DURING THE WAR in Vietnam, books were ground out by the score on combat and corruption. Yet, despite American interest in Vietman, little mention was made of the country's culture - not until 1973, when The Tale of Kieu was translated into English by Huvnh Sanh Thong. That 3,254-line narrative - a marvelous gem of poetry - is considered Vietnam's literary bible and had already been translated many times into French and other languages. Its author was Nguyen Du, The "Huntsman of Mount Hong," whose 200th birthday was celebrated both in Hanoi and in Saigon in 1965.
Now Huynh has given us another labor of love: 475 Vietnamese poems selected with sensitivity and put into a felicitous English, which I think even the "Huntsman" himself would have appreciated had he known the language.
The book takes us from the 10th century, when Buddhist monks doubled as both imperial advisers and poets, to the Nguyen dynasty from 1802 to 1945, when the land of the Great Viet was exposed to the inroads of Western culture. The poetic legacy of Vietnam embraces both the Chinese tradition imposed by that large neighbor to the north, and the genuinely vernacular innovations, which flourished even after the language was romanized through the ffforts of early Catholic missionaries.
Although basically conforming to Chinese models, Vietnamese poetry throughout the centuries tried to shake itself loose from the rigid structural limitations imposed by Chinese verse. In addition to poetry consisting of stanzas of eight or sometimes four lines of five or seven words each, the Vietnamese developed a meter distinctly their own which allowed them to express their originality and create narrative poems sometimes thousands of lines long. They also developed a tone and rhyme sequence that stressed the musicality of the language. Indeed, each poem is a song in itself to be chanted and sung, with ample use of alliteration, assonance and onomatopoeia to which the language lends itself beautifully. All these poetic tools helped the illiterate masses memorize the verse composed by Confucian scholars who used a typically Vietnamese demotic script based on Chinese characters but undecipherable to the Chinese themselves.
The Vietnamese poets often wrote two types of verse, one for the court, conforming to the strict confines of classical Chinese, the other for the people who would memorize and transmit it orally.
Their verse covered a variety of subjects. Patriotism resounds in this 11th-century quatrain by Ly Thuong Kiet, often regarded as Vietnam's Declaration of Independence from her awesome northern neighbor:
The Southern emperor rules the Southern land.
Our destiny is writ in Heaven's Book.
How dare you bandits trespass on our soil?
You shall meet your undoing at our hands.
Other themes represented are the Buddhist tradition, the Confucian mold, man and nature, man and woman, the nationalist response to the West, etc.
Two great poets included here delivered their thoughts on the art of living. Nguyen Trai (1380-1442), the scholar-strategist-geographer who helped in the anti-Ming campaign, praised the delight of otium and advised people thus: "Amid the hills and streams live poor and free./Don't haunt the gate of power where dangers lurk."
Nguyen Binh-Khiem (1491-1585), the Vietnamese Nostradamus, preferred to spend his time in his White Clouds cottage, under a tree sipping his wine and watching "riches and honors fade away like dreams."
The anthology gives us several delightful poems by women. Ho Xuan-Huong, was a poetess whose talent lay in using erotic imagery in her creations of classic beauty. In contrast there was the dignified 19th-century Lady Poet of Thanh-Quan, whose serious and demur verse was strictly classical. The fate of women constituted a frequent theme of ballads, elegies and narratives (such as The Tale of Kieu), and this collection contains excellent translations of the two most famous complaints - "The Song of a Soldier's Wife" by Dang Tran Con, and "A Plaint Inside the Royal Harem," by Nhuyen Gia Thieu, the Marquis of On-Nhu. The former is a sad ballad in Chinese translated into the typically Vietnamese meter luc-bat (a line of six followed by a line of eight words). The letter is written in the seven-seven-six-eight, song-that-luc-bat, genre.
In the last sentence of his introduction, Huynh writes that the heritage of Vietnamese poetry "will endure as long as the Vietnamese people commemorate their past and sing."
Sing they did - even during the height of U.S. bombing raids, in the north where "singing voices were to drown out the bombs' explosions" (the North Viet slogan was Tieng hat at tieng bom) and also in the south where students on the Saigon University campus sang about "a thousand years of slavery under the Chinese and a hundred years of bondage under the French." Singing, in the sense of using poetry as a vehicle for strong statements of strong feelings, has been a Vienamese tradition. Verse has flourished, especially under oppression, whether it be from the Chinese, the French, or even the Americans.
In addition to his lyric poetry the 19th-century blind poet-teacher Nguyen Dinh Chieu augured well that tradition when he said "Far better plunge both eyes in pitch-dark night-/than watch the country drown in war and blood."
People curious about Vietnamese psychology and mentality should be grateful to Huynh Sanh Thong for making available to English readers this impeccable anthology, which ought to be required reading for U.S. officials, scholars and laymen alike. CAPTION: Illustrations 1, 2 and 3, Jacket illustration by Vo-Dinh