William Stanley Merwin’s poem ‘Yesterday’ is all about the changing pattern of the relationship between an aging father and his adult son. This piece delves into the intricacies of human relationships, needs, and companionship. Merwin presents a universal idea of the growing distance between a father and his son. The distance between them can increase for several factors. The most important factor is a father’s inevitable death.
‘Yesterday’ by W. S. Merwin includes a conversation between two grown-up sons who talk about their last meeting with their fathers.
The poem begins directly with an opening statement of the speaker’s friend. He thinks he is not a good son. The following lines explore the reason for thinking so. Regarding the speaker, his father has already died. The last time he was there with him, he could only touch his food, lifeless hands. In contrast, the speaker’s friend neglected his father in their last meeting. He told him that he had something important to do. Then he left.
You can read the full poem here.
My friend says I was not a good son
I say yes I understand
he says the last time I went to see my father
I say the last time I saw my father
Merwin chooses a title that not only fits the subject matter but also hints at a larger concept. Yesterday is not a day that we leave behind. It includes all the memories and feelings that lay buried down the dust of memory lane. The speaker of this poem talks about one such day when all have to say goodbye to their loved ones. Some say it out of bitterness. Others may find it the safest way to avoid a collision.
In this way, the poet presents two such individuals who converse about their last interaction with their parents, specifically fathers. The speaker’s friend thinks he is not that good a son. He wants to get confirmation about his perception. His friend nods in the affirmative. In the next lines, he discloses the reason behind his thought.
The friend never pays a visit to his old father even though they live in the same city. He would go there once a month or skip with an excuse. Then he starts to talk about the last encounter with his father. The speaker also does the same. He utters the words inaudibly or in his mind.
he says the last time I saw my father
he was asking me about my life
how I was making out and he
said you know I would like you to stay
and talk with me
oh yes I say
The last time he saw his father, he asked him about his life and enquired about how he was doing. Later, he went to the next room to get something for his son.
In the next stanza, the speaker shares his own incident with readers. He can feel his food hands still. It was the day his father died. Suddenly, the speaker cuts his thoughts short and includes his friend’s story right away.
His father turned in the doorway and noticed his son looking at his watch. He understood that his grown-up son had more things to do. Still, he managed to tell his son in an affectionate tone that he wished him to stay and talk with him.
In reply, the speaker says, “Yes.” He has to say something in order to carry on the conversation.
but if you are busy he said
I don’t want you to feel that you
just because I’m here
though there was nowhere I had to go
and nothing I had to do
In the next section of ‘Yesterday,’ Merwin depicts the father’s hopeless desperation in striking a warm conversation with his son. He told him that if he was busy, he could go. There was no need to stay just for the sake of staying. The speaker could utter nothing after hearing this.
Furthermore, his father added that he might have some important work to do. It could be true that he had to meet someone. So, he did not want to hold him back. Literally, the father tried to convey that he did not want to hold him back for anything. He just needed some good time with his son. It is all a father could want from his mature son, at least.
The desperate tone of his father somehow makes the speaker sad. It reminds him of his own father. He may have done the same. Now, he can feel his father’s pain after he is no more. He looks out of the window.
Later, his friend left his father that day. It was not that he had some important things to do or meet someone. He just left without any cause. This shows the growing distance between children and their parents. The distance grows along with time. It is the irony of human relationships.
Merwin’s ‘Yesterday’ is a conversational poem. It presents the narration of two friends. They talk about the last meeting with their fathers. The poem is written from the perspective of a first-person speaker. Regarding the form, the poem is written in free-verse. It means there is no specific rhyme or meter in the text. Besides, the poem is written in an unconventional manner. The absence of punctuation marks erases the distinction between the narration. Merwin fuses their dialogues into a single narrative.
Readers can find the use of the following literary devices in Merwin’s poem ‘Yesterday’.
- Enjambment: It occurs throughout the text. By using this device, Merwin creates an intricate interdependence between the lines. It forces readers to go through consecutive lines at once.
- Repetition: Each stanza contains an interesting repetition. For instance, the last two lines of the first end with the same verb, “understand.” It is meant for the sake of emphasis.
- Alliteration: It occurs when the same sound is repeated in neighboring words. For example, it occurs in the phrase, “a month or maybe.”
- Metaphor: The phrase “the cold/ of my father’s hand” contains a metaphor. Here, the term “cold” hints at the father’s death.
William Stanley Merwin’s poem ‘Yesterday’ centers on the growing distance between a father and son. This piece goes deeper into the intricacies of human relationships and the memories we leave behind.
The poem was first published in 1983. It appeared in Merwin’s collection of poetry, Opening the Hand.
It is a free-verse lyric poem written from the perspective of a first-person speaker. There are a number of stanzas that record a conversation between two friends. Besides, the text does not have a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern.
This poem showcases a number of themes that include human relationships, loneliness, desperation, and old age. In this poem, the poet talks about the last time two friends met their fathers.
The following poems similarly tap on the themes present in William Stanley Merwin’s poem ‘Yesterday’. You can also read other W. S. Merwin poems.
- ‘You Are Old, Father William’ by Lewis Carroll — This poem involves the theme of the generation gap and the failure of communication.
- ‘My Father’ by Peter Oresick — The speaker of this piece regrets the metaphorical wall created between him and his father.
- ‘Farther’ by Owen Sheers — This poem taps on the light issues of miscommunication, the idea of aging, and the changing relationship between a father and his son.
You can also explore these touching fatherhood poems.