James Merrill's poetry of autobiography and social comedy.
June 1, 2001
Jun 1, 2001
24 Min read time
James Merrill's poetry of autobiography and social comedy.
Edited by J. D. McClatchy and Stephen Yenser
Knopf, $35 (cloth)
Familiar Spirits: A Memoir of James Merrill and David Jackson
Viking, $22.95 (cloth)
James Merrill died in 1995, aged 69, just before his last book of new poems, A Scattering of Salts, appeared. Since the 1970s he had been one of America's best-known serious poets: the formal agility of his shorter poems had inspired legions of imitators, and his book-length poem The Changing Light at Sandover had acquired a flock of interpreters. Even as Merrill's admirers (me, for example) treasured that last book, new questions arose: When would there be a book of all the poems? Were there post-Salts poems, and would we see them? What would his work look like as a whole? Would important facts about the man emerge? This monumental and timely Collectedanswers the first three questions, while Alison Lurie's brief, frustrating memoir tries to answer the last. Both books remind us how, and how often, the poems depict, and reflect on, Merrill's life.
It was a life marked by advantages. James Merrill's stockbroker father, Charles, became the Merrill in Merrill, Lynch; Charles left his second wife, James's mother, when the future poet was twelve. (Merrill remembered the wealth, and the breakup, in "Economic Man": "Forty floors down is Wall Street; forty years / Ago, the merger of Heart & Hurt / That made me.") James was educated, and partly raised, by a French-German governess, at a New England prep school, and then at Amherst College, where he was already writing the poems of his first books. Soon afterward, in 1950, began the influential months of European travel—and of thinking about his homosexuality—that Merrill recalled in his memoir A Different Person (1993).
By the mid-1950s Merrill had met David Jackson, who became his lifelong partner; the two settled first in Amherst, then on Water Street, in Stonington, Conn., where they would make their home for more than three decades. Merrill also spent many winters in Greece, where the friends, lovers, and virtual family he gathered would enter many of his poems. By 1972 he had published two novels, two plays, and six full books of verse. He had also begun book one of Sandover, whose three sections chronicled Merrill and Jackson's joint communications, via Ouija board, with spiritual and extraterrestrial beings. After completing the long poem in 1982, Merrill and Jackson moved to Key West, which joined Greece, Stonington, and Manhattan as frequent settings for Merrill's poems. We see in them, and in the whole Collected, not simply Merrill's life, with its privileges and its sadnesses, but the virtuosic and inviting works he made from it.
• • •
They did not start out inviting. Up through The Country of a Thousand Years of Peace (1959), Merrill's verse can seem positively hermetic, devoted to form—to its own forms—above all else. The eponymous bird in "The Black Swan" "outlaws all possible questioning: / A thing in itself, like love"; the swan is a poem, the kind of poem the young Richard Wilbur (another Amherst man) made popular—a stanzaic thing of self-referential beauty. For all their "splendid curvings of glass artifice," though, the works of art in early Merrill yearn to make contact with some outside world. A statue feels "a zest for life / Peculiar to those not quite alive"; a mirror says to a parlor window:
you provide examples,
Wide open, sunny, of everything I am
Not. You embrace a whole world without once caring
To set it in order. That takes thought.
One of Merrill's many early masks, "Mirror" combines in its reflective protagonist a playful artifice, a tacit sadness, and a desire to be more outgoing and less artful. Another 1950s poem remarks of some sculptures, "for a long time now / I have wanted to be more natural / Than they."
The young Merrill worried so much about what counted as "natural" partly because he was, and would remain, a childless gay man. "The Broken Home" (from Nights and Days, 1966) opens when Merrill sees parents and their child entering his apartment building. Soon he addresses, indoors, a single lit candle:
Tell me, tongue of fire,
That you and I are as real
At least as the people upstairs.
