Sometimes the world hands you a gift. I just found out that I will be spending Christmas and the first ten days of the new year in Hanoi. I’ve been invited to participate in a conference on the translation of Vietnamese literature and its reception abroad, mostly in the English-speaking world. When I came back home from my trip to Vietnam last spring, I thought it would be at least a year before I returned, perhaps longer. I’d been a little disappointed in my failure to make more contacts and get more projects going during my spring trip, but apparently I was planting seeds that will now begin to germinate. I hope so.
I spent Christmas of 2000 in Hanoi, which is when I took the picture of the boy selling Santa Claus decorations. Christmas is not a holiday of central importance in Vietnamese culture except to the 10% of the population that is Catholic, but as in the West it has begun to be a commercial holiday even for non-believers. (In general, Catholics in Vietnam are probably more intensely religious that the followers of Tam Giao, or “triple religion,” the combination of Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism that most Vietnamese at least nominally subscribe to and that overlies an even deeper level of animism.)
I am delighted to return to Vietnam, however briefly, and to meet others interested in the diffusion of Vietnamese literature around the world. And as soon as I return, still jet-lagged, I will begin teaching my course, Understanding Vietnam, at Clarkson. Though the course focuses on the history and culture of Vietnam, we use literature to illuminate and illustrate those subjects, so the conference discussions will certainly inform my teaching next semester.
Haiku in translation often require a fairly extensive set of notes or even scholarly apparatus in order for the reader to “get” the insight payoff that is the point of the form. For instance, in this poem by Kikaku (1661 – 1707)
At a grass hut
I eat smartweed —
I’m that kind of firefly
the Western reader really needs the note provided by the editors of The Classic Tradition of Haiku: “Tade is smartweed, knotweed, or knotgrass. Thorny and stinging, it is spurned by insects, except for summer fireflies. Kikaku, who was a rich doctor’s spoiled son, debauched with heavy drinking and whoremongering, here likens himself to the brilliant firefly that stays up all night enjoying the bitterness and dangers of overindulgence and promiscuity. The poem refers to the proverb “some prefer nettles. . . ”
Another poem by Kikaku, though, comes across the spatial, temporal, and cultural distance without any additional information:
“It’s my snow”
And the weight on my hat lightens
I’ve been thinking quite a bit about haiku lately because I’ve been writing short poems. My old teacher Donald Justice once told me he thought I was best with longer forms, but when I’m busy or preoccupied as I have been lately I resort to short poems. And what I’m looking for in a short poem is the condensed essence of the lyric or the joke — a setup and a pay off. A lot of Western haiku read like translations in need of notes, not because there is a cultural obscurity but because the poet hasn’t understood the need for the snap at the end of the whip. Sometimes this fault is excused, I think, as subtlety, but I don’t buy it. a successful haiku (or haiku-like poem) performs a delicate balancing act between closure and openness, between wit and mystery.
Ekleksographia is a very cool new online poetry publication. And I’m not just saying that because my friend Anny Ballardini has selected some work of mine to appear in the forthcoming issue. The inimitable Jesse Glass of Ahadada Books is the spirit behind the effort and as with all his projects, Ek (as I am affectionately calling it), has a smart/sweet (as in sweet spot) vibe to it. Ek has the potential to be the new century’s Kayak. And not just because of the letter K, either. Anny has selected the opening section of my version of the 18th century Vietnamese poem, The Lament of the Soldier’s Wife (Chinh Phu Ngam), which I had worked on years ago when I was in Vietnam and recently pulled out again to see if I could get back into it — the original is more than 800 lines long!