Monday, January 28, 2013

For the Anniversary of My Death - W. S. Merwin

Every year without knowing it I have passed the day
When the last fires will wave to me
And the silence will set out
Tireless traveler
Like the beam of a lightless star

Then I will no longer
Find myself in life as in a strange garment
Surprised at the earth
And the love of one woman
And the shamelessness of men
As today writing after three days of rain
Hearing the wren sing and the falling cease
And bowing not knowing to what

What a bizarre thought, knowing that every year, without fail, we all pass the day on which we will someday die.  The thing that struck me most about this poem as I read it was the lack of punctuation.  It almost seems rushed, hurried, as if we are all thoughtlessly passing out death days.  Life as a cloak we all wear is an interesting image.  What are we, if not cloaked in being alive?  It's the most fundamental shared experience.  Is it so remarkable that it merits that image?  What essence have we outside of life?

I think I'm so disarmed by the core image and thought of this poem that I'm unable to focus on any of the raw poetic merits at work.  The language is very nice, and the images potent, but compared to the certain knowledge that my death-date has passed 22 times now, it's insignificant.


  1. I have just discovered and am loving your blog. I'm a 62-year-old high school English teacher and sometime poet who appreciates your enthusiasm and your insights. I am also a W.S. Merwin fan, so I'm glad to see him included here. I want to point out, though, one typo in your entry. In line 10, you typed "then" where you wanted "the." (I wasn't sure. I checked and found the poem posted at Of course a typo's a tiny thing, but the error made me stumble and scratch my head, so I thought I should let you know. Anyway, I'm mostly writing to thank you for keeping so fine a blog and for sharing such excellent poems.

    1. Thank you very much for your kind words! I have fixed the error.

  2. Thank you for posting. I found your page when looking for Sometimes, which I'd heard on the radio. And now I'm also grateful for On the Anniversary of My Death, with its enlightening image of the strange garment. Having passed the date fifty-seven times myself, I'm also disarmed, and consoled by this sharing with strangers. I wish to echo the last line of Sometimes.

  3. I love William's writings, along with many poets whom I love. But I particularly love this poem, in its shocking elegance. I just happened upon your blog, Dear Chris, searching for this particular poem. Eureka! What serendipity! I am a musician and a poet and I find many similarities in my sensibilities with W.S. Merwin. I have a few of my old poems written on my website, if you would like to read them: I truly appreciate your blog...and the concept of reading a poem a the very least. I too, like Mr. Merwin, believe Thoreau to be the architect of our modern environmental sensibilities. I first read Emerson, then Thoreau as a gawky 7th grader thanks to a beloved teacher. I now delight in reading them and Robert Frost, Gary Snyder, Jack Kerouac, et. al., to my little nieces and nephews. I am now in my 63rd year...and I never expected to pass 30! Ha! I am poor and have refused to be an academic, although I have taught some music lessons privately. I generally send them off into their own journeys with assignments of transcription. One has to have deep roots to truly know music, too. Thank you so much...