Doolittle or Ezra Pound. After that, the period from 1945 to 1954 represents a long pause in Vietnamese poetry. As a requirement of the communist revolution, modern Vietnamese poetry removed all influences from the French and came back to traditional writings. They closed their poetic door without knowing anything about the post-World War II poetry of the West. After 1954, whilst North Vietnam continued to maintain poetry under its political ideology, South Vietnam, with sponsors from America, responded to the time gap between Western and Vietnamese poetry by reading and writing poetry like the American poets. From 1960 to 1975, for the first time, Vietnamese poets and readers knew about Pound and Eliot. Also for the first time, American poets like Allan Ginsberg and Frank O'Hara were introduced in Vietnam through public poetry readings.8 Those particular Western poets did not help to form another movement in modern Vietnamese poetry. However, they contributed a different perspective for Vietnamese poets towards specific Western theories and movements. The American influences on poetry, in my view, were profound and unrestricted. For example, Bùi Giáng9 expressed a kind of ‘surrealist poetry’ in demonstrating his ‘craziness’, which I think could suggest an idea about the intellectuals in South Vietnam as the generation who lost their identities during the war. Moreover, the characteristics of modernism are suggested by the way in which South Vietnamese poets blurred the borders between poetry and other arts and social ideology. Such multi-positions are exemplified by the poet-musician-philosopher Bùi Giáng, poet-novelist-critic-philosopher Nguyên Sa, and poet-novelist-playwright-critic Thanh Tâm Tuyền. Thus, after more than fifty years, Vietnamese poetry caught up with Western poetry in different ways.
Throughout this thesis, comparisons between Western poetry and Eastern poetry are made. For example, I compare Imagist poetry with Japanese Haiku poetry; Ezra Pound with Basho (a classic Japanese poet); French Symbolism with the ‘New Vietnamese poetry movement’ (the first and only radical poetic movement in the history of Vietnamese literature, which appeared in 1932); Charles Baudelaire with Xuân Diệu and Bích Khê (recognised modern Vietnamese poets in the 1930s); Bob Cobbing with Trần Dần and Dương Tường (some Vietnamese poets during the Vietnam war of 1954 – 1975, whose writings were not allowed to be published but through other means were known well in Vietnam); Gertrude Stein with Như Huy (a young Vietnamese poet representative of the generation after 1986); Mina Loy (a Surrealist poet) with René Magritte (a Surrealist painter); and René Magritte with Nguyễn Đình Đăng (a Vietnamese Surrealist painter whose ideas ran contrary to traditional Vietnamese painting). Most of the Western names mentioned above are considered as leaders of modern theories and artistic trends in the West, whereas the Vietnamese names are those of people who dared to ‘fight’ against poetic tradition to introduce Western poetry and art to Vietnam. However, due to the geographical distance and different time sequences between West and East, certain misunderstandings may have arisen between them. Western poets might not have been aware of the existence of traditional Eastern culture and thinking and how these were hidden inside poems. Eastern poets, on the other hand, learnt from specific Western poems, not from systematic theories. They only accepted what was ‘suited’ to Eastern concepts. In my view, that is interesting because whilst similarities between Western and Eastern figures in poetry can be recognised, Vietnamese poets also show consistency in the way they preserve Eastern identities.
Chapter 1 contends that there was a classical revival in poetic modernisation in the West. This revival started with Imagist poetry. Imagist poets emphasised concrete images, hit the habit of using metaphors of Symbolists and prepared for the language experiments of Futurism. This study builds upon previous work, namely Romanticism and Classicism10 by T.E. Hulme, Victory in Limbo11 by J.B. Harmer and Hugh Kenner’s Pound Era12.
Chapter 2 discovers that Imagist poets revived Haiku- a traditional Japanese poetry form which appeared in the seventeenth century, as one of the leading trends in Western poetic modernisation at the beginning of the twentieth century. In formal terms, both had a common poetic structure that compresses syllables and minimises descriptive words. As such, the poetic effects were instantaneous and imaginative. In terms of content, I reveal that a ‘return to nature’ was the source that they both looked towards. However, Imagist poetry was written about normal life, whereas Haiku was buried under the sediments of Zen culture which tried to define the world from the smallest and simplest objects. The chapter then studies the concept of beauty from Pound’s Haiku poems in association with Eastern thinking, which has not been mentioned before in examining his poetry.
Chapter 3 examines Experimental poetry, Language poetry, Concrete and Prose poetry, forms which might not be alien to the West but were a shock to the East. Experimental poetry emerged in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and was inspired by Dadaism and Surrealism. It was also an underground poetic exploration. Firstly, I indicate that the changes of ideology and culture in a consumer society contributed to the evolution of Experimental poetry into an abundant type of interactive art more than conventional poetry itself. This change widened the gap between creation and reception, and re-evaluated the position of the poet and his recipient. Whereas poets played the role of giving ‘specific directions for performance’13, readers had their independent interpretations. I then provide an overview of picture, computer and sound poetry as specific Experimental variations.
Chapter 4 focuses on answering the question of how French Symbolism affected Vietnam, what was accepted and what interaction took place. After a century of French domination in Vietnam from 1858 to 1954, French Symbolism played a decisive role in changing Vietnamese poetry from medieval forms to modern types. Thus, Vietnamese poets established a ‘New poetry movement’ considering Charles Baudelaire as a spiritual leader. They also wrote about ‘Correspondences’ or imitated poems in Les Fleurs du Mal. ‘Writing like Baudelaire did’ became an aim of Vietnamese poets at the beginning of the modern Vietnamese poetry period in the 1930s.
Chapter 5 reveals that Gertrude Stein in Tender Buttons was a trailblazer for Experimental poetry in Vietnam. However, I find that what this Eastern country gained from Gertrude Stein was not her ideology or artistic concept but her concrete methods of writing. As a result, this chapter analyses some specific poems in Tender Buttons as model examples for Vietnamese poets in exploring Experimental poetry. Moreover, in the mechanism of what I call ‘magnetic Imagism’, the chapter also links Tender Buttons with imaginative exploration. Finally, I propose a new way to approach Stein’s writings by examining her conflicting ideology. In my view, whilst tending to redefine and reorder word and world, she resisted and showed a fear of some forms of change.
Chapter 6 concerns Surrealism, the way it was understood in Vietnam and the way it helped Vietnamese writers to recognise how to write as an individual person, a woman or even a naked woman. A comparison between René Magritte and Mina Loy is chosen to clarify this theory. I focus on two main points: the question of ‘ego’ through the subjects and the process of making objects ‘Surrealist’. I propose that René Magritte and Mina Loy had common material: ‘nature’. However, whereas the painter dwells on inanimate objects, seeing them as familiar images, the poet describes her objects abnormally. This difference is also analysed in various situations of ‘being’ in modern society. From Loy’s poems, I also explore how Vietnamese feminist poets raised their voices against patriarchal rules and suggest their role in the renewal of mainstream Vietnamese literature.