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Analysis of Poem The Nails by W.S.Merwin

Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

W.S. Merwin and The Nails

The Nails is a poem about the end of a relationship, a break up, and reflects the often complex and confusing emotional and psychological states we humans can experience when love goes wrong.

It is not a straightforward poem because it mixes highly visual imagery with surreal elements and at times the speaker's voice seems divided. The reader is taken into the schizoid mind of a person suffering pain and loss, who cannot move forward because of shock.

  • The contradictions, the vivid images, the emotional language and the complex similes build up as the poem progresses, creating a picture of someone lost, without direction, powerless to affirm their right to a positive life.

W.S. Merwin's poem was first published in The Paris Review 1961, and appeared in his book The Moving Target in 1963. It is still regarded as a unique and intriguing love poem, heartbreak being the main theme.

Merwin is difficult to define as a poet. He can't really be called a romantic although he writes about personal loss, feelings and nature. He's not a metaphysical poet despite his philosophical meanderings and eastern way of thinking. Some think of him as an oracular poet.

Merwin counters this: 'I have not evolved an abstract aesthetic theory and am not aware of belonging to any particular group of writers.'

There's no doubt he is regarded as a master of poetic delivery and expression, and it is his quiet yet profound way of structuring lines of poetry that separates him from the rest.

He has been innovative too. For example, in the mid 1960s he decided to do away with punctuation. He wanted his lines to be pure expressions of speech, unhindered by textual marks, mirroring some of the first ever manuscripts written in ancient times.

When he reads a poem Merwin takes his time and pauses quite naturally between lines when he needs to, feeling his way through the words like someone walking slowly through a forest or garden.

The Nails was written before this great change in his structural approach to poetry and offers the reader an alternative exploration of the effects of trauma and break up.

  • In the poem, the speaker is trying to understand the process of which he is a part, attempting a rational deconstruction of reality by using figurative language, above all simile and personification.

The Nails

I gave you sorrow to hang on your wall
Like a calendar in one color.
I wear a torn place on my sleeve.
It isn’t as simple as that.

Between no place of mine and no place of yours
You’d have thought I’d know the way by now
Just from thinking it over.
Oh I know
I’ve no excuse to be stuck here turning
Like a mirror on a string,
Except it’s hardly credible how
It all keeps changing.
Loss has a wider choice of directions
Than the other thing.

As if I had a system
I shuffle among the lies
Turning them over, if only
I could be sure what I’d lost.
I uncover my footprints, I
Poke them till the eyes open.
They don’t recall what it looked like.
When was I using it last?
Was it like a ring or a light
Or the autumn pond
Which chokes and glitters but
Grows colder?
It could be all in the mind. Anyway
Nothing seems to bring it back to me.

And I’ve been to see
Your hands as trees borne away on a flood,
The same film over and over,
And an old one at that, shattering its account
To the last of the digits, and nothing
And the blank end.

The lightning has shown me the scars of the future.

I’ve had a long look at someone
Alone like a key in a lock
Without what it takes to turn.

It isn’t as simple as that.

Winter will think back to your lit harvest
For which there is no help, and the seed
Of eloquence will open its wings
When you are gone.
But at this moment
When the nails are kissing the fingers good-bye
And my only
Chance is bleeding from me,
When my one chance is bleeding,
For speaking either truth or comfort
I have no more tongue than a wound.

Line by Line Analysis of The Nails

The Nails is full of vivid imagery and figurative language which can be both stimulating and challenging for the reader. The speaker's experiences are based in reality but the language and phrasing tend to create a kind of dream sequence, full of symbols and reflective thinking.

What is clear is that the speaker is addressing another person, the you, the individual involved in the break up.

Looking at the poem line by line allows for a close up of detail which can bring greater understanding, without losing sight of the bigger picture.

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Lines 1 - 4

The first line is a mix of the real - wall - and the figurative - sorrow - and both combine to create a startling image. How can you physically hang sorrow on a wall? You cannot of course, but you can hang something tangible to represent that sorrow and the second line helps the reader focus in on it.

This sorrow is like a calendar, that is, it is based in real time and is monotony itself. The days may have different numbers and can be counted and relied upon but they all appear the same.

  • Using a simile to help the reader gauge the distance between reality and an imagined place is typical of the poet. Similes help bridge the gap. Reality isn't changed, as with metaphor, but is made a little clearer. Or deeper.

The third line could be construed as metaphorical, the torn place becoming the emotionally charged sorrow of the speaker. There are echoes of wearing one's heart on one's sleeve, which means showing your true emotions openly.

