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Sunday, February 27, 2011

Anatomy of a Poem

Some friends commented that they were amazed at the amount of poems I post on the net and Facebook. I thanked them for their kindness and compliments. When asked, the short answer I always give is it was inspired by a piece of music I heard or from some nostalgia of an event that happened in my life. However the truth is far from that. A poem cannot be created just because I wanted to have one composed. Creativity cannot be forced. It must come to you willingly like our Blue Kitty. It is also never a day’s work. The final form may span many days, weeks or even months depending on the frame of mind that I was at the moment. Many uncompleted lines were written somewhere in a book, electronic or otherwise. Hopefully one day a revisit to them will cause their Muse to jump out of the pages.

By the time the poem’s final form comes to fruition, I have often forgotten what had transpired in my thought process. This time I shall make a conscious effort to document each step of the way so that a more definitive answer can be given. This essay proves that I do not possess the soul of a poet, just a mere glimpse of it. Poems do not pour from my mind like wine from a jug. Each step is fraught with hard work and decision-making. I have to delve deeply into the recesses of my mind to seek out my Muse.

On 19 Feb 2011, a Saturday night, as we drove home from a dinner party in West Hollywood during a torrential downpour, a phrase came suddenly; a seductive whisper that grew unceasingly louder into a Sirenic song. 今宵酒壺滿 - 'Tonight the jug is filled with wine’. Not long afterwards, an image wafted into my mind – a picture of a lonely person drinking in the night. I found myself asking: What sort of a night should this be? A warm summer night enjoying the quietude of nature? Or a wintry night regretting about life in solitude? In the end, I thought these scenes were too blah - generating no mystery or interest. Let us suppose that jug of wine can be made mysterious; would readers then be wondering about its existence? Perhaps a feast or merriment was being prepared and the lover never showed up? If he does show up what happens next? Whatever the case may be, lines began to form…

今宵酒壺滿, Tonight the wine jug is full
待君….         Awaiting for my Lord…
漫舞歌曲起 Song and dance began
… …

Since the original phrase was in five characters, I decided on the five character format. The question now was how the poem should be capped. I was too tired to think and left things as they were for the rest of the journey home. However, as I lay in bed my mind churned and thoughts were swirling at a mile a minute. They would not let me enter my dreams. Tossing and turning around for what seemed an eternity, a light suddenly dawned on me. Why not let the passage of time move so quickly that all at once dawn appeared? This was a great idea and thus I was able to complete the poem,

今宵酒壺滿, Tonight the wine jug is full
待君解夜寒. Awaiting/entertaining my Lord to dispel his cold night air.
漫舞歌曲起, Dancing in leisure, my song began,
不覺東方紅. Not realizing the east is aglow in red.

I was satisfied with the result as it made readers wonder why her Lord did not come. Was there a new favourite? Or were there matters of such paramount importance that he could not meet her? With this, I was able to enter my dream world finally.

The Blue Kitty - Queen of my backyard
On Sunday, February 20, 2011 during a mid-morning jog, I recited the poem again and again in my head; making changes here and there; dealing with the mechanics of rhyming. I fiddled with the third line and changed it to 歌曲未得盡, ‘Song and dance not yet ended’. But somehow the line does not seem elegant enough even though I liked the words, 未盡, ‘not yet ended’. My Cantonese is much more proficient than my Mandarin; so all my poems are composed in Cantonese. Indeed to Mandarin speakers or speakers from other dialects, the rhyming and tonal scheme may not be correct at all. I profess that I am not a rhyming expert nor am I fluent in the tonal constraints placed on Chinese classical poetry. To me, if it sounds right, then it is alright.

As I jogged in exhaustion on the final leg of the run, another thought came waltzing by… By removing a single stroke on the character 待 (to wait upon, to entertain) it becomes 侍 (to serve). It was an interesting thought. Why not try the scenario that her Lord came? He was served but their merriment was cut short because of the coming dawn. Very soon the composition morphed into,

今宵酒壺滿, Tonight the wine jug is full,
侍君解夜寒. Serving my Lord and dispelling the cold night air.
鼓樂裙舞起, Skirts flaring up in dance with the beat of drums,
不覺東又紅. Not realizing the east is aglow again in red.

I was smug with myself as I thought the new transformation was good and that this would be the final version. However later in the day, my mind changed again. I felt the way this theme was presented was too straight forward and generated no interest. Drum beating in the days of old signaled danger. Instead of dancing to the beat of drums, they can now be a metaphor for impending war while the couple still in merriment.

