wu wei

3 posts

Of Wu Wei, Idylls, and Other Escapes


Idyll. It’s one of my favorite words, bringing to mind, as it does, a perfect and simple world, pre-industrialization, pre-technology. Heading out to the country always sounds like good advice, like the perfect escape, like Huck Finn lighting out for the territories at the end of his book.

Then there’s its homophone, idle. Yes. When we find our rural idyll, let’s be idle, shall we? The Taoists and ancient Chinese poets would approve. It’s the concept of wu wei, or doing nothing. Non-action as purposeful goal.

All this comes to mind when preparing for a wedding, when a gathering is to occur at your home, when the grounds and the house itself must be “prepared.” At some point, in all the madness leading up to the big day, you begin to yearn for the simplicity of an idyll, an escape to the country. Wu wei, if you please.

These are the thoughts that drove the creation of my poem, “Idyll.” The narrator’s escape? A Breughel painting, where peasants are at rest from their simple work, looks quaintly beautiful (Tolstoy would approve).


Idyll by Ken Craft

Each day brings the wedding closer.
Clapboard and trim painters.
Window washers, florists, a house
under siege.

I wish
I were a Breughel peasant
far away, under a sky pricked and paled
by August sun.

Scythes whistle. Sweat-soaked muslin
kisses our backs. Kerchiefed
maidens swing in rhythm, while a rick
wagon with wheat-strained ribs
waits in back. Swaddling its shade.
Its cool, corked jugs.

Let us stop here
and rest, limbs splayed
with the sweetness
of fatigue. Let us drink this wine.
Open these wicker baskets.
Find the airy white hearts
of crust-cased loaves with our thumbs.


© Ken Craft, The Indifferent World, Future Cycle Press 2016

The Benefits of Laziness


Whether you are Protestant or not, you’ve probably fallen victim to that “Protestant work ethic” thing. You know. The one where, as a kid, your parents or teachers or other adults berated you for being L-A-Z-Why Not. The one where, as an adult, your spouse, your friends, or your boss take over.

Please. How do they expect you to daydream? To ruminate? To wonder? To cut to the quick, how do they expect you to create?

Just because the body is doing nothing doesn’t mean the brain is lying fallow. In fact, the brain sometimes does 100 push-ups with one arm best when the body is at rest. The Chinese call it wu wei, which means “non-acting” or “non-doing” or, if you must, “acting without purpose,” all of which undercut what’s actually going on.

I mean, really. Unless you’re dead, something’s always going on upstairs, praise be. Writing doesn’t come in two days from Amazon, after all. Or from a pill, either.

It’s all on you. And though writing itself may be deemed “action,” the necessary first step is ideas—ideas that make you shout (like you discovered it), “Wu wei, this is fun!” because you’re doing a whole lot of “nothing” (accent on quotation marks, thank you) in style.

Raymond Carver knew. He was of the brotherhood. Read “Loafing” below and see what I mean. Yep. One of us!


Raymond Carver

I looked into the room a moment ago,
and this is what I saw —
my chair in its place by the window,
the book turned facedown on the table.
And on the sill, the cigarette
left burning in its ashtray.
Malingerer! my uncle yelled at me
so long ago. He was right.
I’ve set aside time today,
same as every day,
for doing nothing at all.

Ditching Social Networks for Answering Poems

wang wei

By now it’s no news that social networks online are not only bad for you but bad for us (or should I say, “U.S.”?). If your new year’s resolution is to ditch the people who make you and your personal information their product (read: Facebook, Twitter, et al.), you might consider a more ancient form of social networking: the answering poem.

What, you ask, is an answering poem? Think of the telephone. You call a friend. He or she answers. Only it takes a bit of time, because your “call” takes the form of a poem, and your friend’s response takes the form of a responding poem.

Put them together and what have you got? Something the Earl of Sandwich, in a mood more reflective than mayonnaise, might like.

Answering poems are on my mind because I’ve been poking around in the new release, Robert Bly: Collected Poems, wherein we get some best hits from Bly’s various and (answering) sundry books. In his 1973 collection, Jumping Out of Bed, we find answering poems between Wang Wei and P’ei Ti, translated by Bly.

Let’s make like a party line and listen in:


“The Walnut Tree Orchards”

WANG WEI:  In the old days the serious man was not an “important
He thought making decisions was too complicated for
He took whatever small job came along.
Essentially he did nothing, like these walnut trees.

P’EI TI:  I soon found doing nothing was a great joy to me.
Look, you see, here I am! Keeping my ancient promise.
Let’s spend today just strolling around these walnut trees.
The two of us will nourish the ecstasies Chuang Tzu loved.


“The Hill of Hua-Tzu”

WANG WEI:  The birds fly away into the air that never ends;
the magnificence of fall comes back to the mountain.
Whenever I walk up or down Hua-Tzu hill,
my whole body feels confusion and inner suffering.

P’EI TI:  The sun goes down; there is wind sound in the pines.
Walking home I notice dew on the grass.
The white clouds look up at me from the tracks of my
The blue from the mountain touches my clothes.


“The Creek by the Luan House”

WANG WEI:  Autumn rain and sudden winds.
The water plunges, bouncing off the rocks.
Waves leap aimlessly over each other.
The white heron is alarmed and lands.

P’EI TI:  A man could hear the water-sound far off.
I walk down looking for the ford.
Ducks and egrets swim away, and then
veer back, longing to be near people.


“The Magnolia Grove”

WANG WEI:  The mountain receives the last sunshine of fall.
Flocks fly off following the first that leaves.
Occasionally something emerald flashes in the trees.
The evening dark has nowhere to settle down.

P’EI TI:  Settling down at dusk from the dome of light
bird voices get mingled with the river sounds.
The path beside the river winds off into the distance.
Joy of solitude, will you ever come to an end?


Of course, in 8th-century China, nature is front page news every day, as are the charms of doing nothing (known, philosophically, as “wu wei,” or “non-action”). This couldn’t be farther from where we are today, in the Realm of Instant Gratification, where we are conditioned to constantly check cellphones (read: “binkies”) for messages and “likes.”

Lord, what would Wang Wei and P’ei Ti make of what we’ve become? Nothing human, I’m guessing. Something that has evolved far away from what they knew in their day.

That said, if you want to try an answering poem with a fellow poet, it doesn’t have to be about nature. No. Subject matter is your call. And the response is your answering call.

And, here’s the pay-off: in doing so, neither of you are burning time on social networks or your addicting binkie—all good, as they say on the Hill of Hua-Tzu.