I then recognised some similarities between the journey of Jack and the life of ‘Naked man’, such as the same consonant ‘J’ used in the titles ‘Jack’ and ‘Jo Joacx’. Both could be a story or single activities; both could contain meaning, or might not. However, both Jack and Jo Joacx show the poets playing with words. Jack could be any person or could be no one, and so could Jo Joacx. The poets tell readers, through long poems, a story without a beginning or end. They are flexible enough to add any verbs that we think the character could do, as well as any places that he could go. There is no boundary for reviewing whether anything is good or bad, clean or dirty, pure or having been stained. The play with Jack or Jo Joacx could last forever depending on the patience of readers. However, they show a hidden meaning, especially in the case of Jo Joacx. Traditional narrative, when telling a story, must have a certain character with specific characteristics. It would be regarded as useless to tell an empty story like this. Most importantly, the language related to sex would be banned immediately in Vietnam. The same conclusion would happen to a Vietnamese poem written about the negative aspects of life, the side that was not smooth but rough, full of scars and being hurt. That might the reason why Trần Dần wrote some poems that seemed to relate to Concrete poetry to express another person, ‘Jo Joacx’, the person who did not belong to any certain place. He was the universal citizen.
This also evoked the attitude of the poet in society. In another poem named ‘Légende’, Trần Dần drew only one letter: ‘i’, in different sizes, with the comment ‘Tôi không phải thổ zân quả đất’ (I am not the citizen of the earth).
In my view, ‘i’ in that shape, could express the moon and stars, two favourite images of Trần Dần in his writing, it could be the dream of living in the universe, or could be seen as tears when the letter ‘i’ is separated into two parts: the round and the comma. Above all, however, ‘i’ seems to be the cry of a person forced to lose his ego, who has to define himself as having a marginal position in this society. This was a familiar reaction to the world by Language poets. It could also be said that when Ron Silliman named his memoir ‘Under Albany’, he also identified with and accepted the attitude of a Language poet.
The above kinds of Experimental poetry supplied readers with a portrait of innovative poetry that was almost a distortion of traditional poetic forms and functions. Most of their effects were considered in terms of the effort to renew and remove the boundaries between poetry and other art types. The artist, on one hand, tried to have his poem performed interactively and visually, while on the other, he implicitly kept the lyrical characteristics that made their performance remain poetry. This contradiction was most marked in prose poetry, a poetic genre that seems to have arisen in the nineteenth century in France and quickly became one of the mainstreams in Experimental poetry, with the ‘conflict in which presumably every literary text participates, but which was here intensified and foregrounded’183. This conflict, then, was no longer an obstacle or cause of segregation for prose poetry, which was on its way to becoming an accepted genre.
4. Prose Poetry in the Case of The Dance at Mociu184
Reading Peter Riley and The Dance at Mociu, in my view, helped to answer the question of how prose poetry could be read from a Vietnamese perspective, and how it might help to enhance the writing of prose poetry in Vietnam. Unlike other Western poets mentioned in the above chapters, Riley is a contemporary poet who has not been much concerned with national wars and poetic revolutions. That might mean that, if Vietnamese poets read Riley’s poems, they will not focus on ‘revolution’, ‘new methodology’, ‘ideology’ or ‘critical views’ in the way that they have been forced to concentrate on poetry written from a Vietnamese communist perspective. Thus, prose poetry could be introduced in Vietnam in an aesthetic rather than a social way. Moreover, through my own reading of The Dance at Mociu, what Riley wrote about was very familiar to Vietnamese rural traditions, which may bring his prose poetry (which I call a prose life of poetic Transylvania) closer to Vietnamese modern poets.
Prose poetry was not simply the connection of prose and verse, in which prose played a role as the form and verse was considered to be the content. All efforts at collaging or extending free verse by using long sentences or unexpected punctuation would turn such poetry into the realm of visual arts. To create a balance, the prose aspect showed specific features, one of which was instant narration. This not only retained the spontaneous nature but also participated in making images. The narration distinguished prose poetry from normal prose because of the avoidance of preceding details and order, which was similar to the mechanism of Imagist poetry, while the ‘direct treatment of ‘thing’ whether subjective or objective’185 was featured as the first criterion. As such, the improvisation in prose was effective in creating unpredictable images, promoting automatic writing and linking of discrete space and time in an installation art of words.
