Back at the end of February I set out to blog about Spring Essence, a collection of poems by an 18th-century Vietnamese concubine named Ho Xuan Huong, whom the Utne Reader calls “one of the most remarkable poets who ever lived.” The translations are by my former teacher John Balaban, now Professor and Poet-in-Residence at North Carolina State University. John is the author of twelve books of poetry and prose, a two-time nominee for the National Book Award, and a past president of the American Literary Translators Association. Neil Sheehan calls Spring Essence “a gift of art and scholarship.”
But each time I sat down to do it, my writing—which after all is not that of a poet or critic but merely of an interested teacher and reader—became mere prelude. I began with my own tenuous connections to Vietnam through my family’s experience there, then I wrote about choosing an MFA program, working with John in his subtropical garden, then more generically about artists as teachers, and at the end of May I posted on the long view of human life that literature takes, which makes many readers uncomfortable. I knew the trail from one entry to the next—writing’s a way of coming to know, as they say—but it wasn’t important that you saw me cut it. This week I’d like to finish what I started; if you’re interested, you can always look back at where I came from.
There’s something that pulls two ways, gain and loss, in the story of a mature artist. T.S. Eliot says:
There are many people who appreciate the expression of sincere emotion in verse, and there is a smaller number of people who can appreciate technical excellence. But very few know when there is an expression of significant emotion, emotion which has its life in the poem and not in the history of the poet. The emotion of art is impersonal. And the poet cannot reach this impersonality without surrendering himself wholly to the work to be done. And he is not likely to know what is to be done unless he lives in what is not merely the present, but the present moment of the past, unless he is conscious, not of what is dead, but of what is already living.
(Or always living, perhaps. I’ve long suspected Faulkner was talking about himself as an artist when he wrote about old men “to whom all the past is not a diminishing road, but, instead, a huge meadow which no winter ever quite touches, divided from them now by the narrow bottleneck of the most recent decade of years.”)
Eliot’s difference between the history of the poet and the poems themselves is further confused when there are poets as thrillingly autobiographic as some are banal in their worldliness.
The young in particular venture out to take the temperature of the world and temper themselves in the crucible instead. It’s a time-honored romance that takes many forms—college, The Grand Tour, expatriatism, combat. Presumably any upheaval that brings new geographies, weather, languages, people, flora, and fauna, will do the trick.
John was spurred as a young man by a latent “sense of injustice” he shared with his father. He writes, “Despite my father’s military career, my parents’ Eastern Church, Romanian heritage, my neighborhood violence, and my brother’s example [of carrying a gun and punching a teacher “down the school steps”], I found myself attending Quaker meetings, picketing the Army’s biological-warfare center at Fort Dietrick, Maryland, and trying to take on in debate—at the local John Birch society, of all places—the legal counsel for the House Un-American Activities Committee.”
Later, after attending Harvard, he applied for conscientious objector status from his draft board, with a wrinkle: He demanded to be sent to Vietnam to do his alternate service. He imagines how the men on the board must have laughed at this kid who “told them [he] was going to Vietnam whether or not they approved [his] status as a CO.” In Vietnam he served with International Voluntary Services, until he was wounded by shrapnel from an American cluster bomb, and then with the Committee of Responsibility to Save War-Burned and War-Injured Children.
There are one too many brawls in John’s memoir to call him a do-gooder, and I think of Hemingway’s comment on Pound: “He was…irascible but so perhaps have been many saints.” In the poems, there are too many bouts of joyous Chinese-poet drunkenness and ironic-Byronic self-regard to ever accuse him of an evaporative self. But if the life is a Romantic’s, the work is largely Modern restraint, compression, and distillation.
