Being, Continued

Friday, 19 March 2010, 22:09 | Category : Uncategorized
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The conversation on being is getting interesting. This poem of mine from a couple of years ago might show how I like to use the word–playfully, and bringing out its linguistic oddity. Maybe a companion piece to Mary Freeman’s good poem in the comments to the last post.

Let Be

Weeding, I disturb a bee
That is bumbling in the sages,
But she has forgiven me,
Goes off to the saxifrages.

There I will just let her be,
And, since bee-ing is her being,
She will go on being free,
She-ing while I go on me-ing.

“Let it be” was how the king
In that strange old myth or story
Gave the bee its sweet and sting,
Set the heavens in their glory:

Was it permit or command?
Do we own, or was he letting,
Are we in or out of hand?
Was he making or just betting?

So he gave himself away,
Changed from he-ing into she-ing,
Where his “shall” became her “may”,
Time born out of unforeseeing.

If I weed around the sage,
Letting it achieve its flower,
Do I make a kind of cage?
Do I claim a godlike power?

But the weeds are weeding me,
Cells that are, in acting, dying;
Sage-flowers fertilize the bee,
Every selling is a buying.

So creation is a cross,
“Let” and “be” in intersection,
Where the gain is in the loss,
And the death’s the resurrection.

Being and Heidegger

Tuesday, 16 March 2010, 11:24 | Category : Uncategorized
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I am reading another dissertation on Heidegger–a rather good one, I might add. But I am struck by a disturbing thought about this very influential philosopher.

The first concerns the central importance for his philosophy of the word “being” (“Sein” in German). I wonder whether there is such a thing (quality, action, process, event) as “being” at all. Heidegger may be right that the Greeks after Socrates had a bad habit of reifying bits of language, a habit shared by the German language and its over-easy facility for making abstract nouns. But suppose we take his critique a bit further. What if the words “be”, “is,” “einai,” “esse,” “etre,” etc are just a piece of Indo-European grammar, a copulative or a sort of preposition or article, like “and,” “of,” “with,” or even “the”? What if it got turned into a verb for convenience as a poetic metaphor or trope, then turned into a noun–“being”–and thence into a divine seal of authenticity?–and then became a huge and empty non-issue? Might not “with-ing,” “with-ness,” “of-ing,” “of-ness,” “the-ing,” and “the-ness” easily have turned into similar linguistic junk bonds or credit default swaps?

There is no verb in Chinese for “to be,” “is,” and no noun for “being,” and this great civilization has got on pretty well for the last 4,000 years or so without it. Moreover it is a civilization historically based on poetry–you had to pass a poetry exam to be one of the ruling mandarins–which casts some doubt on Heidegger’s claim that poetry has a special relationship with “being.” Science doesn’t really need the verb “to be”–the equals sign works perfectly well.

So maybe the real value of all this fuss about “being” is as a huge and splendid game, but with darker overtones lent by the European habit of denying authentic “being” to one group of people or another, and then exterminating them.

Who is the Best Film Maker in the World Today?

Saturday, 23 January 2010, 11:52 | Category : Uncategorized
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That, in my humble opinion, is Hayao Miyazaki. Miyazaki mines all human myths, all genres, even our dreams. His peaceful flooded landscapes–Spirited Away, Ponyo–are the landscapes of the physical soul, where we can see the prehistoric fish of our own dreadful and beautiful submarine powers swimming calmly below the surface of consciousness. One third of our lives is lived below that surface anyway–the flooded landscape is everyday reality seen truly. Powerful and charming as Avatar is, Cameron’s philosophical imagination as regards nature, the environment, and the human role as technologist and maker is utterly outdone by Miyazaki’s The Princess Mononoke. Howl’s Moving Castle is as sophisticated a study of human sexual relationships, aging, war, and spiritual power as any current mainstream novel. And the animation is great art, amazingly fabricated out of the most vulgar materials of anime and children’s stories.

It’s very interesting that the best art of our time is very often in genres regarded by our elites as childish. What is going on?

Evolution and Natural Law

Tuesday, 12 January 2010, 22:41 | Category : Uncategorized
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I sent this little book–which contains my thinking about how natural law, both moral and legal, might be revived and put to use in the chaos following modernist and postmodernist attempts to generate binding principles of human conduct–to two publishers, one conservative, one liberal. The conservative one politely turned it down, though it had come recommended by a leading conservative intellectual. The liberal one offered me a contract and sent me a small advance. The publisher, however, overruled her very liberal editors because she found ideas in the book that she could not stomach. So I figured the book probably has things to say that might be of value and interest to the public at large. Here it is, then.

Rinse and Repeat

Monday, 30 November 2009, 8:58 | Category : Uncategorized
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The “rinse and repeat” instruction line on shampoo bottles is a beautiful illustration of the tight interconnection of self-inclusion paradoxes, time, quotation marks, levels of abstraction, consciousness, and the evolution of the universe.