Note the language of pain...sorrow/hang/torn.

The first stanza ends with what is a repeated motif of a sentence. The speaker admits that the situation is more complicated than it seems. On the surface the two individuals have split, one leaving the other, yet emotional entanglements mean there's no easy way to explain or understand the new situation.

Merwin's The Nails Line by Line

Lines 5 -14

There's irony in the first line, a variation of there's no place like home, because the speaker is lost and can't find the way home (to reconciliation, to understanding?) despite a rational approach.

The shortest line, the eighth, reinforces the play on the vowel o - no/no/over/Oh/know/know - this assonance resonating with sorrow as the speaker admits there should be no excuses for being stuck.

  • And the second simile appears, bringing another vivid image for the reader as the speaker likens himself to a mirror on a string. This is a stark contrast - the idea of being stuck whilst at the same time experiencing all the different perspectives as the mirror turns.

There are some interesting changes too in line length and rhythm in this part of the poem.

The idea is that when you lose something you're more likely not to know which way to turn, you can become confused and distracted, whereas the other thing - love, being together, being found - tends to focus heart and mind.

Lines 15 - 28

The longest stanza within the poem takes the reader further into the thinking of the speaker and continues to juxtapose the real and the figurative. The self-questioning gives the impression of doubt and confusion; the only certainty it seems is that there aren't many answers forthcoming.

The speaker seems to be backtracking, looking for the truth amongst the lies, trying to find what has been lost. But the reader isn't told because the speaker doesn't know.

And what about the footprints? They've been under something, they are symbols perhaps? Of the path least trod? They have eyes, they give the speaker a chance to see back into the past but they have no memory.

They don't recall what it looked like - line 21 - is a bit mysterious. What is the it? The eyes don't recall it. Is it the past? It could be. Or is it the truth? Or a sense of self? Or perhaps it is love? The speaker was using it at some time, so it must have been useful.

To guide the reader there are three comparisons - with a ring, a light and a pond. A ring is a symbol of love and truth, a light shines on things and makes them clearer whilst an autumn pond could be an emotional space that has become colder.

Here the speaker is searching for what seems irretrievable. There is more irony when it's suggested that all this could be in the mind, as if the mind is playing tricks.

Analysis of The Nails Line by Line

Lines 29 - 34

One complete sentence, stanza six brings strong imagery and doom ridden language related to the other person involved in this poem.

Has the speaker gone on a journey to witness something truly awful? Hands as trees - living things, once rooted things, now taken away on a flood. More water suggests powerful emotions (tears come flooding is a well known cliché) being repeated, in the mind of the speaker, like an old movie.

There is ambiguity - shattering its account/To the last of the digits - is this to do with a bank account? Or is this a description of what was going on in the relationship? Did the flood clear everything out?

Line 35

A single line stanza, again with strong imagery and language related to pain. There is a suggestion of elementary and powerful shock (lightning), illumination (shown) and permanent damage (scars) which the speaker will carry indefinitely.

Lines 36 - 38

  • This stanza has interesting alliteration, which adds texture and complex sounds - long look/like a key in a lock/Without what it takes to turn - and the simile has long association with the classic sexual liaison between male and female.

Only this time the question is - Who is the speaker looking at? The absent partner or themselves? The end result is still powerlessness, an ability to turn and either open or lock the door, the gate, the treasure chest, the safe?

Line 39

But easy answers aren't readily available. The repeated single stanza, one line, the speaker reminding the reader of a complicated situation.

The Nails Line by Line Analysis

Lines 40 - 50

The poem moves from autumn (fall) into winter, the first line of trochees and spondees reflecting the uncertainty of the narrative at this point.

The lit harvest could be the speaker suggesting that what is sown is reaped, that the fire left them both helpless but in time, when you are gone, words will enable some understanding, an overview of what they've both been through.

Is the speaker implying that the absence of the partner will allow a more reasoned perspective to be achieved in the future?

  • But what about the present? There is only torture and pain - the language says it all - despite that verb kissing - the speaker is bleeding and there is no opportunity for truth or comfort to be articulated.

That line involving tongue and wound is a powerful expression. It sums up viscerally the current raw state of the speaker, the agony of the break up and loss still impossible to handle.

Analysis of The Nails

The Nails is a free verse poem of eight stanzas, 50 lines in total. There is no rhyme scheme or set metrical pattern.

The lines range from long to short, the shortest being a mere three words, the longest with ten. This reflects the nature of the inner monologue that's taking place, the speaker, you can imagine, talking to himself as he sits contemplating life after the shock of the break up or loss.

© 2018 Andrew Spacey

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