Vietnamese modern poetry dinh minh hang

Chapter 1 From Imagism to Surrealism and their Initial Influences on Vietnamese Poetry

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Chapter 1

From Imagism to Surrealism and their Initial Influences on Vietnamese Poetry

1. Imagist Poetry in Classicism and Modernism
The idea of examining Imagist poetry was suggested from my personal recognition of the differences of establishing independent poetry, theories of poetry and groups of poets between the West and the East. Whereas the changes of poetry in England and America between 1900 and 1918 took place informally and were not the result of politically-motivated pre-existing manifestos, the changes of Vietnamese modern poetry occurred due to the social events and governed or ungoverned literature policies. Thus, in practice, poetic changes in Vietnam had to be consciously organised, whereas in the West, they could take place in back rooms and cafés. As such, examining Imagist poetry is the starting point for me, a Vietnamese reader with traditional experience of Eastern poetry, in accessing the idea of ‘independent writing’ that had been characteristics of Western artistic innovations.
Indeed, from a 2017 perspective, statements on revolution and classicism by T.E. Hulme might seem radical to a few readers but they were not part of a wider movement for political change. That is based on the assumption that poets such as Flint, Pound and Eliot were not members of politically active parties (at least at that time).
In this chapter, and in Chapter 2, I look at various ways in which Imagism worked. I am going to try to draw out some aspects of Imagist practice that were, on reflection from 2017, probably misunderstood in the West. In looking at T.E. Hulme, for example, I am trying to place his influence historically as well as seeing it from the position of a Vietnamese reader in 2017.
From reading Romanticism and Classicism14, I try to examine the way T.E. Hulme defined ‘fancy’, which he placed in contrast with ‘imagination’. I also consider ‘fancy’ as a leading word for classical revival and the contribution of Imagist principles, with or without the acknowledgment of Imagists15. T.E. Hulme wrote about ‘fancy’ as a ‘particular weapon of this new classical spirit’16 and implied its superiority to imagination. Although both terms are supposed to have come from the same meaning in German, they were derived from different sources, in which finite things created fancy and emotion led to imagination17. From ‘fancy’, T.E. Hulme sketched out derivative criteria that were later used for Imagist poetry (e.g., the ‘static motion’, ‘the conception of a limit’, ‘poem without talking’ and ‘moaning, dry and hard poetry’). Thus, ‘fancy’, in Hulme’s notion, was definite. Contrary to imagination, fancy was based on the truth and contained legitimate objects from ordinary life. I also found that another way to recognise fancy was by its visualisation. Hence, fancy was not a dream. According to Hulme:
…where you get this quality exhibited in the realm of the emotions you get imagination, and […] where you get this quality exhibited in the contemplation of finite things you get fancy. 18
In my view, this helps to explain why ‘fancy’ could not stray far from its destination. Thus, I assume that the coming back of ‘fancy’ to the finite things from which it was born was similar to the journey of the classical revival after the Romantic period - the revival of the original.

Imagist poetry, in my view, could be considered as part of the classical revival in two aspects: its limited syllables and its respect of fixed things. Flint wrote about the return to basics of Imagist poetry: ‘They had not published a manifesto. They were not a revolutionary school; their only endeavour was to write in accordance with the best tradition’19. However, I suppose the word ‘tradition’ was not used as a reference to previous theoretical schools of poetry (e.g. Romanticism or even Symbolism) but as the foundation of a destination that prevented the poetry-kite from flying away with imagination. Thus, Imagist poetry declared: ‘Use no superfluous word, no adjective that does not convey something. Use either no ornament or good ornament’20. This approach explored how directly language speaks to one’s mind – ‘Their [Imagists’] poems describe momentary situations, and their images capture the reader’s attention, forcing him to stop and reflect’21. In my view, the depiction of ‘unexpected’ and instant things without word-organising also helped Imagist poems to stand out in terms of harmony. At this point, Imagists were close to Hulme in tightening the relationship between poetry and prose: ‘There is a sort of poetry where music, sheer melody, seems as if it were just bursting into speech’22. However, what Imagists were opposed to was the metaphor as a condensation of things, or a compressed symbol23. Like Hulme, they did not define metaphors as ‘polished gems’24. Thus, the smoothness of a ‘gem’ in the thinking of Hulme and other Imagists offered a form of poetic insight that was clear, well-organised and which, in effect, impressed on the ‘passive’ reader.

