Poems of Bai Juyi
Lyrics for that Poplars and Willows Song
Six repeated, common tunes everyone will sing.
White Snow and Plum Blossom everywhere are heard.
Old songs and old folk tunes never make you smile.
But listen to these new words for Poplar Willow Branches.
Outside the gate of Tao Ling were four or five trees.
But Yafu's house held a thousand green ribbons.
How was it in Luoyang then on February one,
That gold coins dangled from the trees down by the bridge?
Clinging and graceful, she was ever young.
Seductive, he was passionate beyond all bounds.
Snowflakes were everywhere when she hit the ground.
Her green silk ribbons failed to help her fly away.
From the red posts of the bridge, a green wine flag flew.
Pretty girls, a warm court, slanted rays of setting sun.
Too bad the eastern wind drove the rain away.
Ten thousand trees, from each limb a green ribbon hangs.
You can boast of Suzhou's Poplar Willow song.
There, mostly rich young men get the pretty girls.
But going after lots of love you only get a little.
Deep within green poplars, my Red Basil grows.
Red Basil, one young girl whom everybody knows.
Poplars, willows, in the wind, a special kind of love.
Peeling off her coils of ribbons, silver rings of light,
Swirling leaves whistle by to a jade flute's tune.
Leaves are full of dewdrops like her eyes are full of tears.
Branches graceful in the wind like her smooth dancing waist.
Small trees cannot be climbed. Their branches bitter break.
I beg you, when you see her, to leave a ribbon or two.
Men say that willow leaves look like a sad face.
But unrequited sadness is more like willow down.
Willow down goes on and on, until it finally breaks.
We try to stay together, no matter what it takes.
It is 835. Bai Juyi is sixty-three years old, living in Chang'an as Senior Tutor to the (non-existant) Crown Prince. That makes him an official of the Second Rank and gives him the highest salary we will ever make.
That said, this poem is a joke. An intentional one. He is writing it for someone, an educated someone, who does not like folk songs. Not Yuan Zhen, unless this is a private poem for his dead friend. Bai takes the melody of the folk song Poplars and Willows and gives it new words. The words are a massive cut-and-paste from classical texts. Almost every seven character line is a four character quote from one classic and a three character one from another. That would be the joke part. And those of us who are 1400 years old and can remember our classics will have a good laugh.
But like any long poem of Bai Juyi's, this poem takes a sharp turn as he gets into the mood of the thing. And this sharp turn takes him to the land of dreams and desires, including sexual ones. As Gertrude Stein said, except for infancy and senility, we are always and only young men and women. And this poem becomes a young man's love song. The last four verses are as romantic as anything I have ever read. And interestingly, they were not included in the Chinese text which had the poem. Only the first four were in the book. I found the rest elsewhere. It makes you wonder what kind of dark night reigns in the PRC. One without young men's dreams, apparently.