Reviews and essays / March 2014 (Issue 23)

Linguistic Spheres: Khế Iêm's Stepping Out: Essays on Vietnamese Poetry

by William Noseworthy


Khế Iêm, Stepping Out: Essays on Vietnamese Poetry, Tân Hình Thức Publishing, 2012. 158 pgs.

The mandala is a popular concept in Southeast Asia and worldwide. Historian O.W. Wolters used it to describe spheres of pre-modern politics in Southeast Asia. However, today, the mandala as a concept is no longer limited to spheres of political influence. An individual with a mandala, sphere of influence, can be a teacher, a thinker or a poet. The mandala of Vietnamese poet and author, Khế Iêm, has consistently expanded over the past decade, with five bilingual publications released by the Tân Hình Thức Publishing house since 2006 and an appearance at the world's largest organisational conference for scholars on Asia, namely, the Annual Association of Asian Studies Conference, in San Diego, California in 2004. Already recognised for his poetry, in his most recent work, Stepping Out: Essays on Vietnamese Poetry, Iêm has shifted his focus toward establishing a deeper understanding of the links between Vietnamese history and poetry and the global history of literature (47).

Iêm's analysis of the meta-structure of language shows that there are internal rhyme components in vocabulary sets drawn from everyday language. The examples mother, father, brother and friend in Sanskrit, matr, patr, britra and mitra, are reminiscent of the French mère-père-frère. However, it may be useful for readers to remember the old adage, "C'est la vie, c'est la guerre, c'est la pomme de terre" [meaning: you can't always get what you want], as Khế Iêm asserts that not all languages have natural ingrained rhymes. For Khế Iêm, Vietnamese is one of those languages.

Reflecting upon the nature of ingrained rhyme and poetic tradition has driven Khế Iêm to consider root similarities between Vietnamese and English. In doing so, he emphasises a comparative approach to literature and poetry that addresses the criticism presented by Nguyễn Hoàng Nam's essay, "How to Read" ("Cách Đc"), which argued that for far too many individuals, the phrase "international" has only meant "Russia, America and Europe"(in Thớ Khác 2011:75). For Khế Iêm, international is global. He emphasises this by pointing out that even languages as different as Vietnamese and English have their similarities. Both languages, for example, were originally monosyllabic. However, their circumstances diverged as English received polysyllabic influences from French and Latin. Nevertheless, classic English retained a patterning of stressed-unstressed syllabic orientation or iambs, best-known in the form iambic pentameter. As Khế Iêm argues, the emphasis on iambic structures in classic literary English actually parallels classic Vietnamese, where disyllabic structures prevailed in most classic forms of Vietnamese folk songs (ca dao) and poetry, with the six-eight (lc bát) literary form (19).

Both ca dao and lục bát are similar in that they utilise simple language, like lullabies (17). However, they differ slightly in form. While ca dao are more flexible, lục bát is more formal, like iambic pentameter. Nevertheless, a cao dao can be written in lục bát form. Here are two ca dao:

Ly tri mưa xng
t nước tôi ung
y rung tôi cày
y đy bát cơm
y rơm đun bếp

Con kiến mày trong nhà
Ta đóng c
a li mày ra đng nào
Con cá mày
dưới ao
Tao tát n
ước vào mày chy đi đâu

Note that while the first cao dao does not appear in lục bát, the second ca dao does—its lines alternate between six and eight syllables and it even features occasional natural rhymes.

Outside the more popular cao dao forms, classic Vietnamese poetry drew heavily on lục bát combined with even more formal and rigid Tang Dynasty influenced styles, known in Vietnamese as Ng Ngôn T (five words per line for four lines) and Tht Ngôn Bát Cư (seven words per line for eight lines) (135). Nevertheless, in both Vietnamese and English language poetry, throughout the development of formal structures, rhyme remained relatively deemphasised. At least this was the case for European poetry until medieval Arabic influences on European literary culture led to an increased emphasis on rhyme (47).  However, the addition of rhyme did not make European poetry more populist by any sense of the term, as, like Vietnamese poetry, during the medieval and classical time periods, poetry remained very nearly singularly a product of high society and court entertainment.