For example, the metaphors in ‘Vowels’ by Rimbaud use familiar objects which to the mind of a 2017 reader might seem predictable; however, their combination is paradoxically effective:
A Black, E white, I red, U green, O blue: vowels,

I shall tell, one day, of your mysterious origins:

A, black velvety jacket of brilliant flies

Which buzz around cruel smells,


O, sublime Trumpet full of strange piercing sounds,

Silences crossed by Worlds and by Angels:

O the Omega, the violet ray of Her Eyes!25

Rimbaud places a presupposition by symbolising vowels with matching colours. In addition, he creates associations between vowels and shapes: ‘O’ – ‘Omega’ – ‘Ocean’ – ‘Eye’. However, there are gaps in terms of how objects, colours, shapes and motions can connect to each other. Thus, the metaphors of ‘A’ as a ‘black velvety jacket’ and ‘O’ as ‘strange piercing sounds’ remain mysterious. In my view, they are realities seen within chaos.

‘The drunken boat’26 could be considered as another example:
The storm made bliss of my sea-borne awakenings.

Lighter than a cork, I danced on the waves

Which men call eternal rollers of victims,

For ten nights, without once missing the foolish eye of the harbour lights!

By writing ‘I ran’ and ‘I danced’ as ‘drunk’ situations, Rimbaud borrows the excitement of a human being to show the tough and poetic movements of a boat in a storm. To the recipient, the process of a boat playing with waves for ten nights without losing its way may also be seen as a symbol of the adventure of poets in the challenges, duplicity and charm of linguistic creativity. Hence, I consider the drunken boat as a metaphor for artists who are keen to express themselves and find themselves in the adventurous spaces of art.
Therefore, in my view, metaphor has never disappeared in modern poetry. While on the one hand Pound and Hulme, the founders of Imagism, did not declare the existence of metaphor, on the other hand, they created their own metaphors with Imagist language. Pound wrote:
The tree has entered my hands,

The sap has ascended my arms,

The tree has grown in my breast -


The branches grow out of me, like arms.
Tree you are,

Moss you are,

You are violets with wind above them.

A child – so high – you are,

And all this is folly to the world.27
This poem depicts a process of branches invading a human body. Gradually, ‘you’ is fully covered and becomes a ‘tree’, ‘moss’, ‘violets’ and ‘a child ­­– so high’. From a different point of view, this could be a narration of a tree which has borrowed a human voice. The final metaphor with its proud attitude ‘folly to the world’ makes this poem become a song of boredom. Contrary to previous ways of using metaphor, I think that Pound considered not human beings but infinite nature as the centre of motion. Finally, without ‘questioning the reasonableness of each [image] at the moment’, ‘total effect is produced’28.
2. Dada and Surrealism as Suggestions of Modernism
Throughout my own education in Vietnam, I acquired a knowledge of poetry approved by the Vietnamese education system. My research has helped me to realise that there were some inherent misunderstandings for Vietnamese readers about how a poem could be written and understood, especially when seen from a Western perspective.
Normally, in Vietnam, poets tend to write with the guidance of a ‘formula’, in a logical or systematic process, with common or ‘understood’ feelings that should be reasonable for anyone to analyse. An example can be seen in a ‘Ca dao’ (Vietnamese oral folk poem):
Thuyền về có nhớ bến chăng

Bến thì một dạ khăng khăng đợi thuyền29

(Does the boat miss the pier while going?

The pier is still honest waiting for boat)

In traditional Vietnamese metaphors, ‘boat’ symbolises a man, who is always on a journey somewhere, whereas ‘pier’ and the ‘sea’ symbolise a woman, who can only stay in one place and wait for the man to come back. This waiting is regarded as the standard of loyalty in relationships. These verses were sung in the medieval period30 and are still sung today in Vietnam. In 1963, Xuân Quỳnh, a famous female modern Vietnamese poet wrote:

Nếu từ giã thuyền rồi

Biển chỉ còn sóng gió

Nếu phải cách xa anh

Em chỉ còn bão tố31
(If say farewell to the boat

The sea has only wind and waves

If say farewell to him

I has only storms)

