Surely if I spoke of Han or Sengoku, Ming or Edo, the majority of poets would smile–whether they know the history behind the words, the words themselves hold some image, some base concept to most that know anything of Asia. Too often, I think, it is the works of Japan, China, and India that the world allows to serve as their notion of “Asian poetry”–but the truth is so much more engrossing. I have spoken to you of haiku, and tanka, even some of the classic Chinese bits before–and undoubtedly shall again before the year is out–but today we turn to Vietnam for our dose of eastern poetics.
For that matter, we turn to a woman that indeed could be argued to form one of the foundations of her country’s poetic legacy: Ho Xuan Huong. Though her origins shift depending on the historian telling the tale, what we know for certain was that Ho was a child of turbulent times: witnessing the end of a dynasty–the Lê Dynasty, Vietnam’s longest-ruling dynasty–by rebellion, and the birth of a new.
She was a wife of politicians, a concubine, but first and foremost, a poet, and a curious one at that, for much of her works paint the figure of an independent-minded woman, one resistant to societal norms and to the ideas of being chained by someone else’s whims. She used common expressions in a time–Confucian, mind you–when the proper and formulaic was all but key, and poked fun with the use of sexual expressions most would have been shocked to see leaving a “proper” woman’s pens. By writing in the traditional Nôm language–like her contemporary, Nguyễn Du, who will serve as next week’s focus–she was also one of the figures responsible for elevating the Vietnamese tongue to an accepted literary language, as opposed to the Chinese characters most often used.
So today, you are welcome to a helping of Ho Xuan Huong’s talent in the form of the translation of “Spring Watching Pavilion”. Hopefully, the translation does it justice.
Spring Watching Pavilion
Gently Spring evening comes to the pavilion,
Unclouded in the least by worldly sins.
Three times the temple’s bell surges like a wave
Unsettling the puddle where sky and water mingle.
Truly the sea of Love cannot be emptied
And the stream of Grace flows easily everywhere.
Now, where, where is Nirvana?
Nirvana’s here, nine parts in ten.
~Ho Xuan Huong