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Is this a great poem?


My friend says I was not a good son
you understand
I say yes I understand

he says I did not go
to see my parents very often you know
and I say yes I know

even when I was living in the same city he says
maybe I would go there once
a month or maybe even less
I say oh yes

he says the last time I went to see my father
I say the last time I saw my father

he says the last time I saw my father
he was asking me about my life
how I was making out and he
went into the next room
to get something to give me

oh I say
feeling again the cold
of my fathers hand the last time
he says and my father turned
in the doorway and saw me
look at my wristwatch and he
said you know I would like you to stay
and talk with me

oh yes I say

but if you are busy he said
I don’t want you to feel that you
have to
just because I’m here

I say nothing

he says my father
said maybe
you have important work you are doing
or maybe you should be seeing
somebody I dont want to keep you

I look out the window
my friend is older than I am
he says and I told my father it was so
and I got up and left him then
you know

though there was nowhere I had to go
and nothing I had to do

W. S. Merwin

From “Opening the Hand,” by W. S. Merwin, published by Atheneum.
Copyright 1983 by W. S. Merwin.


For me, the truth of disconnection-not only between the two sets of fathers and sons, but the two friends-makes it so. Also the volley of voice. I suppose one could say the ending is sentimental, but the double negation is apt. Merwin is one of our treasures.

Lannan Podcast, reading and conversation 

Merwin reading the poem 

During the reading, Merwin said, “A lot of the fear of death is fear of loss of memory.”

10 thoughts on “Is this a great poem?

  1. one would have to have lived in another world (especially a man of Merwin’s age) to not have heard that song many times over.

    Obviously a kind of cheap shot at what is a rather common theme for a poem (and as writers we return again and again to those profundities that mean the most to us personally even as we try to escape them). One would have to assess–with the sentiment being common and in fact rather trite–does the poem achieve heights in other ways?

    Unraveling the piece I only hear the friend’s voice primarily and I don’t see the two sets of fathers and sons. But perhaps I’m missing something.

    1. Mr. Storm,

      It seems themes like this are common because they are pretty important, echoing a little of what you said. I think that’s why people continue to write about it. The relationship we have with our parents affects the relationship we have with others throughout our lives – I believe. Do we try to escape them? It seems going into them, as Merwin does, brings the most pain, but also learning.

      Why does a common sentiment x – out the possibility of greatness? For me the heights are achieved because he writes simply, yet an echoing is taking hold. Why couldn’t the last 4 lines just as easily come from the speaker of the poem and not the friend?

      ‘I say the last time I saw my father’ – this is the speaker of the poem’s father. And ‘feeling again the cold
      of my fathers hand the last time’ – this is the speaker of the poem talking. There is a mirror the whole way through.

      Also, if any American male would not be listening to pop music on the radio at that time, it would probably be Merwin. There’s a strong possibility he was living in Mexico.

  2. I like how the poem says what it says about regret. Regret can be a force for good. That is why the person who precipitates the speaker’s regret is called a friend.

  3. I felt that the brilliance of the poem is that the friend could either be telling “you” (the narrator) about his own father or berating “you” (the narrator) for things you have told him about how things happened with your own father. The ambiguity is there for me until hearing merwin’s intonation in reading the poem, but mostly through the following word placement:

    I look out the window
    my friend is older than I am
    he says and I told my father it was so
    and I got up and left him then
    you know

    the use of the word “and” is where it becomes clear that the narrator is relaying a story told to him by his friend. until that point, via the use of “I say,” conceivably the narrator could be expressing his agreement with his friend’s conclusion that the he was a bad son (which might be further supported by his statement that his friend is older, implying his wise counsel?).

    (this could be a simplistic or simply wrong reading of the poem. i don’t have any background in literary theory and don’t know the rules of poetry at all (including whether there truly are any.)

    either way, i like the poem in its simplicity and universal description of the rite of passage by which we all necessarily separate from our parents, at whatever age. (one last opinion: i don’t think that songs about father/son relationships have much to with whether the poem is good or great. the fact that billions of love songs exist doesn’t make stories about love any less powerful or compelling simply by virtue of their existence.)

    1. Wonderful reading Lauren. I don’t think anyone needs any degree or to know the ‘rules’ of poetry to enjoy a poem. Has that fallacy contributed to poetry’s diminished reputation in schools?

      Poetry can speak to anyone.

  4. Yes and yes. It is a great poem and yes that fallacy has contributed to poetry’s diminished reputation in schools. (thank you).
    This poem is great because it has immediate impact. It is powerful because of it’s honesty and the way it expresses an idea that many can relate to and have tried to express, but ineffectively.
    Lauren, you mention love songs and indeed that has to be the best example of an over-expressed and ineffectively expressed idea and theme in so many poems. It is the rare poem that does it in an unique and powerful way.
    After re-reading the poem I’m wondering about the father, I’m thinking that the reader might assume that the father is lonely and sad, but what if he is truly being honest and the feeling is mutual?
    That’s why for me the power of the poem is its honestly. Isn’t the lack of true honesty the cause of so much pain in relationships?

    1. I hear you Florine. On the subject of the father I agree whole-heartedly. I think there is a calm and wisdom to him, a beneficence. The son is at choice. No guilt trip. And he does ask him to stay, but then gives the choice, probably because he can sense he wants to leave.

      Amazing that the thing he wants to give him in the next room is never retrieved, never given to the son. Which is apt enough.

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