Contemporary Poetry Review

As Reviewed By:
James Rother

Merrill the Prodigal

Collected Poems of James Merrill. Edited by J. D. McClatchy and Stephen Yenser.  Alfred A. Knopf, 2001.  885 pp.  $40.


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Having all of James Merrill’s poetry between covers (with the exception only of the quirky, bizarre, unwieldy—and in the opinion of more than a few doyens of the craft, brilliant—The Changing Light at Sandover [1982]) is a singular achievement for its editors J. D. McClatchy and Stephen Yenser, friends and literary executors, both, of the much prized poet who succumbed to AIDS in 1995. Placing the new Collected Poems next to the much thinner Selected Poems: 1946-1985 that came out nine years ago clearly indicates the breadth, no less than the expense, of effort lavished by the editors on their gifted friend’s behalf; and much gratitude is owed them for their pains. To have this testament of Ariel at last in our hands, a trove of beguilements so numinous that, hardly breathed upon, they can make of the world according to Caliban—our world—a trim and magical prosperity, is surely a signal event in American poetry and one which will send many ripples outward for some time to come.
     Less numinous in Merrill is the split between man and artist, between voice and vocalics. In fact, nowhere in contemporary American poetry is this split more rivingly problematic than it is in this child of prodigiousness and prodigality. Envied for the wealth and leisure he not so much possessed as commanded, jealousy flowed like lava toward the exceptional facility with which he outshone, outperformed, just plain outranked those in competition with him for prizes and awards. Exacerbating this was the extraordinary stewardship he showed in handling his career. It was said that he negotiated its ups and downs like a money manager who was good with bull markets because he was always suitably armed for bear. Most rattling of all, his poise, studied and with an almost reptilian indifference to publicity, made “the party’s over now” histrionics of many peers, who like him came of age in the ‘40s and ‘50s, look scatterbrained by comparison.
     But while McClatchy and Yenser are to be praised for not letting a single prentice work go A.W.O.L., it is the solidity of this omnium gatherum as a whole that is in every way impressive. For one thing, its elegance and scholarly fastidiousness break with the template favored by many “edition managers” today, which is one of a sock drawer, with labeled partitions for ease of access. Among the poems made available for the first time in this Collected Poems (seen through the press, let it be noted, by Knopf’s toniest designers) are several in the poet’s earliest manner—pieces so convoluted and sibylline as to have had only brief exposure before being withdrawn. But more to the point, the reader of this complete edition may now have in hand a batch of previously “uncollected” poems. The majority of these fall in within Merrill’s characteristically laconic, or even sardonic, vein of satire, where though the wit is hard-edged, the target is often a bullseye of blurry indistinction. Among the more trenchant of these is “Epiphalamium” (1981):

               Look! in full view the woman’s hands at his throat—
               Embracing? strangling him?—the young man rocks
               Forward, back, too glazed to struggle, wax
               In those quick hands, a smile on his lips, remote,
               For of course he’s only a dummy. She’s knotting the tie,
              Manhattan this morning is full of other such lovers
              Behind glass overlaid with clouds and gliding towers,
              Trucks of the garment district, passers-by.

Another (1986), on the recently deceased poet Philip Larkin’s having ascended to the ex cathedra:

                                    He’s gone somewhere
                                    But left his writing,
                                    Plain and inviting
                                    As a Windsor chair.
                                    The sitters? Every sort.
                                    Each struck that artless pose
                                    We face our maker in. God knows
                                    The likeness hurt.
                                    His signature’s
                                    Worm-drill and gleam of cherry
                                    —Vacant now? Unwary
                                    reader, all yours.

“Laser Majesty” (1988) shows he can do hit and run—

                                    Light show at the Planetarium.
                                    Schlock music. Seven colors put through drum
                                    Majorette paces. “We saw God tonight,”
                                    Breathes Wendy. Yes, and He was chewing gum.

—while “Delft” (1961) encapsulates the futilitarian humour of a world left high and dry by art:

                                    What’s left? No place.
                                    After Vermeer
                                    The storm roves elsewhere;
                                    The fates make lace.
                                    History left to steep
                                    In teabrown water
                                    Stretch and totter
                                    On the brink of sleep.
                                    Or by arrangement steal
                                    Meekly from sight
                                    As once more his great
                                    Late light strikes tile
                                    And in the cauldron
                                    Of their own high glaze
                                    Even nowadays
                                    Small figures drown.

     Poems like these—though uncollected, they are in every sense mainstream Merrill—conduct themselves as though the line of Anglo-American verse had never known a single romantic swerve between the death of the Augustans and the investiture of Daryl Hine at Poetry. Their models are the chiseled musings from The Greek Anthology and poets dear to Maecenas—mostly the latter—all meticulously ranged on the chessboard of literature and ready to do battle with the dumbing down of just about everything. The pantheon of modernists (with the exception perhaps of Wallace Stevens), if anywhere acknowledged in the Merrill canon, figure only as third-generational ghosts, backing and filling on estates owned by Elizabeth Bishop, Eugenio Montale, and Constantine Cavafy.
     Or so it would be simpler to maintain, were it not for the Blakean, Wordsworthian, Yeatsian—even Whitmanian—stumbling block of Merrill’s almost sequoia-thick entrée into a world (and genre) likelier associated with Edgar Cayce or Shirley MacLaine than with a distinguished formalist poet: The Changing Light at Sandover. That poem, isolated from the rest of Merrill’s work, gives but the scantest sense of this poet’s formidable skill as a metricist and versifier, ambiguist and paronomasiast. A not untypical page of Sandover will crank itself up as follows—