The "high society" aspect of English language poetry remained until the 18th century Romantic movement brought "common language" to the centre of the stage of poetic expression. Meanwhile, Vietnamese poetry at this time diverged from European traditions in that it entered a "classic" or "high-classical" phase, with the rise of the Nguyễn Dynasty from the late eighteenth to the mid-nineteenth century. During this period, Nguyễn Du produced the classic Tale of Kiu (Truyn Kiu,) in lục bát and Nguyễn Gia Thiệu wrote the Sorrows of An Abandoned Queen (Cng Oán Ngâm Khúc). However, like the classic Song of a Warrior's Wife (Chính Ph Ngâm), Nguyễn Gai Thiệu wrote in double seven-six-eight (that is, two lines of seven syllables followed by a line of six and a line of eight). Nevertheless, this form was quite rigid as well, and all of these works were written in the demotic Vietnamese script of Hán Nôm (173), although by the pre-war period of the early 20th century Hán Nôm poetic forms did afford poets some flexibility, as they came to include five-four, seven-eight, double seven-six-eight, eight-eight and six-eight forms that blended with ca dao.

While pre-war poets relied mostly on classical forms, from the 1920s onward, the emergence of the Vietnamese public sphere played a major role in the development of populist approaches to literature. During this period, the emergence of the novel began after translations of French and Vietnamese stories appeared in 1921 editions of the journal Nam Phong Tap Chí, although this journal underwent heavy colonialist vetting. The first English translation of a Vietnamese novel (Paradise of the Blind—Dương Thu Hương) would not appear until 70 years later.

By the 1930s, the emphasis on literary production entered a new cycle with the New Poetry Movement (Thơ Mi), although this movement remained predominantly relevant to people in their 20s, who were heavily invested in romantic poetry. Khế Iêm argues that this romantic emphasis stemmed from both their demographic and their position in the cycle of life (75). Hence, it is not a surprise that the New Poetry Movement declined to near extinction by 1945, and the subsequent tumultuous political climate led to bans on poetic production. These bans included a ban on "free verse" poetry, which Khế Iêm points out was not actual free verse, and was thus banned simply for its use of the term "free."(149)[i] However, the controversy over "free verse" was not regionally specific to the north. Both the literary movements of the Nhân Văn Giai Phm (Humanists—northern then southern) and the Sáng To (Creative Writers—southern)[ii] experienced repression during this period. The Nhân Văn Giai Phẩm in particular were influenced by the short-lived Hundred Flowers Movement in China and were similarly quickly repressed. Many authors and poets abandoned their cause. Others went underground, while some shifted toward "rhetorical writing" (149). Meanwhile, "free verse" continued to have some influence among the authors of the Sáng Tạo movement. However, the blend of rhetorical writing and "free verse" in Sáng Tạo works made their poetry rather difficult to understand (149). Nevertheless, the eventual emergence of actual free verse during the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s in Vietnam drew Vietnamese poetic movements in parallel to post-WWII American poetry, which also exhibited a preference for the free verse forms of the Beat Poets (11).

American New Formalism emerged in the 1970s and 1980s in reaction to the "free-ing of verse" that had been occurred in the previous decades. Simultaneously, a large wave of Vietnamese immigrants emerged in both Europe and the United States, through consecutive waves of war-refugees, political refugees and economic refugees. As Khế Iêm argues, "Perhaps ingrained in the psyche of the refugee/immigrant, there is the motive to understand who we are and who the different peoples around us are, thus giving rise to the need for the discovery of new poetic forms" (21). While in the United States, this led to the blending of Vietnamese poetry and American New Formalism, in Vietnam, the 1980s economic reforms of the Đi Mi period also marked the rise of a movement of Đổi Mới literature (157), including the work of Cham poet and scholar Inrasara, who would eventually become a poet in the international Vietnamese language Tân Hình Thc movement as well. However, for the diaspora community, relocation was a double-edged sword. Relocation expanded the audience of Vietnamese literature to German, French and English language readerships. However, at the same time, it decreased the ability of Vietnamese authors to produce works in Vietnamese—as Khế Iêm himself has noted the decline of Vietnamese literary production amongst the 1.5 and later generations stemmed from racism and linguistic barriers forcing acculturation (107). It is this circumstance: a crisis of bilingualism, which frames Khế Iêm's essays and poetic works.

