3. From Loy’s Poems, Thoughts about On the Thirteenth Stroke of Midnight443 In my view, On the thirteenth Stroke of Midnight has put Surrealism in an independent position in the tradition of poetic criticism. More than a collection, this book represented a detailed portrait of over 70 years of works by the Surrealist group in England, from manifestos and declarations to poetry experiments, some of them published for the first time.
Unlike Loy when she explored Surrealism in the changing position of subject and object and focused on making Surrealist poems by renewing images, the Surrealist poets in this book considered the changing of language as a natural form of expression rather than an effort of renewal. They tended to tell illogical stories rather than creating unfamiliar objects.
Language, in this case, was also considered as the foundation of poetic form by merging the borders of poetry and prose, traditional verse and innovative ideology. Specifically, the image-thoughts were interlocked with abstract-thoughts, the lyrical ego was synonymous with the fragmented ego, while the appearance of language was a disjointed patchwork of flashing images. However, most of the poems in this collection, despite their different lengths, were enough to tell more than a story. A good example of this came in ‘Those Pennies Were Well Spent’, where Tony del Renzio explored places in a variable time sequence:
Today is the first Wednesday of the month
Yesterday was the first Sunday444
This illogical time helped the lyrical character to travel in nostalgia evoked from the sound of streets and rhythms of jazz. Sometimes, he seemed to be close to the music; sometimes, they were strangers. Gone with the music were childhood, memories and love. Death appeared and disappeared as if they were there but on the other hand, had never existed. However, although this poem could represent the image-thoughts in Surrealist poetry, the proportion of rhythm and careful arrangement of ideas pointed to the shadow of Symbolism. This fragmented vision of a stream of time within poems also appeared in works by Emmy Bridgwater; for example, she wrote in ‘Weed Growing’: ‘Has it got to be a doing, a done, a finish, an end?’445 Whereas David Gascoyne, by painting language, demonstrated objects in various dimensions and positions with strange combinations. ‘The Very Image’ could be an apt example, where continuous clauses linked real automatic images into an unreal, imagined ‘image of my grandmother’:
Her head appearing upside-down upon a cloud
The cloud transfixed on the steeple
Of a deserted railway station
‘Automatic writing’ was also a very interesting case, in which Gascoyne used the Imagist imagination to create indissoluble sentences:
Nothing can break the spell of the Atlantic breakers which are surging in the leaden cupboards where the quick and the dead have left their garments to decay beneath the unauthorised gaze of a colossus with heels of gold. 447 The rebellion of language in British Surrealist poetry was really emphasised in the poems of Len Lye, Reuben Mednikoff, E.L.T. Mesens and Desmond Morris. Each of them had their own ways of transforming traditional poetry structure, through which the positions of words became effects of rhythm. This might be poems based on repeated sound threads in a chorus:
Painting painting where is thy mind sting: there there under the chair; not under the chair says poppa Cézanne in the legs of the chair says poppa Cézanne: that old chair? Chair in your hair Cézanne Cézanne. A chair in the mind is worth none in the bush. A chair is a chair to leave it there. 448
(‘Chair in Your Hair’)
Here, like a game of a hide-and-seek, ‘the chair’ seems to be a repetitive brushstroke in a painting by Cézanne. This poem, therefore, is written in form of folk song while the rhythmic impression plays a decisive role in Len Lye’s choice of language.
Other modern forms, like telegram, also appeared in E.L.T. Mesens’s works. ‘Untranslatable, Statistical and Critical News Item’ was one such poem:
All details here are linked to each other by numbers, appearing to be just event-work, with no lyrics, nothing which could promise it would be poetic. This contains enough place, time and actions for a poem to be recognised and understood, but it seems incomplete overall beyond bare words. There is real language but unreal meanings.
Above all, I think On the Thirteenth Stroke of Midnight was a panorama of Surrealist poetry in England. It awakened readers with a stroke of innovation-requirement at midnight with abnormal metaphors, unfamiliar combinations and infinite language. However, at the same time, it calmed them down through a significant journey of words deepening in the mind, evoking memories and wonder about the future, easing before death, becoming lost in looking for the ego, tormenting with remorse and sustaining with love. It could be said that through many different ways of expression, some even shocking or rejecting, the collection finally turns back to the native source of poetry, the human.
As such, the final example must be verses in the middle of War Poem by Mesens:
A sudden bomb explodes
Although the images of ‘lingering trailing robes’ and ‘night wrestling with itself’ are enough to show the overwhelming dark horror of the bomb through metaphor, the three ‘x’ signs after that, the only signs of pause throughout the whole collection, denounce war the most violently, in silence.