Later on Merrill grew comfortable, even confident, in calling his own reflective, gay experience as real as anyone else's. He did so best in longish poems that juxtaposed several scenes, or several stories. "Chimes for Yahya" (from Divine Comedies, 1977) weaves together five or six tales about disguises and gifts: one involves the elaborate prank Merrill's Arab friends play on an earnest graduate student named Gloria, "doing fieldwork in the tribe." Hussein and his compatriots stage an "authentic" childbirth, with a midwife (in drag) and "Maternal invocations and convulsions." Finally Gloria is permitted to hold the infant:
Into her credulous
Outstretched arms laid—not a wriggling white
Puppy! Horrors twinkled through the brain.
Then the proud mother bared her face: Hussein.
The joke is on Gloria, whose research methods suppose a clear division between the real and the constructed, between play and productive, or reproductive, adult life.
Merrill found his metier by rejecting that division. He remained devoted to form, or to forms; but his mature aestheticism, if that is the right name for it, is resolutely sociable, closer to Wilde than to Stevens. The later poems thus define art as costume, or as necessaryornament—poems and persons are represented by robes, kimonos, outerwear, even (comically) a roving armoire. "Dreams about Clothes" supplied the title for Braving the Elements (1972). The poem addresses a dry cleaner named Arturo, in an eloquent stanza whose every term is a pun:
Tell me something, Art.
You know what it's like
Awake in your dry hell
Of volatile synthetic solvents.
Won't you help us brave the elements
Once more, of terror, anger, love?
Brave, Merrill would have known, meant flaunt before it meantdare; Merrill's best poems dare to flaunt their artifice—they are, so to speak, avant-gaud. For him, poetry goes farthest in acknowledging how we feign; our costumes and conscious performances are not barriers to our truer selves but instead the conditions for those selves' creation. "Seldom do we the living … feel more 'ourselves,'" Merrill wrote in "Prose of Departure," "than when spoken through, or motivated, by 'invisible forces.'" "The School Play" recalls the similar discoveries a younger Merrill made via Richard II:
I was the First Herald, "a small part"
—I was small too— "but an important one."
What was not important to the self
At nine or ten? Already I had crushes
On Mowbray, Bushy and the Duke of York….
Later, in adolescence, it was thought
Clever to speak of having found oneself,
With a smile and rueful headshake for those who hadn't.
People still do. Only the other day
A woman my age told us that her son
"Hadn't found himself"—at thirty-one!
Mother and son (like Gloria) commit the fallacy of authenticity, the error Merrill's style refutes: he who would find himself must lose himself first in other performances, amid the flexible rules of social life, or the rules of art. Another poem of the 1980s compares its author to a "Hindu Illumination," whose
artist made his elephant
Entirely of interlocking
Animal and human avatars:
Antelope, archer, lion, duck, each then
Reborn as portion of the whole
Proverbial creature—wisdom, memory—
Shown dancing on a crimson field.
We are made up of others, and of roles, as elephant is made up of archer and duck. To love, or to understand, us is to master those avatars: Merrill's companion thus appears, in the poem's last line, as the elephant's mahout.
If Merrill saw people as compositions of other people, of social experience, he saw them, too, sometimes, as compositions of language, through which that experience is imagined, reinterpreted, conveyed. Stevens explained that a poet must love words with all his power to love anything at all. Merrill fit the prescription perfectly: his mature poems love human beings and words. They love, moreover, the slippery fit between one and the other, which Merrill tried to represent with puns. No poet since Shakespeare has loved puns so much, or put his readers through so many. In "McKane's Falls" a river, once panned in a gold rush, now flows into a dam with electrical turbines; Merrill makes the river water ask:
Where's my old sparkle? Of late
I've felt so rushed, so cold.
Am I riding for another fall?
Will I end up at the power station
On charges, a degenerate?
Have my spirit broken in a cell?
Must I grow broad- and dirty-minded
Serving a community, a nation
By now past anybody's power to shock?
