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 to other poets, but she enjoys a very wide readership beyond this category. Merrill, on the other hand, seems to remain a specialist taste.

His readers are invariably keen ones. Merrill has the good fortune to enjoy the support of many fine poets and critics: Stephen Yenser and J. D. McClatchy obviously come first to mind, but other names can and should be mentioned: for example, such critics as David Kalstone, David Lehman, Helen Vendler… And poets like Anthony Hecht, John Hollander and Rachel Hadas have declared their admiration for him as one of the greatest poets of the twentieth century. On his death a striking number of elegies were published, by the poets already mentioned, but also by many others. Indeed, one can even imagine a small book being published of such tributes.

Most of the tributes are not only to the literary artist but also to the man. It is widely acknowledged that Merrill had a great gift for friendship. And here perhaps it is not necessary to make a clear distinction between the poet and the man, since one of the recurring themes in his poetry is friendship. Merrill has a most distinctive voice, and one of the sensations (illusions?) his poems arouse in the reader is that of a direct contact with the writer. One of Merrill’s poetic masters, W. H. Auden, stated that in the case of Byron all the major poetry resounds with the voice of Byron the Friend, rather than Byron the Bard. For all his formal dexterity and his ambitiousness (labeling one of his volumes Divine Comedies is quite a gesture), Merrill is never bardic. The voice we hear is that of a civilized and cultivated man of letters and of the world, willing to share his experiences with the reader, on the understanding that such experiences have universal import.

There are reasons—not necessarily good ones—why people might be wary of approaching his poetry. First, there is the knowledge of the privileged background; some are put off by the thought of a writer who never had to work for his living. The simplest way to answer this would be just to point to the fact that few writers in fact worked so hard (and so productively) at their craft. There is also, of course, the fact that Merrill succeeded brilliantly in analyzing and satirizing the privileged social class into which he was born—quite as well as Edith Wharton or F. Scott Fitzgerald, for example. And there is his well-known (although never advertised) generosity.

Then there are those Ouija boards… How seriously are we expected to take poetry that is the product of such… not to put too fine a point on it, such daftness? Well, one answer could be just to indicate the similar case of Yeats—and to point out that Merrill presents his findings with a good deal more wit and irony than did his predecessor. Another is to take heed of Merrill’s own answer to the question on why he should make use of such esoteric means: the board serves as a way to get beyond the self; even if, as skeptics might suspect, it is actually oneself that one is drawing on in the end, “then that self is much stranger and freer and more farseeing than the one you thought you knew” (“Interview with J. D. McClatchy”). Having said that, I will admit to finding the second and third books of the trilogy at times rather heavy-going. The Book of Ephraim, on the other hand, is indisputably one of the great long poems of the last century.

A further possible stumbling-block is that Merrill is often a difficult poet. He is a master of allusion, expecting from his readers a certain acquaintance with other literatures (Proust, Dante and Rilke are recurring presences) and with other forms of art (opera is particularly important). However, the assumption that lies behind this form of cultured inter-textuality is that as human beings we can all share in the great plenitude of civilization’s offerings. The aim is never that of excluding unfit readers. We are rather all invited to partake in the same cultured but convivial conversation, spanning epochs and continents (and even linking this world with the next one). He is certainly nothing like as willfully obscure in his allusions as Ezra Pound.

As for those who accuse him of excessive artifice at the expense of feeling, all I can say is that they have not read him widely or deeply enough. I would invite such critics to read his poem “Investiture at Cecconi’s”—and then Moira Egan’s essay on the poem, published here. Little more needs to be said on Merrill’s capacity for feeling—and his ability to move the reader as well. Merrill certainly does not wear his heart on his glistening Oriental sleeve, but it beats warmly enough.

Having gestured towards one of the essays published in this special issue, I can now proceed to present them all together. As in previous years we have collected here a number of the papers delivered at the critical seminar at the annual West Chester University Poetry Conference (June 2013). The conference regularly holds a three-day seminar devoted to a specific poet; each participant presents a paper on a single poem, which leads into a general discussion. This year thirteen of us attended the seminar on Merrill; as I stated last year with regard to Hardy, this system, of course, leaves some 400 poems or so undiscussed (in Hardy’s case the volume of Collected Poems obligingly provides the exact number), but nonetheless the wide-ranging discussion that ensued upon the close readings meant that we did manage to obtain (and, we hope, to communicate) some idea of the full range and depth of Merrill’s extraordinary body of work, and we all felt enriched by the experience.

In this selection, April Lindner offers a sensitive reading of “After Greece,” thus introducing the topic of Merrill’s travels and his experience of otherness. Meredith Bergmann, drawing on her experience as a sculptor, gives a fascinating and scholarly paper on the sequence “Losing the Marbles,” bringing out all the complexities and pleasures of the seven poems. Lorna Blake insightfully discusses a key text in the Merrill canon, “The Broken Home.” My own essay considers the Venetian section from The Book of Ephraim, suggesting the importance of an allusion to Il Paradiso, which has hitherto gone unnoticed.

John Foy examines a little-known poem, “Family Week at Oracle Ranch,” and provides a study of Merrill’s satirical mode, while also showing how the poem “transcends satire to end as a meditation on human frailty.” Thomas J. Brennan gets to the heart of Merrill’s thoughts and feelings on friendship, in a rich study of the poem “The Friend of the fourth Decade.” Charles Doersch, in a witty and spirited essay, chooses, as he puts it, a “slender poem,” the geode sonnet from the sequence “In Nine Sleep Valley” in order to demonstrate the importance of donning “lavender glasses” when reading Merrill.

Christopher Nathan Corl, with great scholarly tact and perspicuity, examines a poem from Merrill’s last volume, “Pearl,” to show “the composed elegance of Merrill” in the face of his imminent death from AIDS. The same awareness is the subject of Moira Egan’s witty and moving essay already referred to, on the poem “Investiture at Cecconi’s.”

All that remains, therefore, is, in the spirit of true Merrillean hospitality, to invite the reader in.

One has brought violets in a pot;
The second, wine; the best,
His open, empty hand. Now in the room
The sun is shining like a lamp.
I put the flowers where I need them most

And then, not asking why they come,
Invite the visitors to sit.
If I am host at last
It is of little more than my own past.
May others be at home in it.

(from “A Tenancy,” Water Street)


About Gregory Dowling

Gregory Dowling grew up in Bristol, UK, and studied at Oxford University. Since 1979 he has lived in Italy; he is a professor of American literature at the University of Venice. Apart from his academic interests he has published four thrillers, set in England and Italy, and he has written and regularly updates the sightseeing pages for the Time Out Guide to Venice. His most recent book is a study of the poet David Mason (Story Line Press).
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