Clearly, breaking the sustainable narrative structure of prose did not mean that prose was assimilated into other kinds of Experimental poetry. It seemed to be impossible to require prose poetry to include refined metaphors or hidden layers of meaning beyond instantaneous nouns. The lull between words which used to be the privilege of poetry in compressing meaning and evoking imagination was now intended to be filled by the adjectivalisation of narration. This, together with effective cadence, would keep on capturing moments in images, which lengthened the poems to an endless symphony of words and expressed metaphor in a simple, naked and natural way. Sometimes, overlapping lines of thought represented liberal non-ordering. Therefore, prose poetry could be described as ‘poetry lacking rhyme, meter, or stanza form – as, for instance, painted tableaux, or musical compositions’.186
Prose poetry, in fact, was not a case of ambiguity between prose and verse. It could expand the poetic repertoire, release the unpredictable form, reconstruct the discourse of poetry and resolve the conflict between perspectives and narration in prose; above all, however, it presumably should not lose the intrinsic lyricism and cadence which encloses the soul of poetry. Riley, in conversation with Keith Tuma, suggested the direct way for readers to approach his poems when he said: ‘You don't take an interest in that kind of music but it reaches you whether you like it or not, and you're stuck with it’.187
The Dance at Mociu was a story written in poetic vibration. The aim might have been to refuse to recognise any poverty or retardation in the less modernised ways of Transylvania, and correspondingly the people here were mentioned despite the fact that they spent their life in the field and did not care about things happening beyond their home village. Thus, these people, including a gypsy family, the man playing a wooden musical instrument for money, a poor couple, the girl at a bar at Breb, people working in cultivation strips, the uncle named Uchi and the new widow in the churchyard, were embodiments of an Old European spirit which had mostly been hidden or had vanished in the modern treadmill.
With unhurried rhythm, each prose poem made daily souls osmotic and drew them in, rolling them step-by-step into a participatory role: ‘If you climb (…) you find’, ‘If you turn round (..) you are’, ‘If you see it’, ‘If you know’, ‘If you don’t know’ (‘The Brancusi Monuments at Tirgu Jiu’). Conditional clauses were used to guide the stream of thought in front of the natural beauty of Tirgu Jiu. Nevertheless, what remained in the end was nothing, because it was impossible to get any specific answers to the reason, source or definition of the attractions here. This could be seen in negative sentences such as ‘but you don’t see it’, ‘can’t see’, or rhetorical questions, for instance, ‘where are we, and how does this place exist?’ (‘Arnota’). Those appeared while the viewer was in the depths of the living quiet of the seventeenth century Romanesque church:
There is no sign whatsoever of a second inhabitant. It is quite warm in the late afternoon, the quarry sounds are distant, an even wind moves across the compound, stirring slightly the outside trees.188
Riley created conflicts between movement and stillness, outside and inside, present and past. It was the music of dark and quiet nature. Last but not least, many questions were raised, both to find the answers and to open the imagination:
And what about the night, and what about the depths of winter? Who or what comes to this site then? (…) – alone? Is that right? - one church one guardian one cow? (…) Who are the visitors then?189
Just appearing in the visitor’s mind, those questions did not change or help to explain anything; on the contrary, they were like sounds falling into an enormous silence and failing to evoke any echo, which made the place become mysterious and unexplainable. This could lead to the idea that readers were envisioned as gently tiptoeing on the filaments of silence and imposing past with curiousness as well as fear of waking it up. The imagined candle that the reader might have held gradually only lighted his or her steps, not every corner of the church. Therefore, the poem ended like its poetic opening.
With regard to ‘the literary genre with an oxymoron for a name’, as M. Rifaterre referred to it when talking about Paris Spleen, The Dance at Mociu could be seen as having the stature of an oxymoron from a noun at a minor level to the whole collection at a higher one. The book mentions gaps between richness and poverty, between strangers from faraway lands and villagers of whom most have never been outside their own area. However, those boundaries, like the distinction between prose and poetry, come from conventions that are never stable or common in any case. People could be poor, some of them even the poorest in this rural area and they may, or actually did, go begging as a job, but Riley never mentions them as beggars. He silently observes the unresponsive look of the poor woman at the closed post office when she comes and hopes for some money from the State (‘The Poor Couple’); or the two little boys who ask for breakfast and enjoy it so joyfully that ‘The day was now before them. It shone on them’ (‘Breakfast at Sibiu’); or the gypsy family who are considered as neighbours. These are depicted with an objective but affectionate attitude. It could be said that even if poverty is implied here, it is only as a symbol of purity and innocence, as though these human beings are in need of things, but not dependent on them. They shine through what they are living with. For example, in the dance at Mociu, visitors pay money after the performance but it is not for music because ‘music is free’; likewise, the clarinet man is not given anything but it does not affect his sound. Sometimes the unplanned popularity (which could be seen as the main reason for poverty) is expressed in a reverie:
And to the young kids who were told this it was a far more mysterious and wonderful thing than any baby, a strange big white bird floating in the blue-black starry sky of a printed book holding a cloth bundle in its nest. And here they are, in person as it were, standing in big woody nests on posts and roofs, bending their necks and peering down at you. And clacking their beaks, for it is the mating season. There are children everywhere.190
Here the poet seems to blur the image of the railway as a dangerous crossing in life with the idea of having currently forgotten poverty and any other issues of modern life that might be imposed on this area to make them miserable. The only thing finally left is the beauty of childhood and fairy tales that, incredibly, appear before our eyes. ‘There are children everywhere’; life still continues as it was born to be, forever and ever. Those who belong to the purest status are those that have never awaked any concern from the villagers, unlike the visitors. This poetic characteristic keeps Mociu as an apt example of the Old Europe, which used to be quite vague and difficult to identify.
