Critical Context

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Last Updated on May 14, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 457

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Part of the difficulty critics have had in categorizing Merwin’s work lies in Merwin himself. When asked if he thought of himself “as belonging to a specific generation of poets who share similar experiences,” he agreed that he felt a part of his generation but went on to say, “I don’t feel part of any school or approach or movement or anything like that. I never have. In the late fifties, all of American poetry was supposed to be divided into two camps. That never made any sense to me at all.” Neither of the two schools, the “projectivist” and the confessional, adequately describes Merwin’s work. Although Merwin was politically active in the peace and antinuclear movements, unlike that of the projectivists his work reveals that activism only obliquely; although his work is intimate in tone and style, Merwin himself is too reticent for the obsessive self-revelation of the so-called confessional poets.

If Merwin is to be categorized at all, it is perhaps best to place him within a larger American tradition. As the critic Harold Bloom wrote, Merwin belongs within “the revival of the Native Strain or Emersonian vision.” Like his contemporary, John Ashbery, also born in 1927, Merwin explores what the critic Richard Howard called “a quality of life which used to be called visionary, and which must be characterized by its negatives, by what it is not, for what it is cannot be spoken.” While Ashbery and Merwin are strikingly different in style, they share a concern with revealing in the little that can be said all that cannot. Both explore absence and loss.

Merwin is uncompromising in this exploration. One critic, Helen Vendler, finds Merwin’s work so “starved and mute” that she has “a relentless social-worker urge to ask him to eat something, anything, to cure his anemia.” Others, however, find it “apocalyptic and agonized,” an evocation of contemporary despair. Yet for all Merwin’s obsession with absence and loss, he would not wholly abandon himself to a nihilistic despair: “We try to save what is passing, if only by describing it, telling it, knowing all the time that we can’t do any of these things. The urge to tell it, and the knowledge of the impossibility. Isn’t that one reason we write?”

If Unframed Originals is not itself lost in time, it will be remembered for the little it has said. It will be remembered for what it has preserved, in a language both evocative and spare, against loss. Merwin would reveal, as he writes near the end of Unframed Originals, “the stone, the humanly prized thing out of the earth, the crystal, the focus, the symbol, the gauge, the promise, the enduring impersonal source of radiance.”