Reviving Merrill

As Reviewed By: Ernest Hilbert

Collected Poems by James Merrill. Knopf, 2001.

Tribute to James Merrill, April 10, 2001, sponsored by The New School Writing Program & the Academy of American Poets.

Standings of poets and their poems are susceptible to the same caprices and reweighings that threaten (or grace) all historical subjects, but theirs is a very delicate pedestal, tethered to earth for balance by three cords of various constriction or slackness: critical estimation, publisher loyalty, and public readership. Of course these three are often tangled, and if one goes taut, the others are taken up. John Donne remained a largely obscure poet until the modernists-notably T. S. Eliot in his essays The Varieties of Metaphysical Poetry and New Critic Cleanth Brooks in The Well Wrought Urn-resuscitated his poetry, canonized it, if you like, in both possible senses of the word. The rugged English poet of the Second World War, Keith Douglas, who died at age 24 on the beaches of Normandy, had his first book published only in 1951, and it wasn’t until the 1970s, when Ted Hughes, who sensed an affinity with Douglas’s partly lyrical, partly cynical, and all but Spartan view of life, took it upon himself to popularize his work again. Since, Douglas has enjoyed the publication of his Collected Poems, a biography, his memoir (Alamein to Zem Zem), and, as of last month, his letters. Quite the opposite is more often the case, the abrupt or sometimes excruciatingly gradual slip from fame and recognition. For instance, Edgar Arlington Robinson was once the favorite of Teddy Roosevelt and a best-seller, but for eight decades his allotted pages in anthologies have shriveled with age and may eventually include only standards such as ‘Miniver Cheevy’ and ‘Mr. Flood’s Party’, before disappearing altogether. In the easy (somewhat glib) manner of critics who adopt financial nomenclature when relaying judgment on poets, William H. Pritchard once declared that Robinson’s “stock does not stand very high at present and is not likely to rise.”

[private]Then there is the case of James Merrill, a colossus of modern American poetry who, just when his readership seemed about to wane in the slightest degree, was suddenly propped not just back onto his pedestal but raised atop a column by the triple forces of critic, publisher, and reader. Knopf’s very impressive Collected Poemscoincides with Viking’s publication of Alison Lurie’s Familiar Spirits, her memoir of Merrill and David Jackson (with whom Merrill transcribed nine years of attempts to summon the dead with a Ouija Board, resulting in much of the massive postmodern epic, The Changing Light at Sandover). Everywhere one looks, Merrill’s tanned, always boyish countenance beams back with a patrician grin. Helen Vendler devoted several pages of the New Yorker to Merrill the same week that Daniel Mendelsohn devoted equal attention in The New York Times Book Review. TheCollected is an absolutely essential volume for any library of American poetry, containing, as it does, all of the poems outside of (or around, one might say) the Sandover project.  It has been eagerly awaited since Merrill’s death from AIDS in 1995, during which time the bulk of critics’ attention had been given over to Sandover, as its massive postmodernist construction provides a sprawling ruin that rewards literary archeology, much as do James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake and Ezra Pound’s Cantos. In England, the only Merrill available was the Carcanet Selected. In America, it was difficult to find any poetry by Merrill, an acknowledged master, the man Harold Bloom, in a very Bloomian endorsement, described as the Mozart of American poetry (Stephen Spender continues to suffer the same fate, and one hopes that a new Collected will emerge soon).

On April 10th, 2001, a cool dewy evening, The New School Writing Program and The Academy of American Poets allied for a very well subscribed Tribute to James Merrill in the cavernous postmodern cupola of the New School Auditorium on 12th Street in Manhattan. A remarkable group of readers took the podium in what turned out to be a very relaxed and dignified succession of poems from the master of the moment. Robert Polito began with one of Merrill’s standards (if the comparison to song may be permitted), ‘The School Play’, which set the tone of the evening and anchored it with a word that would recur throughout, “master”: “having put themselves / All unsuspecting into the masters’ hands.” Alice Fulton, for the sake of brevity (it was a Tuesday night) dropped one of the poems she earlier intended to read (‘About the Phoenix’; later in the evening, taking her cue, Edmund White dropped ‘Charles on Fire’; one may forward his own conclusions about this omission), instead delivering unruffled performances of only the six-line ‘Log’ and ‘In the Shop’ from the longer prose sequence Prose of Departure, the series of vignettes Merrill composed on the subject of his trip to Japan. He embedded haiku into the blocks of prose, and these were fairly prominent to the attentive listener from their cloudless and very close rhymes, such as “moral” and “laurel”. An amiable and California-tanned Thom Gunn-whose most recent book Boss Cupid remains the topic of conversation-read ‘Her Craft’, which Merrill dedicated to Elizabeth Bishop, and ‘Broken Home’, which consists of seven 14-line poems that Gunn referred to, forgivingly,  as “variations on sonnets. They might be said to aspire to sonnets.”       Allan Gurganus climbed the stage as the first of the middle third of readers, dashing off ‘Mirror’, ‘For Proust’, and ‘The Afternoon Sun’, the last translated by Merrill from the Greek of C. P. Cavafy. He was followed by Anthony Hecht, wearing his trademark bowtie, who delivered stately renditions of ‘Santo’, ‘The Blue Grotto’, and ‘Pledge’, notably getting the first laughs of the evening (this was not, after all, a funeral, but a tribute to beauty and success). Susan Wheeler followed with her own lighthearted reading of the very fun poem ‘Scrapping the Computer’, followed by ‘A Day on the Connecticut River’ and ‘The Metro’. Edmund White read the long and very well-known poem ‘Days of 1964′, which he points out was inspired in part by Cavafy. Stephen Yenser started out by remarking that many of those close to Merrill have not been able to listen to recordings or watch films of the departed without breaking into tears. He said that he still feels “as though he’ll [Merrill will] call, back from a long trip.” He recalled meeting Merrill in 1967, when the latter was working on ‘Lorelei’, Yenser’s first selection, which would appear as the first poem in the 1969 collection The Fire Screen. He also read ‘Last Words’ and ‘An Upward Look’, making much on tongue and PA of the heavy Anglo-Saxon caesurae that butterfly the lines into rhythmic pairs.

