On December 18, 1985, the Vietnamese poet Xuân Diệu died of a heart attack. He is celebrated still in his homeland as the King of Love Poetry.
As a young man in French-ruled Indochina, Xuân Diệu wrote mainly love poems. However, in 1944, he joined Ho Chi Minh’s anti-colonial resistance, and the focus of his writing switched to Vietnamese independence.
“It’s my homosexuality…”
Although his poetry mostly conformed to heterosexual norms, his own relationships were primarily with men. It seems many straight men enjoyed sex with him during his service with the revolutionary forces. But he, as a homosexual, wore the blame. Screenwriter and journalist Tô Hoài recalled an incident when military commanders reprimanded the poet over his behaviour.
“Xuân Diệu just sat and cried. Who knows whether Nam Cao, Nguyễn Huy Tưởng, Trọng Hứa, Nguyễn Văn Mãi, and even lão Hiến, Nghiêm Bình, as well as Đại, Đắc, Tô Sang, and a bunch of other guys had slept with Xuân Diệu or not; naturally, nobody admitted it.
“I was also silent as a clam. During those wild moments in the seductive darkness of night, I also went a bit crazy. Xuân Diệu was not by any stretch of the imagination alone in this regard.
“Nobody specifically mentioned these episodes, but everybody raised their voices, raised their voices severely, harshly criticizing his ‘bourgeois thinking, his evil bourgeois thinking, which needed to be fixed’.
“Xuân Diệu sobbed and said, ‘It’s my homosexuality… my homosexuality’, choking on his words with tears flowing, but not promising to fix anything at all.”
Lost in translation
A remembrance of a poet probably unknown to the intended readership screams for a sample of their work. But Xuân Diệu wrote in Vietnamese. Poetry does not translate easily or well. It loses meaning, nuance, affect, rhythm, music and sometimes rhyme.
As poet Robert Frost said, “Poetry is what gets lost in translation.”
I remember Rimbaud with Verlaine,
Two male poets, dizzy from drink,
Drunk with strange poems, in love with friendship,
Contemptuous of worn-out forms, abandoning familiar ways.
With parallel steps, treading their journey home,
Two souls with floral fragrance fresh,
Weak hand in strong hand,
Sharing love songs in breezy mists.
They speak nothing of yesterday or tomorrow;
Ignore painted lips and colourful shirts;
No concern about heaven and hell,
No haggling, they love each other!
Read More: December 17 <— On this day —> December 19
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