This essay was written in Vietnamese by Nhã Thuyên and translated by Ngân Nguyễn. It first appeared in the Full Stop Quarterly, Issue #6. To help us continue to pay our writers, please consider subscribing.
In the wake of the ill-fated scores between poetry and politics in Vietnam, my concern in this essay is with the emergence in recent decades of a genre normally bracketed as dissident poetry. There seems to be a pervasive message that poets should bear in mind poetry’s obligation to be socially engaged; and the most engaged genre of all is political poetry, purporting to raise awareness, to fight for freedom of expression, to do battle with verses sedated by conservative ideological conditioning, and to differentiate itself from apolitical writing. How does the emergence of this genre, rarely seen in the state-run media, contribute to the literary scene or is it only worthy of interest as a social indicator? Is the label “dissident” still necessary for poetry, or it is just a worn-out concept? My observations and discussion in this essay will, at most, only offer up questions to which no satisfying answers can be guaranteed. On a side note, I will not discuss here the longstanding tradition of versifying by politicians whose writing and publishing of poetry seems quite removed from the joy of reading.
Post-War Disillusionment & Self-Negation
In Vietnamese literature, post-war dissenting opinions against the regime originated with poets inside the system, those who had been “Uncle Ho’s soldiers”, rather than from “antagonistic elements” launching attacks against the Party from the outside as is frequently charged. Post-war poetry was imbued with disillusionment: disappointment with the values of socialist realism poetry, torturous repentance over the dark side of war and the agonizing fate of the people, distress over the situation of the country, and the imperative of speaking the truth as an irrefutable manifestation of self-awareness on the part of those who write poetry and of the poetry itself. In this period, one can observe an attempt to escape the reign of Revolutionary Poetry that had dominated Northern Vietnam for the previous thirty years (1945–1975), mainly taking the form of political romanticism/lyricism with a laudatory tone, with themes specified according to the propaganda requirements of each period (“poetry against France”, “poetry contributing to the development of a socialist society”, “poetry against America”, “odes to Uncle Ho”, and so on), and with numerous slogans serving as the lodestar for artistic creation (“literature and art are battlefronts on which the writers and artists are soldiers”, literature “serves the fight, and serves the worker-peasant-soldier alliance” and “serves the struggle for unification”, “poets must also do battle”, etc.). Below are some lines from the renowned poem “Who? I!” written in 1987 by Chế Lan Viên and only published posthumously in the collection edited by Vũ Thị Thường, the author’s wife, that can be read as an expression of painful remorse, a straightforward account of the horrifying massacre of innocent soldiers in the 1968 campaign that acknowledges a historic sin, one that he believed his exhortatory poems had abetted:
At Mậu Thân, 2000 people marched down to the delta
In just one night, only 30 were left
Who bears responsibility for 2000 deaths?
I—the one who wrote exhortative lines
Extolling those who willingly gave their lives
in every strike.
In the excitement following Đổi Mới (Renovation), as they were encouraged to “speak the truth”, poets long affiliated with the war and with the revolutionary government seemed to have found themselves in a new role: formerly professing hyperbolic affirmations of a monolatrous ideology, these poets and their poetry now mobilized to criticize society, shifting away from compliance with the policy of “poetry of and for the masses”, and struggling against assimilation into a glee club of rhythmic purple prose, most notably in the case of soldier-poets such as Thanh Thảo, Nguyễn Duy, Trần Mạnh Hảo, or those of the younger generation like Đỗ Trung Quân. The article “Things to Be Done Immediately” in the May 26, 1987 issue of Nhân Dân (The People) newspaper, written and signed by Nguyễn Văn Linh (N.V.L), the General-Secretary of the Communist Party of Vietnam, was the first in a series with a shared namesake and objective: the spirit of the Renovation Period. The articles inspired writers and artists to express their opinions and initiate a dialogue with key members of the state. In a similar fashion to the following poem by Thanh Thảo, which was a response to N.V.L.’s stance and published with the article “Poetry: Courage and Unity” in Văn nghệ (Literature & Art) Journal, they showed their ultimate faith in the system and struggled to contribute as its citizens:
Dear Comrade Nguyễn Văn Linh
There are times when we were extremely tired
should we call it quits, dear comrade Nguyễn Văn Linh!
you roosters in Neruda’s poems
please stop crowing.
