The Chinese Tang Poets: A New Translation

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

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

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

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.)


Cloud Atlas–Promise and Disappointment

I’ve just finished reading a novel–Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell, a very talented British novelist. It came heavily recommended by much admired literary friends, and it tries to do something that I believe few mainline fiction works do at all. That is, engage really major philosophical/scientific/social issues in a way that enlists and expands the very form of the novel itself. The fact that they don’t is the reason why I don’t read contemporary mainline fiction much at all–that, and the related problem that I never meet characters that I’d really like to know and be proud to know.

I mostly read science fiction, which almost always engages major issues, often in original ways, and sometimes has characters I respect and whose inner lives I actually don’t mind exploring. It’s not that I don’t think contemporary mainline fiction writers are stupid (though they’re very often pretty ignorant about anything except fiction writing and the stuff they researched for their novel); it’s just that I don’t see why the author has to have a monopoly on the intelligence and originality in a book. Shakespeare, by contrast, created characters that may have been even smarter than Shakespeare himself–Hamlet, Falstaff, Rosalind, Cleopatra.

Cloud Atlas is stylistically a tour de force–it’s made up of six interwoven stories, each in a different genre, and ranging in setting, style, language and worldview from the nineteenth century to several hundred years in the future. I suppose one could call it science-fiction overall, but only two of the stories are in that form (and those are profoundly different from each other–an account of a pre-execution interview in Korea and a first-person tribal tale from a last survivor of a technological apocalypse). The other forms he uses are the nineteenth century traveler’s journal, the British epistolary novel, the American West Coast conspiracy thriller, and the comic media anecdote. What’s especially interesting is that the tales begin in order of time, and then are completed in reverse temporal order, creating a chiastic or palindromic sort of shape.

With these fine technical devices, and the grand theme of the destruction of civilization by human greed, we have the ingredients of something very special. But the novel fails and disappoints, for many reasons. It has the same ignorance of economics, political science, natural science, and technology that marks most contemporary writers and artists. It demonizes the business corporation in a way that is becoming a weary cliche. It is simply superstitious about nuclear technology in a way that is already dated–these days it is coal that is the villain, not nuclear–and proposes using biotech to darken people’s skin as a protection against radiation, for instance. But worse–it seems to want to have the fading cachet of existentialist angst while sentimentally weaving in a spiritual message embodied in a miraculous birthmark suggesting a mysterious providence–a providence that is signally ineffective, since the “good” characters are as helpless against the western phallocentric colonialist capitalist villains as fish in a barrel.

An author who takes on major world historical themes owes it to his audience to do his homework, which Mitchell has not done. Science fiction writers are often pretty ignorant of economics, business, finance, etc–who invests in those splendid starships and pays the workers and votes for the project and staves off the political opposition?–but usually they know their science, and create characters that know something too, and can win the reader’s respect for that at least. I think Mitchell has a chance of becoming a great novelist if he takes ten years and some graduate courses in his missing disciplines, and reads a list of great books in the natural and social sciences.


Time and Hard Sums

I’ve been thinking recently that maybe there’s an elegant way of describing Time simply as difficulty. Mathematicians now have a charmingly naive term, “hardness,” for describing the relative knottiness of a calculation problem. If asked to give an explanation to a layperson, they will often say something like: “Well, suppose you had a perfect computer. A hard problem takes it more time to solve than an easy one.” If you have a problem like the “traveling salesman” puzzle–given n cities, how do you figure out the shortest route by which he can visit all of them–it’s really easy if you have three or even five cities, but if you have a few hundred, no computer in the universe, using the fastest theoretical algorithm, could solve it in less than a billion years, by which time the salesman would long ago have moldered into atoms. These algorithms are called “NP hard.” There are even more difficult problems still, ones that ask, for instance, whether it is possible to prove whether or not a given problem has an algorithm to solve it at all–i.e. problems that can only be solved by the emergence of as-yet-undiscovered further problems that will require unimaginable algorithms of the future if they are to be solved.

If we describe the universe as a computational system–and the fact that all science expresses its conclusions in numerical terms strongly suggests that science “votes with its feet” for that hypothesis–then we can see all entities in the universe as the workings of problem-solving algorithms. The ones that are easily solved have been solved already and have stopped, and constitute the eternal constants of physics that are true at every instant through all time, like the instantaneous coexistence of the probabilistic quantum world described by David Bohm. The ones that are a bit harder but still solvable are the deterministic processes in nature that Newtonian science describes. The ones left over constitute the whole world of change and becoming, ranging from chemical reactions through self-cloning living organisms to ourselves, arranged in a nice pyramid of emergent temporal features as described by the great philosopher J. T. Fraser.