• • •
Almost as dear as puns to Merrill's technique are macaronics, comic or pathetic effects achieved by colliding languages and bad translations: "Eh, Jimmy, qui sont ces deux strange men?" To understand somebody else is to translate from her language into yours. To understand one's younger self, moreover, is to translate his terms into yours—as Merrill's "Lost in Translation" understood. The poem begins with Merrill as a boy, spending a summer with a governess:
A card table in the library stands ready
To receive the puzzle which keeps never coming.
Daylight shines in or lamplight down
Upon the tense oasis of green felt.
Full of unfulfillment, life goes on,
Mirage arising from time's trickling sands
Or fallen piecemeal into place:
German lesson, picnic, see-saw, walk
With the collie who "did everything but talk"—
Sour windfalls of the orchard back of us.
A summer without parents is the puzzle,
Or should be. But the boy, day after day,
Writes in his Line-a-Day No puzzle.
As he remembers the boy he was, the grownup Merrill worries at a new puzzle: he has been trying to translate Paul Valery's "Palme"—did Rilke translate it into German? Can Merrill find Rilke's version before he leaves Greece? The jigsaw puzzle, when it arrives, turns out to be a Near Eastern scene with animals and "a hundred blue / Fragments" of sky. Boy and governess assemble it ("Quite a task, / Putting together Heaven"), then take it apart to exchange it for another. Yet,
Before the puzzle was boxed and readdressed
To the puzzle shop in the mid-Sixties
Something tells me that one piece contrived
To stay in the boy's pocket. How do I know?
I know because so many later puzzles
Had missing pieces—Maggie Teyte's high notes
Gone at the war's end, end of the vogue for collies,
A house torn down; and hadn't Mademoiselle
Kept back her pitiful bit of truth as well?
The governess speaks French, but is secretly German, "a widow since Verdun," of English descent. (When the puzzle arrives, "Mademoiselle does borders.") Is the lost piece of the puzzle like her lost past, like the lost milieus of prewar Europe? Are all three like the "warm Romance" of Valery's French, abandoned when Rilke rendered "Palme" in German?
But nothing's lost. Or else: all is translation
And every bit of us is lost in it …
And in that loss a self-effacing tree,
Color of context, imperceptibly
Rustling with its angel, turns the waste
To shade and fiber, milk and memory.
Memory, autobiography, time lost or past: these are Merrill's themes as they were Marcel Proust's. Like Proust, Merrill could see the self both as something to be recaptured, retrieved, and as something to be continually reworked in social life, even remade. Merrill wrote his Amherst thesis on Proust: the novelist would emerge, alongside W. H. Auden, as Merrill's chief influence. (Others have noted debts, too, to C. P. Cavafy, whose poems of gay love and lust lay behind Merrill's "Days" titles—"Days of 1935," "Days of 1971," etc.) "For Proust" sets the French writer's life into quatrains Merrill invented: the first and fourth lines rhyme, but the second and third end on the same word. Late in the poem Merrill watches Marcel "make"
for one dim room without contour
And station yourself there, beyond the pale
Of cough or of gardenia, erect, pale.
What happened is becoming literature.
Events from Proust's life repeat themselves—but altered, made into "literature"—in his book; in the same way, Merrill's end-words return, transformed.
Merrill found many other ways to incorporate into lyric Proustian time-schemes and Proustian themes. One way was sheer grammatical elaborateness: Merrill's cascading dependent clauses, odd verb tenses and verb moods, and multiple appositions show how everything in the poet's memory informs, stands for, or stands in for something else. (Readers who think Merrill's self-remakings and his interest in recollection stand at odds, rather than working together, might think about how they edit their own retold memories—or look up what Proust had to say on the subject.) Other poems find visual symbols for retrospect. In "Lorelei," the passage of a life resembles a series of rocks laid over a stream: "The stones of kin and friend / Stretch off into a trembling, sweatlike haze." A longer poem enunciates "Proust's Law":
(a) What least thing our self-love longs for most
Others instinctively withhold;
(b) Only when time has slain desire
Is his wish granted to a smiling ghost,
Neither harmed nor warmed, now, by the fire.