As befits a well-subscribed literary event in the depths of the visual age, the evening ended with a film and video presentation by J.D. McClatchy, who has had unprecedented access to such archives. He began with a very brief clip from the filmLorenzo’s Oil. A casting director had the luck of seeing Merrill read his poems and felt that he had quite a future as a Hollywood actor. Merrill, encircled by Nick Nolte, Susan Sarandon, and Peter Ustinov in a well-lit boardroom, delivers a single line with a delicate, Astaire-like grace. McClatchy jokingly remarked that he has been given to understand that the entire film pivots on that one line. Despite his photogenic presence on the silver screen, little came (thankfully, one might assume) of Merrill’s acting career. McClatchy quipped that this one foray provided Merrill with a screen actors card, placing the son of one of the great financiers into the unlikely position of being a union member. This was followed by a somewhat wobbly, documentary-style tour of Merrill’s home in Stonington, its many gew-gaws, paintings by Larry Rivers and others, and the bookcase that pivots, like something out of a murder mystery, to expose what Auden would have termed a “cave of making”, where Merrill played Solitaire and wrote poems most of the day. The camera also dwelled for a time in his cozy kitchen, where he hung his many awards and honorary degrees (he limited himself to two honorary degrees, and turned down Harvard because, like Faulkner when invited to the White House for dinner, it seemed that the reward failed to justify the drudgery of travel). McClatchy pointed out that Merrill kept things in perspective, that the kitchen was really the best place for such honors. Apparently, Merrill also was fond of cooking, though on more than one occasion he “poisoned” his guests with foodstuffs that had been left too long in the fridge (the observation, “but he kept at it,” received a warm wave of laughter from the audience).

The next presentation was a film of Merrill in the upstairs room where daily he played Brahms. He acknowledged the poet who was in his turn the “master”, reading Wallace Stevens’s ‘Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour’: “Light the first light of evening, as in a room / In which we rest and, for small reason, think / The world imagined is the ultimate good.” Merrill commented that it was to him what the 29thPsalm is to many others, a source of boundless comfort and wonder. The final offering was a scene from the film Changing Light at Sandover, filmed at the house in Stonington, in which an actor played David Jackson, a silent part. Merrill wandered the stairwells and gardens reciting ‘Samos’, a tranquil and, it must be said, sunny end to the proceedings.

Merrill embodied much to many. A whole bookshelf and Olympus worth of quiet myth grew up around him, and he came to represent certain expectations of what poetry is or what it should or should not (or no longer could) be. With boundless financial resources derived from his father’s success with Merrill-Lynch, he was free to pursue his poetic instincts at leisure, only accepting occasional and very leisurely teaching jobs later in life. His famous good looks recall those of Rupert Brooke, who was described before his death in the First World War as “preternaturally” good-looking. Merrill possessed a rarefied grace and style both on and off the page, exemplifying an aristocratic ideal of the poet removed from society, the eremite Rainer Maria Rilke of Duino Castle rather than the football-playing ex-pilot James Dickey. Such rococo poems as Merrill composed are likely only possible for a man discharged from political concerns, cut free from the financial worries that badger most poets (who, if they don’t teach, are compelled to review or work in publishing to pay their endless dues to the muse). Most accounts of him border on the hagiographic, and one suspects that to have been admitted to the chambers of his affection was enough to sway any would-be adversary. There is something to be said for his stately detachment (in direct opposition to Allen Ginsberg’s egalitarian love-ins and bellowing denunciations). His work is not tarnished by passing political or cultural concerns. His poetry should never be misinterpreted as a barometer of the age in which it was written, as with Robert Lowell, whose poetry is read by some as the evolving historical conscience of the nation. The publication of the Collecteddoes not guarantee Merrill a place in American literary history. He already had that. Rather, it makes an event, a memorial observance, of his life and work, not so long overdue considering the daunting volume of material left to his literary executors, J.D. McClatchy and Stephen Yenser. Already by its first month of publication it was running into another printing, and, if a stock index were revealed for Merrill’s Horatian poetry of time and death, love and loss, beauty and age, one would be energetically encouraged to purchase it now.

Editor’s Note: The first portion of this essay originally appeared in the Random House magazine,BoldType.[/private]

About Ernest Hilbert

Ernest Hilbert edited the Contemporary Poetry Review from 2005 until 2010. His poems have appeared in The New Republic, Yale Review, American Poetry Review, Parnassus, Boston Review, Verse, New Criterion, American Scholar, and the London Review. His debut collection is Sixty Sonnets (2009). He graduated from Oxford University, where he edited the Oxford Quarterly. He hosts the popular blog and video show and is an antiquarian book dealer in Philadelphia, where he lives with his wife, an archaeologist.
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