John Balaban Analysis

Other literary forms

(Poets and Poetry in America)

Apart from his volumes of poetry, John Balaban (BAHL-uh-bahn) published a novel, Coming Down Again (1985, 1989); a juvenile fable, The Hawk’s Tale(1988); and several nonfiction books about his Vietnam experience, which include Vietnam: The Land We Never Knew (1989) and a memoir, Remembering Heaven’s Face: A Moral Witness in Vietnam (1991). With coeditor Nguyen Qui Duc, Balaban edited a collection of seventeen short stories, Vietnam: A Traveler’s Literary Companion (1996). He wrote a screenplay titled Children of an Evil Hour, produced in 1969. Balaban has translated Vietnamese poetry into English; some of these translations are in his Ca Dao Vietnam: A Bilingual Anthology of Vietnamese Folk Poetry (1974).


(Poets and Poetry in America)

John Balaban’s deep concern for humanity on the brink of annihilation, which he witnessed during the Vietnam War, is the hallmark of his poetry. Although he explored other areas of human experience, both geographically and historically, as well as his own inner world, the Vietnam factor stayed with him as a sounding board for whatever else came under his scrutiny. In three decades of steady publication, his work accumulated the needful critical mass to secure him an enduring place among the very best poets writing in the United States at the dawn of the twenty-first century.

Among his numerous awards and honors, his first book of poetry published in the United States, After Our War, was named the Lamont Poetry Selection by the Academy of American Poets in 1974 and was nominated for the National Book Award in Poetry. His third book, Words for My Daughter, was a National Poetry Series selection in 1990; his fourth book of poetry, Locusts at the Edge of Summer, was nominated for the National Book Award and won the Poetry Society of America’s William Carlos Williams Award.

Balaban was the recipient of literary distinctions or prizes in Romania, the Steaua Prize of the Romanian Writers’ Union (1978), and the Prize for Poetry at the Lucian Blaga International Poetry Festival (1999). In Bulgaria, he won the Vaptsarov Medal given by the Union of Bulgarian Writers (1980). In Romania, he held a Fulbright-Hayes Lectureship for 1976-1977 and a Fulbright Distinguished Visiting Lectureship in 1979. After he completed his alternative military service in 1969, he visited Vietnam in 1971 to work on his translation of folk poetry, in 1985 to study the institutions of the unified country, and in 1989 to lecture for a few days at the University of Hanoi.

Between 1994 and 1997, he was president of the American Literary Translators Association. He earned two Pushcart Prizes: for his Hudson Review essay “Doing Good” (1978-1979) and for his poem “For the Missing in Action” (1990), originally published in Ploughshares and collected in Words for My Daughter. Balaban won the National Artist Award of the Phi Kappa Phi Honor Society for 2001-2004 and a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship in 2003. Balaban has contributed poems, translations, essays and reviews to such periodicals as American Scholar, Asian Art and Culture, Hudson Review, Modern Poetry in Translation, Sewanee Review, Southern Review, Steaua (Cluj- Napoca, Romania), The New Yorker, and TriQuarterly.


(Poets and Poetry in America)

Balaban, John. “John Balaban.” http://www.john The official Web site of Balaban contains information on his books and poetry as well as links to interviews with him and articles about him.

Beidler, Philip D. Late Thoughts on an Old War: The Legacy of Vietnam. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2004. In his memoir on the Vietnam War, Beidler, an Army calvary platoon leader during the war, describes how his life paralleled that of Balaban in the chapter “Wanting to Be John Balaban.”

_______. Re-writing America: Vietnam Authors in Their Generation. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1991. Beidler discusses After Our War, which he says shows Balaban’s sense of the crucial role of the Vietnam poet in remaking Americans’ collective cultural experience of this conflict.

Erhart, W. D. “Soldier-Poets of the Vietnam War.” In America Rediscovered: Critical Essays on Literature and Film of the Vietnam War, edited by Owen W. Gilman, Jr., and Lorrie Smith. New York: Garland, 1990. The work describes the great effort to absorb the Vietnamese culture made by Balaban, who learned the language and even suffered wounds.

Hillstrom, Laurie Collier. The Vietnam Experience: A Concise Encyclopedia of American Literature, Songs, and Films. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1998. Contains a chapter on After Our War, which discusses the work and Balaban.

Kriesel, Michael. Review of Path, Crooked Path. Library Journal 131, no. 3 (February 15, 2006): 119-121. Kriesel notes how Balaban takes readers on a road trip, peopling his poetry with poets and figures ordinary and historical in various locales.

Rignalda, Don. Fighting and Writing the Vietnam War. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1994. In the chapter on Vietnam War poetry, Rignalda calls Balaban the “most insistent” of the war poets on “translating the war—on both a figuratively literal and literally figurative level.”

Seaman, Donna. Review of Path, Crooked Path. Booklist, 102, no. 17 (May 1, 2006): 65. Seaman calls Balaban a “roaming bard” who considers all of humanity and its storms. She notes Balaban’s communication of his love of others in his writings although he recognizes their frequent reliance on violence.

Smith, Lorrie. “Resistance and Revision by Vietnam War Veterans.” In Fourteen Landing Zones: Approaches to Vietnam War Literature, edited by Philip K. Jason. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1991. Smith argues that Balaban implicates the reader in the decision to fight in Vietnam by calling it “our” war in the title of After Our War.