Through a deep reading of Khế Iêm's essays and poetry, it is clear that, in his view, Vietnamese New Formalism is a sort of contemporary antidote to treat the wounds inflicted upon the Vietnamese literary community. This treatment began with the publication of the Hp Lưu Literary Journal and the Tp Chí Thơ (Poetry Journal, 1994–2000) from the bases of the Vietnamese abroad communities in Bolsa, Westminster County and Little Saigon (Saigon Nh) in Orange County. After these first two journals, Khế Iêm moved on to introduce "Blank Verse" Vietnamese poetry into English in 2000, placing an emphasis on enjambment, every day prose and narration (13). In this conception of "Blank Verse," rhyme was not particularly important (15) and repetition replaced rhythm (67) as the use of common language "helps the poet to discover new rhythms and qualities" (17) while also promoting a more popular audience" (47).

An example of Khế Iêm's attempts to appeal to popular audiences appears in his usage of visual poetry in the 2011 publication Th Khác—Other Poetry. Several examples included a series of meditations that commented upon the popular culture of American consumerism, embodied by the "Budweiser Frogs" (translated into Vietnamese as "Bt – waaaaiz – zơơơơơ")(Thớ Khác 2011). This trend toward approaching popularism has also likely influenced Khế Iêm's most recent concept: a "string of poetry" (mt xâu chui thơ), as a means of collecting five, seven, eight or six-eight forms into a single, longer, collaborative effort between poets. Furthermore Khế Iêm has acted to translate the concepts of Chaos theory and deconstructionism into Vietnamese (Thớ Khác 2011). He also argues that the Butterfly effect (hiu ng cánh bướm) may be applied to the writing of poetry (51), although readers may wish he went into more explicit detail as to how this can be done. Nevertheless, the continued insistence by Khế Iêm that Vietnamese New Formalist poetry ought to remain "meaning" rather than "word" centric is refreshing and has been well received by the American poet Frederic Turner, who sees Vietnamese New Formalism as a "rebirth of the 'Republic of Letters'" through its emphasis on transnational connections, while still respecting "cultural and linguistic differences" (55).

It is with this emphasis on transnational connections in mind that Khế Iêm draws upon the work of Cynthia Cohen from her essay "Peace and Ascetic Experience: Co-existence and Reconciliation in the Arts" to highlight Cohen's concept of "feelingful awareness." For Khế Iêm, this "feelingful awareness" directly parallels the prevalence of the notion of compassion (Vietnamese: T Bi; Sanskrit/Pali: Karuna) in Vietnamese literary traditions when he notes, "Through poetry people can relate to each other, to themselves and see the truth that allows them to recognise both positive and negative aspects in life," (171) and hence, translation is an integral ingredient to the project of Vietnamese New Formalism, as it seeks to promote the understanding of culture across linguistic divides.

For Khế Iêm, translation is critical in poetry as it allows one to "propel Vietnamese poetry onto the international stage," (21) and his approach addresses one of the major problems of the contemporary global citizen that has been highlighted by the work of Andrea Saunders. As Saunders has argued, through traditional methods of translation, "a conundrum is created. In an increasingly mobile society, how does one bridge the gaps between linguistic, cultural and generational barriers while preserving traditional heritage?" ("Introduction" in Poetry NarratesThơ K): xxv). Khế Iêm's 2009 Poetry Narrates (Thơ K) relied predominantly on the work of translators: Biển Bắc, Đỗ Vinh, Phan Khế, Trần Vũ and Liên Tâm, while Stepping Out relies predominantly upon the work of Đỗ Vinh, as edited by Dr. Carol Compton. Nevertheless, Phan Khế's work has remained important as he translated the poems of Inrasara in Poetry Narrates including the often cited "The Crying Buffalos" ("Trâu Khóc"), which is also featured in the introduction to Stepping Out. Utilising Khế Iêm's emphasis on meaning rather than words and on freeing the verse form, the combination of translation and New Formalism has acted as a "bridge across the pacific" that provides a link between the various members of the global community and those inside Vietnam to foster creative collaboration (113). Further examples of these efforts include the translation of the work of the American poet Stephen John Kalinich into Vietnamese (Th Khác—Other Poetry, 2011) and the celebration of the Vietnamese poet TTKh—who once submitted a catfish bridge as an art exhibit—and became celebrated for the first time in English through Khế Iêm's work. Thus, it is through translation that the realities of the karmic cycle are paralleled to the notions of metempsychosis (luân hi) or the notion of the passing of the soul at the point of death into another body (99). Moving beyond the complex process of translation of concepts, Khế Iêm additionally emphasises that contemporary Vietnamese society is quite different from the diaspora communities' ideas about Vietnamese culture in the United States, which is again different from the common perception of Americans as a whole.