今宵酒壺滿, Tonight the wine jug is full,
侍君解夜寒. Serving my Lord to dispel the cold night air.
曲舞宴未盡, Song, dance and banquet still in merriment,
東遠(邊)又染紅. Far away in the east once more dyed in red.

The changes are now made on the third and fourth lines. Instead of dancing to the beat of drums, it is now a feast still in progress when dawn broke - dyed in red. I chose the word, 染 (to dye) over 漸 (slowly) because the former has another meaning, ‘to infect’, a negative connotation – that the land was dyed in blood. For the astute reader, the poem could be an allusion to the parting night scene of Hsiang Yu and Yu Ji (項羽虞姬) in the opera story (霸王別姬) depicted in the movie, “Farewell My Concubine”. Hsiang Yu was the rival contender to the Founder of the Han Dynasty. Yu Ji was his favourite concubine whose magnificent sword dance performance is famous throughout the land. On that fateful night before his defeat, Hsiang Yu heard songs from his hometown being played from nearby surroundings, a psychological ruse used by the Han side, to trick him in thinking that his homeland was lost. To spur his courage and not let her beauty befuddle his judgment, Yu Ji performed her famous sword dance one last time before committing suicide in front of his eyes.

The poem now takes on a different flavour. It can also be used to hint at the scene of the Imperial Concubine Yang Gui Fei dancing before the Tang Emperor just as the news of the advancing army of An Lu Shan breaking out in the Capital. The poem certainly contains all the generic elements. Such possibilities stimulate the mind. After much toiling, I recalled a poem/song from an old Chinese movie, “Kingdom And The Beauty” (江山美人), a story about a tryst between a lustful Ming Emperor and a wine seller girl. The poem was,

一瞥驚鴻影, A stolen glance startled the shadow of the swan,
相逢似夢中. Our chance meeting was like a dream.
廣寒身未到, The moon yet to be reached,
分手太匆匆. Too hurriedly we had parted...

I like the term '驚鴻影' – a startled goose shadow (see

In the flowery language of Chinese, it meant a startled beauty. The ancient Chinese found the grace of a goose in flight is comparable to the demeanor of a beauty. However the word goose does not have elegance and grace in the English language. Still I would like to incorporate it somehow into the poem. With this in mind, the third line is now completely reworked,

今宵酒壺滿,       Tonight the wine jug is full,
侍君解夜寒.       Serving my Lord to dispel the cold night air.
鼓聲驚鴻裙(舞)  Beat beat goes the drums startling the pleated skirts (dance)
東遠漸染紅.       Far away in the east slowly dyed in red.

The tone of the word dance (舞) in this combination did not sound quite right in Cantonese and opted for the word skirt instead. This version too has its merits but upon reflection, the phrases, ‘drum beats’ and ‘dyed in red’ were too explicit. At the same time, the timbre and scenario of the poem were too radical a departure from the original idea. More work and tweaking were needed. Sometimes beating the head against the wall is no way to progress. So I stopped thinking and banged on the piano instead!

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

During another jog up the street as I recited the lines in my head, a decision was made to remove the explicit phrases and return to my original idea. However that posed a problem as I wanted to incorporate 驚鴻(a startled beauty) into the poem while retaining the phrase ‘未盡' (not yet). Extending a fifth line would violate the four line stanza restriction. After much mulling, the easiest solution was to change the poem into a seven character format Instead. This would give me more flexibility to incorporate all the ideas I wanted. Thus the closing line was born,

東遠漸紅驚鴻裙(影) - Far in the east the red glow approached slowly and startled the swan’s skirts (shadow).

To satisfy the seven character format of the poem a descriptive autumn moon (秋月) to the first line was added and enhanced the opening imagery.

今宵秋月酒壺滿 – Tonight, an autumn night, the jug is filled of wine.

However I felt the tones were a bit amiss. 月明 (bright moon) is a better choice as it also hinted a touch of autumn because the moon is brightest at that time. Let readers paint their time frames.

今宵月明酒壺滿 – Tonight the moon is bright and the jug of wine is full.

