“Separation” By W.S. Merwin


Your absence has gone through me
Like thread through a needle.
Everything I do is stitched with its color.


Written in 1962 by W.S. Merwin, “Separation” is a short, yet profoundly deep tercet, composed of just three lines. Merwin is a prolific writer and poet. He is known for an impersonal, open style of poetry that often eschews punctuation.

Jay Parini, a writer for the Guardian described Merwin’s mature style as “his own kind of free verse, [where] he layered image upon bright image, allowing the lines to hang in space, largely without punctuation, without rhymes … with a kind of graceful urgency.” Source.

Merwin’s style has changed throughout his years but a recurring theme remains constant dealing with a separation from nature and the dangerous consequences of such. Merwin is a practicing Buddhist and a proponent of deep ecology.


I wanted to select a nice, short and sweet poem for my next discovery. For being just three lines, “Separation” is evocative and beautifully self-contained. Never did I think such emotion could arise from what appears on the surface to be such a simple poem. I actually had to read this poem twice before the full weight of it hit me. The imagery and symbolism made the emotion so…real. 

Given Merwin’s poetic themes I think it’s likely this poem is about a larger separation from nature, the world, or human beings as a whole. Given my apparently hopelessly romantic views, I can’t help but feel the absence as a smaller separation from an individual, a loved one.

Things To Note

  • The title. The poem could’ve easily been titled absence, but Merwin chooses “Separation”. It is permanent, more forced against us. We don’t know the complete circumstances of the absence, but separation conjures up thoughts that it was possibly forced upon us.
  • It consists of three lines but only two sentences. This really makes the last line and sentence stand out and pack a punch, doesn’t it?
  • Absence going “through” the narrator. Absence is often an emptiness but in this case it’s real and tangible. Like thread through a needle. This imagery provokes an even stronger emotional response.
  • It’s stitched. This absence is more than just superficial color. It’s permanent, deeper down, stitched into everything.


So what the heck is this absence being felt so strongly? How did Merwin convey so much in just three lines? Three frickin’ lines. Whatever the circumstances are, you’re feeling the emotional punch “Separation” throws at you.

For a bit more, take a look at the title picture of this post or see it below. This painting is also titled “Separation”. Painted by Edvard Munch in 1896. If you recognize that name it’s because he’s responsible for the very famous “The Scream”.

I think combining poetry and painting can create an even better experience. To me, this painting felt like the perfect accompaniment to Merwin’s poem. To you, maybe not so much. That’s what makes poetry awesome.

Separation, 1896 by Edvard Munch



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