Yet crowing for the sun to rise
is in the rooster’s essence.
please do not castrate us, my dear ambitious friends,
we cannot be the plump new year offerings
Even if the roosters do not crow
the sun will not cease to rise
you tired roosters
please step aside!
We bared our breasts at the front
could not go on watching any longer
For the reformation of our fatherland
we offer again our life, our blood.
The imperative of shifting away from the assigned and directed political tone of the illustrative era of literature in search of their own voice led a cohort of poets, previously utterly loyal to the official ideology, to negate their own past. In 1989, Nguyễn Minh Châu, a soldier-writer, was one of first to point out the passing of the era of illustrative literature in his essay titled “Let’s Give a Funeral Oration for an Era of Illustrative Literature”.
Ghosts of the Past & Dissenting Voices
The self-negating process proved insufficient, however, and it may very well be a compromise. Many of the aforementioned soldier-poets retreated to their own private corners, gradually excluding themselves from the literary scene. Another period of critical sentiment in poetry came into the equation: as the soldier-poets’ desire for self-negation dwindled, dissenting voices flared up, with the aim of negating the orthodox regime and the official ideology. Poets of all ages, ranging from those born in the fifties to younger writers born in the sixties, seventies, and eighties, with varied historical experiences, residing in Vietnam and overseas alike, were labelled “reactionary poets”, e.g. Nguyễn Quốc Chánh, Trần Tiến Dũng, Phan Bá Thọ, Nguyễn Viện, the poets in the Mở Miệng (Open Mouth) group, and many others whose work has regularly been published in online literary journals based outside the country such as Tiền Vệ or Da Màu. Each of these poets has their own distinctive themes, styles, and potential impacts, but in general there has been an observable transition from constructive self-reflection to subversive criticism, and from an effort to voice the truth to an aspiration for an absolute negation, a “complete decontamination”, and a nihilistic readiness to challenge and destroy.
I don’t know if phrases like “democracy”, “the desire for freedom”, and “era”, as well as numerous calls for action and expressions of discontent and frustration, might signify poetic works that are conscious of democracy and of the era in which they exist, or might simply serve to destroy their own meaning. For the most part, dissident poetry resonates against oppression, advocates for democracy, reveals previously undisclosed information, and attacks (the dogma of) traditional values associated with state power as well as the related opinions, authors, and works that the education system and official culture in Vietnam have helped to glorify and to perpetuate. The desacralization of Hồ Chí Minh the icon, subversion of the persistent dominance of Hồ Chí Minh Thought, criticism of the communist system, and remarks and derisions directed against socialist realism that are present in the writings of Bùi Chát, Lý Đợi, Nguyễn Viện, Nguyễn Đăng Thường, Trần Tiến Dũng, Phan Bá Thọ, etc., come together with special features in online literary journals concerning events in the Paracel and Spratly Islands in conjunction with protests by writers, artists, and fellow democrats against communist China (especially in 2007 and 2010) to constitute pervasive themes of political poetry in Vietnam. Dissident poetry confronts the regime based on the need to destroy its monopolistic power and official ideology; in a sense, this sector of poetry has become a voice of the nascent democracy movement.
I would like to borrow a poem by Bùi Chát, from his collection of political poems titled Poem of a Single Rhyme (Bài thơ một vần), to visualise the political topos of dissident poetry and its popular mode of negation. Here, the keyword “red” becomes an allegory of ideological manipulation, and thus becomes the target of the poem.
I stand at a crossroads
Halted by the red light
People move relentlessly onward
A cool breeze at their back
We, those many generations
Held back by the red light
We cannot lift our feet
We cannot spread our wings
Roads intersect everywhere
And no one can cross the red
We stand at a crossroads
So many generations
Only a dusty red road before us.
In the face of an intense urge to negate the status quo, of subversive intentions, of skepticism and outrage, this obsession with the color red, and the intention and need to erase it, becomes the hallmark of a generation who wish to deny their past yet can only do so with great difficulty, struggling to escape an ideology that encompasses an entire society while being fully aware of its heavy shackles.