Above all, the prose poems from The Dance at Mociu could be considered as a river of words, a stream of thought, flowing smoothly while holding the village and wooden houses. In my view, Riley wanted to end this story of wild beauty and friendly people by using lots of complex sentence structure and descriptive nouns, and by letting his mind turn to directions that he could not have aimed at before:
The young people went away, leaving their parents to work the fields. Became migrant workers, drivers of long-distance lorries, with the same patience, the same carved gateway into hope, gable-end elegance, a radiance of graceful gestures cut through necessity. (‘Kalotaszeg’)191
Furthermore, music plays a vital role in smoothing the prose and transforming it into poetry. The power of music seems to be discovered in both significant and lyrical layers. The music is described in terms of instruments and sounds themselves, as well as by the feelings of lyricism in the texture of the words and sentences.
Examples of the former include the ‘strange musical noise’ from the clarinet of a small man in ‘The Taragot on the bridge at Tirgu Lapus’; an uncle with the appearance of having derived from Popic’s musical business in ‘Unchi’; the bar at Breb; the loudness of the stream in ‘The oldest house in Budesti’; the guitar and drum sound at the wedding; the circle dance on stage in an ‘Event at Desesti’; and the most boisterous music of the dance at Mociu. Although Peter Riley did not focus on describing any specific sound, Kelvin Corcoran enhanced the music of Maramures, which was
…alive and embedded in the shared lives of the villagers. It is, suggestively, an element in lives which are not lived separately, and draws the common experience into a different significance192.
The writer himself, however, paid far more attention to the environment of the music, the interactions between musicians and audiences, villagers and visitors, from which the sounds are truly and emotionally transferred. For example, the beauty of the music that the small man on the bridge at Tirgu Lapus brings to life is not evaluated by the indifferent attitude of the audience or any payment that he might receive after the performance (actually there was nothing given). It is considered in terms of the beauty of a precious, rare moment that appeared to community. It is described as ‘woody, breath-laden reed sound’ and a ‘melodic line’193, which is evidence of the fragile nature of beauty. All the details of this story are told in neutral language, but the regular tone itself is enough to create a slow and gloomy melody.
However, the latter held advantages in terms of maintaining the poetic characteristics of Peter Riley’s prose. Here he did not need to write directly about music. The lyric itself was fulfilled in each sentence. For instance, the description of the monk in Arnota as ‘old and slightly bent, and wearing a black felt cap and a brown gown. (…) He moves slowly to the gate and stops near a small pile of logs’,194 is one of the first images captured in the journey. This character would not reappear throughout the whole book; he just slides through the silence and darkness of this area and is easily dissolved in rhythmic meditation in the following rhetorical questions:
And what about the night, and what about the depths of winter? Who or what comes to this site then? In snow and blizzard and darkness, the tree threshing in the wind or standing frozen, living in the wall with a three-month store of fuel and food, alone, a candle under a crucifix in a wooden room in a stone wall – alone? Is that right? – one church one guardian one cow?195
Each question is an echo of nature resonating in the empty spaces of Arnota, which is opened in three dimensions: height, width and depth. The sound of the blizzard and threshing wind are placed in opposition to highlight the overwhelming silence. Similarly, the flickering light of a candle in the wooden room is used to show the absolute domination of darkness. The meditation is made to seem endless by continuous actions such as ‘threshing’, ‘living’, and after that ‘standing’, ‘reading’ and ‘saying’. It may be supposed that this melodic chain only reaches the end with the word ‘alone’, which could be considered as a bass note in this high vocal musical score. The alliterations ‘what about’, ‘in the’, ‘in a’, ‘alone’ and ‘one’, with the hyphens as temporary silence and the repetitions of rhyme turn this paragraph into a lyrical poem.
