Monday, April 14, 2014

Something I've Not Done - W. S. Merwin

Something I've not done
is following me
I haven't done it again and again
so it has many footsteps
like a drumstick that's grown old and never been used

In late afternoon I hear it come closer
at times it climbs out of a sea
onto my shoulders
and I shrug it off
losing one more chance

Every morning
it's drunk up part of my breath for the day
and knows which way
I'm going
and already it's not done there

But once more I say I'll lay hands on it
and add its footsteps to my heart
and its story to my regrets
and its silence to my compass

This is one of the most achingly acute depictions of regret and fear I've read.  The old adage, "you regret what you didn't do more than what you did" seems to be the kernel of truth at the heart of this poem.  The idea that the things we most regret having not done follow us, with heavy, loud, footsteps is tremendous and also somewhat haunting.  What is chasing me?  What do I regret not doing?  Why have I not done it yet?  These are all questions raised by the poem.

This regret consumes us.  It drinks "part of [your] breath for the day" as if it is a living thing, eating us alive.  No matter where we go, we cannot escape it, for "already it's not done there."  Every time we "" the opportunity to correct our regret, to do that thing, we lose one more chance.  The chance is to live deliberately, and as the poem makes clear, it is up to us to do or not do that.

The more we say that we will "lay hands on it" the further away from us all the elusive thing not done gets.  "I'll do it tomorrow" is among the greatest lies we can ever tell ourselves.  If not now, when?  Why do we hesitate to act even in pursuit of those things we want most?  I think that it is human to fear achievement, to a degree.  To do the thing not done is deeply frightening, which is why it chases us, weighs us down.

What weighs you down?  What have you "not done again and again?"  Think about it.


  1. Brilliant! Love WS Mervin. I especially admire his absence of punctuation here, the whole gaping questioning and vagueness it creates. I agree with you that it's one of the most acute descriptions of regret I've come across. Those footsteps - are particularly haunting!

    1. Thanks for the kind comment! I hadn't even thought about Merwin's omission of punctuation; it seemed so natural. The footsteps are certainly what haunted me most as well.