Something significant is missing here: politics of poetry seems to have been equated to or misunderstood as a conscious decision to embed ideology within writing, in order to comfort a concept in Vietnam of a writer’s ethical responsibility. People may discuss the paradigm shift from “following ideology down a one-way street”, its direction and endpoint already flagged, to stating and taking responsibility for personal political preferences, from a conservative, demagogic politics to a progressive, justified viewpoint, in other words, from a propagandized politics to a self-reflective politics. Yet many other questions arise. Who can decide what is ultimately correct or incorrect when it comes to the political choices of an individual, of a writer? How can one identify an ideologically-sound viewpoint when unity has been fragmented by the ruptures, discrepancies, fractures, and collisions of the different perspectives that have become ubiquitous in Vietnam? Can poets simply be poets, or should they become activists through their verses? Can poetry have an impact as a movement for democracy, even if it sacrifices itself in a massive parade? What, at the end of the day, is truly poetry, rather than mere themes and attitudes, mere facsimiles of sporadic, disjointed individual enthusiasm? What can contribute to a transformation, to a productive divergence of poetry (its consciousness, its aesthetics), that is not just a movement or a gathering of friends and like-minded people? These are the fickle lines on which poetry perches: how can an intentionally political poem be read poetically, and not just as a descriptive news article, some satirical couplets, or a pre-recorded broadcast? When is defiance a virtue and when is it merely an objective?
It seems that poetry’s power of negation is not something that can be readily observed and described in slogans; even when poets present themselves as red-handed evidence of life and of oppression—choosing to defend an ideology at the cost of poetry—they do not possess any power of real significance. We encounter, here and there, some moving verses among countless trivial works; however, for the most part, the dissident poetry currently prevailing in Vietnam evokes a disheveled, barren literary scene that matches the nihilistic ennui of individuals trying to navigate within the existing context in the country and getting stuck in ideological wars.
Historical Nihilism & the Negation of Poetry
The dominant discourses of Vietnamese history has become a topic for investigation and a target of rebellious and nihilistic attacks. I would like to mention here three poets from the South, Nguyễn Quốc Chánh, Trần Tiến Dũng (both born in 1958) and Phan Bá Thọ (born in 1972), as examples of different approaches to questioning historical narratives. The powerful blending of expressive verbal language and political representations, contemplative recapitulations of history under a teasing, provocative guise, and the distinctive individual style of each poet, culminates in stimulating poems, to which affixing the label “dissident poetry” is perhaps unfitting. From these three poets, I learn that there are some who persevere in the belief that poetry belongs to the individual alone, not to anyone or anything else, and that there are poets who believe that poetry, starting from an individualistic reaction, can move towards the representation of common concerns, or that poetry, by engaging with common concerns, can affirm the individual voice of its author.
Nguyễn Quốc Chánh hurls at us verses of intense negation, sweeping brushstrokes that aim to erase an official history that he deems artificial, by the means of negating his own poetics. He defines himself as an individual, yet each detail in the following poem aims to represent a larger portrait, of a nation and a people:
Post-, post-, but not really post- . . .
From the front: my face is brazen.
From the side: my face is crooked.
From above or below: my face is foul.
Next to the Khmer: in gold I glimmer.
Next to Westerners: in confusion I deflate.
Next to the Chinese: in bashfulness I neigh.
In my last incarnation: my essence was monkey.
In this incarnation: my community are ghosts.
In my next incarnation: my nation will be a commune.
In the old days, I tattooed my body and fought the Chinese.
Now my grandpa chants jingles selling tofu.
In the past, I broke my back fending off the Westerners.
Now my dad repairs shoes on the sidewalk.
Not long ago, I sold my life fending off the Americans.
Now my wife scurries to marry a citizen of the US
Sometimes I want to forget: oh those who cry in solitude!
Sometimes I want to believe: oh those who cry in solitude!
Sometimes I want to go mad: oh those who cry in solitude!
