Friday, January 30, 2015

A Simple and Clear-Cut Constellation

The New Yorker, Feb 2, 2015

from Alec Wilkinson's profile of Yitang Zhang "The Pursuit of Beauty":

The British mathematician G. H. Hardy wrote in 1940 that mathematics is, of "all the arts and sciences, the most austere and the most remote." Bertrand Russell called it a refuge from "the dreary exile of the actual world." Hardy believed emphatically in the precise essence of math. A mathematical proof, such as Zhang produced, "should resemble a simple and clear-cut constellation," he wrote, "not a scattered cluster in the Milky Way." 
The books on his shelves have titles such as "An Introduction to Hilbert Space" and "Elliptical Curves, Modular Forms, and Fermat's Last Theorem." There are also books on modern history and on Napoleon, who fascinates him, and copies of Shakespeare, which he reads in Chinese, because it's easier than Elizabethan English.
"Bounded Gaps Between Primes" is a back-door attack on the twin-prime conjecture, which was proposed in the nineteenth century, and says that, no matter how far you travel on the number line, even as the gap widens between primes you will always encounter a pair of primes that are separated by two. The twin-prime conjecture is still unsolved. Euclid's proof established that there will always be primes, but it says nothing about how far apart any two might be. Zhang established that there is a distance within which, on an infinite number of occasions, there will always be two primes.
"You have to imagine this coming from nothing," Eric Grinberg said. "We simply didn't know. It is like thinking that the universe is infinite, unbounded, and finding it has an end somewhere."... 
When we reached Zhang's office, I asked him how he had found the door into the problem. On a whiteboard, he wrote, "Goldston-Pintz-Yildirim" and "Bombieri-Friedlander-Iwaniec." He said, "The first paper is on bounded gaps, and the second is on the distribution of prime numbers in arithmatic progression. I compare these two together, plus my own innovations, based on the years of reading in the library." 
"Many people have tried that problem," Iwaniec said. "He's a private guy. Nothing is rushed. If it takes him another ten years, that's fine with him. Unless you tackle a problem that's already solved, which is boring, or one whose solution is clear from the beginning, mostly you are stuck. But Zhang is willing to be stuck much longer." 
"I think what he did was brilliant," Deane Yang told me. "If you became a good calculus teacher, a school can become very depended on you. You're cheap and reliable, and there's no reason to fire you. After you've done that a couple of years, you can do it on autopilot; you have a lot of free time to think, as long as you're willing to live modestly...."


on my narrow chin
windswept limestone cliff
a fledgling beard

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Haiku and Archive

After keeping indoors for two days to nurse a cold, I venture out to the park newly opened since the snowstorm. Walking on snow is like walking on a beach, with the difference that I have too much clothes on.

sand so white
it has given up the ghost
of a sea


Started talking with Alvin Pang, Joshua Ip, Jennifer Champion and Jennifer Crawford about setting up a website with the poetry archive that Jen Cr. has collected. We decided that Alvin will take care of the website, Josh the general management and fundraising, Jen Ch. the media editing and I the text editing. Everyone is pitching in, because we really want a website devoted to Singapore poetry. We are now thinking about a good name for it.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Less Can Be More

TLS January 16 2015

from Paul Davis's review of The Complete Poetry of Robert Herrick, edited by Tom Cain and Ruth Connolly:

In fact, Herrick was a pioneer of print authorship, as the exemplary scholarship on Hesperides in this edition confirms. It has long been recognized that Herrick was the first English poet to see a collected edition of his own verse through the press, but here we learn how closely he involved himself in the production process, perhaps even to the extent of demanding in-press corrections not only to rectify printing errors, but also as las-minute poetic refinements.  
The various forces pressing editors towards ever more maximal feats of scholarship need to be answered by a counterbalancing impulse towards selection and concentration. Attempting to compete with online databases on the score of comprehensiveness is a fool's errand; nor should print editors be cowed into confusing comprehensiveness with objectivity. They need instead to play to their distinctive strengths, now more valuable than ever: authoritative summation of a complex body of knowledge. and its presentation to the reader in usable form. As Herrick might have said, less can be more.


from Sharon Ruston's review of Martin Priestman's The Poetry of Erasmus Darwin: Enlightened Spaces, Romantic Times:

The endstopped couplet is found to be the "perfect vehicle for moving rapidly between diverse fields of knowledge", as in the move between mythology and physiology in The Economy of Vegetation.... Such poetic techniques are identified and fruitfully examined by Priestman; they are seen to contribute importantly to Darwin's aim to prioritize "the pictorial space of his verse over its musical time". 
... The ways in which Darwin's poems are considered spatial rather than temporal are both myriad and persuasive. Priestman looks at the material page of the text, the paratextual notes and the poems' framing devices, such as the use of gardens at the start of Darwin's poems, which establish "the poem as a space to be explored".  
... Darwin's poems are "a space to wander in" rather than concerned with the "'organic', tree-like growth" we witness in the poetry of Wordsworth and Coleridge. 


a blizaard warning
my half-year sabbatical
is in effect

Monday, January 26, 2015

Tse Hao Guang reviews "Payday Loans"

"[PAYDAY LOANS] is clearly the poetry of the bounced cheque, the bummed out, the delayed pay day, the day-to-day." My first book of poems reissued by Math Paper Press. 40% off at BooksActually this week only! Thanks, Tse Hao Guang, for the kind review!

