Saturday, April 21, 2012

Early Vietnamese Poetry

These are short poems, perhaps reflecting Japanese influence in Korea around a thousand years ago. They are reminiscent of Japanese haiku and other short Japanese forms, and many of the themes are also commonly found in Japanese poetry.

The body of man

The body of man is like a flicker of lightning
existing only to return to Nothingness.
Like the spring growth that shrivels in autumn.
Waste no thought on the process for it has no purpose,
coming and going like the dew.

-- Van Hanh --
(d. 1018)
trans. Nguyen Ngoc Bich with W. S. Merwin

We are just part of the natural process of life on this planet. Our existence has no more meaning then dew or lightning. I don't think he would understand those who believe the universe was created solely for humans, a testing ground for eternal happiness or pain and suffering.



Spring goes, and the hundred flowers.
Spring comes, and the hundred flowers.
My eyes watch things passing,
my head fills with years.
But when spring has gone not all the flowers follow.
Last night a plum branch blossomed by my door.

-- Man Giac --
trans. Nguyen Ngoc Bich with W. S. Merwin

Something still remains, even if most have gone on before--perhaps to remind us that the flowers and spring will come back again.


Spring view

The willows trail such glory that the birds are struck dumb.
Evening clouds balance above the eave-shaded hall.
A friend comes, not for conversation,
But to lean on the balustrade and watch the turquoise sky.

-- Tran Nhan-tong --
trans. Nguyen Ngoc Bich

One can always talk, but a night of beauty such as this comes rarely and shouldn't be missed.


A plough and a spade

A plough and a spade, that's all,
A row of chrysanthemums, and orchids,
A place to plant beans: that's all I need
Friends come, birds sing and flowers wave: welcome!
The moon walks with me when I fetch water for tea.
Old Po Yi stayed pure and stayed happy,
Yen-tzu stayed poor and liked it;
Let the world buzz,
I need no praise, I am deaf to laughter.

-- Nguyen Trai --
trans. Nguyen Ngoc Bich

A bamboo hut

A bamboo hut and a plum tree bower--
That's where I spend my days, far from the world's talk.
For meals, only some pickled cabbage,
But I've never cared for the life of damask and silk.
There's a pool of water for watching the moon,
And land to plough into flower beds.
Sometimes I feel inspired on snowy nights--
That's when I write my best poems, and sing.

--Nguyen Trai --
trans. Nguyen Ngoc Bich

What? No Ipad, no Blackberry, no computer, no forty-five inch TV, no Twitter or Facebook?


The stone dog

With a heavy paw he guards the frontier,
Squatting alone in the middle of the pass,
Paying no heed to the snow or frost,
Never asking for good food or payment.
Staring straight at the visitors' faces,
He is above listening to their gossiping tongues.
With one mind he serves his lord.
A thousand-weight strong, he cannot be swayed.

-- Emperor Le Thanh-tong
trans. Nguyen Ngoc Bich

And, no doubt he guarded that pass long after the emperor who had him created had gone, even perhaps long after the empire had disintegrated--perhaps an Asian Ozymandias?

All poems are taken from World Poetry: An Anthology of Verse from Antiquity to Our Time, and edited by Katherine Washburn and John S. Major.


  1. Early Vietnamese poetry was mostly influenced by Chinese poetry.
    Anyhow, it's so hard to comment on these poems when I don't know what they were called in the original.

  2. Di,

    What do you mean by "it's so hard to comment on these poems when I don't know what they were called in the original"?

  3. Sorry, it wasn't clear. I mean I think it's better to read these poems in Vietnamese than to read the translations.
    Verse suffers more than prose when translated into another language.

  4. Di,

    Robert Frost once, when asked what poetry was, said that it was what got lost in translation.

    I agree that much is lost when reading poetry in translation, so one should read it in the original language. However, if one is unable to read that language, then I feel that reading it in translation is better than nothing.

    At least I got an idea of what the Vietnamese were writing about a long time ago and that they were writing poetry a long time ago. It's a poor substitute, I agree, but it's better than nothing, or so I think.

    1. This is the most significant work of Vietnamese literature:
      Do you have the original titles of these poems though?

  5. Di,

    No, author and English translation is it.

    Thanks for the reference to the Tale of Kieu. I know so little about Asian lit, so this helps.

  6. Ah, I've found the 1st one by thiền sư Vạn Hạnh.
    In Hán Việt/ Sino-Vietnamese:
    "Thị đệ tử
    Thân như điện ảnh hữu hoàn vô
    Vạn mộc xuân vinh thu hựu khô
    Nhậm vận thịnh suy vô bố úy
    Thịnh suy như lộ thảo đầu phô".
    Translated into chữ Quốc ngữ/ the current Vietnamese system:
    "Bảo học trò
    Thân người như ánh chớp, có rồi lại không,
    Cây cối đến tiết xuân thì tươi, đến tiết thu lại héo.
    Đã nhậm vận, thì thịnh hay suy không làm cho sợ hãi,
    Thịnh hay suy [chẳng qua] (*) như giọt sương ở đầu ngọn cỏ."
    The form, simple as it seems, is very complicated- I don't have enough words to go into details. Haha.

    1. Di,

      Looks like a possible blog post for you.

