(ISSN: 1527-5467)
the magazine of Literature & Literature-in-translation.


JAN 2006














Vietnamese New Formalism



Translated into English by Joseph Do Vinh


About the translator: Do Vinh is pseudonym of Joseph Do Vinh Tai, who was born in Vietnam in 1968, immigrated with his family to the US in 1975, and studied at the University of Washington, from where he graduated in BS Political Science. He started in the literary community in 1980, became active in the literary circles of the Pacific Northwest from the mid 1980’s to the early 1990’s. His poetry and writings have appeared several magazines; his collection of poetry ‘Green Plums’ was published in 2005. Do Vinh is currently living in Central Valley, California.


According to the American novelist Pearl S. Buck, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1938, the greatest books of China such as Shui Hu Chuan, San Kuo, and Hung Lou Meng are accomplishments of the masses, collected from many professional storytellers. The people, for the most part, were illiterate. Thus, on weekends, holidays, and time-off from work, they gathered to listen to a storyteller who told these tales. The listener might tip the storyteller by placing money in a hat or bowl, perhaps buying a cup of tea for the teller to wet his voice. When a storyteller could collect enough money from these tips to quit his day job, he then became a professional storyteller. These professional storytellers traveled from village to village and gathered up contemporary tales that they embellished and wrote down. The style was clear and simple so that the story could be told in a lively and interesting, yet easy to understand way for everyone to enjoy. Thus the authors Shih Nai An, Lo Kuan Chung and Ts’ao Hsueh Ching are merely good storytellers who have retold tales that they have learned, not ones that they themselves composed. Therefore, the authorship of these collected stories should rightly be credited to the masses, which created them over many generations.


Similarly, the epic poems The Iliad and The Odyssey by Homer, about the Trojan War, were created as oral compositions. Whether that war actually happened or not is unverifiable because we lack written historical records, but through Homer’s retelling, it became an essential part of classical Greek literature. The story could have started out as a number of different stories of heroes and then the professional bards compiled them into one complete work. If the early bards were talented storytellers with great memories who retold these tales with accuracy, then the later bards, telling much longer stories, probably improvised many of their lines following sophisticated rules. We have evidence from classical Greek times that shows that people had memorized Homer’s epic poems in their entirely, word-for-word, over 25,000 verses. During the Greek Dark Ages, 1200 – 750 BC, the wealthiest people entertained themselves by listening to the professional storytellers singing the stories of the Trojan War and its Greek heroes. The Greeks believed that the greatest storyteller of them all was a blind man by the name of Homer. He had composed ten epic poems, but only two of them remained. As a set, these epic poems told of the history of the Trojan Wars, with each poem, recording only a part of that history. Many historians and researchers of antiquities have concluded that Homer’s two surviving works were actually compiled by many authors and evolved over time. Regardless of how these epic poems came to be, they had to be written down and perfected through many decades once writing  was developed.


And so, in the centuries prior to writing, poetry and stories were passed down to ensuing generations through oral retelling. Such stories were refined collectively by many and remained significant through the ages. But with each new era, there were opportunities to record the stories, as literature, differently, such as when the printing press came into use, and the people’s educational level had increased dramatically. In 1850 more than half of the European population was illiterate, compared to 1900 when more than 85% could read. By this time, oral readings were no longer as common. Poetry became detached from the oral tradition, and moved closer toward the culture of the written word, thereby distancing itself from the general public. Once film-making was invented and television became the dominant mode of communication, poetry came to be relegated to universities and study halls, inessential to daily life. It no longer maintained the relevance it had had for thousands of years. In order not to be a lost art, poetry must revive its artistic functions by reinventing itself with a new voice.

The early New Formalism Poets of America in the 1990s believed that one of the advantages of New Formalism was that it was compatible with internet technology. At that time, given the ease of transmission with its simple format, the poems could be kept intact, and the reader could engage with poems online without the baggage and nonsensical layouts that came with free verse. And now, a decade later, we can also transmit sounds over the Internet. Amazingly enough, poetry is returning to its original oral roots and its true voice.


Meanwhile, in the Vietnamese tradition, poetry is sung lyrically, not read. When sung, the words become melody to be harmonized with instrumentation. Such stylistic performances often overwhelm the meaning of a poem, and force the poet to compose with words that are suitable for musical presentation. But the reading of a New Formalism Poem is entirely different. What holds the attention of the reader is the rhythm and the circumstances of what is being told. The reader must carefully read each word. We know that one sound is basically formed by one word, with one syllable that is strong or weak, long or short in relation to the other words surrounding it. To read is to give life to the poem, to awaken the sounds locked within the words, and to convey to the listener the unique characteristics of each line and each phrase, unduplicable from one to the next. Of course, reading here is not silent reading, but must be reading out loud. But in reading a New Formalism poem, one’s voice must flow through to the end of a sentence that does not necessarily stop at the end of a line. Any break in the reading will cause a disruption in the emotive experience. This naturally begs the question, why then, must the poet conform to formalism. Why couldn’t free verse suffice?

