Archive | 2013 November: James Merrill Special Issue

James Merrill’s “The Friend of the Fourth Decade”

David Kalstone, a longtime professor of English at Rutgers University and, prior to that, at Harvard, was one of James Merrill’s closest friends. An expert on Sir Philip Sidney, Kalstone extensively studied 20th-century Americans as well; his second book Five Temperaments (1977) included a chapter on Merrill along with Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell, Adrienne Rich […]

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The Unstiflement of the Story: James Merrill’s “The Broken Home”

“The Broken Home” is a sequence of seven sonnets that appeared in Merrill’s 1966 volume Nights and Days. The sonnets are connected by imagery, themes and autobiography, concerning, as they do, two central issues: the trauma of Merrill’s parents’ divorce and the poet’s own incomplete or “broken” childless home. The sonnets travel far, both temporally and […]

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James Merrill: “After Greece”

The young James Merrill first saw Greece in 1950 as part of a two-and-a-half-year long European tour, a trip he would later detail in his memoir A Different Person. He traveled to Greece specifically to visit his friend, teacher and first lover, Kimon Friar, a Greek-American poet and translator. In 1957, he and his companion […]

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Regaining the Depths: James Merrill’s “Pearl”

James Merrill’s final book of poems, A Scattering of Salts, was written in his last years as his health was in steady decline after having been diagnosed with HIV. The inevitability of his own death and the trauma that AIDS had wreaked and was continuing to wreak in his life, and in that of his […]

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James Merrill’s Geode Sonnet: Crystal Queer

Merrill scholarship has been undergoing a sea change, apparently mirroring a larger societal change. What among scholars even in the 1990s could but delicately speak its name, now does so frankly. High time, too. Merrill was a poet who wrote from the perspective of a gay man, out of a gay life lived richly. His […]

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“Losing the Marbles”: Merrill and Sophrosyne

James Merrill has given us the birth-myth of his poem, “Losing the Marbles.” After decades of spending his winter months in Athens, Greece, Merrill wintered instead in Key West, where, in 1985, “… we were talking about memory lapses, a topic increasingly relevant to everyone present. John Brinnin quoted Lady Diana Duff Cooper, who stayed […]

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Techne in Textiles: Merrill’s “Investiture at Cecconi’s’”

In “Investiture at Cecconi’s,” James Merrill weaves a beautiful, sapphic fabric whose warp and weft intertwine chiaroscuro threads of fate, epiphany, beauty, and death as the expression of an initiation into the realm of living with and dying from AIDS. The poem opens, with notes of intimacy, outside the door of “their” Venetian tailor: “caro,” […]

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“A Window Fiery-Mild”: The Role of Venice in The Book of Ephraim

The Book of Ephraim is a very “literary” work and perhaps never more so than in its Venetian sections (V and W). It is my contention that Section V (the letter V, not the Roman numeral) constitutes not only a major turning-point in the work, but also a significant declaration of Merrill’s literary aims. As […]

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Satire & Dysfunction: James Merrill’s “Family Week at Oracle Ranch”

“Family week at Oracle Ranch” is a portrait of dysfunction. It’s a poem written later in Merrill’s life, appearing in his final book, A Scattering of Salts, published by Knopf in 1995, the same year that Merrill died (February 6, 1995). It originally appeared in The New Yorker, in the issue of February 22, 1993. […]

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James Merrill Special Issue: An Introduction

James Merrill is one of those poets whom everybody (well, everybody in the literary world) knows but whom few have read—or, at least, few have read at length or in depth. He shares his friend Elizabeth Bishop’s reputation as a “poet’s poet,” but in Bishop’s case the description is rather misleading; Bishop may appeal especially […]

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