Hazy, Hot, and Humid in Hanoi (Vietnam Diary No. 6)

Arrived yesterday after a very long trip but without incident. Was met as arranged with a driver from the hotel, which made the last leg of the trip as seamless as all the rest. I’d been absurdly afraid that Vietnam would be somehow less challenging — smoothed out by modernization — but I need not have worried. Same crazy traffic, same utter disregard for Western notions of zoning, same water buffalo being led across lanes of traffic from the airport by little boys.

Item: I did notice a couple of changes — everyone who rides a motorbike now wears a helmet (though some are pretty minimalist in design) and, in town, the street hawkers seemed much less aggressive than before. Maybe I was just too dazed to notice.

Item: I find that when I have the vocabulary I can generally make myself understood in Vietnamese, but the biggest difference is that I can hear spoken Vietnamese better than before. I chalk this up to drill with the computer, however sporadic, over the last few months. It’s my intention to make this trip an exercise in intensive language study.

Item: The long Cathay Pacific flight was very pleasant — more room in coach than is usual, I think, with attentive service. The amenities may not have been quite so nice, but any slight economizing that’s taken place since the last time I flew the airline didn’t detract from what was a very comfortable flight. It didn’t hurt that the airplane was only half full and that I had my entire row to myself. I slept a fair amount and read quite a bit, finishing another of the Patric O’Brien sea novels I’ve become re-addicted to recently. I tried to watch Sweeney Todd on the video screen, but I couldn’t get into it — I liked the music, but the pacing was tedious, perhaps to make space for the music. The whole Tim Burton night-of-the-living-dead / teased hair and black eye-shadow way of imagining the nineteenth century just did not seem convincing to me, not that I require historical fidelity. Add a comic book conception of good and evil and you don’t have a very convincing package.

Item: Just had my first Skype experience, a call from Carole, with video! When I first came to Vietnam more than a decade ago there was no such technology — only very expensive land-line calls. The quality of this call with Carole was remarkable, especially when you realize that it was free. I don’t have a video camera, so she couldn’t se mee, but I could see her — and Candy sitting on her lap. Over her shoulder I could look out the window at the Northern New Yoek spring. Amazing.

Vietnam Diary 2 (Nhat Ky 2)

Language: I’ve noticed a slight shift toward increased competence in my ability to hear and understand spoken Vietnamese; also, I was looking at a Vietnamese newspaper online the other day and found I was just beginning to be able to make out sentences. My vocabulary is still too small, but my sense of the language is much deeper than I had realized. I guess the drill, which I find deadly boring, is paying off.

John Banville on Writing

“Civilisation’s greatest single invention is the sentence.” [The rest of Banville’s short statement is here.] While I don’t subscribe to the young Wittgenstein’s “picture theory” of language, in which every proposition is a picture of reality, as a writer, I have the strong sense that every sentence is a line thrown out into the world in order to retreive something of the real. Sometimes you catch something, sometimes you don’t. But that metaphor doesn’t quite catch it either; the sentence — as opposed to the fragment, which is always self-referenmtial — the sentence tries and fails. It is the pattern of those trials and errors that give us what access we have to the real.

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Note: Cross-posted to The Plumbline School.

Some Questions about Vietnamese Poetry

As I prepare to go to Vietnam in the spring, I have been in contact with friends there, asking them about poetry in contemporary Vietnam. Part of my project involves interviewing Vietnamese poets and that means thinking of the sorts of questions I want to ask. I know a bit about the history of Vietnam and its literature, particularly in the 20th century, but I want to know how that history is affecting the making of poems now, in the first decade of the 21st century. Here is a first pass at some questions, or pre-questions — the sort of questions I need to ask in order to find out what the real questions are:

  1. Who are the most interesting poets now working in Vietnam?
  2. To what extent is contemporary Vietnamese poetry connected to the poetry of the past?
  3. What is the nature of the connection, to the extent that it exists?
  4. Do contemporary poets make use of the extensive folk traditions, for example, of Ca Dao?
  5. What has been the effect of urbanization of Vietnamese poetry over the last twenty years or so?
  6. Have the changes in the Vietnamese economy over the last generation affected Vietnamese poets?
  7. Are there marked generational differences among younger and older Vietnamese poets?
  8. To what extent are Vietnamese poets aware of and interested in poetries in other languages?

Those are the questions I’ll be asking poets I already know as I get ready to go to Vietnam; presumably, these questions will lead to others that are more detailed and take into account the individual situations of the writers I’ll be meeting. If anyone happens by this space who has answers to the questions posed above, please feel free to chime in.

Exhaling

Note: I began this post several days ago, but I haven’t felt much like writing. Partly this is mid-semester slump, partly that I have been busy with other things, about which I’ll have something to say anon.

