Rhyme with reason

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 12 April, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 12 April, 2008, 12:00am

Anita Chan Ka-tung mused about living on a far-off planet like the one inhabited by the Little Prince. So she caught the spark of inspiration and started writing a poem. The Form Two student had never tried playing with the subtlety of words before, partly because of a lack of confidence. But since September, when an award-winning poet was invited to her school, things have changed.

With guidance from poet Kwan Mon-nan, Anita, 14, has produced more than 30 modern Chinese poems, some of which have been published in local newspapers and poetry journals.

'I will continue to write poems as long as I can, especially outside exam times,' the Kowloon True Light Middle School student said. 'It's a project about life.'

Anita and 20 classmates in the workshop were not the only ones to be given the chance to learn from Kwan. Since September he has been hired by 10 secondary schools to hold weekly poetry workshops.

The winner of the poetry section of the 2003 Hong Kong Biennial Award for Chinese Literature teaches students how to appreciate modern poetry and compose their own works.

The workshops are part of education authorities' initiatives to promote literary appreciation as part of the Chinese-language curriculum.

A reformed curriculum was introduced for Form One students in 2002. Instead of the traditional approach, which focused on Chinese-language proficiency, it is based on modules and themes.

Instead of studying prescribed passages, teachers and publishers can choose from 600 passages specified by the Curriculum Development Council according to the theme and objectives of each module. The passages include 149 modern and classical poems. The aim is to develop students' general skills and interest in Chinese literature, as well as their language skills.

Ho Ka-wai, a senior Chinese teacher at True Light, said the poetry workshops encouraged students' creative writing skills, an area highlighted in the new curriculum.

'Compared with the old ones, the present curriculum puts more emphasis on the imagination and critical thinking of students,' Ms Ho said. 'The objectives have been incorporated into the content of open exams. Creative writing has been more important in public examinations in recent years.

'For example, students sitting the Hong Kong Certificate of Education Examination [for Chinese language] in 2007 were asked to write an essay on the topic 'Lemon Tea'. They had a lot of freedom when it came to content. It demanded much imagination.'

Previously, questions to test students' imagination had appeared from time to time, but those in recent years were more creative, Ms Ho said.

'Exam officials have also told us that questions testing imagination will continue to feature in the Chinese-language written paper,' she said.

Chinese poetry was revolutionised in the early 20th century when writers toyed with vernacular styles closer to what was being spoken, rather than previously prescribed forms. Most poets of that time also sought to break Chinese poetry from past conventions by adopting western models.

Unlike modern Chinese poems, which usually do not follow any prescribed pattern, most classical poems are rhymed and need to fit into strict forms of meter. This made it difficult for young students to approach them.

Wong Leung-wo, an associate professor of Chinese at the Hong Kong Institute of Education, said children would find it easier to start with modern poems, but classical works would always have their unique value.

'Learning classical poetry, with its stricter forms, can help students appreciate the beauty in the rhythm and structure of the Chinese language,' he said.

'There is an aestheticism in poems. The more poems you read, the stronger the sensitivity you will have towards the beauty of the language, and the more 'material' you can rely on when you use the language.'

Classic poetry also was a vehicle to understanding Chinese culture, ancient philosophy and the aristocratic way of life in ancient society.

'Many ideas expressed in Chinese poems have their roots in ancient Chinese philosophy, such as Confucius, Taoism and Buddhism,' Dr Wong said. 'For young children, a first reading of a poem is unlikely to give a full understanding. But it's like sowing the seeds of literature early in children. As time goes by, when you have read more and gained more life experience, a fuller understanding of these ideas will come.'

During a recent one-hour workshop at True Light, the students listened as Kwan explained the skills he used in composing one of his works. The students had been asked to write their own work at home, and these were also discussed.

Anita's poem, entitled My World, depicts her wish for a carefree life on an imaginary isolated planet. She wrote the 14-line poem in November after reading the book The Little Prince and being inspired by the imaginary world where the protagonist lives.

'I hope to have my own planet as he does. The poem is about my wish to be free from the pressure of exams, free from the bondage of our everyday business,' she said. 'These were the immediate feelings I got from reading The Little Prince. Right away, I started trying to write them down as a poem.'

Anita said writing poetry helped her express her inner feelings. 'I have been paying more attention to things I encounter in my daily life, my family and news happening in our society. I enjoy getting inspiration from everything I see.'

Nevertheless, she said one major difficulty in appreciating poems was that they often featured obsolete words and themes.

'There are many difficult words in classical poems,' she said. 'Also, the themes are strange to people in modern days. For example, many classical poems portray the calamity of wars, which appear distant from us.'

Kwan, founder of the Qiu Ying poetry journal and a former features editor at Sing Tao Daily, said many primary and secondary teachers found teaching poetry difficult because they had limited exposure to it.

In the 1960s and '70s, he said, poetry writing was encouraged by newspapers and journals, which provided space for students to publish their works. But many of these had closed or focused more on entertainment since the '80s, leaving students with less opportunities to write poems and have them published.

Kwan, who will hold workshops for teachers this summer, said the biggest challenge facing students in approaching the world of poetry was that their life experiences were limited.

Instead of using the traditional method of reciting and explaining works to students, teachers needed to think of new methods to inspire their young charges.

'Teachers need to put students in an environment that can stir their imaginations. You need to bring them out of the classroom, go to the real world and let them experience their surroundings,' Kwan said.