[Asian Figures], by W.S. Merwin

Asian

Some of the earliest writing in English that we have are Anglo-Saxon proverbs. These pithy statements are a good way to pass on wisdom because they are easy to remember.

Merwin, a prolific and popular poet, a former poet laureate, chose to translate these proverbs from various Asian cultures. He side-steps the thorny question of whether they are poetry, and instead concentrates instead on what they share.

There are qualities that they obviously have in common: an urge to finality of utterance, For example, and to be irreducible and unchangeable. The urge to brevity is not perhaps as typical of poetry as we would sometimes wish, but the urge to be self-contained, to be whole, is perhaps another form of the same thing, or can be, and it is related to the irreversibility in the words that is a mark of poetry.

I love poetry’s brevity, though I think of it more as the language being condensed, reduced to its essence.

Two other things I love in poetry are its imagery or music, which he doesn’t mention. Yet his translations do have music of a sort. And in some, the proverb itself is an image. Take this one from Japan:

foot itches
he scratches the shoe

It’s not so much telling us about a literal action, but rather giving us a metaphor for the man’s common sense. Here’s another from Japan that contains a more explicit metaphor:

while they talk together
a thousand hills
rise between them

Or this one from China that struck me as one of the best descriptions of utter poverty I’ve ever read:

too poor
to keep rats

Some of these pithy statements seemed to describe our current political situation:

one dog barks at nothing
ten thousand others
pass it on

When they want to learn
what he’s like
they make him rich

And then offer a perspective on it:

nations die
rivers go on
mountains
go on

And of course there are those that advice on how to live a good life. Many Anglo-Saxon poems and proverbs describe the characteristics a wise person should strive to possess, offering counsel on how to treat others and how to obtain and use wisdom in life.

can’t have two points
on one needle

Let your children
taste a little cold
and a little hunger

And some that provide a startling insight:

ice comes from water
but can teach it
about cold

I like that Merwin includes proverbs not just from Japan or China, but also from other Asian countries, such as Korea and the Philippines. I’ll leave you with this one that captures the dilemma many poets face:

Eat first
poetry later

Share a proverb, perhaps one that your parents told you or one you like to tell your children.

2 thoughts on “[Asian Figures], by W.S. Merwin

  1. Nichael Cramer says:

    This isn’t exactly a direct answer to your question, but. more generally with regards to the role of proverbs, both as warning and exhortation, one example that I’ve always particularly enjoyed is a verse in (IIRC) the Book of Kings. There, God is depicted as addressing the nation of Israel.

    Obviously my memory isn’t exactly precise, but first He says something like, if you’re righteous, etc, I’ll watch out for you. But then He says something along the lines of “but if you cross me, I’ll turn you into a proverb!!”

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