4. From Loy’s Poems and Magritte’s Paintings, a Suggestion for Future Surrealist Vietnamese Poetry and Art It could be said that after French Symbolism appeared in Vietnamese poetry in the 1930s, no other theory could have such a strong influence on the improvement of literature in Vietnam. This might be explained by two reasons. Firstly, the French had had more than half a century of domination in Vietnam from the beginning of the twentieth century. Accordingly, their language, culture and literature had already been popularised. Among these influences, French Symbolism played a decided role in changing the ideology of Vietnamese writers from that of the feudal system to bourgeois thinking. Secondly, the coming of American literature in the remaining half of the twentieth century, after Vietnamese writers had formed their initial image of modern literature, the separating of North and South Vietnam and the simultaneous approach of various kinds of theories in literature in English ensured that no single theory could be such a dominant wave for Vietnamese writings. The influence of French Symbolism, on the other hand, created implications through which the shadow of Symbolism could be recognised in a lot of Vietnamese poems, no matter what theories the poets followed. Therefore, it would have been hard to find a Vietnamese Surrealist poem or a Vietnamese Surrealist poet because of their unawareness of creating a separation from Symbolism.
Therefore, I chose to examine objects and subjects in Loy’s poems and Magritte’s paintings with the expectation that this research could suggest a way for Vietnamese poets to be more aware of the impact of Symbolism and to approach Surrealist poetry. It was hoped that this might make a contribution to supplementing Vietnamese poetry, especially in the context of modern integration in literature.
From researching Loy’s poems and Magritte’s paintings, I recognised that the manner of thinking by symbol in poetry could be major obstacle for Vietnamese poets in writing modern poetry. It led to a supposed default that poems needed to contain central symbols that carried metaphors and meanings. These should be analysed and understood by all means and these understandings were the measurement for evaluating a poem. Focusing on a central symbol seemed to deprive the poets of liberty in choosing words and creating multiple directions. Moreover, the burden of creating metaphors sometimes made poems unnatural or become stereotypical. Symbol, at this stage, was no longer a motivation for creating, but an issue of approaching new theories which would supply new means of poetic expression.
With regard to subjects, Loy and Magritte also supplied a way of writing about women, for example, women’s bodies. This could be seen as a ‘hidden realm’ that Vietnamese poets did not dare to explore. The feudal ideology prevented them from seeing the human in naked situations, or at least, it was something that should not be spoken about loudly and proudly in books, which required the formal and official attitude at all times. Lust, however, as I learned from the cases of Loy and Magritte, was not the aim of their poems and paintings, but seemed to be a necessity in defining humans in their own ways. They did not express a face as a face or genitals as genitals, for instance. They mixed them, changed their positions or combined them with other unexpected subjects, like animals, in their most original images. They applied Surrealist imagination to familiar everyday subjects. Some of them tended towards sexuality, most of them did not. Bodies were used as materials of creativity, not meaningful metaphors. Thus, exploring bodies and gender throughout subjects in Loy’s poems and Magritte’s paintings could open up a new realm for Vietnamese poets to write about, without the concern of violating hidden rules of modality that should no longer burden Vietnamese art.
I suppose that contemporary Surrealist understanding with regard to sexuality could be seen as a breakthrough against the repression of poetic history in the past, and this may help to answer the question why Vietnamese poets were not allowed to write about sex naturally instead of being suppressed. I wish that, through the study of Loy’s poems and Magritte’s paintings, I could supply Vietnamese poets with another way of presenting sexuality in poetry, without any prohibitions regarding morality, but instead with humanity. At present, Vietnamese literature has noted the proliferation of works explicitly referencing sexuality. This phenomenon is supposed to show that moral discourse nowadays has become increasingly narrow, but this attitude conflicts with the vision of new values and requires writers to overcome old standards.
In my view, there have been half-hearted efforts to write about sexuality. Basically, these encouraged the promotion of freedom against the barriers of ideologies. On the other hand, in the process of developing sexuality in poetry, moral issues squeezed their way in. Thus, in many such cases, the structure of a standard ending was provided, just like in medieval literature. This appeared like a weak way of saying that all the things mentioned before had been used to prevent readers from following ideas of sexuality, which were considered as corruption. Eventually, the characters would pay the price for taking about sexuality, even though before that the authors had described sexuality without embarrassment or passion, as it was a completely different realm or dialogue system. This could make readers wonder if sex could be talked about as a main subject or not, and if it was regarded as a valid topic, could it contribute to a new value of traditional poetry or not? As far as I know, during the evolution of modern poetry from the 1930s in Vietnamese literature, readers could read about the naked man, the meat man, the son who was flesh and carnal. However, the independence of discourse, at the time, was not really radical. It only fully appeared in Trần Dần’s poetry from 1945 onwards.