As Khế Iêm notes, fifty percent of contemporary Vietnamese society was born after the Vietnamese-American War. It is, in Khế Iêm's view, the youngest generation of Vietnamese that have combined with the efforts of three million Vietnamese abroad in order to create a cultural milieu that holds great potential—in the words of Iêm, "this is a unique opportunity that comes around once every thousand years!" (185) Thus, it seems appropriate to highlight at least three artists who have emerged in recent years: the spoken word poet Bao Phi, the rapper John "Vietnam" Nguyễn (d. 2012) and the Vietnamese language poet Kiều Maily.[iii] While the works of Bao Phi and John "Vietnam" Nguyễn emerged in the context of the Vietnamese community in the United States, the work of Kiều Maily parallels their experience through her representations of Cham culture in Vietnamese language poetry. Strictly speaking, none of these authors have explicitly created Vietnamese New Formalist poetry. However, in all their work, we see elements of the New Formalist tradition. For example, in the work of Bao Phi, we see an emphasis on enjambment, repetition and the occasional deemphasis on rhyme, while the work of John "Vietnam" Nguyễn stressed rhythm in the spoken word and the work of Kiều Maily focuses on rhythmic and free verse. These works are simply samples and, while they do not represent the entire Vietnamese language poetic community, they do offer examples of how a younger generation of poets in Vietnam and abroad have moved to innovate verse. Nevertheless, as Khế Iêm argues, this new generation will need readers, and such a readership might do well to follow the logic of Khế Iêm to note that "each reader is a singer" as a reminder of the importance readership plays in the cultivation of authorship (71). As such, Khế Iêm's work continues to be a crucial contribution to the understanding of the history and poetry of Vietnam and the Vietnamese linguistic sphere.



Hương, Dương Thư. Translated from Vietnamese by Duong, Phan Huy and McPherson, Nina. Paradise of the Blind. (New York, William Morrow and Company Inc., 1993) 

Iêm, Khế ed. Thơ Khác - n Bn Song Ng (Other Poetry - A Bilingual Edition). Do Vinh, translator, Richard H. Sindt, consulting editor. (Garden Grove, CA: Tân Hình Thức Publishing Group, 2011)

---. ed. Thơ K (Poetry Narrates). (Garden Grove, CA: Tân Hình Thức Publishing Group, 2009)

---. "Vietnamese New Formalism: Stepping Out from a Literary Tradition" in Thơ Không Vân: Thuyn Tp Tân Hình Thc. (Garden Grove, CA: Tân Hình Thức Publishing Group, 2006) xxxi-xxxix

--- ed. Thơ Không Vân: Thuyn Tp Tân Hình Thc (Blank Verse: An Anthology of Vietnamese New Formalism Poetry) (Garden Grove, CA: Tân Hình Thức Publishing Group, 2006)

Nguyễn Hoàng Nam. "Cách Độc." (How to read) in Thơ Khc (Other Poetry), (Garden Grove, CA: Tan Hinh Thuc Publishing Group: 2011) 166-78

Wolters, OW (1999). History, Culture and Region in Southeast Asian Perspectives. (Ithaca, NY: Cornell Southeast Asia Program Second Printing 2004)

[i] This political climate not only led to the founding of the Việt Minh, but also lesser known political parties such as the Socialist Party of Vietnam (Đảng Xã Hội Việt Nam), the Central Committee of the Vientamese Fatherland Front (y Ban Trung Ương Mt Trn T Quc Vit Nam) and the Democratic Party of Vietnam (Đảng Dân Chủ Việt Nam).
[ii] Here Khế Iêm draws the name for the Sáng Tạo movement from the Sáng To (Creativity Journal), which was founded in 1956 and remains one of the longest running literary journals, if not the longest, in contemporary Vietnam.

For Bao Phi, see "You Bring out the Vietnamese in Me" and

For John "Vietnam" Nguyen's First Wave Scholar audition, see:

Website © Cha: An Asian Literary Journal 2007-2018
ISSN 1999-5032
All poems, stories and other contributions copyright to their respective authors unless otherwise noted.