If time is a river, there would be nothing to indicate the passage of time unless some parts of the river were flowing faster than other parts. “Hardness” gives us a nice way of measuring which ones are faster and which ones are slower.

Here’s a nice thought-experiment to prove this idea. The increase of entropy (thermal disorder) is usually recognized by physicists as a reliable marker of the passage of time. Thermal disorder is what we call heat. If I am right, a large amount of local computation should be the same thing as a large amount of local time; and a large amount of time should be correlated with an increase of heat. If you are using a laptop, and it’s actually on your lap, you can feel the heat of computation generating time on your thighs.


A Brilliant Ramshackle Redemptive Book

I’m reading Michael Strong’s BE THE SOLUTION. It’s co-written with the most exciting entrepreneurial thinkers around, like Muhammad Yunus of the Grameen Bank, John Mackey the CEO of Whole Foods, Hernando de Soto the visionary Peruvian advocate of property rights, and others. I don’t usually like how-to books, and this is a how-to book about the whole world’s economy and is insanely ambitious. But this book has the goods. It’s popping with good ideas about do-gooder business, entrepreneurial education, free enterprise zones, prediction markets, microfinance, the rule of law, and poverty. The book blows the usual Left-Right, Conservative-Liberal divide right out of the water, and it has all the audacity of hope. Obama should read it. He’d like it, I think.


Chi and Quantum Gravity

This week I gave a paper at a conference on “Translating China” at the Confucius Institute center at my university, the University of Texas at Dallas. Helped by my wise assistant on these matters, Daisy Guo, I read a few of my translations of the great Tang Dynasty poets.

One of the themes of the conference turned out to be Chinese metaphysics–if that’s the right word. If it means what Aristotle meant, that is, “further reflections on physics (the study of the productive and reproductive process of nature)”, then it could accurately describe this branch of Chinese philosophy. But if it means “the study of the supernatural (that which is not part of nature and temporal processes)”–the usual “Western” meaning–then it would be the wrong word.

Recent developments in cosmological physics implying that if the universe is made of anything, it’s not made basically of matter or static “stuff” but of dynamic feedback, seem to confirm the ancient Chinese (and Heraclitean) notion of harmonic change–CHI–as the origin and foundation of all things. Poetic form is the way feedback is generated in language–if you rhyme and keep to a metrical form, every word affects every other word. Classical Chinese poetry has many such rules, and so it naturally expresses chi. Here are a couple of the poems.

*Farewell, Upon Passing Mount Jin Men
Li Bai (701-762)

And now at length I’ve passed beyond Jin Men
On my adventure to the land of Chu.
The mountains end, the flatlands open out,
The Yangtze meets the vast plains and pours through.

The moon is flung upon its heavenly mirror,
The clouds grow mirages of towers and sea;
But still I love the waters of my homeland
That travel with my boat a thousand li.

A Song of Liang Zhou
Wang Zhihuan (688-744)

The Yellow River climbs away
to far white clouds and sky;
A lonely outpost fortress lies
in mountains ten miles high.

Qiang flute, why must you take to heart
the “Willow” song, alas?
You know the spring wind never blows
across the Yu Men pass.



We heard a wildly moving performance of Bach’s St. John Passion last night at the Dallas Bach Society. Much of it is in the strange key of F sharp minor, which caught exactly the feeling of imminent catastrophe, hysterical grief, horror and mystical excitement that must have characterized the city of Jerusalem during that Passover twenty centuries ago.

Things haven’t changed much. In many places today we could find violent religious revolutionaries like Barabbas, overwhelmed foreign military authorities like Pilate (usually American or UN), visionaries, betrayers, saints, puppet local leaders like Herod, screaming mobs, gentle peacemakers, a huge gap between a wealthy civilization and proud, ancient, impoverished local culture–and the close presence of heaven and hell. There’s a pretty good African movie entitled “Son of Man” that sets the Jesus story in contemporary Africa.

We were recently in Costa Rica for business, research, and a change. We took a trip into Nicaragua. You could feel that same atmosphere–hundreds of beggars, open sewers, a dead kid beside a mangled bicycle on the highway with a gathering crowd, political ads and graffiti, the luxurious houses of the rich, the presence always of guys with smart uniforms toting large new automatic weapons. Yet the evidence of vital art, poetry, music, was everywhere, the simple homes painted in gorgeously unlikely colors. Costa Rica by comparison is a bit drab, but it’s clearly getting rich, has an excellent government, gave up its army 60 years ago, and is eco-friendly. Not much chance of Golgotha there.


I will return

I’m going to be off the web for a week–work, research, exploration.