John Balaban was a conscious objector who chose to do his alternative service in Vietnam, first as a teacher of linguistics at the University of Can Tho, then as a representative for the Committee of Responsibility to Save War-Injured Children. He returned to Vietnam after the war to record Vietnamese folk poetry which he collected and translated in Ca Dao Vietnam. His unique situation as ‘a soldier-poet who was not a soldier’ gives him a perspective unlike any of the other poets of the Vietnam War: he is particularly adept at contrasting the impact of the war on Vietnam with the indifference of those at home. His first book-length collection, After Our War (University of Pittsburgh, 1974) won the Lamont Award from the Academy of American Poets.

Memories of Vietnam persisted in his 1982 collection, Blue Mountain (Unicorn).

In ‘News Update’ he chronicled the lives – and deaths – of friends he’d known in the war zone … In ‘For Mrs Cam, Whose Name Means “Printed Silk”‘ he reflects on the dislocation of the refugee Boat People … But there is finally here, in these poems,a remarkable promise of hope, a refusal to forget the past and “go on”, wilfully oblivious to history or the lessons that ought to have been learned … More than transcending Vietnam, in Blue Mountain Balaban absorbs Vietnam and incorporates it into a powerful vision of what the world ought to be. W.E. Ehrhart, Virginia Quarterly Review, 63.2, Spring 1987

John Balaban’s Poems

Resources for John Balaban

John Balaban’s website and Facebook page

John Balaban reading selected poetry at the US Air Force Academy in 1998

John Balaban Reading and Conversation with Michael Silverblatt, November 2002 and

Jon Stallworthy discusses John Balaban’s poetry

Photograph of John Balaban © Corolla Clift, 2002