Early in his published work he begins the turn outward toward the emotion of the poem, away from the history of the poet. I suspect he would never agree with Ford Madox Ford’s Romantic idea that the “true writer[’s]…achievement is his alone; he is the eternal solitary with no assistant.” John has acknowledged the influence of his remarkable teachers, such as Robert Lowell and John Barth, and of friends remarkable not only for their famous names (Sean Flynn, son of Errol, and John Steinbeck IV) but also for their deeds. One of them, Dave Gitelson, a brilliant former Army medic in Germany, was a sort of Johnny Appleseed of southern Vietnam, working for IVS but living among the people and distributing seed packets and agricultural information. (He also “nattered” at both Vietnamese and American authorities about military atrocities, corruption, and other criminal activity, and was murdered—by “friendly” or “enemy” forces, an impossible distinction.) But it may have been primarily the Vietnamese of whom John writes, “As I returned to teaching in the middle of Pennsylvania, [my friends] became more real and dear to me than anyone I could meet as I now re-endeavored as an academic.”
John returned to Vietnam during the war to record Vietnamese folk poetry called ca dao,
short, lyric poems, passed down by word of mouth and sung without instrumental accompaniment by ordinary individuals—poems whose simple purpose…is ‘to stimulate the mind, train the observation, encourage social intercourse, and enable one to give vent to his complaint.’ In the West we sometimes measure civilizations by their physical monuments: cathedrals, walls, fortifications. In Vietnam, in rain forests swept by annual monsoons, there arose a wet rice, agricultural civilization with a cultural continuity of millennia which…has left few monuments other than this poetry and song.
He gathered these song-poems from an ancient mandarin, from his former palanquin-bearer, from riverboat merchants, high-school teachers, children, mothers, Viet Cong deserters, farmers “running hand plows behind water buffalo,” and others. “[In 1971] I made ten such journeys into various parts of the South, taping whoever would speak to an American, recording usually at night when the singer’s day work was done, taping by kerosene lamp, running my recorder on batteries, often picking up mortar and rifle fire in the background as these lone voices sang poetry they had learned from song.”
Here’s one called “The Red Cloth”:
Sad, idle, I think of my dead mother,
her mouth chewing rice, her tongue removing fish bones.
The Red Cloth drapes the mirror frame:
Men of one country must love one another.
“The mirror,” John writes, “which was traditionally part of the family altar, represented Heaven. And the red cloth? Surely, the human heart residing close to it.” (The mother, one feels, must have been a victim of that enmity of nations.) His Ca Dao Vietnam represents the first time ca dao have been translated and collected into any Western language.
John’s own poetry is influenced by Asian poetry, perhaps by way of the Imagists, who also knew Asian literature. (John’s nature images, especially, strike me as very Su Tung-p’o or Tu Fu: “A mottled cur with a grease-paint grin / laps up fish scales and red, saw-toothed gills / gutted from panfish at the river’s edge.” Or: “But I too am baffled / by the moon rocking in the hemlocks, / by the moons rocking in the stream.”
Ezra Pound writes that an Image, as he, T.E. Hulme, and F.S. Flint conceive it, is “that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time.” Imagism’s “enabling text” is Pound’s haiku-like poem "In a Station of the Metro":
The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.
Pound distilled the poem from dozens of lines, and what remains is a sharp, even sharp-edged, glimpse of people as fragile as cherry blossoms, lined up along the thundering wet tunnels of the Paris subway. It’s nearly hallucinogenic in intensity. And it’s here that I begin to see convergences on Eliot’s “emotion which has its life in the poem and not in the history of the poet.”
“The emotion of art is impersonal,” he says, which sounds like other tenets of Imagism, such as “a hardness, as of cut stone.” It’s disinterested interest, an “inhuman” view, as Ortega y Gasset says. It’s Joyce’s “artist, like the God of the creation, [who] remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails.” And it’s Chekhov’s “cosmic” point of view, as one critic calls it, as if we were being observed by something too distant for empathy.
Frost said, “Education is the ability to listen to almost anything without losing your temper or your self-confidence.” The best art is often the ability to see clearly and remain calm enough to speak, which shifts the emotion from the poet’s own (presumed, else why’s there this poem?) reaction—the “history of the poet”—to somewhere inside the poem where it can act more directly and mysteriously on readers. To some readers, this sounds impersonal.