Very few people are found dead in showers, their heads rotted away by infinitely iterated applications of shampoo. But the instruction line on the bottle would if followed literally lead to this deplorable result. Idiots, we know, don’t know when to stop. Computers are brilliant idiots; every time one freezes, it is because it has run across the equivalent of the instruction line and gotten itself into an infinite feedback loop.

In fact it is difficult to see how the line could be amended to avoid the error. If one added “Stop” to the end of the line, the idiot (acting as a Turing Machine) might go on repeating forever and never get to the “Stop” instruction. Or if one added before the repeat command “stop after two repetitions”, the idiot might take the injunction to repeat as applying to the reading of the instructions as well as the lathering process, and on returning to the instructions would read, again, “Stop after two repetitions”, and reset its counter obediently to two. If it had a counter. And if it didn’t simply crash as a result of getting two contradictory commands.

A counter is one level up in abstraction; it implies an overview of the process, a summing-up rather than just the execution of the process. But even a simple counter won’t work in this case, as we have seen. Another level is required, to recognize and solve the self-inclusion paradox. The paradox is similar to Russell’s famous paradox of the village barber who shaves everybody in the village who doesn’t shave himself. Who shaves the barber? The issue is whether the command “repeat” applies to itself or not, and whether, if it does, its efficacy somehow ceases after the first iteration. Gödel’s even more intractable paradox, “This statement is unprovable”, contains the same implication, of a self-nested logic that goes on unendingly: “This statement: ‘This statement: “This statement: ‘….’ is unprovable” is unprovable’ is unprovable.”

The simplest components of the physical universe, quantum events, don’t seem to have a “repeat” command, which is what you need to have any kind of coherent time. But the moment enough of them reach a consensus to repeat, classical matter is born, and with it time as we know it. In the competition for survival in time between repeaters and non-repeaters, repeaters of course win, but they do so by idiotically repeating themselves into the future, rinsing and repeating, generating the next moment’s version of themselves as fast as time will allow as described by Planck’s constant.

It was only when higher forms of computational difficulty arose, from whose perspective mere repetition could be recognized and put a stop to when system survival dictated it, that higher forms of matter, especially living matter, and quintessentially conscious living matter, could begin to appear.

Which is why, except when we default to the old logic of OCD, we don’t go on lathering up.

A Better Reading Version of the Tang Poets

Tuesday, 4 August 2009, 13:51 | Category : Uncategorized
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There is now a better version of my Tang anthology.  I hope this works.

The Chinese Tang Poets: A New Translation

Thursday, 23 July 2009, 7:33 | Category : Uncategorized
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I am uploading my collection of Tang period poetry in translation as a gift to my Chinese friends and to lovers of poetry everywhere. It is a unique translation among the many that have been attempted, since it is the only one that tries to reproduce the metrical form and sound and cadence of the original. The introduction explains how I accomplished this, how I worked with my very fine collaborator, a Chinese scholar, and something about the background and authorship of these extraordinarily beautiful poems.

See the page listed on the right.

Poems from Vietnam

Thursday, 16 July 2009, 22:53 | Category : Uncategorized
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Hot Days in Vietnam
A Travel Journal

Tokyo Narita Airport 7/6/09

So maybe old men ought to be explorers;
I sit among the naïve Nippon young
On my quixotic journey to Hanoi,
Hearing the birdsong of another tongue.

What are you searching for, for all these years?
Perhaps that ancient gasp of wonder you
Gave when you saw at dawn Ascension rise
Over the ocean sixty years ago.

The rain-clouds clear toward the West as we
Climb in pursuit of the still-fleeing sun.
This strange long day is like my restless life
Unending, but as always re-begun.

Cockcrow in Hanoi 7/7/09

Jetlag’s luxurious exhaustion shows
The city in its frank and open light.
The foolish fowl cries what he always knows
And the old man takes up the work of sight.

An Asian city under the monsoon,
A little French, with wrought iron and croissants,
Some new construction, hooting of a horn;
Again he must give himself up to chance.

What else has he to give his gentle hosts?
Somehow he left his poetry at home.
He must have given over all his ghosts,
To shape his life once more into a poem.

The River of People 7/8/09

At dawn the shutters open and the coals
Streetside glow under pots of pho,
Fig-roots, festoons of wire clog the poles,
On tiny stools folk eat before they go.

A maiden in a cone hat balances
Seventy pounds of melons in two pans;
Nothing’s as elegant as her passage is.
Fresh basil’s stuffed in empty coffee-cans.

Now motorcycles pour down Le Thai To
In a fresh torrent of humanity;
Young and clear-skinned, enthroned, they do not know
How perilous a single slip would be.

How could we have made war on such as these?
How could their parents think we meant them ill?
What fire is in these gentle Vietnamese?
What use to them is my delayed goodwill?

The Pale-faced Lady and the Full Moon 7/8/09

Our hostess sees, at dinner, my distress.
It is the night when Buddhists go to pray.
She leads us to the shrine. A dark recess
Holds a gold Buddha, seeming far away.

