Nothing terribly profound to report from my Vietnam sojourn, but I have been thinking about that old question of the relationship between poetry and the society that produces it. In my meetings with poets here, that's an area I'm trying to explore. I've read a fair amount of Vietnamese history and a great deal of Vietnamese literature, both ancient and modern, and the conventional view is that poetry is very important to Vietnamese society. In fact, that is the view with which I began this loose and gangly research project. My thesis -- at least my implied thesis -- would run something like: Vietnamese society values poetry whereas American society does not and that tells us something about the relationship between the arts and society more generally. Underneath that is Henry's agon, of course, the cry of the Americna poet for some sort of recognition, a role to play. But be careful what you wish for.
Vietnamese people will point out to you that many of their statesmen have also been poets, that poetry is taught in school, and that books of poetry are to be found widely distributed in modern Vietnam, but the more I look, the narrower this distribution seems to be. Now days, it often looks like a sentimental social construction maintained as part of an overall Vietnamese self image. Which, I guess you could argue, is more than we have in the US. But in the US there are hundreds if not thousands of literary institutions -- reading series, small presses, etc. -- whereas in VN there is not so much of that, partly because the official Writers Association stands as an official literary institution that is supposed to facilitate such matters, but often doesn't. What you have instead are networks of literary friends who find ways to make a literary life sometimes in and sometimes out of official channels.
At any rate, those are some rough impressions about the comparative sociology of American and Vietnamese poetry scenes. I hope to see a lot more and refine my thoughts over the next month as I travel around. As it happens I'll be having dinner tomorrow evening with the president of the Writers Association and I want to ask him how he sees that institution's role in a modernizing Vietnam.