These verses helped me to realise that in modern times, even when written by a female poet, in terms of the position of man and woman, the faithfulness and passiveness of woman remain unchanged. They have become ‘formulaic’ in Vietnamese poetry, regardless of any changes in society or ideology. Thus, as long as such ‘formulae’ remain widely used in poetry, whether in 1963 or 2017, Vietnamese poems seem unable to achieve ‘modernism’.
However, there have been other responses to ‘modernism’ in Vietnamese poetry. From the traditional background of strict and formal writing requirements, any symptoms of change in a poem, even a word, a new metaphor, a strange tone, etc., could be seen as ‘innovation’ or ‘modernism’. Thus, the desire for renewal in Vietnamese poetry moved from one extreme attitude to another. Vietnamese poets, I think, misunderstood Western modernism and hence, misunderstood their own way of following Western theories.
Therefore, in order to explore this new extreme attitude in modern Vietnamese poetry, I set out to examine what theories actually strengthened poetry in the West, and what could be picked out as innovations in writing and reading in the West. I chose to consider Dada, Surrealism and Futurism in relation to Vietnamese poets and critics, in the hope that these theories could help to form an initial understanding of poetry renewal in Vietnam.
Firstly, I found that, in Dadaist and Surrealist poetry, metaphor no longer existed as a way of making words become flowery, attractive or poetic. By saying ‘no’ to the past, and showing a desire to destroy the present, Dadaist and Surrealist poets aimed to cut all existing visual relationships in society in order to create a new and strange realm that was barely understandable. Surprisingly, however, in my view, they still continued along the path that Imagism had paved before, that of transferring metaphors into other forms.
Secondly, as Richter stated, irrationality and rebellion were the trademarks of Surrealism and Dadaism32. For Dadaism, freedom was evoked by its unique name, which was described as having various origins in Dada: Art and Anti-art by Hans Richter. One explanation was that it could be ‘discovered by opening a dictionary at random’,33 but it also contained a lot of meaning in different languages. For example, it means ‘rocking-horse’, ‘baby-carriage’ and ‘wet-nurse’ in French, German and Italian respectively. Furthermore, according to Ball’s diary34, ‘Dada’ was assumed to have a connection with the affirmative ‘da, da’ of Rumanian, which was a way to reiterate ‘yes, yes’ joyously.
Hence, it was suggested that Dada was also a form of ‘play’ for poets. Freud explained the concept of ‘play’ in Surrealism as: ‘to be the first and only one with a reality’35. He also interpreted the parallels between a poet’s creativity and a child’s play in Creative Writers and Daydreaming:
Might we not say that every child at play behaves like a creative writer, in that he creates a world of his own, or, rather, rearranges the things of his world in a new way, which pleases him? (…) The creative writer does the same as the child at play. He creates a world of fantasy, which he takes very seriously—that is, which he invests with large amounts of emotion—while separating it sharply from reality.36
In the Oxford Dictionary definition, play is described as something fun, as opposed to seriousness37. Furthermore, it is also defined as: ‘to represent’ or ‘perform’, as opposed to reality. Similarly, in Freud’s concept of play above, the opposite of play turns out to be not seriousness but reality.
Both child and writer construct their own world by rearranging everything into a new order and setting out images to bring more pleasure. However, in my view, while children play with the desire of joining in with the adult world, poets tend to release their intimate dreams in order to be like children. Freud’s idea of play seems to resonate with a loud call at the end of the nineteenth century to escape from the medieval chains of aesthetics, ethics and art. It could be seen as a trend to turn back towards the characteristics of human childhood and restore the use of children’s language, which had been suppressed by the rational mechanisms of the becoming-an-adult-process.
This re-discovery of ‘play’ by Freud could be observed in the experience of Dadaists or Russian avant-garde artists from the 1920s to 1930s as a reaction to Rationalism. Rationalism ‘ruled’ much of political, social and cultural life at this time38. It could also be seen as the mechanism of censorship in politics and culture. In this sense, childhood and play balanced out the Rationalism and satisfied human dreams. Thus, the name Dada was created through the re-discovery of childhood and play. Later, the Surrealist movement had a positive view of Freud’s theories of dreams, which served as the ‘inspiration’ 39 for their rebellion.