                                    MY DEARS A TOASTER!  Today’s visitor?
                                    MM & I TWO SLICES POPPING UP
                                    Did you peek? NO    ABSOLUTE RED BLINDNESS
                                    SLICING DOWNWARD LIKE A KNIFE    Did you hear?
                                    THRU OUR CLOSED EYELIDS   WHEN U CLOSED YRS A
                                    HUMMING BEGAN   THE AUDITORIUM
                                    TREMBLED LIKE E’S TERRACE & THE BLADE
                                    OF SILVER FELL   IT WAS I FEAR A FAR
                                    GRANDER MASQUE THAN OURS . . .

—whereas the Merrill of record sounds, in the best sense, more conventionally (and self-critically) rather like this:                             

                 All day from high within the skull—
                Dome of a Pantheon, trepanned—light shines
                 Into the body.  Down that stair
                Sometime’s there’s fog: opaque red droplets check
                The beam.  Sometimes tall redwood-tendoned glades
                Come and go, whose dwellers came and went.
                Now darting feverishly anywhere,
                Manic duncecap its danseuse eludes,
                 Now slowed by grief, white-lipped,
                 Grasping the newel bone of its descent,
                 This light can even be invisible
                 Till a deep sparkle, regular as script,
                  As wavelets of an EKG, defines
                  The dreamless gulf between two shoulder blades.
                                                    (“The Instilling,” 1995)

For who but Merrill could so caparison impression with detail that a couturier, eyeing “Page from the Koran”’s opening stanza, would have difficulty pointing to where the silken skin of the one leaves off and the silk-like-skin of the other begins?

                                    A small vellum environment
                                    Overrun by black
                                    Scorpions of Kufic script—their ranks
                                    All trigger tail and gold vowel-sac—
                                    At auction this mild winter morning went
                                    For six hundred Swiss francs.

     One thing about which there is no doubt, however, is that the weightiness and heft of this Collected Poems declare on every page the care taken in provisioning (as though for the next world) what must be the most opulently elected poetic tombeau since Edgar Allan Poe’s by that eminent committee of Symbolistes, among whose members could be counted Baudelaire and Mallarmé. All of which no doubt stands as a tribute (perhaps more sweet than fitting) to a poet who, having immersed himself in la belle époque’s tenuous remains for nearly half a century, perfected an idiom in which the piss-elegant and the comme il faut could hold converse, if only on alternate days and on a morganatic basis. Or, to push the metaphor a silly millimeter farther, as camp followers of what George Meredith (himself a rebellious castaway of an age only slightly less given to political correctness than our own) stigmatized as “the army of unalterable law.”
     Taken as a biograph (albeit detail-enhanced) of his growth as an artist over that considerable span of years, Merrill’s Collected Poems vaporizes Richard Howard’s view, as expressed in his voluminous study Alone with America: Essays on the Art of Poetry in the United States since 1950 (1971; enlarged edition, 1980), that the poet who authored First Poems (1951), The Country of a Thousand Years of Peace (1959), and Water Street (1962) was indubitably “the most decorative and glamour-clogged America had so far produced.” As a navigator among verse forms, often of his own curious devising and which not infrequently pitted a rhyming Scylla against an elaborately conceited Charybdis, the young Merrill had watched his skill in weaving pseudo-intoxicatedly between lanes of clogging elders grow and reach mind-boggling proficiency. It could even be said that this precocity allowed him to outmaneuver the sculls launched against his talent by the maturational crises that befell him in his years of setting out, when as man and poet it had seemed prudent (as well as expeditious) to find his footing simply by sitting on his hands.
     Whether in Greece or Rome, New York or Stonington, Connecticut (home to Water Street, without italics), Merrill in poems preceding those in The Fire Screen (1969) and Braving the Elements (1972) appeared to be taking an eraser to times that had once seemed marked to him with an indelible pencil. In those volumes a redoubtable artfulness was clearly emerging, but only because, in a rather more subtle way, a commitment to art was being deferred. For something as superfine as true poetry to materialize beyond a spume of words it takes more than just a candle-length of time consuming itself in vacuo, which means more—a great deal more—than could be brought to book in—and here Richard Howard’s phrase is marvelously apt—“crewell-work, lacquer-work and decorative flourishes.” It requires all that Howard reported he had found in Merrill after Water Street:

...I used to reproach this poet, or at least to approach him warily, for being...bejewelled. Cloudy emeralds, star sapphires, glaucous pearls were on every page, studding the desolation like tears. No longer: everything has been clarified, consumed, and one looks through the brilliant poems to the experience they render possible by their intensity of purpose, their diamond-hard joy; nothing is decoration or décor now in Merrill’s poetry, for the poet has discovered the link between what is cosmetic and what is cosmic. His poems are orders of experience from which he has won the right to be the deus absconditus, present everywhere in his works, and only there....