In my view, Trần Dần used the poetry of sexuality to reveal human nature. He rejected the normal accepted attitude that considered sexuality as vile. He wrote about the taboo as a mainstream way to describe people. Thus, in the concept of Trần Dần, man did not live for obligation. He lived instinctively. On the other hand, the instinct had its own voice in respect to social behaviour towards other characters. While the characters in the previous literary period were torn between sexual desire and moral sense, Trần Dần’s poetry let his characters live naturally.
Moreover, I think that the poet's talent showed in how the characters lived with a sense of sexuality whilst still retaining the beauty of humanity and life. Trần Dần not only created dialogue with conventional moral thinking about greatness and self-effacement, but also, ambitiously, showed the transformation between two opposite extremes. At the same time, the poet also tried to argue with official thinking on what was considered corrupt or taboo, and wrote about beauty as well as primitive instincts. The darkness in one’s mind turned out to be not quite as dark as people thought at first. Sexuality in Trần Dần’s poetry was a direct dialogue with age, with the concept of human ideals. Characters in his poems lived in darkness but it was not a despicable, horrible environment. It was just because what was hidden was not recognised that it did not dare to be made public.
Discourse on sexuality was used to contribute to the human image. The naked man in Trần Dần’s poetry had no sense, no characteristics. Sexuality became an inevitable aspect of his survival. No one paid the price for an instinctive lifestyle. No one should think about whether such behaviour was right or wrong according to regulations. In the poetry of Trần Dần, for the first time in Vietnamese literature, the language of sexuality was visible. It stood in an independent position. However, I understand two responses to life from his writings: loneliness and pride. The ‘flesh’, as he wrote proudly, appeared and required to be recognised in Vietnamese poetry, yet even now (2017) it can be seen as the only accepted case of sexuality in poetry ever published in Vietnam. Nonetheless, Trần Dần did not care much about how his shocking poetry of nude woman and sexuality were regarded or rejected. He was devoted to what he had been working for, the pure sense of being human, a ‘citizen of the earth’, without a name, without any identification. He was proud to be called human.
In terms of objects, Loy’s poems and Magritte’s paintings were expected to bring a new concept of creating Surrealist art in Vietnam through the emptying of objects. Vietnamese poets tended to write about objects which contained souls and meanings. In the other words, they were personified. For example, Xuân Quỳnh wrote:
On gentle moonlit nights
The sea was like a young girl
Whispering her feelings
In waves lapping the boat’s hull451 Xuân Quỳnh, in general, showed an abstract equation for objects in Vietnamese poetry: an implication of human emotions. Moreover, her poems also indicated the traditional way of understanding objects while attaching them to defined characteristics and other lyrical relationships, such as sea-calm-young girl and wave-smooth-lapping. In Loy’s poems, ‘sea’ or ‘ocean’ sometimes appeared but without any adjective or comparison. They were themselves and appeared freely as their original images. In ‘Song to Joannes’,452 Loy wrote:
I would an eye in Bengal light
Constellations in an ocean
In painting, there were clearly some initial influences of Dalí and Magritte on Vietnamese painters. Some of them consciously followed Surrealism and. Nguyễn Đình Đăng was an apt example.
From this painting the common idea of a faraway land in the image of a coming locomotive can be recognised (‘Time Transfixed’ - Magritte), while the lengthened piano reflects ‘Skull with its Lyric Appendage Leaning on a Night Table which should have the Exact Temperature of a Cardinals Nest’ by Dalí. However, Nguyễn Đình Đăng has tried to create a logical connection between objects in the painting, which helps viewers to approach the intentional idea of the artist from the start. There is a link between the robe, boat and hanging violin on the tree, the up-coming crash, white pianist and death hole. Moreover, with traditional Eastern ideology in art, he has tended to enclose a private story, an analysis of a dream or familiar fairy tale in his painting, which might make it initially meaningful. In this particular one, it is a story of a ‘silent Japanese piano’. In my opinion, I think that this kind of painting is close to Surrealism in appearance; however, due to interference between West and East, it still contains some specific Eastern ideology that needs to be explained on the margin of the art.
Nguyễn Đình Đăng is now working as a scientist and painter in Japan. However, he started giving lectures on modern art in the University of Art in Vietnam in the 2000s, which was a bright sign of Vietnamese artists gradually accepting what used to be refused.