When we read rhymed verses, we stop at the end of a line, the length of which varies from language to language. For instance, Westerners tend to use longer phrases, and thus their poetic verses average ten syllables per line, while the Vietnamese use shorter phrases and thus their verses average only seven or eight syllables per line. The formats are quite simple, aimed at guiding us to sing or to read the poems. In English poetry, each line is 10 syllables arranged in unstressed, stressed, such mono tone, taken together to create a rhythm. In Vietnamese poetry, with its five-, seven-, or eight- syllable each line, a melody is created that can be read at a fast or a slow speed. Since Vietnamese verses lack rhythm, Vietnamese New Formalism employs repetition as a substitute. But this technique is not easily applied. It must be natural. The readers should not notice the repetition, but rather experience it as a natural rhythm.


By the time of the Renaissance, blank verses in English, with its lined composition, had erased the practice of stopping a reading at the end of a line. One can read a poem from the top down, in grammatical order, clearly word for word in an orderly fashion. Later on, at the start of the 20th century, free verse poetry was read in much the same way. But there were still significant differences between the reading of free verse and blank verse. Free verse employed the broken-line technique, with lines ranging from long to short, to create the visual rhythm on paper. But when read, it is not read by line, but by sentence, the purpose of which is to be able to clearly perceive the sounds of each word. The visual rhythm is important, because through it, the reader will follow the analysis to get the meaning of the poem. Thus, in order to understand the poem in its entirety, the reader must process many parts separately and taken together – the sounds of the words, the rhythm of the lines and sentences, the meanings in analysis. With performed poetry, the listener experiences poems directly, drawn in by the talent of the performers in bringing poems to life with their presentations. And so the reading of free verse cannot be understood through the traditional poetic analysis because visual rhythm and presentation have overtaken oral sound structure as the primary components.

With blank verse or Vietnamese New Formalism poetry, when read, the reader is engaged in a struggle between the speed of syntax and line (or form). With traditional poetry, pausing at the end of a line conforms to formalism because the verse is also the format. If we try to read following the syntax (the sentence) while our breath is just good enough for one poetic line (of the verse), what will happen? We have seen that the sentence (syntax) tends to increase the speed and intensity of a line, and lines tend to slow down the progress of sentences. The stresses between these two components create a balance in the poem. In Vietnamese New Formalism poetry, the use of five-, seven-, and eight-syllable verses has a precise meaning that is essential to a reading. Thus, from rhymed poetry to free verse, we could only truly understand a poem by way of its reading. (We must know how to read a poem in order to understand it). Rhythm or melody is the sound of a line, while formalism is the abstract structure behind a line.


In the past, when an audience heard a poem, they were primarily receptive to the sounds and the rhythms of the poem. In reality, poetry is a special art form that is not meant to be read in a crowd, but should be read in a quiet solitary place. But if a person has to read a poem out loud for his own enjoyment, he may be distracted, or limited to just listening to the sounds of the words and unable to completely appreciate the poem in its entirety. He may also be inclined to read the poem in silence. When the poem is read to him, the listener can better appreciate the poem fully manifested with its sound and meaning in complimentarity. The Internet is an ideal tool for communication. We can see (read) the poem with our eyes, following its refined structure, the story line and other essential components, while listening to the rhythm of the poem arising from within us, in a solitary and private place. The audience experiences the poem as form and its shadow, engaged and disengaged, understanding the poem and understanding ourselves at the same time. Only in this way can we fully appreciate the depths of poetry in all its artistic variations, perhaps accompanied by music, for instance.

Of course, we will need professional readers. Each reader will bring in their own special talent, their emotions, their sophistication and sense of provocation, no different from a singer. The revival of poetry is a necessary but not sufficient pursuit, if we are unable to develop a repertoire of professional readers. Like the bards and storytellers of classical times, the good and the bad will be exposed to criticisms, and the poet will have the opportunity and inspiration to continue to create. A poem not yet read out loud, is a poem not yet participating in real life.


Translated into English by Joseph Do Vinh.



— Pearl buck, Nobel Lecture. December 12, 1938.
Bureacrats & Barbarians, The Greek Dark Ages, Richard Hooker, Information online.
— Western Civilizations, Robert E. Lerner, Standish Meacham, Edward McNall Burns, 1988, volume 2, Eleventh Edition, Norton.
— The Sound of Poetry, Robert Pinsky, Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, New York, 1998.



The Writers Post
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& literature-in-translation,

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Editorial note: Works published in this issue are simultaneously published in the printed Wordbridge magazine (ISSN: 1540-1723).

Copyright © Khe Iem 2006. Nothing in this magazine may be downloaded, distributed, or reproduced without the permission of the author/ translator/ artist/  The Writers Post/ and Wordbridge magazine. Creating links to place The Writers Post or any of its pages within other framesets or in other documents is copyright violation, and is not permitted.


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