It does feel different, doesn’t it, the country having elected Barack Obama president? For one thing, it appears to have driven the far right completely around the bend & that cannot be a bad thing. And though I am no kind oc constitutional literalist, it feels good to have a former Con Law prof as president-elect; after eight years of an extra-constitutional unitary executive, I was particularly happy to see this orgganization chart. And listening the the president-elect’s first news conference, I was struck by the tone of thoughtful intelligence and, yes, the use of complete sentences that followed sensibly from one to the next. The use of language marks a political divide in the modern US, as it probably always has, of course. High tone versus low down.

In fact, I heard the NY Times reporter David Kirkpatrick make an argument about the current state of the Republican party the other day on NPR that made the distinction between the “high” Republicanism of David Brooks and George Will and the “low” Republicanism of Sarah Palin & Rush Limbaugh. It is a division revealed by language and may be more important at the moment, according to Kirkpatrick, than the more usual divisons between fiscal conservatives, social conservatives, and imperialist neoconservative foreign policy hawks. Less remarked upon is a similar division on the left, between inside-the-beltway establishment liberals and the progressive grassroots, which has been newly energized by Barack Obama’s campaign. The blogger Digby at Hullabaloo, refers to these two camps as Villagers (the establishment) and DFHs (dirty fucking hippies). And one of the main things that marks these different groups is their use of language, which in turn reflects their different attitudes toward the intellect.

It does seem if Republicans are retreating toward their most radical core beliefs & adopting the attitudes of “low” conservatism & the rhetoric of small town bigotry, but that sort of politics seems to be losing its purchase in many places. Levittown voted for Obama. Michael Sokolove, author of the previously linked article, writes:

My article in The New York Times Magazine reported that his [Obama’s] words were coming across as lofty and abstract to people more attuned to concrete concerns like the hourly wage and the monthly car payment. The article was published on the morning before Mr. Obama made his one big gaffe of the campaign, telling attendees at a San Francisco fund-raiser that some blue-collar voters have been so beaten down that its not surprising that they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion….

Sokolove concludes that a combination of race & “his manner of speaking” made it difficult for the blue coller workers of Levittown, initially, to trust Obama’s message; ultimately, they voted for him, along with similar workers in suburban Detroit and other places. On the other hand, his race & manner of speaking cut no ice with the voters of the rural south and Appalachia, where race continues to dominate. In Macomb County Michigan & Levittown, on the other hand, the fading of racism allowed Obama’s message, ultimately, to cut through the class markers embedded in language.

Those linguistic class markers interest me as a poet. It appears that particular uses of language, at least on the political right, distinguish “high” from “low” modalities. (This may also be true on the left but the cases are not parallel.) Sarah Palin’s soccer mom dialect delighted her fans partly because they heard their own voices in it, while the mandarins of conservatism found her repulsive. We on the left laughed at her because we associate mangled syntax with stupidity. Palin’s truly pyrotechnic dismantling of syntax seems to me to be a desperate & only partly conscious effort to mask her ignorance — what high school & college students knowingly call bullshitting (as a term of art) when they write papers on books they haven’t read. All of this gets amped up & fed back by audiences celebrating their own ignorance & taking comfort from the spectacle of Palin celebrating hers. So the demotic is in bad repute at the moment, having been turned to destructive purposes. What seems so horribly wrong about Palin’s speech is that it borrows the strngth of demotic English, not to express thought forcefully — as ordinary, even “ungrammatical” English can do — but to cover for dishonesty and moral aridity.

Demotic language — comedy, pop music, even advertising — can, used honestly, drive toward the truth; they can of course also be used to to deceive, cajole, flatter, & pander. My sense of president-elect Obama is that he understands this, though he strikes me as being a little uncomfortable with the demotic. But I feel a real sense of satisfaction that I now have a president who speaks, not in Bushian bursts of static or Palinesque knots of blather, but in recognizable sentences that link togehter into coherent thoughts. In order to lie to the public, Bush & Palin had to lie first to themselves. I don’t think the president-elect is lying to himself & consequently I don’t think he will lie to me.

Two Notes on the Election

1. I keep hearing about “the real America,” which is presumably different from the fake America of which I am indubitably a part. You know, until this phrase started showing up in right-wing discourse I was inclined to hear Obama’s talk of unity and coming together as campaign rhetoric; but now I see that it marks a real difference. The right is exclusionist, liberals inclusive by instinct, if not always in practice. Here’s just one example, from a bush-league congressman. Update: Only Real Americans® should be allowed to vote.

2. I don’t expect the McCain campaign to make the distinction, but there is a difference between criticizing someone’s approach to stem cell research or one’s health care plan and making darkly portentous statements about someone’s character that suggest the other guy is not a true American (see above). It would be nice if the news media enforced this simple distinction in the name of intellectual honesty.