James Merrill once called his body of work "chronicles of love and loss," and in twenty books written over four decades he used the details of his own life--comic and haunting, exotic and domestic--to shape a portrait that in turn mirrored the image of our world and our moment. Like Wallace Stevens and W. H. Auden before him, Merrill sought to quicken the pulse of a poem in surprising and compelling ways--ways, indeed, that changed how we came to see our own lives. Years ago, the critic Helen Vendler wrote of Merrill, "He has become one of our indispensable poets." This volume brings together an entirely new pocket-sized selection of the best of Merrill's work. His poetry dazzles at every turn, and this balanced and compact selection will be an ideal introduction to the work for both students and general readers, and an instant favorite among his familiars.
About the Author
LANGDON HAMMER is chair of the English Department at Yale University. His books include James Merrill: Life and Art and Hart Crane & Allen Tate: Janus-Faced Modernism and he edited the Library of America voluems Hart Crane: Complete Poetry and Selected Letters and May Swenson: Collected Poems. A former Guggenheim fellow, he has written about poetry for the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times Book Review, and The American Scholar, where he is poetry editor.
Read an Excerpt
James Merrill is frequently viewed as a mandarin taste, a mid-twentieth-century Mallarme. He was happy to encourage this notion, and plenty of poems in this book support it. But this selection from his work also puts on view a surprisingly accessible poet who wrote short, funny, pointed poems that were topical and political in nature. It shows how gossipy and sociable he could be, how quotable, and, without ever giving up his irony and virtuosity, how full of honest feeling.
The fact that Merrill treats his reader as a friend who already knows about his life – the raw material out of which he made his poems – is both charming and problematic. There is a disarming presumption of intimacy in his tone, but it’s easy to feel excluded since we are not after all his friends. Surely he must be speaking not to us but to some other audience of people as quick-witted and worldly as he . . . That impression diminishes, however, once we accept his invitation, get used to reading his poetry, and recognize its recurring characters and locations, themes and motifs. But it speeds up the process to learn a little about his biography. The story begins with his parents: Charles Merrill, co-founder of the mighty brokerage house Merrill Lynch, and Hellen Ingram, a fashionable New Woman, smart, demanding, and intently focused on her only hild. His parents’ divorce in 1938 badly wounded the twelve-year-old boy. Merrill recalls the event in two of his often anthologized poems, ‘‘The Broken Home’’ and ‘‘Lost in Translation,’’ and it features in the background of many more, including the rollicking ballad cum adolescent sexual fantasy ‘‘Days of 1935.’’ But Merrill’s parents turn up in less explicit ways too. Take for instance the hot-head stove and frosty refrigerator in ‘‘The Midnight Snack,’’ or the Sultan and Scheherazade in ‘‘The Thousand and Second Night.’’ (Incidentally, the contrast in kind between those two poems, one compact and comic, the other long, various, and improvisatory, nicely suggests the wide range of his talent.)
In fact the presence of Merrill’s parents – or better, the conflicts at the core of his experience that they represent – can always be felt in his penchant for ‘‘seeing double,’’ as he phrases it in ‘‘To a Butterfly.’’ ‘‘Seeing double’’ means in Merrill’s case a capacity to see both sides of almost any conflict. This bifocal vision is related to his pleasure in paradoxes, his delight in turning cliches on their head, and his love of the double entendre. His poetry is indeed so dense with puns, both diabolically-clever and groan-inducing ones, that it’s easy to miss half of them on the first time through a poem, only to realize after a second or third reading (slapping your forehead!) just how much wordplay is at work.
Merrill’s refusal of common-sense perceptions is linked to his perspective on the world as a homosexual. This is the theme of ‘‘The Black Swan,’’ where a child ‘‘with white ideas of swans’’ learns to love the opposite of what is expected. Gayness was essential to who Merrill was and how he wrote. He had relationships with many men, as his poems suggest, but the central, lasting bond was with David Jackson. When Merrill met him in 1953, Jackson was an aspiring novelist. They moved in together and created an eccentric, private alternative to Senator McCarthy’s America in the third-floor apartment of a creaking commercial building in Stonington, a small town on the Connecticut shore (see ‘‘A Tenancy’’).
