The poem may only be three lines long but it packs a powerful punch. Merwin uses imagery, through a sewing simile, to address feelings of separation and longing. Cleverly, he also chose to leave the relationship at the heart of the poem undefined. This means that no matter one’s relationship status or family dynamic there is likely some way they can relate to ‘Separation.’
‘Separation’ by W. S. Merwin is a beautiful, short poem about what it’s like to miss someone who is absent from your life.
The poem’s first line addresses someone’s absence. It’s unclear, and it remains undefined who the speaker is and what their relationship is to the listener (who is only addressed as “you”). They miss this person and feel that their absence is “like” thread through a needle. This unusual and likely unexpected comparison needs explaining. The speaker does so in the final line of the poem when they note that just like a thread through a piece of fabric, the listener’s absence runs through their life constantly and changes everything they do. They are moved by and touched by this person and altered by the sorrow they feel all the time.
You can read the full poem here.
Your absence has gone through me
In the first line of ‘Separation,’ the speaker uses the word “absence.” This immediately connects to the title, ensuring the reader understands that this poem is going to be about one person’s absence or separation from another. There are very few details in the text, meaning that readers have to come to their own conclusions about why these two people are separated from one another and whether or not it’s temporary or permanent. For example, there is the possibility that the listener, addressed as “you” throughout, has passed away. Or, perhaps they’re traveling, moved to a distant city, or maybe the two have simply split up.
Also missing from this poem is a definition of the relationship between the speaker and the listener. Are they lovers or ex-lovers? Or, is the speaker addressing a child, a parent, or a friend? The open-endedness of the poem allows it to be enjoyed by the widest possible audience. It also speaks to the universality of these emotions. They can be applied to a wide variety of situations. While a romantic relationship may be the first readers consider when they look at these lines, it’s not necessarily at the heart of the poem.
In the second line, the speaker, while still talking about absence, creates a simile. Here, they compare absence to a “thread through a needle.” With just this line, the simile doesn’t make a great deal of sense. It suggests a relationship that’s unclear and undefined. It takes moving down to the third and final line, which stands alone as its own sentence, to understand what the speaker is talking about.
Everything I do is stitched with its color.
In the final line, the speaker makes sense of the simile by saying that everything they do is “stitched” with the listener’s absence. Anywhere they go, anything they do or try to accomplish is tinted by how they feel about the listener. It’s their connection and the love they share, no matter what kind, that follows the speaker. They miss this person so fully that it’s impossible to get them off of their mind.
Structure and Form
‘Separation’ by W. S. Merwin is a three-line poem that is contained within a single stanza of text. The lines do not follow a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern, meaning that they are written in free verse. The first line has seven syllables and six words, the second: six syllables and five words, and the third: eleven syllables and seven words. There is a good example of a half-rhyme with “me” and “needle” at the ends of lines one and two. Using assonance, the poet connects the two words.
Throughout ‘Separation,’ and despite its brevity, Merwin engages with numerous literary devices. These include but are not limited to:
- Alliteration: occurs when the poet repeats the same consonant sound at the beginning of words. For example, “thread through” in line two.
- Enjambment: can be seen when the poet cuts off a line before its natural stopping point. For example, the transition between lines one and two.
- Simile: occurs when the poet compares two things using “like” or “as.” In this case, there is a simile at the heart of the short poem. The speaker compares someone’s absence to thread through a needle.
- Imagery: occurs when the poet uses especially vibrant descriptions. These should inspire the reader to envision them in clear detail, using their senses. For example, “Like threat through a needle” and “stitch with its color.”
The speaker is someone who is separated from a person they love. There are no details about the relationship between the two people, so they could be a husband, father, wife, brother, mother, or any other dynamic.
The tone is mournful and filled with longing. At the same time, it’s also quite direct. The speaker knows how they feel and what they want to say, and they do so without beating around the bush.
The purpose is to define “separation” and feelings of absence in simple, relatable terms that many different readers can relate to. The poet does a wonderful job with this task, ensuring that there are no bounds to the relationship he’s talking about.
The meaning is that when you miss someone, their absence becomes a part of your everyday life. It follows you wherever you go and changes everything you do. It’s always there, like a line of color stitched through the fabric.
The reader will likely walk away from this piece feeling nostalgic or perhaps experience feelings of absence and separation themselves. The simplicity of the lines and the lack of detail mean that most people are going to be able to connect this poem to their life in some way.
Readers who enjoyed ‘Separation’ might also enjoy reading some other W. S. Merwin poems. For example:
- ‘To the New Year’ – is dedicated to the coming of a new year. It focuses on the beauty of individual moments in life.
- ‘One of the Lives’ – a contemplative poem in which the speaker discusses the steps that led him to his current state of being.
- ‘Early One Morning’ – is a short poem that showcases what seems to be an older man who is stuck in reminiscing about his younger days.