While no poet should be denied the right to “only connect”—between Cracker-jack and Machiavelli, if need be—allowance for certain allowances is at times difficult to make. The one Howard proposes—putting “cosmetic” together with “cosmic”—pays off because of their mutual association with the Greek word kosmos (or “order”). This is good to know since it lets Howard off the hook for appearing to let the then dominant thematic of Merrill’s art ride on so spongy a reductio as “The make-up of one is on the same order as the makeup of all.” Thus his discerning of a new dynamic at work in Merrill’s verse after 1966 makes it seem a real stretch to dismiss the witty labyrinths-in-verse Merrill was designing at that time as the hobbyhorsing around of a sorcerer’s apprentice and not much more.
     In first trying his wings as a poet Merrill found intriguing ways to disguise a lack of genuine originality. As a result of having to learn how to mask absence of content with complexity roiled to an impenetrable spume, he made the discovery that symbolic depths would appear to yawn if distracting contextuality was laid down in sufficiently thick layers. In the shamelessly sycophantic “Accumulations of the Sea” (to cite but one example of the early Merrill’s “composition-by-osmosis”), borrowings from Eliot and Stevens are inadequate proof against miscues into side- or end-pockets that reveal that games of kiss-and-telamon (such as those given real-life fleshing out in his memoir A Different Person (1993) can not only be played without definite rules but without balls as well:  

                        We watch the skeletons of childhood sunken
                        In sockets of the beach, oyster-white stone,
                        Bone, shell, sophistications of nostalgia,
                        A music as of time on the victrola. . . .

     The emptiness of a gambit like this is all too quickly mocked by the time it marks. And indeed, it soon became apparent—even to so sibylline a poet as Merrill—that double-think alone, even with Tiresian Big Brothering added in, does not a Waste Land make. Having bared in First Poems (1951) the carapaces the super-sensitive among us use to shield themselves from untimely recognitions (and even less timely exposures), Merrill wasn’t above banking the fires down below for the sake of matching up—Emily Dickinson-style—compensatory balms with homeopathic Gileads of pain adduced for the occasion. When the Belle of Amherst was in an “acorns from lilies”-wringing mood, as in this 1891 poem—

                                    Essential Oils—are wrung---
                                    The Attar from the Rose
                                    Be not expressed by Suns—alone—
                                    It is the gift of Screws—
                                    The General Rose—decay—
                                    But this—in Lady’s Drawer
                                    Make summer-When the Lady lie
                                    In ceaseless Rosemary—

she is essentially on the same wavelength as Merrill, who also holds that the work of the sun, unaided by press or screws, is more likely to bring forth bouillon than elixir. Lovers know their passion will not run aground for a nettle or two, and that love coaxed from its rut can make delicious any opening made to the ministering angel of le dérèglement du tout, if flesh and spirit alike are willing: 

                        The air is sweetest that a thistle guards
                        And purple thistles in our blue air burn
                        And spiny leaves hold close the light we share.
                        The loose tides sprawl and turn and overturn
                        (Distant pearl-eaters gorging) on the shore,
                        While taut between those waters and these words,
                        Our air, our morning, the poignant thistles weave
                        Nets that bind back, garland the hungering wave.

As an allegory of the homoerotic give-and-take lodged within a Greek idyll of live-and-slake, these lines seem serviceable if a trifle coy. Merrill is plain-speaking to a well-closeted in-group whose notion of style entails avoiding the homely at any cost while indulging (behind shielded grins) in the familiar anodyne (famously carted out in the film version of James Jones’s novel From Here to Eternity) of crescendoing waves of score being paranomasially converted into waves audibly and visibly pounding a shore. His disdain for such compromises doesn’t stop at water’s edge, however. In poems like “Variations . . . “ (cited above), the upper harmonics of Merrill’s idiom invokes a form of camp so high its atmospherics hardly reflect the pre-Stonewall stonewalling the gay lifestyle was driven to in the straight-laced and homophobic brig that was America at mid-century.
     Similar testing of the return policy of the Repressed (if not of the explicitly sexual kind) may also be detected in the mastodonnish garrulities of, would you believe it, Wallace Stevens’s later years—most noticeably perhaps in “Notes toward a Supreme Fiction,” “Auroras of Autumn,” and “An Ordinary Evening in New Haven.” There may be less querulousness shown in Merrill’s efforts to determine the domestic content in American negativism as opposed to that imported; but by a considerable margin those abstract and largely over-the-hill tootlings on the kazoo laid down by the Surety Bondsman from Hartford—and Randall Jarrell’s oft-cited impatience with them is right on the money—are they not less seemly than their seeming might seem? Might those reams of Emerson-stücke, so frozen in their half-light and cherished only by Harold Bloom, be hiding something subfusc that perhaps warrants closer scrutiny?
      But to go down that road is to open wide the door to public prying of the sort literary studies was warned to abjure in T. S. Eliot’s door-slamming manifesto of 1919, “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” There being no evidence of lids being kept on by force of will—at least not sexual ones—in these late Stevens extravaganzas, no need exists to scour the countryside for keys with which to prise them open. Still, what remains most odd—and difficult to pin down—about Merrill’s publications in the ‘50s is their apparent indifference to commotions within the gay artistic community beyond MacDougall Street, which is to say that part of Greenwich Village distinguishable from the zone of intemperance that in a few short years would become notorious as the East Village, a drug culture and punk-prole redoubt more in tune with East Berlin than Manhattan. It was precisely these below-ground rumblings that provided the best advance notice of the mountain building that was about to begin and later reveal itself as the New York School of poetry. Not for Merrill the eat-on-the-run improvisations of a Schuyler or a Koch, whose poems trope their own de trop-ness and trump the trashiness of the popcult they venerate with decks of flashcards canny enough for a Houdini to have stacked them. Merrill’s composing vortex—unlike, say, Frank O’Hara’s—seems not so much a funnel of cyclonic particulars seeking to discharge its energy as an eddy or backwater in which flotsam and jetsam of polychrome tint are left to swirl, whirl, purl, reel and spin in tightly concentric patterns.
     Having perfected the dynamic able to loose these configurations into reiterative structures similar enough within a range of variations to constitute a style (which only seems to fizz and pop like a force of nature), Merrill never once looked back. Their windtunnel effects might vary from poem to poem, but the symphony of wavelets lapping metrically over sandbars of images remains a triumph of controlled agitation. Nor is the downward thrust to meaning ever permitted to overtax the formalistic current giving the wavelets their characteristic wind-bruised “thwack.” “The Blue Grotto,” from Late Settings (1985), sinuously demonstrates how interplay of flux and rivulet shape and extend an aperçu most other poets would have been content to scry through aspic:

