Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Pictures through Words: Imagery In Vietnamese War Poems By Kaye Langit-Luistro

Poetry is rife with imagery to evoke a deeper, more profound sensory experience in the reader. Through a series of words that create a mental image, figure, or likeness of a person, place or thing, poetry is able to send a reader’s interest to new heights and make him or her feel more attuned to the poet’s pulse and state of mind. Poetry written about the Vietnam war is no different. Through imagery, the reader conjures realistic images in his or her mind that trigger painful memories about the war.

Author John Balaban explains this unique trait this way, “The Vietnamese referred to poetry all the time. They would use it in debate; they referred to it to make a point in an argument…” It is not surprising that the use of imagery seems to be an everyday thing for the average Vietnamese.

The Vietnamese Trinh Công Sõn was a living example of this. He has set the most beautiful poetic words in music and for that he became a household name in Vietnam. But there are times when someone from the outside world takes up the same cause and starts fighting for it through the power of words in poetry. And this happened to the British born-American poet Denise Levertov.

Let’s find out how this interesting turn of events took place in the lives of Trinh Công Sõn and Denise Levertov.

Trinh Công Sõn (February 28, 1939 – April 1, 2001)
The most influential poet in Vietnam seems to be Trinh Công Sõn. During the Association for Asian Studies Conference in 2004, guest lecturer John C. Schafer of Humboldt State University explains, “While there are several reasons for Trinh Công Sõn’s popularity, chief among them is the fact that he was a poet and used poetic techniques skillfully.” His poetry set in music talks of love, war, and the human condition. Gifted with the same touch as the American Bob Dylan, Trinh Công Sõn used beautiful imagery in Ướt mi (Tearing Lashes) written in 1957 and Ngủ đi con, a lullaby about a mother grieving for her soldier son.

His poetic songs had moved Vietnam as a whole, making him a well-loved figure everywhere. Today, his antiwar poetry and songs composed in the 60’s still resonate in the minds and hearts of the average Vietnamese. That was why when Trinh Công Sõn died in 2001, Schafer recounts, his passing was deeply mourned throughout Vietnam.

Denise Levertov (October 24, 1923-December 20, 1997)
The Vietnamese were not the only ones who wrote poems about the war. There were western poets, among them Denise Levertov (October 24, 1923-December 20, 1997), a British-born American, who wrote several poems about the horrors of the Vietnam War. Her poems “Poetry, Prophecy, Survival”, “Paradox and Equilibrium”, and “Poetry and Peace: Some Broader Dimensions” talk about war, discrimination, and bigotry.

In her “Life at War,” Levertov uses imagery in her poetry to present the distressing effects of the Vietnam War. A closer look at her poems shows that when she deals with themes like violence and savagery, she also tries to bring grace into the picture. She loves to infuse the beauty of language and the ugliness of human horror.

In her other poem “Staying Alive,” Levertov tackles the repercussions of the war, including the incredible agony the Vietnamese suffered because of it. Levertov’s most famous poetry about the war however, is found in her book “Freeing of the Dust.” This book of poems depicts the experience of the North Vietnamese, and the gnawing distrust of its people.

Think About This

What do you think are the similarities and differences when reading poetry written by a Vietnamese about the Vietnam war and a foreigner tackling the same topic?
Today, there is a trove of poetry written about the War. If you were to choose only one type of poetry, which one would you read: English poetry about the war or a translated work in English from Vietnamese? What do you think would be the differences in the use of language, poetic structure and literary texture between these two kinds of works?

Denise Levertov.
A Conversation with John Balaban by Donna Seaman.
Session 6: Poetry as a Window on History and Change in Southeast Asia.
Vietnam Related Panels and Paper Abstracts at the Association for Asian Studies Conference 2004.
A Former Vietnamese Foe, Outspoken on Love, War by Liz Rosenberg, Globe Correspondent, 4/23/2000.
A Century of War in Poetry: 1915-2015 by Kinta Flemming.

This article appeared in the 2008 edition of Magica Magazine, a High School Reference Material published by the Diwa Publishing Group.
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