As in Proust, in Merrill we become who we are not through single, exceptional moments, but in a back-and-forth play of experience and understanding, without which our present-day social enjoyments, our comic remakings and new loves, might merely seem hollow.
The same poems can ask whether Merrill's dependence on memory, understanding, and anticipation—his devotion to temps perdu—might be a human universal, or whether it is instead peculiar to him. "Chimes for Yahya" remembers how young James once learned, before Christmas, what his Christmas gifts would be: come December 25,
I mimed astonishment, and who was fooled?
The treasure lay outspread beneath the tree.
Pitiful, its delusive novelty:
A present far behind me, in a sense.
And this has been a problem ever since.
Merrill is both comic and Proustian in his insistent returns from present to past—to previous lovers, friends, or poems, and even to previous parts of the same poem. ("Mirror" thus generates, thirty years later, a response-poem called "Big Mirror Outdoors.") "Strato in Plaster" revisits a Greek ex-lover:
Out of the blue, in plaster from wrist to bicep
Somebody opens a beer, pretending to be
My friend Strato. Years or minutes—which?—
Have passed since we last looked upon each other.
He's in town for his sister's wedding
To this elderly thin-lipped sonofabitch
Who gets the house for dowry—enough to make
A brother break with the entire family.
Considering it, his eyes fairly cross
With self-importance. That, I recognize.
Here at hand is a postcard Chester sent
Of the Apollo at Olympia,
Its message Strato as he used to be….
When the pair finally converse, Merrill asks:
Was the break caused by too much malakía?
Strato's answer is a final burst
Of laughter: "No such luck!
One day like this the scaffold gave beneath me.
I felt no pain at first."
Merrill's view of his once-ideal companion, we see, has suffered a similar fall. The break, and the breakup, were sudden, then painful, now funny: comedy, Merrill (inverting the usual formula) suggests, may be what happens to tragedy, given time.
• • •
Perhaos uniquely among modern poets in English, Merrill thus became at once a poet of social comedy and a major poet of autobiography. As with other poetic autobiographers, from Wordsworth to Adrienne Rich, the more we know about Merrill's life, the more we can see in the poems. As with Wordsworth or Rich, Merrill's poems provide much, though not all, of the data we want. Lurie's strange, prickly memoir offers some more. Her first chapters describe Merrill and Jackson in the 1950s, when Lurie and her then-husband were neighbors of Merrill and Jackson at Amherst. Lurie recalls the couple as shy, then friendly, and as much more fun than Amherst's straight men. Without children or financial worries, Merrill and Jackson became "the happiest marriage I knew": their amusements, in Amherst and then in Stonington, ranged from psychedelic mushrooms (disappointing) to amateur theatricals (delightful) to the Ouija sessions from whichSandover would grow.
As Merrill's reputation rose in the 1960s, Jackson kept writing novels, which never saw print. His frustrated novelistic energies, Lurie argues, created the spirit-disclosures from which Merrill built his poem: the Ouija-board work was, Lurie writes, Merrill's "last-ditch attempt … to save their marriage." Suggesting that Jackson "was in a sense the co-author of Sandover," and that the long poem excluded their friends, Lurie says with asperity just what Merrill says in "Clearing the Title," a 1982 poem that celebrates the "co-authors'" move to Key West. The epic becomes
Our poem now. It's signed JM, but grew
From life together, grain by coral grain.
Building on it, we let the life cloud over….