The second line proved problematic in construction. It was difficult to find an apt description to fill the spaces between the phrases, ‘Awaiting for my Lord’ and ‘dispelling the cold night air from him’? Took me quite a while to hit upon the action of “to thank her Lord for the privilege of dispelling the cold night air from him”. A very nice idea indeed. However I didn’t like the original words used. 感謝 (to thank) sounds too a modern usage and 感恩 is too ‘Thanksgiving’ for me. 謝恩 (thanking his graciousness) though appropriate but in my eyes made her too submissive and namby pamby. I wanted a stronger lady character. After more soul searching 献恩 was favoured. This term means ‘to give’ or ‘to offer thanks’ to one’s superior. To offer herself in this manner is due to etiquette requirements and not because she is a meek hapless toy of his. For all outward appearances he is her Lord but in her heart she is his equal. At the same time this phrase smacks of hanky panky business about to happen. This makes the poem more interesting and salacious to readers. The word, ‘解' (dispel) also means ‘to loosen’. To loosen his cold night air may mean to warm him up in other ways than just wine. The third line was easily completed by adding “song and dance” before “not yet”. The poem is now complete. I like the ambiguity of the word, 樂 (joy) for it also means music depending on how it is pronounced.


The literal translation is:

Tonight the moon is bright and the jug is filled with wine,
Serving my Lord, I offer my love to him, dispelling the cold night air.
In leisure dance I sang; the music/joy has not ended when,
Far away in the east, the slow red glow startled the swan (goose) skirt.

A polished version is:

Tonight under the bright moon, a jug full of wine,
Serving my Lord, I offer my love, dispelling the cold night air.
My dance, my song, my music has yet to end,
Too soon that eastern glow of red startled my pleated skirt.
A note on the translation…

In the original, there is no indication who is lamenting. It is acceptable to use non-first person pronouns in the translation.

Saturday, 25 Feb 2011

Just as I feared as I was polishing this essay on a beautiful sunny Saturday morning after heavy rains from night, my thoughts began swirling once more. The seven character format seemed long winded and too mechanical in construction for my taste. It does not have the terseness, fluidity and vagueness of the five character format. In a stroke of insight, I was able to shortened the last line to five characters, 東紅驚鴻裙 ‘The east is aglow in red startling my pleated skirt’. This time I was lucky that my Muse was at my side. In minutes, I was able to prune away the added superfluous words. It seemed that I had gone round a full circle; ending up with the original opening phrase once more. However this time, I was well armed and prepared,

今宵酒壺滿, Tonight, a jug full of wine,
献恩解君寒. I offer my love to dispel the cold air from my Lord.
歌舞宴未盡, My song, my dance, my feast has yet to end,
東紅驚鴻裙. The east is aglow in red startling my pleated skirt.

Still I was not satisfied as the tonal construction did not sound too pleasing to my ears. Also the words紅 (red) and鴻 (goose) sounded the same… After more a bit more monkeying, I arrived at the following version,

今宵酒壺滿, Tonight, a jug full of wine,
献恩解君寒. I offer my love to dispel the cold air from my Lord.
曲舞宴未盡, My feast, my song, my dance has yet to end,
東曉驚鴻裙. The sudden dawn startled my pleated skirt.

It would be nice if indeed this is the final version but for now it is. Never know when new ideas pop into the mind and things start to morph once again…


1.   It had been more than four years since this poem was posted.  I guess my comment proved wrong.  Now that my Chinese had somewhat improved, I am updating this poem so that the second and fourth line rhymes.  Only one character had been replaced without changing the original intent of the poem.

今宵酒壺滿, Tonight, a jug full of wine,
献恩解君. I offer my love to dispel my Lord's tiredness.
曲舞宴未盡, My feast, my song, my dance has yet to end,
東曉驚鴻裙. The sudden dawn startled my pleated skirt.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

2.  Later, I didn't think the rhyming scheme was good and so I change it to match the first line as well.

今宵酒壺滿, Tonight, a jug full of wine,
献恩解君. I offer my love to dispel my Lord's melancholy.
曲舞宴未盡, My feast, my song, my dance has yet to end,
東曉驚鴻. The sudden dawn startled the swan's companion .

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

3. As I was practising my calligraphy, I wrote wrongly and thus the changes...

今宵酒壺滿, Tonight, a jug full of wine,
献解君,Offered to dispel my Lord's melancholy.
曲舞宴未盡, My feast, my song, my dance has yet to end,
東曉驚鴻伴. The sudden dawn startled the swan's companion .

Monday, 03 Sep 2018

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