Besides this, the inspiration of Dada was largely derived from the stressed situation and the suffocating artistic environment in some countries during the First World War. The Dada artists, including Hugo Ball, Tristan Tzara, Marcel Janco and Emmy Hennings, were against the bourgeoisie, who were considered to support the war. Thus, a strong pronouncement was adopted in their manifesto: ‘Dada does not mean anything (…) Order = disorder; ego = non-ego; affirmation = negation: the supreme radiations of an absolute art’,40 and ‘Do not trust Dada. Dada is everything. Dada doubts everything. But the real Dadas are against Dada’41.
Therefore, Dada seemed to be the symbol of chaos, a rebellious attitude against all. It was also the desperate rebellious attitude of artists in the severe context of Europe during and after the First World War. Since then, on the one hand, Dada has been seen as an attitude and policy of destruction and self-destruction. On the other hand, with creative scepticism, it is seen as anti-art as a means of being anti-war.
I have also considered Dada in comparison with Futurism. Both Dada and Futurism encouraged changes, but in European society, Futurism appeared to be aggressive:
No work without an aggressive character can be a masterpiece. Poetry must be conceived as a violent attack on unknown forces, to reduce and prostrate them before man. 42
This could be explained by suggesting that it was a revolutionary art movement with four main inspirations: action, speed, technique and non-human beings. In the movement’s manifesto, the Italian Futurists also confirmed the role of future science and technology in creating a gap, or separation, between those who are called the slaves of the past and contemporary liberals43. They called for the destruction of everything recalling the past, and claimed the need to remove all old social institutions in order to live in the present and the future. This made some artists - typically Marinetti - closer to Fascism. They also supported Italy’s participation in the First World War. Meanwhile, Dada seemed to be a ‘reaction to the general disintegration of the world around us’44. As such, in my view, Dadaism warned about a fragmentary modern life through disconnected images. In this life, words seemed to be useless; therefore, they could not give any power to the writer. Poets should be free from the oppression of continuous words. The failure of words in this fragmentary modern life released the poets from their position. However, neither words nor images were completely destroyed. The aim of the Dadaists, according to Ball, was:
… to purify the imagination, directing attention not so much to its store of images as to the stuff of which those images are made. 45
Thus, although the method of creating poetry was not poetic or realistic (such as the process of cutting up words and arranging them by chance to make a poem), the Dadaists kept the original meaning of each word and a reality that was not falsified by random manipulation of language:
The discovery, by writers like Tzara and painters like Arp, of the significance of chance as an active principle, quite free of social and cultural necessities and liberated from the conditional response of logic and reason, protected this purity even from the potentially crippling influence of the conscious artist himself 46
As for the aspect of poetic form, Dadaists regarded rhythm in language as a reaction to the sequence of a metronome which had been ticking for a long time as the traditional standard of official poetry. This metronomic rhythm was now regarded as old-fashioned. Furthermore, according to his diary, Hugo Ball had enormous doubts about the arbitrary names of objects, and this urged him to find new ways of naming things. Finally, a new method of naming was supposed to be adopted. Dadaists changed the order of letters, destroyed the structure of words, broke invisible barriers of normal thought, negated recognised names and assembled fragments of vowels and consonants like a linguistician:
The bourgeois idea of beauty had become ridiculous. Poetry was now abstract and based on sound, acting as an antidote to the standardisation of language by journalism.47
For example, I analysed a stanza of the following poem:
gadji beri bimbaglandridi lauli lonni cadori