Lurie knows something about Ouija boards, having researched seances and mediums for her 1967 novel Imaginary Friends. The best part of her book, and the least personal, shows how Sandover's otherworldly messages—and thus its elaborate cosmology—follow patterns common to spiritualist practice. At first, dead friends and obscure historical figures appear with reassuring news. As participants devote more time, belief, and energy to the seances, more celebrities turn up; "the spirit tutors become more … grand and authoritative." The magico-religious system that the spirits unfold absolves the human participants of doubts about the conduct of their lives: those participants learn they are better than everyone else, with extraordinary hidden talents and a special, secret mission. Fans of Sandover are hereby challenged to show how parts two and three don't fit these patterns. Part one, "The Book of Ephraim," seems to me (as it has to other readers) a fine, complete poem on its own.
After Sandover, in Florida, "it all [began] to go bad, slowly at first and then faster." Lurie, a part-time Key Wester, watched it happen. Jackson took "disreputable friends and lovers"; Merrill became involved with a younger man, the actor Peter Hooten. Jackson and Hooten engaged in "a life-or-death struggle for … Merrill's time, attention and love." Hooten, who more or less won, arranged for an embarrassing videotaped performance of Sandover, with himself as its otherworldly star. Jackson retreated into silence and drinking. Merrill contracted HIV, then AIDS, and died in 1995. "The spirits of the Ouija board had destroyed all three … beautiful and gifted young men," Lurie writes. Yale University's Langdon Hammer has started work on a real biography of Merrill. Until it exists, few readers will know how far to credit Lurie's account, spiked as it is with resentment and moralism. Nevertheless, her chapter on their Amherst days, and her deflating insights into the seances, make this a book that Merrill's fans might need.
Readers of Lurie who haven't read Merrill might expect his early poems to be merry, while his late work grew turbulent or grave. In fact, the reverse is more nearly the case. As he got older, Merrill—or Merrill's poems—seemed to have more fun: more fun with verse-forms, and more fun with the sets of friends the poems depict. "A Tenancy" (1962), set in a new apartment, ends:
If I am host at last
It is of little more than my own past.
May others be at home in it.
A good Merrill poem often tries hard to be a good host, to invite us into, and help us appreciate, the stories and terms that it comprises.
Merrill the comic autobiographer thus relies on Merrill the maker of forms, who translates the life we don't see into words we do. Auden suggested that comic rhymes seem to put words in charge of events, while serious poems do the reverse; Merrill shows how hard, even impossible, it can be to divide artificial from natural, comic from serious, verbal play from the real thing, not just in literature but in life. The mature Merrill can even entertain the perspective (advanced in Wilde's "The Decay of Lying") from which art trumps life, and a sunset looks like a bad Turner: "To the Reader," for example, presents "Each day" as if it were a new book, "hot off the press from Moon & Son":
If certain scenes and situations ("work,"
As the jacket has it, "of a blazingly
Original voice") make you look up from your page
—But this is life, is truth, is me!—too many
Smack of self-plagiarism….
And what about those characters? No true
Creator would just let them fade from view
Or be snuffed out, like people….
That is (put less comically and less elaborately): all of us die for no reason; there is no God. But of course the comedy is the point. Merrill sought (he wrote in one late poem) "Uprightness, lightness, poise"; the poems hope to make life, thought, feeling, at their worst, seem lighter and more bearable, by placing technique, form, jokes (in-jokes, even) on the other end of the scales.
Part of Merrill's comedy is his irreverence, and part of that irreverence is the way he upends clichés, not just of language but of emotion: "The day I went up to the Parthenon / Its humane splendor made me think / So what?" Other irreverent jokes involve literary history: one of the characters in "Nine Lives" declares, parodying The Waste Land, "No, no, I am Greek, / My husband was a Hamburger. He spoke / The Ursprache." The comic temper also governs Merrill's substantial poems on sexual love, and on public affairs. "I rarely buy a newspaper, or vote," Merrill admitted in "The Broken Home." Yet he later became an accomplished poet of citizenship, investigating the private emotions created by political events. One poem from the Reagan era asks,
Is my dread of the electorate
Justified or fatally naïve?