John has a poem called “The Guard at the Binh Thuy Bridge,” in Locusts at the Edge of Summer, that shows us a quiet morning; the soldier has “slung his carbine barrel down to keep / the boring dry, and two banana-clips instead of one / are taped to make, now, forty rounds instead / of twenty.” Down on the surface of the river, “Anchored in red morning mist a narrow junk / rocks its weight. A woman kneels on deck / staring at lapping water. Wets her face. / Idly the thick Rach Binh Thuy slides by. / He aims. At her. Then drops his aim. Idly.” The poem never gets overtly excited (although the fragments at the end point to something breathless, both in the viewer’s anticipation and in the marksman’s breath-hold for better accuracy), but it still makes me want to shout in fear. For, among other reasons, I was once a soldier too and can understand his bored (in two meanings) motion that puts human life in a gun’s sights. Idly.
Another convergence of Asian poetry and Modernist literature that appears in John’s work is that of an ironic humor that transcends time or place. In Path, Crooked Path, there’s a poem called “Ibn Fadhlan, the Arab Emissary, Encounters Vikings on the Volga River, A.D. 922.” The final lines read, “O Caliph, through forested lands, west and north, / one finds only infidels with vile habits. / Some are Christian. Nothing will come of them.” And in the final verse of “Some Dogs of the World,” there’s an old Parisian flâneur we all know:
Fancy people. Fancy food.
And here comes Spot bopping along
la rue Buci, a veritable boulevardier
pausing to lift a hind leg and pee, while cocking
one admiring eye on the elegant sidewalk diners.
Ah, mes semblables.
Reading John’s own poems and translations, you gain the camaraderie of poets as far-flung as Basho, Li Po, Anna Akhmatova, American John Haag, Georgi Borrisov, Bulgarians Kolyo Sevov and Lyubomir Nikolov; epigraphs by Homer, Ovid, Polybius, Brecht; and of course the folk ca dao. In “Varna Snow” he writes of “Greek and Roman, Getae, Thracian, Bulgar, / Slavs, Avars, Goths, Celts, Tatars, Huns, / Arabs, Turks, Russians, and, now, the U.S. Navy,” all contemporaneous in the eternal present. The scale of that view has a very lonely feel to it.
If time and distance in art are inconsequential to “what is already living,” as Eliot says, then time and distance, overshadowing and outliving individuals, make each of us inconsequential in the long view of art. This begins to get at the root of why many of my students grow uneasy in the presence of literature.
Which brings me, finally, to Ho Xuan Huong, the 18th-century Vietnamese woman poet, and her poems that John collected and translated in Spring Essence, her name in English. (Quoted by permission, Spring Essence: The Poetry of Ho Xuan Huong, Copper Canyon Press, 2000.)
John writes in the introduction, “The great poetry of this period—like Nguyen Du’s famous Tale of Kieu—is filled with individual longing, with a sense of ‘cruel fate,’ and with a searching for something of permanence. Warfare, starvation, and corruption did not vanquish poets like Nguyen Du and Ho Xuan Huong, but deepened their work.”
Ho Xuan Huong “constantly questioned the order of things,” especially the fundamentalist Confucian ideas that a woman “’when unmarried, should obey her father; when married, her husband, and, if widowed, her son.’” A woman of her time could be justifiably abandoned for seven reasons, ranging from failure to bear a child to gossiping to having an incurable disease. In this atmosphere, John writes, “Her verbal play, her wicked humor, her native speech, her spiritual longing, her hunger for love, and her anger at corruption must have been tonic.”
She chose to write in Nôm, an ideographic script that that represented Vietnamese speech, instead of in the “mandarin elite’s” Chinese. John compares this choice to Chaucer’s to write in English and Dante’s in Italian; it gave her poetry “a special Vietnamese dimension filled with the aphorisms and speech habits of the common people.”