gadjama gramma berida bimbala glandri

galassassa laulitalomini.48
The overlap of sounds, the absence of necessary letters according to the rules of grammar and spelling, and the experience of rearranged letters in words make this poem more like a musical notation sheet than a poem. I would anticipate that the writer’s ‘play’ had just begun; readers, with their rich imagination, would be expected to fill the empty spaces with meaning, but could hardly complete it.
This raises questions about the impression made by Dada on Modernism. These questions can be examined by considering the movement’s artistic methods, which were experimental. Collage became a method of visual art under the creation of the Dadaists. By collaging, the artist outlined social aspects to form a representation of an active lifestyle as well as various sections of society using normal objects from everyday life. At the same time, by using a collage technique, the breakdown of capitalist society during and after the war was shown visually. Moreover, having rejected the hidden lines of Realism, I suggest that collage was used a way to expose reality itself without any intermediary.
Meanwhile, Installation art, which was also known as theatrical, immersive or experiential art, was a form of ‘art in practice’. It challenged all boundaries and could be applied to lots of different social and aesthetic situations, though in the expanded definition, the term was used to describe all arrangements of objects at any time and in any space. From a historical perspective, Installation art derived from the early twentieth century, in parallel with the development of the Dada movement (1916-1920). It was led by initiators including El Lissitzky, Kurt Schwitters and Marcel Duchamp. Accordingly, the ‘Bicycle wheel’ by Marcel Duchamp (1913) and ‘Merzbau’ (first made in 1923) by Kurt Schwitters were considered to be the first examples of Installation art. Continuing over nearly half a century to the 1990s, Installation art reached its culmination with the cult ‘Turbine Hall’ at Tate Modern49. In terms of form, Installation art was born as an antithesis of traditional arts in general and painting in particular. It highly favoured interaction, focused on the nature of the stage, respected space and overall elements within it, created dramatic context and produced a vastly heightened non-linear environment:
The move of Installation art from the margin of the art world to its center has had far-reaching effects on the works created and on museum practice (...) Installation art, however, has a physical presence while it is on view, and this allows for it to be reconstructed in a sense, using several different methods.50
Thus, viewers were directly led to the presence of space where emotions were presupposed, and where visual senses as well as bodily responses were awoken and enhanced. It must have presented a sharp contrast with conventional observation of art from a remote perspective. Whereas fleetingness and instability were characteristics of Installation art, these can hardly be found in paintings, which favour sustainability and immutability. In my view, however, the value of an installation work would be destroyed immediately after the end of exhibition; the only response remaining would be the viewers’ initial experience. Thus, despite the value of an installation as perceived by the experience of viewers, Installation art can be seen as a way of both creating and destroying.
If Dada was supposed to play a role in causing social and artistic revolution, Surrealism has been considered its consequence. This view was expressed by Anna Balakian: ‘Surrealism established a closer bond between poetry and art than ever before’51. The pioneers described this relationship through manifestos, in which the main source was image. In André Breton’s first Manifesto of Surrealism52 (1924), he created the image 'a man is cut in half by the window’53. On the one hand, this was visual reality; on the other, it was the effect of imagination and illusion. No sooner had the image been seen out of perspective, than it suggested the idea of incorporating poetic material. The immediate appearance of the image as a cut on the stream of unconsciousness purely expressed an action of mind without demonstration, and free from didacticism. With reference to the first statements of policy for Imagist poetry by F.S. Flint in ‘Imagisme’, and by Ezra Pound with ‘A few don’ts by an Imagiste’54, the image seemed to be transferred in an osmotic process, removing its constant meaning, refusing initial sensory feelings, even referring to the death of the subject. In concrete terms, Surrealist poetry was deprived of the qualitative identification of the subject as well as the organic relationships binding him to life, ethics and law, turning him into a free citizen with liberal ideas.
This freedom with words and with the positions of the artist also led Surrealists to the automatic method, which was described in the movement’s manifesto as the creation of image ‘by thought, in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern’. The effect of this was that:
The image...results not from a comparison but from a juxtaposition of two realities that are more or less distant. The more the relations between the two juxtaposed realities are distant and valid, the stronger the image will be55.
This reminded me of an essay by Virginia Woolf in which she mentioned the effect of a flash of innermost flame in Joyce’s work as a leading method of modern fiction:
He (Joyce) is concerned at all costs to reveal the flickerings of that innermost flame which flashes its messages through the brain, and in order to preserve it he disregards with complete courage whatever seems to him adventitious, whether it be probability, or coherence, or any other of these signposts which for generations have served to support the imagination of a reader when called upon to imagine what he can neither touch nor see 56
Although meaninglessness is likely to have played an essential role in the creation of Dadaist poetry, it used to be mistaken as one of the Surrealist criteria. Dada and Surrealism may have followed their own poetic desires but it was still meaningful. Deepening in its marvellous and noisy shell was:
The disclosure of certain number of properties and of facts no less objective in the final analysis, than the others. 57
Tristan Tzara wrote:
It isn’t to do with destroying literature! I would prefer instead for the individual to destroy himself. I also find that there is a very subtle way, even while writing, of destroying the linking for literature. This is to combat it by its own means and in its formula.58
This could be expanded on by pointing out that the aim of the Dadaist was not to change the habits of using formulaic poetry, or to create ‘play’ by simply putting characters, words and poetic weapons in poems. The Dadaist tried to prove that he had made a totally meaningless and different type of poetic form. In my view, the poems themselves appeared to change, turning from personal to ‘apersonal’, without personality or any type of pretension. That could be considered a way to renew poetry from the root of manufacture: from the poets. It might have been a development of Tzara’s concept that caused a lot of poems to be written without any relation to the conditions in which the poets were living, the environments they were experiencing or the requirements of the society in which they were being depressed. It was by refusing themselves and casting off all constant human characteristics that they found the final meaning. I consider Aragon’s poem named ‘Suicide’ to be an apt example:
A b c d e f

