Living the Poetry — 《静夜思》

“Good literature is such that one may return to them again and again, and get something new out of them at each stage of life.”

I forgot where I first read this sentence, but it has manifested itself often in my experience with poetry. From time to time, I would stumble upon an eureka moment, in which an old, known line of poetry takes on a brand new layer of meaning. In such moments, the lines grant meanings to experiences, and experiences grant meanings to the lines.

One such moment was when I was reminded of the poem 《静夜思》<Thoughts on a Silent Night> two weeks ago, at the last full moon. As mentioned in my post ‘Frost on the Ground’, I was in bed ready to sleep when I saw moonlight shining through the curtain onto the ground.

As most other Chinese, I have learned the poem by heart even before school. Due to the extreme familiarity, this sequence of 20 characters for me felt closer to the Alphabet Song than a piece of literature. Much as I am deeply touched by many other poems on the theme of moon and nostalgia, the meaning of 《静夜思》 has laid dormant.

The awakening is the key. The moonlight on the night of April 7th awakened the poem from my memory. As I glanced at the ground, I thought: ‘Aha, Li Bai (the poet) is right! It indeed looks like frost!’ Following that, naturally, I thought of the lines:


My head lifts, as I gaze at the moon,
My head lowers, as I start missing home.

Then these lines awakened some nostalgia within me.

Essentially, the poem facilitated, as an intermediate agent, my experience of falling into nostalgia after seeing (unexpectedly) silvery moonlight on the ground. And that was exactly what Li Bai experienced. That is what the whole poem is about: the emotional journey of the ‘caught by surprise’, the wonder, the realization, then the un-asked-for yet unshakable nostalgia. For me, the poem 《静夜思》has awaken. Now, I not only know what it means, I know how it feels.

One may understand a poem by reading it, imagining and empathizing what the experience depicted is like, just as one does with most stories or films. Occasionally, however, we get the honour of living a poem, or of encountering a poem that we have lived through. That is when the extreme beauty of emotional resonance kicks in.

Remember that time your friend shared his/her feelings on something and you felt exactly the same? As humans, we love emotional resonances — we need them. However, from my experience, such resonances are rare, and we more often ‘meet’ them by chance than ‘find’ them by strive. As written in the Analects of Confucius:


“As my friends arrive from afar, oh what fortune, what joy!"

The poems are the Friends from Afar. They are friends from a different space, a different time, yet who carry in their words what we feel and what we live.

Poetry is mutual. If we understand the poems, the poems understand us.

Poetry is personal. The poems speak of our most subtle and intimate feelings with just the right words.

Poetry is universal. When same words from a man centuries ago touch you and me, in our distinct ways, we both live the poetry.