The poems of Trần Tiến Dũng seem to share the same endpoint as those of Nguyễn Quốc Chánh, but they arrive by another route: deliberately uncovering an individual’s internal wounds, wounds that lose their personal significance to become common concerns and, ultimately, the common concerns of the nation and its history, evolving into solutions to regenerate individual existence. In Nguyễn Quốc Chánh’s poetry, there is a confrontation between the individual and the concepts of “nation” and “people”, while in Trần Tiến Dũng’s poetry, I see various performances of the subjectivity of his fierce inner conflicts and difficult choices. The result is an effort at self-transformation by the speaking subject resisting his ascribed identity. Examining the progress of Trần Tiến Dũng’s poetry collections in the order of their release, from the two official publications Moving Mass (Khối Động, Trẻ Publishing House, 1997) and Looming into View (Hiện, Thanh Niên Publishing House, 2000), to the next three photocopied and e-book samizdat publications, Sky of Chicken and Duck Feathers (Bầu trời lông gà lông vịt, eBook, Tiền Vệ, Australia, 2003), Two Flowers on One’s Forehead, for Second-rate Citizens (Hai đoá hoa trên trán cho công dân hạng hai, Sài Gòn, 2006), and The Floating Clouds Have Already Floated Away (Mây bay là bay rồi, Sài Gòn, 2010), one can observe the poet’s journey—from sensing his insignificance and uselessness in the search for his own individuality, to doing away with personal emotions so that he can emerge as an active participant—an attempt at erasure that is full of bewilderment but seemingly inevitable. The image of a poet in a faraway land, reminiscing about his childhood fields, reminiscing over that lost habitat in the midst of the modern city, has gradually been replaced by the image of a poet roaming amongst the slings and arrows of the age, in a spontaneous and at once enduring manner, while under attack, while bearing wounds of his own volition; the tragic sentiment transcends the individual, and becomes a portrait of the common fate of the people and the community. His latest book is suffused with this resolution. I envision him amongst the long lines of people, “standing on the sidewalk and counting”:
Again we count
beginning from ourselves, forward and backward,
from the sidewalk here to the crossroads there, the slaves line up in rows
pointing to themselves they count ‘one’
pointing to their lover they count ‘two’ . . .
an invisible chain, now taut now slack, and always so very long
every time it crosses an abyss, bursting forth from the walls
of cruel prisons.
And the cold chain
and flight after flight of sounds falling vertically into
a squall of rain.
(“We Stand on the Sidewalk and Count”)
In another poem, the poet defines himself in a straightforward, uncompromising, sarcastic, and yet hopeless manner: “In the Twenty-first century/me/a citizen of a communist dictatorship.” (“How Nicely People Phrase It”); at the same time, he is aware that the existence and the fate of a poet cannot be separated from the context in which that poet lives/dies:
Poet! Your language enters a state of fear of the dictatorship to be aware of that fear
Drag out that obstinate fear and make it erupt in fear
Poet, you are not a brave man
Choose a vile pit and step out once to see if you can overcome it
(“On Trembling Feet, I Choose to Step Out”)
Trần Tiến Dũng is aware of the buried traumas and the fractures in a poet—one who relies on language to unfold afflictions and to express the desire for freedom. In those instances where he lays bare his innermost feelings, the sensibility of a marginalized being with verses pervaded by hopelessness, by turns obvious and subtle, his verses carry a weight of protest that is as desperate as a lulling dose of poison: it begins gently, and with that same gentleness people die, in order to express their defiance.
Setting up the different play, perhaps more joyful, the poetry of Phan Bá Thọ expresses protest through the language of nihilistic derision. In his work, history has become an “endless landfill” (Phan Bá Thọ’s words) with which he can play, and live, devoid of any restraint, pain, rage, or doubt. Sharing the same “rubbish poetry” and “dirty poetry” mindset with fellow marginalized writers Lý Đợi and Bùi Chát, in his two samizdat volumes, Vertical Movement (Chuyển động thẳng đứng, 2001) and Endless Landfill (Đống rác vô tận, 2004), Phan Ba Tho mines historical waste from news articles and old stories, playfully converts these raw materials into poetry. The poet revels in that rubbish heap like a scavenger:
i am living in a vertical saigon that is starry
flashy & artificial, in fact
saigon is a wretched wench whom one can’t help but love
a meaningful [& horrifying] wench
(“apperceive – october”)
Saigon, once legendary, is now “a wretched wench”. And in that city, Phan Bá Thọ has so often stripped himself to the skin to unflinchingly and impassively portray himself, without intention to shock anyone. One can visualize sudden seizures ambushing an electrostatic body in a unique self-portrait that could serve as an inspiration to performance artists:
a little girl with 70 years of experience rambling through dark alleys
an old guy—a daring rotten-manything & a rotten drunk
they, they know 80% of who i am
I’m not thuy hang or thuy hanh or rilke or Rimbaud
maybe, not a man / woman & prostitute
not a [bank note/ manifestation / homosexual] etc. & etc.
