The Way to the River

By W. S. Merwin b. 1927
The way to the river leads past the names of   
Ash the sleeves the wreaths of hinges   
Through the song of the bandage vendor

I lay your name by my voice   
As I go

The way to the river leads past the late
Doors and the games of the children born looking backwards   
They play that they are broken glass
The numbers wait in the halls and the clouds
From windows
They play that they are old they are putting the horizon   
Into baskets they are escaping they are

I step over the sleepers the fires the calendars   
My voice turns to you

I go past the juggler’s condemned building the hollow   
Windows gallery
Of invisible presidents the same motion in them all   
In a parked cab by the sealed wall the hats are playing   
Sort of poker with somebody’s

Old snapshots game I don’t understand they lose   
The rivers one
After the other I begin to know where I am   
I am home

Be here the flies from the house of the mapmaker   
Walk on our letters I can tell
And the days hang medals between us
I have lit our room with a glove of yours be   
Here I turn
To your name and the hour remembers
Its one word

Be here what can we
Do for the dead the footsteps full of money   
I offer you what I have my

To the city of wires I have brought home a handful
Of water I walk slowly
In front of me they are building the empty
Ages I see them reflected not for long
Be here I am no longer ashamed of time it is too brief its hands   
Have no names
I have passed it I know

         Oh Necessity you with the face you with   
         All the faces

This is written on the back of everything

But we
Will read it together

W. S. Merwin, “The Way to the River” from The Second Four Books of Poems (Port Townsend, Washington: Copper Canyon Press, 1993). Copyright © 1993 by W. S. Merwin. Reprinted with the permission of The Wylie Agency, Inc.

Source: The Second Four Books of Poems (Copper Canyon Press, 1993)

Discover this poem’s context and related poetry, articles, and media.

Poet W. S. Merwin b. 1927


Subjects Seas, Rivers, & Streams, Nature, Activities, Travels & Journeys

Poetic Terms Free Verse

 W. S. Merwin


W.S. Merwin is a prolific, leading American writer whose poetry, translations, and prose have won praise over seven decades. His first book, A Mask for Janus (1952),  was chosen by W.H. Auden for the Yale Younger Poets Prize. Though that first book reflected the formalism of the period, Merwin eventually became known for an impersonal, open style that eschewed punctuation. Writing in the Guardian, Jay Parini described Merwin’s . . .

Continue reading this biography

Poem Categorization

SUBJECT Seas, Rivers, & Streams, Nature, Activities, Travels & Journeys


Poetic Terms Free Verse

Report a problem with this poem

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

This poem has learning resources.

This poem is good for children.

This poem has related video.

This poem has related audio.