He glows against the crimson temple wall,
His lips composed in something like a smile
Of infinite compassion for us all—
I stand quite tame and humble for a while;

And then we turn a corner, and nearby,
Under the white moon’s blaze of bluish light
The old cathedral rises to the sky
As if its pillaged stones yearned to take flight.

One is a dwelling, one a pointing spire;
But they are neighbors, red shrine and the white.
One knows the root of suffering is desire;
One knows the fruit of suffering is light.

The Women of Vietnam 7/9/09

The singers in their purple silks so sway
As these green willows do in the warm wind.
Their slim hands modestly give all away,
Their voices, shrill as birds, are unrestrained.

Dawn in Halong Bay 7/10/09

A flock of dove-grey clouds drifts slowly through
A primrose sky that fades to eggshell blue.
A darker flock of islands silently
Lies on the levels of the silver sea.

The Poets 7/10/09 (for Hoang and Kha and Cuong)

Through all the politics, through all the grief
Of life, their tragic clownish faces smile,
Because they bear the great gift of belief
In a sweet hard truth that defies denial.

Partying 7/11/09

This road-trip’s getting stranger by the minute;
Suddenly we’ve all turned into hams.
Music breaks out—who knows what will begin it?—
The boss’s gorgeous daughter feeds me clams.

We’re lighting incense at a dead man’s shrine,
We’re scribbling poems in a traffic-jam;
We’re eating Haiphong squid with white moonshine,
We’re home now in poetic Vietnam.

Goodbye, Goobye 7/12/09

My poet friends come out to see me off.
Two of them fought us forty years ago.
To make us brothers, maybe it’s enough
To see a brave man’s simple tears flow.

To Vietnam

Saturday, 4 July 2009, 22:16 | Category : Uncategorized
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I’m off to Hanoi tomorrow, to meet some old and dear acquaintances in the world of literature. I will be back in a week or so, and will blog it then.

My Mini-Play In Manhattan

Wednesday, 3 June 2009, 18:29 | Category : Uncategorized
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If you happen to be in New York June 11-28 my play “Shooting Fish in a Barrel” is being performed on Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays as one of 20 very very short plays by the Medicine Show (including 15 real zingers by William Saroyan). Here’s the announcement.


– fifteen of the original 20 plays, with works written especially for these performances
by Kitty Chen, John Gruen, Lella Heins, Brian Murphy, Frederick Turner

Making Money, and Nineteen Other Very Short Plays, by William Saroyan, with additional playlets by contemporary authors Kitty Chen, John Gruen, Lella Heins, Brian Murphy and Frederick Turner. Opens Thursday June 11 at 8:30, all other performances 8:00 pm, Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday through June 28. Tickets are $18; you can charge them at or by calling 212 868-4444. No one is turned away for lack of the ticket price; if you need a hard times special, call the theatre at 212 262-4216.

Though Saroyan’s series of plays was published in 1969, and probably written in the early 60s, they have never been produced before, so this is a belated WORLD PREMIERE. They are a free-wheeling look at American society from a comically skeptical perspective; and embody a time between the horrors of WWII and the Korean War and before the escalation in Vietnam. It was a time of restlessness, when the adult population was stuck in their ways and the youth trusted no one over 30. Saroyan’s plays question the belief system imposed upon the “common man.” They see us all as stumbling toward some kind of truth.

WILLIAM SAROYAN: His play The Time of Your Life (1939) won a Pulitzer Prize, which he refused on the grounds that commerce should not judge the arts; he did accept the Drama Critics Circle Award. Serving with an army film unit in WWII, Saroyan narrowly avoided a court martial when his novel, The Adventures of Wesley Jackson, was seen as advocating pacifism. His major novel The Human Comedy led to a disastrous film adventure at MGM, and he remained one of the bad boys of American literature. Some other works are The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze, Places Where I’ve Done Time (novels), My Heart’s in the Highlands, Hello Out There, The Agony of Little Nations, The Cave Dwellers.

Making Money, and Nineteen Other Very Short Plays are again remarkably relevant. Saroyan wrote them out of the same period that led to the experimental theatre of the sixties. Medicine Show’s Artistic Director, Barbara Vann, who was also a founding member of the Open Theatre, says “We developed visual and vocal theatre techniques because we distrusted the word; we believed everyone in the ‘establishment’ was telling us lies.” Medicine Show presents fifteen of the original 20 plays, with contemporary works that were written especially for these performances.

Making Money, and Nineteen Other Very Short Plays – June 11, 8:30; June 12-14; 18-21; 25-28 all at 8:00 pm. Cast: Candice Fortin, Félix Gardón, Jason Alan Griffin, Beth Griffith, Renée Hermiz, Norma Hernandez, Richard Keyser, Eva Nicole, Ward Nixon, Ariel Pacheco, Henri Reiss-NaVarre, Charles J. Roby, Peter Tedeschi, Greg Vorob.

Tickets $18; charge them at or 212 868-4444, or make a phone reservation at 212 262-4216 (cash or check.) 549 West 52nd Street, 3rd Floor (between 10th & 11th Aves.)