                                    That boatman rowed into
                                    That often sung impasse.
                                    Each visitor foreknew
                                    A floor of lilting glass
                                    A vault of rock, lit blue.
                                    But here we faced the fact.
                                    As misty expectations
                                    Dispersed, and wavelets thwacked
                                    In something like impatience,
                                    The point was to react. 

                                    Alas for characteristics!
                                    Diane fingered the water.
                                    Don tested the acoustics
                                    With a paragraph from Pater.
                                    Jon shut his eyes—these mystics—
                                    Thinking his mantra. Jack
                                    Came out with a one-liner,
                                    While claustrophobiac
                                    Janet fought off a minor
                                    Anxiety attack.
                                    Then from our gnarled (his name?)
                                    Boatman (Gennaro!) burst
                                    Some local, vocal gem
                                    Ten times a day rehearsed.
                                    It put us all to shame:
                                    The astute sob, the kiss
                                    Blown in sheer routine
                                    Before one left the scene . . .
                                    Years passed, and I wrote this.

Unself-consciousness, years passed. . .this: the hallmark of the early Merrillian vortex is a waterslide of sibilance (sibyllance?), as though the only way to keep the flinty surface of time from giving off sparks of boredom was to damp it with extinguishing sounds. But since the meaningless must in some way give rise to the meaningful (how else account for the poem eked from mere rummage?), from a sea-bottom of attenuations there must surely arise, wrapped in plummy coincidence, proof beyond sheen of credulity that "all things in time grow musical.” Do we not still read Pound’s “Portrait d’une Femme” to experience what it is like to be caught in the undertow of such assurances?


     As with other virtualists of a style too pockmarked with candor to qualify as “grand” but not quite enervated enough to drop to the self-gratulatory demotic, Merrill’s forte is the “representative poem.” The revelatory birthmark of this genre is the weighing in with a testament whose codicils, aureate with gravity, set forth the conditions that have shaped the poet’s calling, but its dispository form is not set in concrete. Merrill ended up writing more poems of this kind than almost anyone else of his generation because, quite simply, he could afford to. By calling in the debt of his own enormous personal wealth he could project beyond Stonewall (and later, the catastrophe of AIDS) the almost pedestrian normality of the American homosexual poet abroad (or the much traveled homosexual American poet with a pied à terre in Connecticut and New York) in a way denied fellow writers without such freedom of movement. As the privileged son of one of the founders of Merrill, Lynch & Company, a brokerage house eponymized as “The Thundering Herd” in days when bull markets stretched far as the eye can see, the path lay open to him to defy convention from both sides of sex’s third rail and try to write honestly, if somewhat convolutedly, about the outlawry that Alfred Kinsey in his famous report came near to identifying not with sin and vice, but with arrested adolescence.  Having himself never experienced a bear market’s comeuppance, Merrill had to learn, in a very different woodshed, that too much of a good thing can leave one adrift amid hankerings—no less compensatory—for the anorexic, the excruciating, the gorgeously demeaned and befouled.
      The size of Merrill’s Collected Poems would appear rather to have him hoist on the petard of the observation made by Dylan Thomas that the kingdom of versifiers is populated entirely by slim poets with fat volumes and fat poets with slim volumes. He was, and remained until his death, slight of build and possessed of a mischievous charm suggesting (when The Changing Light at Sandover is front and center) Puck with a black belt in oneirics. 
     Certainly it could truthfully (if reflexively) be said of his work that “’His true Penelope was Auden’”—the quotes within quotes recalling Ezra Pound’s Mauberley II rather than Mauberley I (a heroic astringency having replaced a sedentary grace), at least in the prolepsis of retrospect, in the verse published after Water Street (1962). A new firmness in the form of a more resonant timbre becomes discernible in his poetry beginning with Night and Days (1966), a collection whose poem titles “Violent Pastoral” and “Days of 1964” reflect a decided darkening overtaking the pastel figurations of earlier pieces such as “The Charioteer of Delphi” and “For Proust.” “A Vision of the Garden” (from the 1962 volume) had opened with the self-administered remonstrance of a childhood experience associated with etching faces on a frozen pane. The poet recalls seeing in lined transparencies created by a finger’s warmth a winter garden heavy with the promise of sun on snow. The child, now molten man, fashions from memory and ice long since dissolved a face whose features are made indistinguishable from his present lover’s by the increased resolution of years spent anticipating the melting of other, more emotionally restricting ice. But the poet takes no comfort in having supplanted the child whose loneliness caused him long ago to coax a rebus of warmth out of a nimbus of frost. Rather he senses, with impending dread, the coldness that will someday claim what two winters, coalescent in dream and synchronic in dread, froze anticipatorily into being:        

                                                            . . .
            I was a child, I did not know
            That what I longed for would resist
            Neither what cold lines should my fingers trace
            On colder grounds before I found anew
            In yours the features of that face
            Whose words whose looks alone undo
            Such frosts I lay me down in love in fear
            At how they melt become a blossoming pear
            Joy outstretched in our bodies’ place.