What relation has the mother cat
To (a) her litter, (b) the barrio
Women who corner her, and (c)
The TV coverage of their meal?
Almost all the gravest topics our era has produced can be found in Merrill—nuclear apocalypse; terrorism; Third World development and underdevelopment; the gradual forgetting of the past; existential meaninglessness; solipsism; aging and death. He challenged himself to show not how dreadful or scary these prospects can be, but instead how we do, in fact, live with them all. Sandover's involuted cosmology (involving radioactive isotopes, reincarnation, prehistory, and daemonic superbats) furnished a way of living with, and thinking about, the nuclear threat. "Santorini" (another poem of the 1980s) wishes instead and touchingly for a "companion who might / Act on a hushed injunction, less to ignore / The worst than stroll through it by evening light."
That "worst," by Merrill's last decade, meant three things. The first was global ecocatastrophe—coral reef bleaching, extinctions, the greenhouse effect—to which his time in Florida made him alert. The second was AIDS, whose growing casualty list animates The Inner Room (1988) and especially its key sequence, "Prose of Departure," a combined travelogue and elegy cast in the Japanese sequential form haibun. The third was Merrill's own mortality. All three topics merged in A Scattering of Salts, his last book and his best. Its introductory poem sees the Earth as a bath (with bath salts) on which mankind prepares to pull the plug; its valedictory lyric presents a posthumous speaker rising above his home, his life, and his loves: "O heart green acre sown with salt / by the departing occupier"—a figure as sad, and compact, as Merrill could be. In between came, among others, the sparkling narrative of "Nine Lives"; one of the best of Merrill's poems about opera, and two of his best poems about New York; excellent lightish verse about cats and dogs; the brilliantly intricate sentences of "Pearl"; and a perfectly realized eight-line lyric connecting the word "body" in turn to cosmetics, theatre, astronomy, birth, adulthood, religion, and death.
• • •
By the time he completed Salts, Merrill had gathered not just imitators and exegetes, but many genuine readers. If you are one of them, you may have read this far in hopes of learning just what this huge Collected holds. Here, then, are about 675 pages, including all the books of short or mid-length poems Merrill published. Excluded, the editors tell us, are "many occasional poems and … minor verse." Excluded, too, is Sandover, still in print separately, and enormous on its own. Included, on the other hand, are a double-handful of verse translations—from Montale, from Cavafy, from the Dutch poet Hans Lodeizen, a friend of Merrill's who died young. Here, too, lives all the never-reprinted work from The Black Swan (1946) and The Yellow Pages (1974), a limited-edition volume of leftover poems from as far back as 1947. Among these stand a letter-perfect imitation of George Herbert; some earliest attempts at political verse; a villanelle about telephone phobias; a sestina whose six repeating end-words are one, two, three, four, five, and six; and a few genuinely important poems, "Economic Man" first of all. (Some of them appeared earlier in a 1982 selection called From the First Nine.)
Here, too, thanks to the editors' care and spadework, reside about sixty pages of "Previously Uncollected Poems." Many are epigrams or miniature odes—to a pocket calculator, to a slide show, to a meerschaum pipe, to Bishop, to "Philip Larkin (1922-1985)," and to Merrill's onetime teacher Marius Bewley. Here, too, are a few more substantial, successful poems. In "Key West Aquarium: The Sawfish," the trapped fish becomes the poet fighting solipsism and age. Can he see himself in the glass? Can he see us?
Now if I speak for him,
A fellow captive, lips that kissed and told
Declare me—well, almost—
Not of this world, transparently a ghost
Into whom still the bright shaft glides. One old
Disproven saw sinks out of mind;
Love's but a dream and only death is kind.
Last, and most important, come the poems Merrill wrote at the end of his life. "Christmas Tree," shaped typographically like its subject, becomes the last and perhaps most moving of all Merrill's versions of himself. "Brought down at last / From the cold sighing mountain" Merrill says he has been cherished, kept warm, "wound in jewels"—though only for "a matter of weeks."
