In the United States, freedom of speech — even the most outrageously shocking speech — is a cherished right, though most of us probably aren’t quick to think of poetry as a form of speech that needs protecting. It’s been a long, long time since anyone tried to put an American in jail for publishing a poem. That may make it hard for us to truly appreciate the artistic bravery of Nguyen Chi Thien, who spent nearly a quarter century behind bars because he defiantly insisted on composing verses that irreverently criticized his nation’s authoritarian regime.
The Vietnamese-born poet, who died in Orange County, Calif., on Oct. 2 at age 73, was willing to give up his freedom just to have his poetry published. As a biographical sketch of Nguyen in Who’s Who in Twentieth Century Poetry details, after serving an 11-year prison term for writing subversive poems, he was released by communist authorities in 1977 for health reasons. Two years later, he walked into the British embassy in Hanoi and entrusted diplomats there with a manuscript of 400 poems. For that, he was sent to Hoa Lo prison — aka the Hanoi Hilton, where prisoner-of-war John McCain was incarcerated during the Vietnam war — for another 12 years. Eventually, however, his book — first published in 1980 under the title Echoes from the Abyss — earned critical acclaim, and literati and human rights activists called insistently for his release. Finally, in 1991, the Vietnamese government relented, and Nguyen was allowed to emigrate to the United States.
Nguyen’s stubborn, indomitable spirit shines in his 1971 poem “They Exiled Me,” which he wrote while in prison:
They exiled me to the heart of the jungle
Wishing to fertilize the manioc with my remains
I turned into an expert hunter
And came out full of snake wisdom and rhino fierceness.
They sank me in the ocean
Wishing that I would remain in the depths
I became a deep sea diver
And came up covered with scintillating pearls.
Here’s a video of Nguyen reciting one of his works, “My Verses,” in Vietnamese at the University of California, Berkeley in 2007:
You can read an English translation of the poem, and others by Nguyen, on the Viet Nam Literature Project website.