Thus, music is absorbed into ‘The Dance at Mociu’ naturally. The writer seems to have made no effort to create metaphors or arrange verses in order to make rhythm. He simply uses grafted sentences, subordinate clauses and widened imaginative associations:
The column, if you see it or if you know, over there beyond the buildings the other side of the railway, is a sign of ultimate belonging, the cross of “here” reaching into the sky. If you don’t know, or can’t see, you are left with the town.196
In conclusion, in terms of form, ‘The Dance at Mociu’ is prose full of narration. However, through the arts of rhythm and lyric, it satisfies the conditions of poetry. The integration of prose and poetry, in this case, reaches the highest aim, as Peter Riley stated:
I'm interested in prose as a support to poetry, a ground to it and a guarantor. Indeed my notion of the originary function of poetry is as a song interlude in a narrative, as in the Scandinavian epics, or an interlude of ecstasis and consolidation in a narrative called living. 197
In Vietnam, the consciousness of prose poetry was considered separately, as poetry in the form of prose. This one-way interaction invisibly elevated the basic criterion of poetry but neglected the contribution of prose. Therefore, it was not very difficult to decide whether it was a prose poem or not by trying to rearrange it into traditional verses and deleting spaces and interruptions between images and words. Apart from the revolution in form, poetic features seemed to be inviolable in Vietnamese poets’ mind, while the power of prose itself would take an equal position in revising language and releasing ‘untapped creative potential through experimentation’.198 The requirements of eliminating sequential description, diversifying perspectives, abstracting reality and enhancing imagination were posted as urgent in Vietnamese prose poetry.
However, there were some Vietnamese pioneering cases who were trying to explore some characteristics of prose and apply them to poetry; they were also attempting to turn specific criteria of poetry into prose form, especially cadence, in order to discover whether poetry could be released from its traditional periodicity by refreshing its lyricism. Như Huy was among these cases. He did not start his poems by organizing their structure and verses. Instead, he used words as the origin. Instead of discrete entities, he turned them into dual and collaged extraneous nouns. For example, in the poem named ‘Một-bài-thơ-đi-qua-khung-cửa’ (a-poem-passing-by-door-frame), there are six syllables in the name but together they show just one word. Those syllables exist harmoniously. Therefore, the poem had turned into a ‘broken word’ or ‘sound’, and this process would not end until it had no relation to a visible entity. From that point, what could be remembered about it was that it was a polyhedron or unshaped thing. As a result, the poem came back to its origin, before it was made straightforward by readers’ experiences. To Như Huy’s conception, each poem had its own life; there was beginning and ending as well as birth and destruction in it. However, it never led to the death of a word before experimenting with different meanings – with the exception of dictionary meanings. Those belonged to a different kind of reader, environment, place and time. The most interesting aspect was that what readers believed to be true may not be the same as, or may even be opposite to, the opinion of writer. I think that was alright, because the more points of view the poems achieved, the more the beauty of them was discovered. It was the writer’s own word-game. Using unlimited numbers of words, ignoring the rule of verse and letting the stream of consciousness flow unexpectedly were some of the efforts Huy made to renew Vietnamese prose poetry. It helped him to erase the poetic subject, which used to be considered the controller of a poem’s direction. In some poems, he called himself by the first letter of his name, ‘H’, but more usually, particular qualities were used as names, such as ‘the innovator’, ‘the rebel’ or ‘an out-going person’. All were different aspects of the writer’s soul. No matter what it was, the poem had to turn back to the origin of the person as well as meet the requirements of the words mentioned before. Nevertheless, the writer would always take care to avoid ‘empty words’ because writing was never meaningless or inhuman.
To introduce such innovation to Vietnamese poetry, Huy used a special technique of grafting sentences. That meant there may be more than two subjects or actions, times or places in one sentence, and it could last endlessly depending on the purpose of the writer or feelings of the readers. Sometimes, even the poet could not control the poetic vein. The words, not the arrangement, led the writer. Therefore, it was not strange when some grammar mistakes occurred, or wrong connectives were used, because a poem had an independent active life. This poet also caught the common trend of Experimental poetry by combining music and visual art into his poems. The most impressive was the use of refrain in his works. Thus, Huy created a new way for Vietnamese literature with his special and dangerous conceptions and experiments, which continuously led others to philosophise about words, poems and poets using prose poetry as material.
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