G h I j k l

M n o p q r

S t u v w

X y z 59
This could be considered as the suicide of the alphabet, the end of life. Alternatively, using letters as words also helps to obscure any dictionary meaning. Each word here exists as an individual character, a single period in the journey of life. However, the strange feeling in this poem is evoked by its title, ‘Suicide’. This is because the letters from A to Z could promise a circle that would make an endless routine, but when the poet puts the word ‘suicide’ at the beginning, it could be the end of everything; no rebirth, no turning back. In my view, it might be the way the poet has deleted himself consciously before releasing poetic words from any conventions. Clearly, this kind of poem could be analysed in various ways. Thus, it has no meaning in itself or in its own existence. I think that the poet’s position has died along with his personality.
Another example is ‘Anecdote’ by Francis Picabia:
You see, I am crazy to imagine it

I am a man with nimble fingers

Who wants to cut the threads of old pains

False folds in my anxious brain

History in arabesques memories

I am only happy on the open sea

Where one goes further

On anonymous waves60

In my view, the desire of escaping from constant modals in concept and history (which are compared with ‘old pains’) has led the poetic character to the open sea with waves as means of transport. Through this process, from the subjects expressed by ‘you’ and ‘I’, the character becomes ‘anonymous’. From a person with clear personality traits - ‘crazy’, ‘a man with nimble fingers’ - he disappears into the open sea. I consider that destroying the poet’s ego is the way he removes all the ‘pains’ that an uncertain man could experience. Therefore, the effort of cutting ‘the threads of old pains’ is not a declaration of intention to fight the world, it is just the determination to make war inside himself. It could be a spiritual war for a new way of thought or a new kind of poetry. This has led me to think that in Dadaism, poetry no longer belonged to a large section of society; it tended to be the product of one person, expressing themselves in an individual way.
However, Dadaists did not stray far from the common characteristics of literature in general and poetry in particular. As Tzara defined it, poetry was ‘a means of communicating a certain amount of humanity, of elements of life that one has within oneself’61. Therefore, despite its abnormalities in terms of linguistic innovation, Dadaism was still based on humanity.
The Dada Manifesto of 1949 stated the position of Dadaists in the world of art:
The misunderstanding from which Dada suffered is the chronic disease that still poisons the world. In its essence it can be defined as the inability of a rationalised epoch and of rationalised men to see the positive side of an irrational movement62
Thus, it is suggested that Dadaist ideas were encapsulated in the question of ego, or ‘who I am’63. Dadaists and Surrealists had experienced life themselves. Turning back to childhood, trying to rediscover purity and creativity of mind, requiring equality between dream and real life, mining depressed instincts including libido and writing in an extremely mysterious language were ways in which they sought the answers. According to this interpretation, in my view, the human being was pushed into his own monologue and had the ability to lead the dialogue through a maze. Here, they would find their images about a half-man half-animal, or about a man in the peripheral zone, both of whom lost their identity in life. They seemed to follow nature and the voices of dreams, and to forget consciousness. This was also the situation of humans in modern society.
3. A Very First Experiment in Modern Vietnamese Poetry
The first time Dada and Surrealism appeared in Vietnam was in the ‘Surrealist Manifesto’,64 written by Trần Dần in 1946. Although this Vietnamese Surrealist Manifesto was not published officially until 2008, this could be seen as an actual step toward Surrealism in Vietnamese poetry. However, in my view, this did not help to form any trend of Surrealist poetry in Vietnam, or even participate in changing modern Vietnamese poetry, because this influence was hidden in the dark.
In Vietnam before 1945, attempts to follow the poetic trends of Dadaism and Surrealism were considerably likely to be frustrated. Even now, in Vietnam in 2017, any such attempts have still not been considered alongside traditional poetry or recognised as official poems. They have been considered as experiments. Because experiments could succeed or not, no achievements of this kind have been recorded. In my view, modern Vietnamese poets from the beginning of the twentieth century have been regarded as peripheral writers in literature. This could be explained by the fact that in the context of continuous wars in Vietnam, the purposes of encouraging soldiers, enhancing national pride and looking towards a victorious future were more urgent subjects for poetry. The poet played the dual role of a faithful citizen and a powerful soldier. Certainly, he had to loudly declare the voice of the nation, victory and glory. No tears, blood, pain or even private feelings were allowed to appear in literature. Therefore the novel of Bảo Ninh, which was first published in 198765, was immediately a shock to Vietnamese writers and readers. He wrote about the consequences of war from the point of view of a couple, in a situation where both sides of the war were losers: ‘War was a world with no home, no roof, no comforts. A miserable journey, of endless drifting. War was the world without real man, without real woman, without feeling’66. Before Bảo Ninh’s novel, no Vietnamese writer could have written about the ‘sorrow’ of the glorious war that they used to praise. For more than half a century, Vietnamese literature like that had been considered to be abnormal. Therefore, despite the focus on the possibilities for writers in this country, the position of the poet himself had been forced to be forgotten. This helps to explain why the coming of Dadaism was a shock to Vietnamese literature. The destructive aspects of the first manifesto affected the Vietnamese poetic environment exactly as described in the later manifesto of 1949:
Over and over again, the strumming, shouting and dancing, the striving to épater le bourgeois, have been represented as the chief characteristics of Dadaism. The riots provoked by Dadaism in Berlin and Paris, the revolutionary atmosphere surrounding the movement, its wholesale attacks on everything, led critics to believe that its sole aim was to destroy all art and the blessings of culture. The early Dada manifestoes, in which nonsense was mixed with earnestness, seemed to justify this negative attitude67
In Vietnam, it was reminiscent of the ‘iceberg’ theory of Ernest Hemingway:
If a writer of prose knows enough of what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an ice-berg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water. A writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing.68
From this, it may be suggested that what helped to shock the world of Vietnamese literature was the ‘one-eighth’ above water aspect of an iceberg. Poets as well as readers sank into the attractions of word sound, broken lines and free verse before trying to turn poems into playful juggling acts. By examining the following poem, it can be seen how it was lost in the magic of words:




No man’s land

No-mô m–nen x-len

Leng beng

Lang ben

Ma lem


From the world ‘Christmas’ (‘Noel’ in French), Dương Tường has collaged, mixed and imaged in many other directions which would be far from the origin title of Christmas. The structure of this poem is expressed by the image of the word ‘Noel’ and the sound of a church bell. By doubling lip-consonants (e.g. ‘l’, ‘m’) and wind-consonants (e.g. ‘x’, ‘s’), and keeping the fundamental sound (‘e’), the poem is constructed as a colourful Rubik’s cube in which each face can be turned into various combinations that even the player might not understand and anticipate. Taking off the colourful cover of words, there is almost nothing inside except ‘play’. It is an experience of Dadaism but lacks Dada’s spirit – the communication of humanity.
Nevertheless, Dương Tường’s poem, written in 1967, was regarded as part of an awakening in Vietnamese poetry, which had been full of morals, formulae and political views before. For the first time after more than twenty years, Vietnamese poets dared to write about nothing. Although the above poem does not seem to reach Dadaism, in my view, it made a strong declaration about new Vietnamese poetry to the traditional critics and readers who always stared intently at poems to find their meanings and lessons.
What Vietnamese poets learned from Western theories of theories were techniques for the writing of poetry. All they did from the beginning of modernisation in 1930 was to change the form with a desire to affect Vietnamese concepts. With the coming of Imagism, Futurism, Dadaism, Surrealism and others, Vietnamese poetry created Vietnamese modernisation with a mixture of ‘isms’ for nearly half a century from 1930 to 1975. However, I would describe this as a half-influence, many aspects of which will be explained in the next chapter. The most interesting aspect was that, like an Eastern spring roll, there were Western theories and practices as wrappers, with Eastern concepts as stuffing.

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