( Spring Essence is the first sizable collection of her poetry in a Western language, and the first book in history to have Nôm printed in type. The 1,000-year-old script is shown next to its modern Vietnamese translation and John’s English. On Friday I’ll run an interview with a Vietnamese academic and IT expert who is helping standardize Nôm script and preserve priceless cultural texts that have nearly been lost.)
As a result, perhaps, Ho Xuan Huong earned “immediate and continuing acclaim” as a poet, despite being what Frances Fitzgerald calls “the brilliant bad girl…throwing her erotically-charged darts into the sexual hypocrisy of all ages and cultures.”
Some of the poems are hilariously, gorgeously filthy. Here’s the dirtiest poem about a catfish that I know, “The Wellspring”:
A narrow path descends through brush
to the bright water of your wondrous pool.
Under a footbridge’s pale twin planks
the pure spring shunts in shimmering rills.
Tufts of sedge surround its mouth.
A golden carp glides midstream.
Finding this well, so virginal and clear,
who would put a catfish here?
Similarly, here’s “River Snail”:
Fate and my parents shaped me like a snail,
day and night wandering marsh weeds that smell foul.
Kind sir, if you want me, open my door.
But please don’t poke up into my tail.
Other poems move beyond imagery to present character through sex, such as in “The Lustful Monk” (Vatican, take note):
A life in religion weighs heavier than stone.
Everything can rest on just one little thing.
My boat of compassion would have sailed to Paradise
if only bad winds hadn’t turned me around.
And other poems comment on gender inequality (still with sex—that “tomb standing all alone,” engorged with the importance of its corpse!), such as “At the Chinese General’s Tomb”:
I see it up there in the corner of my eye:
the General’s tomb standing all alone.
If I could change my fate, become a man
of heroic deed, couldn’t I do better?
John says he was “sustained” for ten years translating Ho Xuan Huong’s poetry by her “lonely, intelligent life…her stubbornness, her sarcasm, her bravery, her irreverent humor, and her bodhisattva’s compassion. She is a world-class poet who can move us today as she has moved Vietnamese for two hundred years.”
The last couplets in Spring Essence after the endnotes are John’s:
Under the American sky, still dreaming.
The riverhead runs on, cloudy feelings float away.
Over the years, a clever voice echoes.
On the river, an old moon recalls Xuan Huong.
Obscurantive, soggy feelings float off when wit, guile, and intelligence echo forth from antiquity and bring the deep humanity and enduring good humor that soften our hard, even dismaying, recognitions.
“Words for My Daughter,” collected in Locusts, starts with a litany of violences, big and small, that John has seen or grew up knowing about, from an “alcoholic mother getting raped by the milkman” (and the discovery by her son, who “broke a milkbottle and jabbed the guy / humping on his mom”) to
a cloud of memories drifting off the South China Sea,
like the 9-year-old boy, naked and lacerated,
thrashing in his pee on a steel operating table
and yelling “Dau. Dau,” while I, trying to translate
in the mayhem of Tet for surgeons who didn’t know
who this boy was or what happened to him, kept asking
“Where? Where’s the pain?” until a surgeon
said, “Forget it. His ears are blown.
The poem has its reasons: “I want you to know the worst and be free from it. / I want you to know the worst and still find good.” I often read it to classes on the last day of the semester, as a final answer to why literature is “always about bad stuff,” as students say. The consolation of art is that, like life, it requires us to surrender our Selves, first to the thrilling terror that we are not the whole, and ultimately to the timelessness of extinction. Gaining this awareness as it’s couched in art is not loss. It’s homecoming, to the human condition.
John is speaking to his daughter Tally in the poem, but by the end of it, I hear the poet speaking to his poem, readers speaking to their books:
I suspect I am here less for your protection
than you are here for mine, as if you were sent
to call me back into our helpless tribe.