[W]hat lay ahead
Was clear: the stripping, the cold street, my chemicals
Plowed back into the Earth for lives to come—
No doubt a blessing, a harvest, but one that doesn't bear,
Now or ever, dwelling upon. To have grown so thin.
Needles and bone. The little boy's hands meeting
About my spine. The mother's voice: Holding up wonderfully!
No dread. No bitterness. The end beginning. Today's
Dusk room aglow
For the last time
Despite its sugary end (which I have not quoted) it is a deathbed poem to set beside Stevens's, or Keats's.
I keep meeting people who think they won't like Merrill because he grew up with money. This is as silly as rejecting Proust because he grew up with money or Whitman because he grew up with none. People who think Merrill's poems record only the life of his own social class need to read, ASAP, his poems about Greek men and Greece, which mask neither his American privileges nor his adopted families' lack of same. Other readers have found the poems overelaborate, or else complain that the poems' range of reference excludes them. Such objections can reveal the objectors' ressentiment (or their homophobia), but they can also contain some truth. Merrill's lesser verse can become merely "decorative" (as one objector has called it), his tangles of clauses and high-culture references ends in themselves: all good poets—Merrill is no exception—have written bad or failed poems similar on their surface to their successes. Merrill's sometime frivolousness, his inside jokes, his grammatical tangles are the defects of his qualities; it makes no sense to wish his poems without them. (It makes sense to wish his verse held fewer of them, and many readers have.)
Merrill's greatest formal achievements are longish poems integrating remembered narratives: among these, new readers should start at "The Broken Home" and "An Urban Convalescence." They can then move on to "Days of 1935," "Strato in Plaster," "Up and Down," "Matinees," "Lost in Translation," "Chimes for Yahya," "Bronze," "Losing the Marbles," "Nine Lives," "Rhapsody on Czech Themes," and "Self-Portrait in Tyvek Windbreaker." The best short poems include "Mirror," "The Water Hyacinth," "Lorelei," "Willowware Cup," "The Victor Dog," "Manos Karastefanís," "body," and "Christmas Tree"; nearly as good are "The Black Swan," "Marsyas," "The Country of a Thousand Years of Peace," "Remora," "The School Play," "To the Reader," "164 E. 72d St," "An Upward Look," "Economic Man," and "In the Pink."
Moreover (this is the great thing about a Collected) after you wear those pages out, plenty of witty or delightful or striking poems, or parts of poems, remain. Memorable images emerge even from failed or precious poems: a seaside town can boast an outdoor lamp "lit even / In sunshine, like a freethinker in heaven." Merrill also offers nearly unmatched formal variety. No one in American English has done more kinds of things with an eight-line stanza, with rime riche, with sonnets in series, with a pentameter line—Merrill's grow, almost unpredictably, solemn, quizzical, wry, racy, tongue-in-cheek; legato, staccato, allegro; even (to switch analogies) pentimento, displaying the process by which we change our minds. Merrill's corpus offers, as few do, the whole life of a whole individual, a man who combined exceptional formal skill with exceptional self-knowledge, and exceptional curiosity about all sorts of bits of the world. If certain parts of Merrill's oeuvre make readers laugh, smile, or wince, the major poems are finally comic just as Twelfth Night is comic: xenophilic, sociable, friendly to disguises, and mindful of loss, they nevertheless manage to imagine what a happy life might be. One fluent sentence from "Nine Lives" does as well as any to recommend, as I want to recommend, the whole great, sprawling, wonderful body of work:
There is a moment comedies beget
When escapade and hubbub die away,
Vows are renewed, masks dropped, La Folle Journée
Arriving star by star at a septet.
It's then the connoisseur of your bouquet
(Who sits dry-eyed through Oedipus or Lear)
Will shed, O Happiness, a furtive tear.
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June 01, 2001
24 Min read time