How does this poem create its particular effects?

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kmcappello eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The poem "Losing a Language" by W.S. Merwin is a haunting description of what happens to language when one group of people colonizes another.  He could be writing about any such group: Africans, Aborigines, the natives of America or Hawaii; what matters most is how their language slowly disappears.

We can see this disappearance physically in the poem.  The lines at the beginning are longer and shorten as the poem continues.  It is as if the speaker has "fewer words" and is unable to create the longer sentences of the first stanzas.  Merwin heightens this affect by removing any punctuation.  There are no periods at the end of sentences, almost as if we have caught them in the act of disappearing.

There are few concrete images in this poem, but the few that there are lend a tone of despair to the poem.  The speaker laments that they have lost the word for "standing in mist by a haunted tree," that now "the day is glass."  The images of glass, mist, and ghosts are insubstantial, transparent.  Even the rain he mentions at the end was experienced in the past, and the feathers are of something extinct.

Language is an important part of culture.  It allows for communication, artistic expression, and the teaching of laws, religion, and history.  Merwin's poem shows that if a people's language disappears, they disappear themselves.

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Losing a Language

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