I consider Nguyễn Đình Đăng as an interesting case of an artist who was fully aware of Surrealism in the West and the initial ideology of Surrealism in the East. ‘His art, to some extent, as a multifaceted prism, reflects East and West from past to present and reveals the relationship between people from different cultures’.454 Another example from his own collection could be analysed from this point of view:
This painting is certainly reminiscent of ‘The Pleasure Principles’, 1937, by Magritte. The man in Magritte’s painting was Edward James, whereas the man in Nguyễn Đình Đăng’s painting was himself. He followed Magritte’s concept by focusing on the contrast of light and dark, day and night,456 through the position of the subject as well as the background arrangement. However, Magritte seemed to hide all the details: the face, one hand and the other hand’s actions, and the mystery rock on the table. He suggested to the viewer Freud’s theory of seeking pleasure and avoiding pain, in the ‘pleasure principle’; ‘the pleasure principle also refers to the psychoanalytic theories of Sigmund Freud, in which sexual drives provide the combustion engine for nearly all behaviour’.457 Moreover, as a Surrealist, Magritte insisted on the feelings and response of viewers more than the intended significance of the artist. He even praised the void as the ‘only great wonder of the world’,458 stating: ‘my painting is visible images which conceal nothing’.459 In my view, this was also suited to the subjects that he chose. Most of them were not determined. They could be copies of man in general, half human half animal or hidden human. They did not evoke any specific subject with specific features. Thus, his subjects did not belong to time or space. If they could belong to anything, I think it would be the individual ideas of each viewer.
Nguyễn Đình Đăng, on the other hand, analysed his painting in a very traditional way. In my view, he insisted on telling the viewer his own story, and even though the details did not seem to be familiar to each other, he tended to make them logical. The painting ‘Awakening of the Past’ was the answer. This was the link between the writing (or painting) and to the driving child, the action of writing (or painting) and the action of memories, the idea of a candle in the dark and the idea of awakening. Thus, what was achieved from this painting was firstly, the analysis of the painter himself about past and present, light and dark. In Magritte’s painting, the painter tried to hide something or tell something that he himself could not recognise. In Đăng’s painting, the mysteriousness was, as I see it, awakened.
The reasons why I think of Nguyễn Đình Đăng as a traditional Eastern painter within the very modern artistic trend of Surrealism, are his consideration of time and the use of folklore and fairy tales in his demonstration of the Surrealist dream. In Vietnamese literature, as well as Chinese or Japanese literature, time and folklore were frequently considered as the main characters of art. Haiku poetry was written about a precious term which referred to the changing of seasons and time, as ‘Traditionally, collections of Japanese hokku and haiku verse were organised by seasonal order’.460 Ancient Chinese poetry wrote about folklore as a standard way of demonstrating the changing of life: ‘The Chinese tradition was essentially an oral folk tradition for over a millennium, because the major written texts were primarily translations of folk poetry’.461 The protagonists were analysed according to these changes. In Vietnamese writing about a subject, readers needed to have an awareness of where he was from and what his starting point was. In my view, Vietnamese readers could not accept some character who ‘jumped on the poem or the novel’ without an initial understanding of his life history. Understanding and analysing poems and stories based on time were both tradition and obstruction for Eastern writers and readers approaching modern literature (e.g. James Joyce and Gertrude Stein). Time, and stories of the past, were among the main characteristics in Đăng’s paintings. As a Surrealist painter, he understood clearly what could transform his paintings into exact Surrealist art works. However, I think that he had a determination to combine his Eastern ideology, which still contained a lot of mysteries, with Western Surrealism. I think the way he collaged some classic Vietnamese stories or history (e.g. ‘The Introduction of Roman Writing in Vietnam’,462 in which he drew the image of Nguyễn Văn Vĩnh’s death, the person who disseminated modern Vietnamese and laid it towards Alexandre de Rhodes, who invented the Vietnamese Latin language) could prove his efforts to create an Eastern Surrealist style in painting.
Furthermore, with regard to the transformation of objects from Classic art to Surrealist art, I think that the whole painting itself could be seen as an object. In the case of Nguyễn Đình Đăng, I suppose that his painting ‘An Awakening of the Past’ could be seen as a response to the painting of Magritte. In other words, Nguyễn Đình Đăng was also a viewer in front of Magritte’s painting. Instead of expressing his own understanding in words, he used colours and shapes to create a ‘wakening of the past’. More importantly, he responded to a Western Surrealist painting with an Eastern Surrealist’s painting. They might be similar in some ways, but they are different in ideology.