A traditional form of Hmong poetry, paj huam can be incredibly long, memorized to the extent that the speaker can speak for more than an hour. Organized by both number of syllables and by a relatively simple rhyme scheme, these poems are frequently used to commemorate important occasions, honor loved ones, recite Hmong history, or even mourn the loss of a homeland. Of course, they can also serve a less serious purpose, acting as expressions of love the same way we might write a simple poem on Valentine’s Day. Part of the reasons for the art forms continued popularity within the diaspora is its accessibility. A quick look through social media will show countless individuals writing and performing paj huam, with different amounts of faithfulness to the traditional format. Nevertheless, paj huam remains an important record of Hmong life as a tie to past traditions and as an expression of contemporary life.
There are many different types of paj huam, including paj huam tsev neeg (poems about family, often commemorating parents or siblings who have passed away), paj huam keeb kwm (poems about Hmong history), and paj huam kev hlub (poems about love). Click on each work above to visit an example of each type, but keep in mind that these are but a few of the many different types you might encounter. As you can tell, paj huam are generally performed verbally, with or without background music depending on personal preference. Today, the most common places to find paj huam are on social media; YouTube and Facebook in particular have a rich archive of performances from Hmong around the world!
Writing A Paj Huam*
Paj huam have a set structure that must be followed (kind of like a Haiku). Usually, each line will have 7 syllables, split into two sections (3 followed by 4). Paj Huam also follow a rhyme scheme, usually listed as A, BB, CC, DD, EE, etc. A paj huam will follow this structure until the closing line, when you can expect to see some additional closing words (bolded in the example below).
For an example of what this looks like, see below:
Koj tib neeg, thiaj li totaub
Koj thiaj paub, txog kuv lub siab
Vim koj thiab, kuv wb sib koom
Ib yam khoom, tseem ceeb tshaj plaws
Tej khaub ncaws, thiab cev ntaj ntsug
Koj tib tug, thiaj nrog nraim kuv xwb os me duab ntxoov ntxoo.
If you follow this format, you have the general flexibility to play around with the length, number of stanzas, and even number of lines. As one additional pointer, remember that in order for words to rhyme in Hmong, the vowel sound and tone must be the same. So, for example, one rhyme in the poem above pairs “siab” with “thiab”-however, if the author would have paired “siab” with “thiaj” instead, they would be incorrect, as the difference in tones negates the rhyme even when the vowel sounds similar.
Comparison With Contemporary Hmong American Poetry
Consider the following poem (not a paj huam), taken from Mai Der Vang’s award-winning 2016 poetry collection Afterland:
the current gives. When we reach the camp,there will be thousands like us.?
If I make it onto the plane, you must follow me to the roads
and waiting pastures of America.We will not ride the water today on the shoulders of buffalo
as we used to many years ago, nor will we forage?
for the sweetest mangoes.
I am refugee. You are too. Cry, but do not weep.