(oh, the virtues of the accomplished & the self-proclaimed)
to be honest, I’m a bull shackled in an abandoned house
with no lack of creature comforts
my body porous with electric-plug bites
each day, i chew up grassy green & ten dead bodies
devour 30 kilowatts of electricity and still crave for more.
(“who are you”)
Rather than reconstructing a burnished image of history, in this poetry we often find denials or rejections: indignation and outrage in Nguyễn Quốc Chánh’s works, affliction in the form of sarcasm or empathy in Trần Tiến Dũng’s poems, derision and apathy in the poetry of Phan Bá Thọ, all tinted with a shade of desperation. History is positioned on the edge of an abyss. No longer having the status of Truth, history is questioned and questions itself, it is derided and is itself a derision. It seems that when individuals look into the mirror of history, they find only their own empty image, an image completely erased by treachery, a treachery in which through collective amnesia we have almost forgotten our role as accomplices. Each successive unmasking takes the form of a negation, playing with or making fun of the act of recounting laughable historical fictions. As if it is only by stripping history of its sacral robe that we can lay bare its artful deception and its sins, and recover our trampled and effaced image. It is easy to understand how history, in this sense, has become a substantial theme. Is this just an attempt, however, to blindly absolve and justify the burden of poetry by pointing the finger at history? Is history, as a result, shouldering burdens that are not really its own? Could we reconstitute the same set of questions, substituting “regime” for “history”?
In juxtaposition with the negation of history exists the negation of poetry itself in order to create/politicize poetry: Nguyễn Quốc Chánh strongly negates the very ways in which he penned his previous works, while poets like Phan Bá Thọ purposely create trash, no longer “making poetry”. For many years now, Nguyễn Quốc Chánh, Trần Tiến Dũng, and Phan Bá Thọ seem to have refused to continue writing poetry or to present themselves as poets. Allow me to share my suspicions: as poetry struggled to negate history via extensive engagement in socio-political conditions, it aspired to sacrifice itself in a massive parade. When poetry negates its own history, it refuses to keep treading the creative path set in the past: it seeks ruptures, seeks to prove that a breach has been made, and finds nihilistic amusement in becoming an endless poetic landfill.
To return to the question of dissident poetry, personally, I would like to think that this label is reserved for a distinct sector of poetry that may no longer have so many reasons to exist, as its existence could be considered a consequence of favoring political preferences at the expense of poetry or, at the same time, at the expense of politics. Is categorization a helpful factor in demolishing barriers, or a barrier itself? In the chaos of labels, does poetry become freer, or more self-confined? Politics of texts, as potentially a worthy feature of poetry and all forms of art, is not perceived based (only) on the intention of the poet, but depends as well on the perspective and interpretation of the reader. There should be no reason for poets to self-censor sociopolitical issues out of their works as “apoetical” matters; there should also be no reason for poets to commit to political themes just to fulfill expectations regarding the potential power or responsibility of poetry. Hence, just as we readily concur with the need to resist uniform, propagandistic, and laudatory politics, to resist the political preference of conforming and bowing down to a monopolistic state, to fend off the illusions of an apolitical freedom, and to seek democratic exchanges, as readers we demand more elaborate discussions regarding the politics of poetry, specific to each creative work in its own right, and we demand the overthrow of the monopolistic oppression and self-censorship inherent in each writer. From another point of view, the altruistic essence of aesthetics seems to be at odds with the resoluteness of ideological protest, and this is one reason why I shall not proclaim that poems that don’t have an obvious dissident flavor, but instead only seem to explore the expressive dynamics of words, for instance, are any less political than poems that are reactionary, insurgent, or dissenting. Is the poetry of dissent exclusive? Without dwelling on the conflicts between the different social functions and aesthetics of poetry, or on the possibility of reaching a balance, I consider that the power of negation in poetry, and in art as a whole, cannot merely be reduced to an antagonistic ideological voice, or even more so merely to propagandistic texts that support different opinions or sides. Poetry, in its effort to participate in common concerns and accounts of history, always arises from a need to raise one’s own voice, and perhaps it’s time for some ghosts to stop terrifying.