There, improbably, Merrill and Jackson discovered that they could use the Ouija board to communicate with the dead, as ‘‘Voices from the Other World’’ describes. The Ouija board was at times a parlor game, at times an obsession. Eventually Merrill told the story of his and Jackson’s adventures with the spirits in The Changing Light at Sandover (1982). This selection passes over that huge, unruly, hard-to-excerpt visionary work, but it includes ‘‘Clearing the Title,’’ in which Merrill celebrates the completion of Sandover (‘‘Our poem,’’ he calls it) and his domestic life with Jackson on the occasion of David’s buying a house in Key West.
In addition to Stonington and the Other World, Merrill’s poetry prominently features Greece. Merrill and Jackson began traveling there in the 1950s. Fascinated by modern Greek and by the Greek people he encountered, Merrill bought a house in Athens, where he and Jackson lived during the 1960s and 1970s. This phase produced vivid portrait-poems of Greek friends, such as ‘‘Words for Maria’’ and ‘‘Manos Karastefanis,’’ as well as a series of anecdotal poems (‘‘Days of 1964,’’ ‘‘To My Greek,’’ ‘‘Another August,’’ ‘‘After the Fire,’’ ‘‘Strato in Plaster,’’ and ‘‘The House Fly’’) that follow the arc of Merrill’s affair with Strato Mouflouze´lis. The relationship ended badly, but not without inspiring these poems – which may have been what Merrill wanted from Strato to begin with.
Peter Hooten enters Merrill’s poetry in the 1980s. Hooten was twenty-four years younger than Merrill and a movie actor; like Charlie Merrill and Hellen Ingram, he was a native Floridian; and Merrill fell in love for the last time with him. Their volatile intimacy is the subject of several poems in this book, including ‘‘Morning Exercise,’’ ‘‘Cosmo,’’ and the hilarious, heartbreaking ‘‘Family Week at Oracle Ranch,’’ in which Merrill narrates his visit to Hooten for a dose of New Age psychotherapy at a high-end de-tox facility in the desert. (Note: "Tatoos," which comes from a sequence of poems called "Peter," doesn't refer to Hooten. In Merrill's life, confusingly, there were several Davids and two or three Peters.)
Shadowing all of Merrill’s late poetry, but at the same time energizing it and accounting for its special power, is AIDS. Merrill was diagnosed with HIV in 1986. It was a time when HIV was commonly seen as a death sentence, and people with AIDS were brutally stigmatized. To protect himself as well as Hooten and Jackson, Merrill kept his condition a secret from all but a few people. At the same time, he began writing about the epidemic in rich metaphorical ways. Merrill watched his best friends, David Kalstone and Tony Parigory, die of the disease (he remembers Kalstone in ‘‘Investiture at Cecconi’s’’ and ‘‘Farewell Performance,’’ Parigory in ‘‘Tony: Ending the Life’’), and he wrote about his own illness, albeit indirectly, in some of his best poems. See the travel poems about Japan ‘‘Afternoons at the Noh’’ and ‘‘In the Shop.’’ Merrill's confrontation with his failing health and imminent death culminates in "Christmas Tree" (a poem in the shape of a Christmas tree, seen from another room that partially blocks the view), "Koi," and "Days of 1994," which Merrill completed just before his death, at 68, in 1995.
Early and late, Merrill seemingly instinctively wrote poems that ‘‘resist the intelligence almost uccessfully.’ (to borrow a phrase from Wallace Stevens, one of his great heroes). But from ‘‘A Renewal’’ to ‘‘b o d y,’’ he could write intensely moving poems that are not at all hard to grasp.He liked to elaborate conceits and fancies, but he could also face facts. Look at what he does with his wealth in ‘‘At a Texas Wishing Well’’ and his class privilege and whiteness in ‘‘Domino’’ – topics that American poets don’t often confront head-on, particularly with reference to themselves. Given his reputation as an apolitical aesthete, readers of this book may not be prepared for how often and how lucidly he writes about war in the Middle East, terrorism, government corruption, climate change, and, over and over in his late poetry, the destruction of nature. Yes, he was occupied with the private life; he was a love poet, and a rarefied one at that. But it would be hard to find topics of greater collective interest than these, and Merrill engages them with memorable passion and directness.
The poems are arranged roughly in the order of their composition, in most cases preserving the order in which they appear in Merrill’s individual volumes of poetry. The texts for all the poems in this volume come from James Merrill’s Collected Poems (Knopf, 2001), edited by J. D. McClatchy and Stephen Yenser.