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Camus's "The Fall" and Haiku

After reading "The Myth of Sisyphus," I went on to read Camus's three novels one after another. The Stranger is deliberately provocative. The Plague goes beyond provocation and arrives at the realm of perfection. The Fall speaks in the ultra-subtle voice of the judge-penitent who is also the tempter. The narrator in his pleasurable anguish reminds me of the unnamed Man from Dostoyevsky's Notes from the Underground. All this reading leaves a very powerful impression on the mind, the chief part of which is an ethical imperative: do least harm.

on a leafless twig
a caterpillar of snow
will change to nothing

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Friday, January 16, 2015


On the subway, sitting across from me is a young man with whom I’d love to speak.

book in hand
skateboard between his feet
yoga mat on his lap

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Albert Camus's "The Stranger" and "The Plague"

The Stranger is deliberately provocative. Could someone kill another human being without meaning to? And when he does, how would society judge him?

The Plague goes beyond provocation and arrives at the realm of perfection. It is so clear in its conception and so direct in its execution. It is everywhere intended and inevitable. It reminds me of the perfection of The Iliad and of Henry James's The Golden Bowl.

Monday, January 12, 2015


it's too cold to walk
i run for the crosstown bus
and miss the ducks

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Shadows of Japan

Guy and I put together this folio of photos and haiku in December. The photographs were taken during our visit to Japan last August. The haiku were inspired by the trip too. The folio will be available at the Rainbow Book Fair in NYC in April, and at the Brooklyn Book Fest in September.

Kin Poetry Journal published six of my haiku. Thanks, Eric Norris, for inviting me to submit.


At Kitaro, my go-to Japanese restaurant, an American child stops jabbering and wails that she does not like the food.

how i wish
you could be sent to a corner
of a bowl of soup

Friday, January 09, 2015

Albert Camus's "The Myth of Sisyphus"

The absurd, according to Camus, arises from the tension between an inhuman world and our human longing to make sense of it. To kill oneself is to try to escape the absurd. Camus recommends, instead, living in lucid acknowledgement of this tension. It is not easy. In his view, existential philosophers such as Kierkegaard evade the problem by positing transcendence, or God, as beyond human reason. They abolish human reason in favor of the eternal. On the other hand, the phenomenologists such as Husserl claim to attend to the phenomena of the world but end up finding essences in them, analogous to Platonic forms, and so abolish the unknowability of the world. Instead of destroying or weakening either of the terms, Camus prefers to live fully and creatively in the gap between mind and world. For him, the figure of Sisyphus embodies this attitude of heroic futility. Unexpectedly, Camus finds a happiness in Sisyphus' plight.

All of Sisyphus' silent joy is contained therein. His fate belongs to him. His rock is his thing. Likewise, the absurd man, when he contemplates his torment, silences all the idols. In the univers suddenly restored to its silence, the myriad wondering little voices of the earth rise up. Unconscious, secret calls, invitations from all the faces, they are the necessary reverse and price of victory. There is no sun without shadow, and it is essential to know the night. The absurd man says yes and his effort will henceforth be unceasing. If there is a personal fate, there is no higher destiny, or at least there is but one which he concludes is inevitable and despicable. For the rest, he knows himself to be the master of his days. At that subtle moment when man glances backward over his life, Sisyphus returning toward his rock, in that slight pivoting he contemplates that series of unrelated actions which becomes his fate, created by him, combined under his memory's eye and soon sealed by his death. Thus, convinced of the wholly human origin of all that is human, a blind man eager to see who knows that the night has no end, he is still on the go. The rock is still rolling.
I leave Sisyphus at the foot of the mountain! One always finds one's burden again. But Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. He too concludes that all is well. This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night-filled mountain, in itself forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man's heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.

Two things attract me to Camus's philosophy of the absurd. First, he is clearly indebted to the thinking of Nietzsche, who proclaimed that God is dead, and we must take up the burden of becoming the masters of our own fates. Camus quotes the German philosopher throughout his essay. Second, Camus insists that he is trying to live according to what he knows clearly. He refuses mysticism. He also refuses sentimentality. It is not enough to live according to how one feels. It is nobler to live with what one knows. My one reservation is this: the reification of human consciousness. This is what divides us supposedly from the non-conscious world. But perhaps we are less conscious than we think we are, and the world is more conscious than we think it is. Camus would presumably dismiss the first as an abdication of reason, and the second as mysticism, but I am not so sure.

Thursday, January 08, 2015

2015 Carcanet Catalogue

Thrilled to appear in the same 2015 Carcanet catalogue as Jon Silkin, Elaine Feinstein, Sujata Bhatt, David Morley, Tim Liardet, Tom Raworth, Kate Miller, Sophie Hannah, John Ashbery, Willis Barnstone, Sheri Benning, Les Murray, R.F. Langley, Muriel Spark, and Grevel Lindop. 

"Singapore-born poet Jee Leong Koh's first book to be published in the UK is rich in detail of the worlds that he explores and invents as he follows his desire for an unknown other, moving tentatively, passionately, always uncertain of himself. His language is colloquial, musical, aware of the infusion of various traditions and histories. 'You go where? / I'm going from the latterly to the litany, from writs to rites.' The poems share many of the harsh and enriching circumstances that shape the imagination of a postcolonial queer writer. Taking leaves from other poets - Emilia Lanyer, Eavan Boland, Xunka' Utz'utz', Lee Tzu Pheng - Koh creates a text that is distinctively his own."


the himalayan pine
a transplanted cross-dresser
tucked up with needles

Wednesday, January 07, 2015


bits of christmas trees
left behind on the sidewalk
three-day-old champagne

Monday, January 05, 2015


winter rain collects
in the long cracks of the road
and small depressions

Sunday, January 04, 2015