Completely Subjective: W.S. Merwin’s “To My Father’s Houses”

Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results, now I wonder if this definition would qualify my family as insane. Having moved eight times at my age always seems to shock my peers, but to me it seems completely normal to have a complete change of scenery every few years. Having known people who have lived in the same house their whole life and would be terrified to move or be introduced to any sort of change, I would have to say it’s not nearly as big a change as you think as, it’s very easy to recreate yourself and live how you want no matter where you are.

Having developed this opinion, the poem “My Father’s Houses” by W.S. Merwin caught my attention in my 2002 edition of Best American Poetry. Although it was my mother we moved around with, I identified with the author as he tried to pick apart his parents cause to move. “Each of you must of looked like hope to him,” I remember my mom breaking the news of our plans to move with excitement each time explaining why the next house would be so much better than the last. But Merwin explains, “every grim /eyeless grey farmhouse uninhabited/on a back road,” was the same to him. Merwin perfectly captured the downsides and monotony to moving that I tended not to focus on in my own life. He illustrates how every house is essentially the same especially when seeing it empty, having a simple kitchen, a few boring bedrooms, and be in a town surrounded by various types of people.

From my own experience this has proved to be true as, although no one would like to hear me say this, I’ve lived in both Darien and our rival town, New Canaan. Each town curses the other, yet they are virtually identical towns. I can infer Merwin would support that this extends the idea he introduces, that your life is what you make of it no matter where it is that you live it. Openness to change may separate a crowd of people who have never experienced significant change in two, but they are unified in the false idea that something as simple as moving into a new house may significantly enhance or damage their life.

Merwin inherited a lot of grief and violence from his parents growing up as his mother was an orphan and father lived in a violent household. His upbringing influenced his devotion to buddhism and ecology later on. His beliefs are reflected in the styles of his poem as he has a real appreciation for the natural world and resents most of humanity for their destructive and greedy qualities. Specifically in this poem Merwin sort of criticizes his dad’s greediness and expectations every time he moved, as he looks down upon his father for his inability to be appreciative.

I find something unsatisfying in the way Merwin writes this poem as the reader receives no resolution. His poem is one long unpunctuated sentence which pulls the reader through the tireless process of moving that Merwin endured, which doesn’t even have an ending. Instead, it leaves the reader feeling trapped in the same pattern his father is trapped in, searching for a new home now and again with hope forever unfulfilled. It is there that lies insanity in believing one house could fill your life with happiness more than another.


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You may not be able to see it clearly but behind the leaves is a simple white house with two bedrooms, two living rooms, a small kitchen, and garage. I lived here 10 years ago with my mother, our rescue dog River, and my brother and sister whom I shared a bedroom with. Just like any other house, we spent our time watching disney chanel, riding our bikes anywhere and anytime we could, playing trampoline games, and doing shadow puppets at night. While Merwin focuses on the disappointments in moving partially due to living an unhappy life, it is important to highlight that happiness can be maintained.

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