The hesitancies attendant upon acknowledging the sexual orientation of the love amortized in these lines cause them to be weighed down with an agogic stammer noticeably out of sync with the emotions under review. The rewards of synchronicity hint at their own otherworldly redemptive potential as a metaphor of the creative process itself. To “undo / Such frosts” as memory throws up to confirm loneliness’s capacity to outregenerate love is to dissolve the pleasure/pane principle that throughout much of his childhood had the poet under its green thumb.
      Another poem, “After Greece,” also from the period of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, presses a similar claim but appertaining to a much different homestead and gourmet’s paradise. Its opening gambit is one of cultivated knowingness, with a trace of Wildean wisdom adulterated—regrettably, one feels—to a child’s dose of Gidean immoralism:

                        Light into the olive entered
                        And was oil. Rain made the huge pale stones
                        Shine from within.The moon turned his hair white
                        Who next stepped from between the columns,
                        Shielding his eyes. All through
                        The countryside were old ideas
                        Found lying open to the elements.
                        Of the gods’ houses only
                        A minor premise here and there
                        Would be balancing the heaven of fixed stars
                        Upon a Doric capital.

Real seriousness peeking out from behind a jaded insouciance: a Cavafian signature not at all infrequently encountered in Merrill’s first flush of poetic maturity. It can be seen in a number of pieces in the section devoted to previously uncollected poems at the back of the volume under review, and it is very much the strategy shaping the sample of work submitted by Merrill to The New Poets of England and America (1957), a “quality paperback” anthology edited by Donald Hall, Robert Pack and Louis Simpson, that sought to capitalize upon the interest in young writers sparked by the unusual commercial success enjoyed by such cutting-edge mass market literary magazines as New World Writing, New Campus Writing and Discovery. Though a second collection along similar lines appeared with its title unchanged seven years later, both versions of New Poets—and especially the first—came under withering fire by critics who later claimed the years had confirmed what many had feared when the anthology first came out: not a single memorable poem was to be found anywhere in its nearly 350 pages.
    Merrill’s contribution to the 1957 volume consisted of four poems—“The Bed,” “Cloud Country,” “Variations: The Air Is Sweetest That a Thistle Guards,” and “For a Second Marriage”—all of which were written around 1950-51 and mirror in their primly paraded particulars the tight-ass smarts and Funk & Wagnall dyspepsia of the poets for whom Allen Ginsberg’s Howl was the very bellow of the Anti-Christ. No need to name names here—sobriquets like the Tweed Contingent, the Moss-covered poets, and Wilbur’s Talking Mules, say it all: appropriate etiquette for poets required that legs be kept closed, obscurity made a watchword, and a grasp of technique be sufficiently flaunted to cause even deeper lines to apear in the Audenian face and jaws to hit the floor at Bard and similar places. Here is Merrill in “The Bed,” showing all and sundry how this hat trick is consummated:

                        Where do we go, my love, who have been led
                        Afire and naked to our firelit bed?
                        For look! Someone is sleeping there, his head

                        Pinned to the pillows by his own left arm,
                        Who sinks, who in swift currents of alarm
                        Sinks glistening (as though the night were warm)

                        Down through the rocking fathoms of the skin
                        To where the dreamers, brows on arms, begin
                        Bearing the dream each has been trammeled in. . . .

And so on, coyly ad nauseam, to the unbelievably arch conclusion (reached in the tenth and final tercet) in which the possibility of a threesome (dangled smirkingly thoughout) is decorously—the phrase is too delicious to resist—put to bed with a regretfully dismissive wave of the hand. The revels having ended, the speaker calls it a night, and exhausted from so much expenditure of wit and wisdom, admonishes his lover to let the sleeper be, opportunities for their own late-night wick trimming lying elsewhere.   

                                    Come, leave him to his dream. Too long we’ve kept
                                    Watch by this bed familiar except
                                    For one strange sleeper. It is time we slept.

The serious and true knowledge masked by this shorted-out fabliau is that to be part of a triangle necessitates the taking of sides, which more often than not results in the flatlining of two relationships, not just one. “Sleeper” is a lover’s code equivalent for fifth column, killer virus, time bomb; the bed of the poem’s title is a seedbed, for horrors unleashed because prudently forsworn.
     Merrill’s second contribution, “Cloud Country,” mostly forswears originality and we see cumulous dollops of Stevensiana scudding by like conceptual balloons in a comic strip’s idea of order. Its onset is pure Jaques to Amiens, if how he liked it were at all ascertainable:

                                    How like a marriage is the season of clouds.
                                    The winds at night are festive and constellations
                                    Like stars in a kaleidoscope dissolve
                                    And meet in astounding images of order.
                                    How like a wedding and how like travelers
                                    Through alchemies of a healing atmosphere
                                    We whirl with hounds on leashes and lean birds.