  7. The 2nd one "Rebirth" by Mãn Giác is called "Cáo tật thị chúng":
    "Xuân khứ bách hoa lạc,
    Xuân đáo bách hoa khai.
    Sự trục nhãn tiền quá,
    Lão tòng đầu thượng lai.

    Mạc vị xuân tàn hoa lạc tận,
    Đình tiền tạc dạ nhất chi mai!"

    The 3rd one, "Spring view" by Trần Nhân Tông, is "Xuân cảnh":
    "Dương liễu hoa thâm điểu ngữ trì,
    Hoạ đường thiềm ảnh mộ vân phi.
    Khách lai bất vấn nhân gian sự,
    Cộng ỷ lan can khán thuý vi."

    I haven't found the 2 poems by Nguyễn Trãi and the one by Lê Thánh Tông, but some day I will.
    You don't speak the language but I copy the poems here so that you have a general idea of the form, what the original poems looked like, and such. Also, in case some Vietnamese some day passes by this post.

  8. Di,

    Thanks. I appreciate the effort you are putting into this. Again, have you considered doing a post on these poems yourself?

    1. I'll think about it.
      (You should expect that I won't. I started on several other posts already, e.g the latest one about Elliot Rodger, and haven't finished. I never finish anythi

    2. Di,

      Chuckle. . .

      For long and complicated posts, unless I'm inspired to do it NOW, I create a draft and add a few things irregularly, until it's complete, sometimes weeks after I started. I've got two now in draft status and maybe by late June or July I'll finish them, maybe.

    3. Good luck.
      My blog now has 71 drafts.
      The problem is that I may like to write something but easily get bored and after a while forget about it.
      Like right now I'm working on an essay, which I've been writing for months, and now already am fed up with it.
      Guess that's why I never create anything substantial.

    4. Di,

      I guess I'm a bit OCD since I have to finish those entries. They just nag at me until I finally post them.

    5. OCD. Hahaha.
      By the way, you might be interested to know that in Norwegian your name means "peace".

    6. Di,


    7. Just wondering, which languages do you speak?

    8. English--barely

      High school Spanish--60+ years ago, now a word here and there.

      College German--60 years ago, now a word here and there.

      Typical US citizen--only one language and that barely.

  9. OK, the last one by emperor Lê Thánh Tông, "The stone dog" is called "Chó đá":
    "Lần kể xuân thu biết mấy mươi
    Cửa nghiêm thăm thẳm một mình ngồi
    Đêm thanh nguyệt dãi màng trông nguyệt
    Ngày vắng ruồi bâu biếng ngáp ruồi
    Cắn kẻ tiểu nhân nào đoái miệng
    Chào người quân tử chẳng phe đuôi
    Phỏng trong sức có ngàn cân nặng
    Dấu nhẫn ai lay cũng chẳng dời."
    The form is different.
    And it's written in chữ Nôm, not chữ Hán as the previous 3 poems.

    (Am I boring you?)

  10. "A plough and a spade" by Nguyễn Trãi:
    "Một cày một cuốc thú nhà quê
    Áng cúc lan chen vãi đậu kê
    Khách đến chim rừng hoa xẩy rụng
    Chè tiên nước ghín nguyệt đeo về
    Bá Di người dặng thanh là thú
    Nhan Tử ta xem ngặt ấy lề
    Kệ tiếng dữ lành tai quản lấp
    Cầu ai khen miễn lệ ai chê."

  11. Finally, "A bamboo hut" by Nguyễn Trãi:
    "Am trúc hiên mai ngày tháng qua
    Thị phi nào đến cõi yên hà
    Bữa ăn dầu có dưa muối
    Áo mặc nài chi gấm là
    Nước dưỡng cho thanh trì thưởng nguyệt
    Đất cày ngõ ải luống ương hoa
    Trong khi hứng động vừa đêm tuyết
    Ngâm được câu thần dắng dắng ca."

    To find these poems I actually needed some help from a friend.

  12. Di,

    Nope A bit confused, though

    1. I hope this helps a bit:
      That is, if you're interested.

    2. Di,

      The history of writing is a very complex issue, or at least it seems that way to me on first encounter. Several different scripts--all existing at the same time, each with its own use.

    3. I think the history of writing in Vietnam can be roughly divided into 3 periods: chữ Hán, then chữ Nôm, and now chữ Quốc ngữ.
      Now almost everything is in chữ Quốc ngữ, the system with the Latin alphabet. So that's easier than the Japanese I guess, people have to learn 3 systems, at least that's what I've heard.

  13. I wonder if, eventually, all alphabets will be replaced by the Latin alphabet.

    1. I doubt it. Chinese, Arabic, Hebrew... speakers are too proud to adopt that, and the Latin alphabet wouldn't fit lots of languages.

  14. I can just see language terrorists in the future shouting "Death to the Latin alphabet."

    1. Hahaha.
      Personally I like the Latin alphabet. At least, I don't like the Chinese system, because the Chinese characters are visual symbols, which reflected the way people thought about things a long time ago, and many of the views became outdated. Not that I've learnt the language myself, but I've heard about the meaning behind words such as women, citizens, etc. and that's just annoying.

    2. Di,

      Interesting point. I had never considered that problem.

    3. But then they won't change into abc because that would destroy all the relationships between the words.