 Chế Lan Viên (1920–1989) was a prominent poet from the late 1930s onwards. He participated in the August Revolution in 1945, and subsequently became a leading member of the official Writers’ Association of Viet Nam.
 Mậu Thân (literally, the Year of the Monkey), here refers to the lunar new year (Tet) period in 1968, when the National Liberation Front (NLF) and the People’s Army of North Vietnam (PAVN) launched the Tet Offensive in Saigon, Hue and other locations throughout Southern Vietnam.
 i.e. literature portraying characters and attitudes worthy of emulation, as a contribution to the war effort and to the development of a socialist society.
 In these years, protests were directed specifically at Trung Cộng (communist China) rather than the more common term Trung Quốc (China).
This essay originally belongs to Nhã Thuyên’s Underground Voice project, supported partially by Arts Network Asia (ANA) in 2011, which aims to examine marginalization in Vietnamese contemporary poetry and the avant-garde poets of its Post-Renovation period. The very first version of the essay was published in Vietnamese on the US-based Da Màu magazine in 22, October, 2012. The author is now shaping a book of essays in Vietnamese and in English translations, that comes as a result of the Underground Voices. I am grateful for the companionship and readership of David Payne, Tammy Lai-Ming Ho, Noah Viernes, and Ngân in the process of editing and translating this essay. Your insights and questions have been cultivating my ideas.
Bùi Chát, “Red Light” (Đèn đỏ), in Poem of a Single Rhyme (Bài thơ một vần), Giấy Vụn press, 2010.
Chế Lan Viên, “Who? I!” (Ai? Tôi!), in Posthumous Poetry (Di cảo thơ), Volume 3, Thuận Hoá publisher, 1993. Vũ Thị Thường ed.
Nguyễn Minh Châu, “Let’s Give a Funeral Oration for an Era of Illustrative Literature” (Hãy đọc lời ai điếu cho một giai đoạn văn học minh hoạ) in Pages Written by Lamplight (Trang giấy trước đèn), Khoa hoc Xa Hoi (Social Science) Publisher, 1994.
Nguyễn Quốc Chánh, “Post-, post-, but not really post- . . .” (Hậu, hậu, nhưng không phải hậu) in Hey, I’m here, samizdat, Sài Gòn, 2005.
Phan Bá Thọ, “apperceive – october” (thụ cảm – october) in Endless Landfill (Đống rác vô tận), samizdat, Sài Gòn, 2004.
“who are you” (mày là ai) in Endless Landfill (Đống rác vô tận), samizdat, Sài Gòn, 2004.
Thanh Thảo, “Confession” (Bày tỏ), Văn nghệ (Literature & Art) Journal, Hanoi, issue 34 (22-8-87). Online archive:
Trần Tiến Dũng, “We Stand on the Sidewalk and Count” (Chúng tôi đứng ở vỉa hè và đếm), in The Floating Clouds Have Already Floated Away (Mây bay là bay rồi), samizdat, Sài Gòn, 2010.
“How Nicely People Phrase It” (Cách nói của những người tử tế), The Floating Clouds Have Already Floated Away (Mây bay là bay rồi), samizdat, Sài Gòn, 2010.
“On Trembling Feet, I Choose to Step Out” (Đôi chân sợ hãi, tôi chọn bước ra), The Floating Clouds Have Already Floated Away (Mây bay là bay rồi), samizdat, Sài Gòn, 2010.