James Merrill’s Friends and Critics

James Merrill’s Apocalypse by Timothy Materer. Cornell UP.

Familiar Spirits: A Memoir of James Merrill and David Jackson by Alison Lurie. Viking. 

As Reviewed By: Justin Quinn

The publication of James Merrill’s Collected Poems this year has made his long poem, The Changing Light at Sandover, appear somewhat eccentric to the course of his career. While some of his outstanding lyric powers are in evidence in the long poem, they are drowned out by the unremitting prose and theories of science. One can’t take it seriously as a comment on the state of civilization, and one can’t take it seriously as an extension of the tradition of the long poem. It is perhaps best considered as an oblique autobiography which picks up the thread where his memoir, A Different Person, left off, and traces the poet’s life into middle-age.[private]

The two books under review here are both concerned with it and they complement each other well: their central concern is James Merrill’s long poem, The Changing Light at Sandover, and they disagree fundamentally about it. For Materer, the theme of apocalypse is not restricted to Sandover, but pervades Merrill’s poetry from the beginning; and so, by attending to this theme, Materer feels that it is possible to reassess Merrill’s whole career. Necessarily, then, he is convinced of Sandover’s importance, whereas Lurie views it as an aberration which wreaked havoc in Merrill’s personal life, parasitically feeding off the creative energies of Merrill’s lifelong partner, David Jackson, and estranging him from friends for long periods. Further, where Materer’s approach is dryly LitCrit, Lurie’s is the intimate memoir of someone who was close to the two lovers in the 1950s and later on in the late ’70s and ’80s. But Materer also offers privileged knowledge of a kind as his is the first study to be written with access to the Merrill archive. It would be fair to suppose that between them the books would transform our view of one of the outstanding American poets of the last century, but they fail to deliver.

Materer is methodical, but has little intuition when reading the poems. He dutifully remarks on the presence of apocalyptic imagery throughout the poetry, but does not persuade us that apocalypse was central to Merrill’s poetic imagination. There might indeed be many images of mass destruction (it was after all the time of the Cold War), but to suggest that such a theme was as important as the themes of love, friendship, and art in Merrill’s poetry seems misguided. He is less than judicious when assessing Merrill’s prose: “The Seraglio is comparable to the novels of Edith Wharton and Henry James in its subtlety of plot, characterization, and a setting which is both realistically vivid and symbolically suggestive.” But the main problem is that his central chapters on the long poem itself do little more than paraphrase it, and the only kind thing that can be said for them is at least they will save students the labour of reading Sandover. There are some tantalising quotations from the letters that whet the appetite for their publication, but Materer has not capitalised on his access to the archives. Either that, or there’s nothing in them, which possibility seems unlikely, given the extent of Merrill’s correspondence. There is also a worrying slip which makes one wonder how well Materer knows other poets: he believes that W.B. Yeats criticised William Blake for lacking a sense of evil, when it was Emerson that the Irish poet accused. This from someone who wrote a book on poetry and the occult is surprising.

The highlights of Alison Lurie’s book are the passages at its beginning and its end. They recount her friendship with the two men, first when they were all living in Amherst in the 1950s, and once again together in Florida in the late 1970s and early ’80s. The central section of the book is a negative critique of Sandover. While I agree with its general verdict, it is lazily written, with Lurie often considering that her demurrals are their own explanation. One sees the same points made more intelligently and compellingly by Vernon Shetley in his After the Death of Poetry (1993)–a book which Materer also would have done well to consult more often. She argues that Jackson deserved co-authorship of Sandover, at the same time she thinks it is not an important poem. The memoir also seems to be written with a smouldering resentment that her friends never considered her quite as brilliant as themselves, and it is true that Lurie’s position as a novelist is nowhere near that of Merrill as a poet. Nevertheless, the memoir offers valuable insights into the tensions of Merrill’s life, especially toward the end, when Jackson and Merrill’s younger lover, Peter Hooten, jockeyed for the poet’s affections and time. For these alone, the book is a must for all fans of the poet, and is to be recommended.[/private]

About JQuinn

Justin Quinn was born in Dublin in 1968 and educated at Trinity College Dublin, where he received his doctorate in 1995. Since then he has worked as a lecturer at the Charles University in Prague, where he lives with his wife and son. His first two books of poems, The 'O'o'a'a' Bird (which was shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best First Collection) and Privacy, were published by Carcanet. His third book of poems, Fuselage, was published by Gallery Press in 2002 and his study, Gathered Beneath the Storm: Wallace Stevens, Nature and Community was recently published by University College Dublin Press. Metre, which he edited with David Wheatley for ten years. 2005 sees the publication of his American Errancy: Empire, Sublimity and Modern Poetry, a study of American poetry from T. S. Eliot to Jorie Graham. At present he is writing The Cambridge Introduction to Modern Irish Poetry, 1800-2000 and works at the Charles University, Prague.
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