A lecture theatre at the University of Hong Kong echoed to the sound of more than 170 secondary students emotively reciting a poem about a futile longing for love as its author listened on Monday. 'The tapping sound of my hoof is a beautiful misunderstanding. I'm not the man returning home. I'm just a passerby,' ends The Mistake, a poignant verse by renowned Chinese poet Zheng Chouyu, describing a woman hoping in vain for the return of her lover. 'The poem is so beautiful when it's recited in Cantonese,' the 74-year-old said at the Louis Cha Lecture Theatre at HKU during which he spoke about learning and teaching poems. Packed with admirers of Professor Zheng to the extent that some students had to sit on the floor, the talk sparked an uninhibited exchange of thoughts between the honorary professor of Chinese at HKU and secondary students and their teachers, which included a request for the poet to read out one of his poems. He chose to recite The Little Island , a poem of deep love he wrote when he was a young man. Elected poet-in-residence at Yale University several years ago, Professor Zheng said poetic sentiments were vital to creating poetry. 'The first kind of sentiments refers to one's feelings for the country, the nation, humanity and the environment. It stems from the macro point of view,' he said. 'Examples of the second type of sentiments are emotions arising from family and friends and between lovers. 'A poet should also contemplate life by asking questions like why and how certain things happened,' he added. 'Lastly, it's important to develop an interest in everyday life.' The possession of poetic sentiments was necessary but not sufficient for writing a compelling poem, he said. 'Poetic talent can be acquired through practice and guidance,' said Professor Zheng, who was neatly dressed in a black suit, wearing a pair of shaded glasses. 'We should write, amend and reflect incessantly,' he said. Professor Zheng said while the trigger to write often came naturally, chances were the more exposure to different facets of life, the more frequently the trigger would be sparked in one's inner heart. 'Teachers should encourage students to visit exhibitions, go to concerts, participate in drama and plays and take part in team activities to meet and interact more with people,' he said. Known for a delicate style of writing, the use of rich imagery, a literary air akin to the Chinese classics and an inclination to instil in his poems a palpable sense of the unpredictability of life, Professor Zheng's poems have been converted into songs, operas and paintings, and are often designated as readings for students in Hong Kong, Taiwan and the mainland. A native of Hebei province, Professor Zheng was the son of a high-ranking military officer. He moved to Taiwan in 1949 where he went to high school and university. He pursued further degrees in the United States, taught at the University of Iowa and later at Yale from the 1970s to 2004. The poet has been teaching at HKU since two years ago. He teaches a new master's programme at the university's Department of Chinese, which was launched last year. Professor Zheng is often the subject of analysis in academic theses at the postgraduate level and has received literary awards in Taiwan, Hong Kong and abroad. One book in his collection of poems has been named as one of the 30 most influential books in Taiwan from the 1990s and was the only set of poems that wasselected. Professor Zheng reeled off a list of tips to poetry writing at the lecture. 'Read more,' was the most salient message which came through. Jot down well-written parts of a poem and bits that move you as the reader, observe other people meticulously and develop concepts of logic underlying interaction between different people. Other pieces of advice included using less narration and more figurative language in capturing the wider picture and in characterisation, as well as the need to use grammar and punctuation accurately. Meanwhile, the structure of a poem and spacing between lines and paragraphs also deserve a poet's attention. Students could also borrow techniques from poetry writing in the west to enrich their poems, such as by introducing a setting and dramatising it. If one is stuck with writer's block, Professor Zheng advises writing down words like 'me' or 'you' just to get started. 'It would be easier to let your emotions flow,' he said. 'Pour out the feelings that are inside you or interesting things you want to say. Amend afterwards.' He added that a well-crafted rhythm was the secret to a good poem. 'It describes the interflow of emotions and stimulates the imagination in our thinking. I always try to put a musical rhythm in my poems,' he said. Professor Zheng's first poem, penned at the age of 15 when he was studying in a school in Beijing sponsored by the Anglican Church, was about the suffering of miners. 'Every morning we went to assembly in school. I came to know more about Christianity, including the damage on it and the spirit of Christians. 'The last line in the school anthem goes, 'I will remember my identity of a Christian forever'. They are determined to overcome all the hurdles in front of them and display a strong humanitarian spirit.' It was this sense of compassion that drove the young Professor Zheng to put to words the lives of miners, having just been to a mine himself. Professor Zheng said he knew at an early age that he would not be content with just sitting in an office all day long. Perhaps his sprit of liberty has stemmed from his fondness for nature - indeed among his hobbies are browsing through atlases, reading the National Geographic and window shopping for travel gear. 'I love the feeling of travelling,' he said, having recently visited Tibet by train. Professor Zheng described Hong Kong as a 'cultural desert' in the context of the cultivation and preservation of the Chinese culture. He said the environment was not too hospitable largely due to meek efforts in spreading Chinese civilization under colonial rule. The culture of Hong Kong had closer links with the west's, he said, with many people engaged in the study of western disciplines and studying English. Professor Zheng said competition between the arts and commercial values had weakened the development of the arts and culture in Hong Kong. 'Many people want to do something to promote the arts but are helpless,' he said. People in the US were much more aware of the need to donate to other causes, which Professor Zheng attributed to their entrenched religious beliefs. But the poet remained optimistic about the development of the arts in Hong Kong. 'There's been an evident change in the mentality of people here in recent years. More and more rich people are donating money to different causes. 'If this becomes the social norm, arts would be promoted because people would then be willing to donate to the cultural industry,' Professor Zheng said.