     What, oh what, are we to make of such stuff? Poems like this don’t mean or symbolize, they portend.  For heaven’s sake, even Stevens’s reports to the loons on Chocorua and Catawba gave us something mullable to moon over, but “Country Clouds” merely leaves us with the impression of having been mooned by the unmullable. True and serious knowledge? How much sagesse can a passel of clouds recuperate? The “we” who “like voyagers . . . come upon this season of right clouds, / Valors of altitude, white harbors . . . ,” hit the gangplank of the third and last stanza feeling as though on a tour of San Francisco Bay we’d been shown the Golden Gate bridge from the interior of one of its girders. Still, here’s no denying that the smugness (masquerading as gratitude laced with wonder) undercoating the diction is as close to a content as this smarmy simulacrum of a poem ever comes. The pea is there, but in this game of “Con the Rube” the shells palm one another.
     In fairness to Merrill, his offerings are far from being the most blague-ridden and unreadable in the anthology. Other poets, some destined to make as respected a name for themselves as he, turned in performances that, to rate them charitably, range from creakingly dull to downright wretched. Part of the problem with being a poet whose adolescence coincided with the Depression and hard upon that, the Second World War, was that for many the post-war years entailed a second exile, spent most often in France or Italy. Though such an experience can indeed be bracing, much of the acculturation to European mores, many Americans find, occurs only in returning home—if such a place exists—to answers outgrown and “days reflected in a doubtful mirror”:

                                    But where is home—these walls?
                                    These limbs? The very spaniel underfoot
                                    Races in sleep toward what?
                                    It is autumn. I did not invite
                                    Those guests, windy and brittle, who drink my liquor.

The demeaning forgetfulness; the bait of booze (one’s own) causing fishnets to be thrown over one’s attempts to make it upstream; the dogcollar of class chafing from the side of privilege and servitude, both—all three are as endemic to the “age of Auden” as a Noël Coward quip. But the guests, windy and brittle, are as undeniably linked to The Waste Land as that sullen (and by 1940 utterly clichéd) Anglo-American entre-deux-guerres cocktail—with its dash of bitters floating up astringencies of Nightwood and Hollywood—that calls up images from West’sThe Day of the Locust in fiction and bits out of Kenneth Fearing’s jargon-slang-and-patter routines in verse. Superficially, the effect is of Auden Redivivus; but then, we’re pressed to recall that much of the illusionism that allows us to imagine the lion’s share of Auden surviving the tarpits of the ‘30s and ‘40s derives from the impression conveyed—mostly by its severity and lilt—of an Eliot clone, English-educated (unlike Old Possum himself), a smash at unsticking wickets, and as congenially at home as at play in the fields of the bored.
     At that time Auden could write, as he did in “September 1, 1939,” lines that shocked readers unwilling to acknowledge that anxiety and complacency were two sides of but one narcissistic coin—though they would later be dropped from his Collected Poems on grounds of dishonesty:

                                    Faces along the bar
                                    Cling to their average day:
                                    The lights must never go out,
                                    The music must always play,
                                    All the conventions conspire
                                    To make this fort assume
                                    The furniture of home;
                                    Lest we should see where we are,
                                    Lost in a haunted wood,
                                    Children afraid of the night
                                    Who have never been happy or good.

Though expressions like these wormed their way into so many anthologies that even summary expungement could not annihilate their genial chromosomes, their flip arabesques of abstraction make them today seem hobbled by the very nursery-bound anodynes their author once thought proof against shadow-boxing with evil. Too facile even to be morbid, they also lacked mordancy enough to arouse anything but the self-pitying and vice-indulgent mea culpas that increasingly had become the ruck of that Estate most given to taking the Fifth.
     Merrill, to his credit, admired the less mercurial Auden, the down-at-heels Juvenal caught between the middlebrow pretentiousness of Harold Ross’s New Yorker and the highbrow, High Anglican austerity of Eliot’s Ash-Wednesday. A grimly vacant style to airless wanness beat is what it most resembled—or to put it another way, the Auden style that didn’t reach its apogee of attenuation until the early to mid-‘50s, when poems like “In Praise of Limestone” and “The Shield of Achilles” started trickling into journals in which taste in poetry was not so much exhibited as legislated.
      It was this ability to discern the difference between self-indulgence and self-refulgence that turned Merrill away from the factitiously Audenish and toward the legitimately Audenesque. What this entailed was a virtuosic eclecticism and facility with verse forms that made the wit-suffused moralizing that characterized the early ‘60s a medium that even an Iowa U.-hauler could thrash about in. Less a Wildean cold shower than a “dangerous supplement” born first of “thinking the unthinkable” with Herman Kahn and later of unthinking the thinkable in line with the tantric pretzel-warps designed in Paris, the New Dispensation turned the couch-potato poet away from things bookish toward large and small screens activated by them. It also allowed the underside of Auden, the discreetly suppressed homosexual side, to luxuriate in the thaw which some hoped would ultimately transform the the traditional gay as pariah into the gay as persona grata. The latter represented a radical departure from the compulsively overcompensating quean so stylishly outed in Susan Sontag’s paean to the closet, “Notes on Camp” (1964). Auden certainly could not have written the lines from “16.IX.65,” from the 1969 Merrill collection, The Fire Screen, that follow, though the vacation from rhyme and the other amenities of formalism are not beyond the asperities of the English poet’s later manner:

                                    Summer’s last half-moon waning high
                                    Dims and curdles. Up before the bees
                                    On our friend’s birthday, we have left him
                                    To wake in their floating maze.
                                    Light downward strokes of yellow, green, and rust
                                    Render the almond grove.  Trunk after trunk
                                    Tries to get right, in charcoal,
                                    The donkey’s artless contrapposto. . . .

