Man in bar with beer

Poetry, John Balaban, and the Universe

About three years ago, Torie, a colleague at the campus library I worked at suggested that in April we use a white board on the foyer of the library to put up a poem a day. April being National Poetry Month, that was a no brainer.

So the librarians, and anyone else who wanted to would put a poem up on one side of the board, and the next day turn it around and put another on the blank side, and from then on, erase the oldest one and post another.  There was a Vietnamese student, a short, impish young woman who asked one time if she could put up a poem from Vietnam.  I asked her if she could put up the English translation and the Vietnamese original, and she did so.

The poem is by Hô Xuân Huong, whose name translates to “Spring Essence.”  This poem is called


Praise whoever raised these poles
for some to swing while others watch.

A boy pumps, then arcs his back.
The shapely girl shoves up her hips.

Four pink trousers flapping hard,
two pairs of legs stretched side by side.

Spring games. Who hasn’t known them?
Swingposts removed, the holes lie empty.

When she was finished, I went to read the poem on the board.  The second time through I got  red in the face. The young woman, a cheeky sort, said “It’s kinda erotic.”


Jumping to yesterday, I sat in on a Zoom visit American poet John Balaban made to a “Literature of War” class at my old employer, Portland Community College. Balaban lives in Pennsylvania, and was a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War. He did his service there as a sort of cultural liaison between our countries.  He learned Vietnamese, was wounded by a bomb in the Tet Offensive, and later returned to help get injured children the medical help they needed in the U.S.  Typically that was reconstructive surgery after facial wounds. He also has had a long practice of recording and transcribing Vietnamese poetry, and saving an old script that was once used to write the Vietnamese language.

He read some of his poems, and one translation of a Vietnamese poem about how the rivers of Vietnam have a particular smell that comes from all the rice fields they flow through.  As he discussed it, I raised my hand and asked if he knew the poem about the swing-set.  “I ought too” he said, “I translated it.”

Today, thinking that over, I thought…what are the odds of that?  It isn’t like Vietnamese poetry from the 1700s is something most Americans are aware of.  I counted myself lucky to know one!  Depending on my mood, I will call what happened yesterday a great coincidence, or, if in different spirts,  a little wink from the Universe, karma, or a deity.

6 thoughts on “Poetry, John Balaban, and the Universe”

    1. I know just enough Spanish to make me read translations of poems such as “Versos Sencillos” (Simple Verses) by Jose Marti and see how translation of poetry is so difficult. Some forms of Vietnamese poetry use rhyme and rhythm, but Balaban’s translations do not. He was asked why he didn’t try to rhyme his translation and he said “It’s just too hard” and then explained that one of the Vietnamese poems= forms has a rhyme structure where the middle word in one line becomes the last word in another. Added to that tonal rhymes that we don’t have in English, and it just can’t be done. Still, I loved his translation of the “Swing” poem.

    1. I hadn’t thought of that… Balaban is a pacifist, I’m sure he thought about that. His memoir of his time in Vietnam, “Remembering Heaven’s Face” is supposed to be very good. I’m planning on giving it a read.

  1. I’m going to look for the book. I’ve read several books on Vietnam, war and otherwise–Matterhorn and Catfish and Mandala to name a couple–and this looks like an important addition.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *