Lest anyone suppose I frittered away my time while studying classical Chinese at Cambridge, here are three poems I composed then in the style of the great Tang masters (though even Bai Juyi’s ouevre was variable). I think they display precocious signs of the pointless inanity that was to distinguish my later writings. OK, the finer rules of prosody have always eluded me, but I borrowed most of the phrases from original Tang poems, giving them what I believe is known as a contemporary twist.
A smoke behind the cricket pavilion
This was prompted by the pun on chan: “Zen” 禪, and “cricket” 蟬 in the sense of cicada; from there I punned with another kind of cricket. “Smoke”, of course, is what you see wafting from a rural hamlet at sundown.
獨坐蝉亭后 Sitting alone behind the cricket pavilion
輕聞白衣玩 Hearing vaguely the cricketers playing *
忽然含烟氣 Suddenly I retain the smoke vapour
畏有蝉師来 What if the cricket master should come?
“Cricketers” for baiyi, “white clothes”: at least in later dynasties, this might be understood as referring to White-clothed Bodhisattva Guanyin.
A version of this poem recently discovered amongst a collection of apocrypha [sic] in cave 17 at Dunhuang gives this variant of the second line:
柳條擊革聲 The thwack of leather on willow
Liutiao “willow branch” seems to allude to the rain ceremony (highly efficacious—“rain stopped play”)—indeed, White-clothed Guanyin is often depicted as holding a willow branch (or “bat”);
ge “hide/skin” is one rubric under the ancient eightfold classification of musical instruments—the membranophone used in this rain ceremony being spherical in shape. For football in the Song dynasty, see here.
I may add that this was long before I experienced the ritual of smoking with Daoists.
On receiving a visit in late spring from Mr Yan and his friends
This is the title of a poem by Wang Wei, which conjured up sinister images of the mafia in a B-movie (“We wouldn’t want this vase to get broken, would we? Oh dear me, how clumsy…”).
贵居来人少 Your esteemed abode has few visitors
黄髮君已老 You are old now, with your grey hair
一時破此瓶 Just suppose this vase got broken
惆怅悲無際 Such sadness, limitless grief!
At the pictures
Inspired by the original phrase “old overcoat”, and the common occurrence of the term “washerwoman”, this poem charmingly describes an indecent exposure at the cinema.
春寒著弊袍 The spring is cold—I put on an old overcoat
上堂来人少 The cinema has few visitors
静坐依浣女 Quietly sitting, I nudge a washerwoman
一閃啼連天 One flash, and the howls reach to the heavens!