These are, as Merrill’s title flatly suggests, Ruskinesque tidbits otherwise consignable to a Tagbuch or artist’s diary. The poem commemorates a day of splendid Mediterranean fishing in the company of close friends, a time of feeling gloriously at sea and suspended within a time warp of living for its own sake—which is to say, enjoying a life free of care and the sexual and financial worries that care inevitably wreaks upon insouciance. The poet is wakeful not only to the day’s unappeasable serenity, but also to its brilliancies and half-lights which sparkle like “line after spangled line of light, light verse”:

                                    The tiny fish risen excitedly
                                    Through absolute transparence
                                    Lie in the boat, gasping and fanning themselves
                                    As if the day were warmer than the sea.

In this grunion run of small but unimprovable splendors, even the donkey, Mavrili, shares in the bounty so glisteningly strewn in the path of the blessed. The certitude of the moment’s uniqueness is matchless, uncompromisable:

                A radio is playing “Mack the Knife”.
                The morning catch fills one straw hat.
                Years since I’d fished. Who knows when in this life
                Another chance will come?
                Between our toes unused to sandals
                Each step home strikes its match.
                And now, with evening’s four and twenty candles
                Lit among stars, waves, pines

                To animate our friend’s face, all our faces
                About a round, sweet loaf,
                Mavrili brays. We take him some,
                Return with honey on our drunken feet.

An unsulliable contentment, which comes near to out-etherealizing the Burguete episode of Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, graces these day’s-end disbursements of sun and sea. However, unlike Jake Barnes’s redemptive interlude amid the trout-streams of Spain, it remains very much a terrestrial, rather than a paradisial, happiness, accoutered in the peacefulness of a singular time and place. On this occasion the poet is enjoying a busman’s holiday from family wealth and creative leisure management, the bliss of the super-rich child with a blind trust in everything and everything in a blind trust.
     Being free to look, the poet is free also to overlook what mere looking will not let him see. Which is why he is where he is, soaking up the Greek sun and putting off indefinitely what the alternate self of A Different Person: A Memoir (1993) later nostalgically recollected having been part of: namely, a campaign waged during that formative season of his life when it seemed possible to “disentangle . . . ourselves from our past and present worlds.” Such double evasion of indirection could, he learned, be brought off by settling into hypostases of cinematic transcendence which in fact remained his poetic hallmark even when, after years of draping his stage on which these were projected in velvet of the most luxuriant sheen, it became difficult to tell the best boy from the merely ambitious grip. His homosexuality had something to do with this, but it tonsured, not shaped, his mature poetic demeanor. The pudding incorporating life and art is proof against its own too rapid eating by those too preoccupied with what Winston Churchill in a famous after-dinner remark (involving a rather different pudding) called its “theme.” It is perhaps unfair to say (but for all that no less true) that later Merrill is all too often early Merrill, second-run; but do the first stanza of “Words for Maria” written in the late ‘60s—

            Unjeweled in black as ever comedienne
            Of mourning if not silent star of chic,
            You drift, September nightwind at your back,
            The half block from your flat to the Bon Goût,
            Collapse, order a black
            Espresso and my ouzo in that Greek
            Reserved for waiters, crane to see who’s who
            Without removing your dark glasses, then,
            Too audibly: “Eh, Jimmy, qui sont ces deux strange men?”

  —and this vignette, no less filmic, from “Last Mornings in California,” cementing the handprint of the early-to-mid-‘80s—-

                        Another misty one. These opaline
                        Emulsions of world and self. Paulette high up
                        In eucalyptus uttering her sun cry.
                        Arms reaching for the glimmer coming, going.
                        Tan shingle house, its hearth outcold, its tenant
                        Likewise, under patchwork. Fortune told
                        In Cups, a child on whom the Sun sweats fire,
                        The cards inverted, strewn, and his wild words
                        “Fool that once was and Hermit one now is,
                        Simple Death we’ll both feel like tomorrow—“

