The appointment of W.S. Merwin to the post of Poet Laureate must come as a kind of anti-climax at this point. Having won nearly every award, grant, prize, fellowship and accolade for which an American poet can qualify, Merwin can claim (after 50 years of it, as few ever could) to be a successful, full-time, professional poet.
His collected poems must run to well over 2000 pages (!) at this point. One might well ask, with justice, how anyone, no matter how talented and lucky, could expect to continue over a long lifetime (Merwin is now 82) to produce enough good work to justify all that prolificity. And that's not all! He has also found the time to produce at least six full collections of stories and prose recollection, in addition to nearly 30 books of translations. No surprise, then, that he hasn't spent nearly as much time teaching as many of his contemporaries, having devoted more effort towards supporting himself through translation work.
Merwin, then, looks a lot more like the old-fashioned European model of man-of-letters, than he does the opportunistic, flash-in-the-pan, American version: A dedicated worker, doggedly churning out product, keeping out of the spotlight, refraining from taking publicly unpopular views, and generally maintaining a low profile.
Ordinarily, a writer whose career began, as Merwin's did, with immediate recognition (he won the Yale Prize in 1952, at the age of 24), proceeds to produce another half-dozen books, and a sheaf of essays, perhaps a verse play, and then folds his tent. But Merwin kept on writing and writing.... By 1967, when his "break-out" book, The Lice, was published by Atheneum, he looked to be well into his late period, his "mature" fulfillment. (Actually, I've always thought it was his previous book, The Moving Target [Atheneum, 1963], that signaled his real departure from the academic and staid style of his early period, but no matter.) The Carrier of Ladders , and Writings to an Unfinished Accompaniment  merely extended and elaborated the gains in the manner of the previous two books.
There was some doubt at the time, about the extent to which Merwin had really transformed himself with this sequence of books. How genuine, in other words, was Merwin's attempt to remake himself into the counter-cultural guru which the age (the 1960's) demanded? Bly, Wright, Kinnell, Rich, Hecht, Simpson, Justice, et al, had tried to accommodate their manner and means to the relaxed atmosphere of that period--with varying degrees of success.
In my view, Merwin's self-renewal was probably among the least convincing of the lot. The generality of his subject-matter--always safely "classical" or remote (European)--and its fashionably (though politely vague) liberal bias always struck me as safe and timid. As book after book after book continued to be added to the already groaning shelf of titles, one began to wonder at his agenda, as if just the process of generating more matter were some proof of worth. Merwin has published fully 14 collections of verse since The Lice, and shows no signs of slowing, even now. After Writings to an Unfinished Accompaniment (clever title, that...) I decided that his work was no longer of much interest: The style seemed fixed, and there didn't seem to be an argument behind any of his poems. I can do it again, and again, and maybe the next one will be better.... In some media, this kind of persistence is useful. For instance, in photography, Brett Weston was rumored to have produced several thousand finished negatives, all of which he burned shortly before his death, in order to prevent others from "interpreting" them in the future. And Harry Callahan continued to make exposures, thousands of which he never believed should ever be perfected and shown. But photography is a different kind of act--you don't know what you've "got" until it floats in the tray.
Writing, however, is another thing altogether. A book of poems--representing a period of between 6 months (Sylvia Plath's Ariel was the work of, I think, just a couple of months) and perhaps 5 years, should summarize a period of concern and awareness that defines an attitude and an approach to form that is compelling enough to warrant the process of editing and finishing and publishing. A book of poems should not simply be an annual or bi-annual report, rehashing the same data and conclusions, in the same manner as previously. Aesthetic productions are not boxes of cereal or software updates. A poem, a book, a painting, a song, a room--these should be unique and persuasive enough--and challenging--on their own, to demand the test of appreciation and value.
A light verse hack like Odgen Nash could with justice crank out a couple of thousand pages of dopey rhymes. People who have an appetite for that stuff could wade through it to their heart's desire. But serious poetry requires a greater concentration, a sense of necessity which becomes dilute if hurried or indulged in too liberally. George Oppen's work, in Discrete Series, The Materials and This in Which, always struck me as complete. Of Being Numerous, Seascape and Primitive, for my taste, don't add much to the total effect of his work.
Merwin himself, in one of his most telling moods, actually wrote a poem (included in The Moving Target) about wanting his work to be driven by "necessity" rather than opportunity or vanity or ambition. But he didn't follow his own injunction. He kept on publishing--and submitting--his work endlessly.
Merwin was showcased last night on PBS's The NewsHour (formerly The Jim Lehrer News Hour), and he was as usual polite, a bit intriguing, and a little faint in his impression. He read a poem about his mother--a pretty good poem, actually--while sitting on a stair-case on the street.
All day the stars watch from long ago
my mother said I am going now
when you are alone you will be all right
whether or not you know you will know
look at the old house in the dawn rain
all the flowers are forms of water
the sun reminds them through a white cloud
touches the patchwork spread on the hill
the washed colors of the afterlife
that lived there long before you were born
see how they wake without a question
even though the whole world is burning
--which is really not bad at all, though it exhibits all the usual faults of a mature Merwin poem: The droning, the lack of a conversational variance in the tone of voice, the personification of a vague figure "mother" with a gratuitous confusion between what she is allegedly saying and what the poet is evoking, the vagueness of the images, the slackness of the language (none of the lines is particularly memorable in phrasing or sound). Withal, it is a very "nice" poem, with three or four touches--but what are the "washed colors of the afterlife"? The whole experience of the poem is of a series of soft, vague, shifting movements or non-specific impressions, no one of which is very memorable, all of which contribute to a kind of echo of a possible conception of a poem, the stuff of a possible poem, were the poet inclined to polish it and raise it to the level of inspired utterance. Merwin was careful to second the interviewer's query about putting poems into "commonplace" language; but we have every right to demand that a poet with Merwin's facility put more into his work than everyday language.
There has to be more inside a poem than what Merwin gives us. These rocking-chair poems, sitting on the porch in early Autumn, blandly apostrophizing from memory, the remote sentiments of a previous time--are not good enough. We demand more from poetry than this.