Spring Essence: The Poetry of Ho Xuan Huong

Spring Essence: The Poetry of Ho Xuan Huong

4.5 2
by Ho Xuan Huong, John Balaban, Ho Xuan, Xuan Hng Ho

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Featured on NPR's "Fresh Air"

"Sometimes books really do change the world... This one will set in motion a project that may transform Vietnamese culture."—Utne Reader

Ho Xuan Huong—whose name translates as "Spring Essence"—is one of the most important and popular poets in Vietnam. A concubine, she became renowned for her poetic


Featured on NPR's "Fresh Air"

"Sometimes books really do change the world... This one will set in motion a project that may transform Vietnamese culture."—Utne Reader

Ho Xuan Huong—whose name translates as "Spring Essence"—is one of the most important and popular poets in Vietnam. A concubine, she became renowned for her poetic skills, writing subtly risque poems which used double entendre and sexual innuendo as a vehicle for social, religious, and political commentary.

The publication of Spring Essence is a major historical and cultural event. It features a "tri-graphic" presentation of English translations alongside both the modern Vietnamese alphabet and the nearly extinct calligraphic Nom writing system, the hand-drawn calligraphy in which Ho Xuan Huong originally wrote her poems. It represents the first time that this calligraphy—the carrier of Vietnamese culture for over a thousand years—will be printed using moveable type. From the technology demonstrated in this book scholars worldwide can begin to recover an important part of Vietnam’s literary history. Meanwhile, readers of all interests will be fascinated by the poetry of Ho Xuan Huong, and the scholarship of John Balaban.

"It's not every day that a poet gets to save a language, although some might argue that is precisely the point of poetry."— Publishers Weekly

"Move over, Sappho and Emily Dickinson."— Providence Sunday Journal

"In the simple landscape of daily objects–jackfruit, river snails, a loom, a chess set, and perhaps most famously a paper fan—Ho found metaphors for sex, which turned into trenchant indictments of the plight of women and the arrogance, hypocrisy and corruption of men... Balaban's deft translations are a beautiful and significant contribution to the West's growing awareness of Vietnam's splendid literary heritage."—The New York Times Book Review

The translator, John Balaban, was twice a National Book Award finalist for his own poetry and is one of the preeminent American authorities on Vietnamese literature. During the war Balaban served as a conscientious objector, working to bring war-injured children better medical care. He later returned to Vietnam to record folk poetry. Like Alan Lomax’s pioneering work in American music, Balaban was to first to record Vietnam’s oral tradition. This important work led him to the poetry of Hô Xuân Huong.

Ngo Than Nhan, a computational linguist from NYU’s Courant Institute of Mathematics, has digitized the ancient Nom calligraphy.

Editorial Reviews

The Barnes & Noble Review
Poet, scholar, and translator John Balaban was a conscientious objector who served in Vietnam, working to bring war-injured children the medical attention they needed. After his tour of duty ended, while the war was still raging, Balaban traveled the countryside with a tape recorder asking the Vietnamese country people to sing him their favorite poems. When his translations began to appear in print, a scholar in Hanoi advised him that "to truly know the heart and soul of Vietnam, you must translate Ho Xuan Huong." Ho Xuan Huong -- whose name tranlsates as "Spring Essence" -- was an 18th-century concubine who wrote suggestive poems as a vehicle for social, religious, and political commentary.

With these penetrating, lyrical translations Balaban succeeds not only in bringing to our attention a great poet but also in salvaging the virtually extinct ideographic script once used by the Vietnamese, Nôm. Spring Essence therefore represents the work of two masters: Ho Xuan Huon and John Balaban -- together they bridge three centuries, uniting past with present, ensuring a future for the language and poetry of a remarkable people.

Cam on nhieu, Mr. Balaban. Thank you. (Cary Goldstein)

Product Details

Copper Canyon Press
Publication date:
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6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.50(d)

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Canh thu

Thánh thót tâu tiêu mây hat mua,
Khen ai khéo ve canh tiêu so.
Xanh om cô thu tròn xoe tán,
Trang xoá tràng giang phang lang tò.
Bâu dôc giang son say chap ru'o'u,
Túi lung phong nguyêt nang vì tho'.
O hay, canh cung ua nguò'i nhi,
Ai thây, ai mà chang ngân ngo'.

Autumn Landscape

Drop by drop rain slaps the banana leaves.
Praise whoever sketched this desolate scene:

the lush, dark canopies of the gnarled trees,
the long river, sliding smooth and white.
I lift my wine flask, drunk with rivers and hills.
My backpack, breathing moonlight, sags with poems.

Look, and love everyone.
Whoever sees this landscape is stunned.

Tu' tình tho'

Tiêng gà xao xác gáy trên bom
Oán hân trông ra khap moi chòm
Mõ tham không khua ma cung côc
Chuông sâu chang dánh có sao om
Truóc nghe nhung tiêng thêm râu ri
Sau giân vì duyên dê mõm mòm
Tài tu van nhân ai dó tá
Thân này dã han chiu già hom.


Gray sky. A rooster crows.
Bitter, I look out on thickets and folds.

I haven't shaken grief's rattle, yet it clatters.
I haven't rung sorrow's bell, though it tolls.

Their noise only drags me down, angry
with a fate that says I'm much too bold.

Men of talent, learned men, where are you?
Am I supposed to walk as if stooped and old ?

Mò'i an trâu

Qua cau nho nho miêng trâu hôi
Này cua Xuân Hu'o'ng mó'i quêt rôi
Có phai duyên nhau thòi tham lai
Dù'ng xanh nhu' lá bac nhu' vôi.

Offering Betel

A piece of nut and a bit of leaf.
Here, Xuân Hu'o'ng has smeared it.

If love is fated, you'll chew it red.
Lime won't stay white, nor leaf, green.

Meet the Author

John Balaban is the author of a dozen books of poetry, prose, and Vietnamese translations whose prizes include the Lamont Award, the William Carlos Williams Award, and two National Book Award nominations. His work has been featured on NPR's "Fresh Air," New York Times, and Utne Reader. He teaches at North Carolina State University.

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Spring Essence: The Poetry of Ho Xuan Huong 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
HO XUAN HUONG (1592-1788) - her name translates as 'Spring Essence' and hence the title of this collection - lived in a period of corruption and danger in Vietnam. Translator John Balaban successfully brings her works to light for English readers in this 150-page collection of her poems. It is a treasure to encounter for the nascent student of Asian poetry. As a concubine Ho Xuan Huong was able to bravely and cleverly 'expose' her clients and write visceral, risqué poems that served as her own means of speaking out against what she saw as social, political and religious disintegration. She could, in fact, be considered one of the first feminists, so shrewd were her attacks on male authority as only a concubine could gain insight. But it is not just the ideas behind her words that make the difference: her poems are beautifully constructed and elegant, as in 'Confession': Her lonely boat fated to float aimlessly midstream, weary with sadness, drifting. Her hold overflowing with duty and feeling, bow rocked by storms, adrift and wandering. She rows on, not caring who tries to dock, sails on, not caring who tries the rapids. Whoever comes on board is pleased as she plucks her guitar, sad and drifting. As we become more aware of the cultural gifts of Vietnam it is a joy to encounter the poetry of Ho Xuan Huong. Grady Harp
Guest More than 1 year ago
If you want to remain riveted to your chair for an afternoon and into the night, get this book