—-really inhabit different staging areas? Or are they merely stowed in separate compartments of the same time capsule, differently wrapped but with bloodlines showing through multiple epidermal layers of forgetfulness?  
     Frank O’Hara, Merrill’s imprecise contemporary and in more respects than either would have been willing to cop to, his “opposing self” within gay circles, was among the first to take the step—somewhat radical in those days—of becoming a homosexual poet rather than writing as a poet who happens to be gay. He felt his way, at first haltingly and then more confidently, through a thicket of adolescent crushes before seizing upon the artistically profitable Arthurian/Auteur-ian romance of American movies as a metaphorical home-away-from-home. Through a heroic act of world-transforming imagination O’Hara made the not very numerous readers of his Lunch Poems, Meditations in an Emergency, and other collections feel that the Hollywood pulsing behind the titillations hawked by the tabloids was somehow as innocent, as inarguably splinters of the true cross, as Dorothy’s emerald slippers or the Crimson Pirate’s toothy smile. The golden age of the movies—auras of Garbo and Dietrich for those cresting its swell, days of swine and grosses for those merely indentured to its swill—was, he had come to believe, the only Erhebung, with or without motion, America was ever likely to be moved by en masse, so why not encourage a distinctly American poetry to reach for such megalopolitan nirvana in verse? After all, had not the most accomplished Erhebungler of them all, T. S. Eliot, created a new poetry by unleashing its (albeit negative) form and dynamic in verse reflecting what Hugh Kenner, in an essay on the origins of The Waste Land, published in the 1970s, dubbed the “urban apocalypse”?
     For the Merrill who had outgrown the facile conundrums on view in New Poets of England and America, however, the marriage of anything—even bodies that had known heavenly embrace for a time—cannot escape the emergence of a selfish, even sadistic, dynamic, which is perhaps why as a critic he attains the highest levels of perception only when plumbing another poet’s darker side. For example, an assignment to appraise Volume I of The California Dante, the Inferno, edited and translated by Allen Mandelbaum, did indeed elicit some of the most trenchant aperçus that poem of poems has managed to cull in recent years. But just because a wedding allows to be displayed a manufacturer’s logo reading “Made in Hell,” that is not in itself a guarantee that precision engineering and quality control played a part in the nuptials being celebrated. The probities Merrill finds meritorious in Dante are quite markedly different from those he claims as indispensable to his own purposes as a poet. As suggested earlier, he might belong to a discriminated against minority, but he seems not at all concerned with issues of concern to that constituency.
     Can poetry written with consummate skill, verve and intelligence somehow not be in the final analysis up there with even the work of those giants occupying the rung below the Homers, the Dantes and the Shakespeares? The enormously distinguished career of James Merrill suggests that it can, though the reservations attendant upon such a conclusion continue both troubling and double-edged since his death six years ago. Those scrupulous soundings of postwar epicurean Europe—and meso-stoic America—put out over this author’s signature over the last half-century—who could deny their salience as pulse-readings and fever charts of modern selfhood’s new world order? And if they are not all the way to echt as genuine article, then surely they have in them enough of the next best thing as to bedazzle even the most demanding critic into downsizing the disparity between so-called “classic” poetry and what the majority of readers out to experience the Sistine Chapels and Musées des Beaux Arts of the form usually end up settling for. Hence, the artistic value of Merrill’s spiritualist junkets, like the meaning of those Ouija-driven pow-wows with the Beyond that Sandover’s megaphone refracts into unnatural history, is neither here nor there. Since so many of that poem’s insights transcend the quackery floated by its two amanuenses as a breakthrough in psychic “channeling,” we can forgive Merrill his chutzpah in trying to pass off recycled gnostic chopped liver as demiurgos-catered ambrosia.
     Still, the obstacles presented to Merrill’s writing by such detours (and here one can only hope posterity will not override present critical opinion) cannot be overlooked, though the tendency of limpid conversational turns (of which he was, in the view of many, a master) to overshadow the shallow and meretricious in his work adds lustre to even his less memorable efforts. In a poem like “Graffito” (1988), for instance, what might never have risen above “times Roman, à clef takes on quite unexpectedly a resonance not to be predicted where double-entendre serves both as raised eyebrow and as eyebrow-raiser. Remarking ad lib on the found poem of a graffito depicting a “forearm neatly drawn in black” and bearing the logo of the Italian Christian Democratic party, the poet ponders, with a curiosity bewitched by the fastidious indelicacy of the icons in whose name ignorant armies of the benighted always clash with sexual demons never consciously their own:  

                        Arms and the man. This arm ends in a hand
                        Which grasps a neatly, elegantly drawn
                        Cock—erect and spurting tiny stars---
                        And balls. One sports . . . a swastika?
                        Yes, and its twin, if you please, a hammer-and-sickle!
                        The tiny stars, seen close, are stars of David.
                        Now what are we supposed to make of that?
                        Wink from Lorenzo, pout from Mrs. Pratt.
                        Hold on, I want to photograph this latest
                        Fountain of Rome, whose twinkling gist
                        Gusts my way from an age when isms were largely
                        Come-ons for the priapic satirist,
                        And any young guy with a pencil felt
                        He held the fate of nations in his fist. 

No suggestion here of Italian Hours by Henry James tarted up as a Hans Werner Henze Singspiel; but neither is it a drip-dry version of the all-wet (and yes, it needs to be said, Cagily domesticated) Dada so readily given the echt stamp in such “out there” cut-ups of the early New York School as Ashbery’s The Tennis-Court Oath or O’Hara’s Biotherm.      
     Fortunately for Merrill, he was always uncannily aware, even in his own most forward-looking work, of when to leave well enough alone and when, against the blandishments of form, to let intuition speak. He thus escaped running afoul of the principle that better is often not only the enemy of good, but, as that over-revised death’s head “Ode to the Confederate Dead” by Allen Tate proclaims, its chief publicist in hell as well. In his memoir A Different Person (1993) Merrill recalls how, when persuaded by his psychotherapist that he had difficulty accepting love, he immediately sought ways to probe the consequences of this insight to his poetry:

. . . [In] an instant, dream-like transition I found myself talking about my writing and defending my sense that a poem too easy to read was without value. Not that I aimed at total impenetrability. My difficult surfaces were rather a kind of . . . mask, an invitation to . . . to the right reader who could have fought through to the poem’s emotional core. Could I accept love from such a reader? I wasn’t at all sure that I could.

                                            Part II

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