W.S. Merwin – “Youth”
Through all of youth I was looking for you
without knowing what I was looking for
or what to call you I think I did not
even know what I was looking how would I
have known you when I saw you as I did
time after time when you appeared to me
as you did naked offering yourself
entirely at that moment and you let
me breathe you touch you taste you knowing
no more than I did and only when I
began to think of losing you did I
recognize you when you were already
part memory part distance remaining
mine in the ways that I learn to miss you
from what we cannot hold the stars are made
I’m not very familiar with Merwin’s work, but I’ve heard much praise for him, even from the inimitable Billy Collins, who says out of any modern poet, Merwin is the most likely to have his work be remembered in the distant future, even over Collins’ own. Such approbation, together with the power of this poem, make me want to familiarize myself with Merwin more than perhaps any other poet at the moment (speaking of those poets I’m curious about, but don’t know well).
This poem is breathtaking, for many reasons. First, the flowing, unpunctuated lines feel like they’re spoken in a single breath of love and longing. Second, the language, while simple, very effectively elicits the experience of love and the melancholy and/or overwhelming sensation that someone you love has always been with you, but you have not always recognized that person (or their love): “even know what I was looking how would I // have known you when I saw you as I did.” Those lines also show how the line breaks can enable the last few words to serve as both the end of the previous thought on the same line, as well as the next thought on the following line.
And then: “time after time when you appeared to me // as you did naked offering yourself / entirely at that moment….” Such power evoked in so few words. I think these are so effective because of the unbroken couplet form Merwin uses; in a striaghtforward, “narrative” sounding form, it might sound trite.
And then those closing lines reaffirm the connection between two people, while showing that perhaps the strongest bonds are made when there is some awareness of separateness or loss: “part memory part distance remaining / mine in the ways that I learn to miss you.” It’s the old cliche, “Abscence makes the heart grow fonder,” though said in a more profound way here. He’s also talking about, at least I think, something more than literal loss or separation; but as I said earlier, the idea that even in one’s youth, perhaps before the two even know each other, lovers may still “belong” to each other in some way. And also, the recognition that however strong the love, the other person, as well as love itself, will always be at least partially a mystery, so well said in the closing line: “from what we cannot hold the stars are made.”