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...
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