James March Merrill

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Mel Gussow (obituary date 7 February 1995)

SOURCE: An obituary in The New York Times, February 7, 1995, p. B12.

[In the following obituary, Gussow describes Merrill as "heir to the lyrical legacy of W. H. Auden and Wallace Stevens."]

James Merrill, the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet whose 14 books of verse established him as heir to the lyrical legacy of W. H. Auden and Wallace Stevens, died yesterday in Tucson, Ariz. He was 68 and had homes in Stonington, Conn., and New York City.

He had been in Tucson on vacation and died of a heart attack at the Arizona Health Sciences Center, said J. D. McClatchy, a friend and fellow poet.

One of the most admired of American poets, Mr. Merrill was known for the elegance of his writing, his moral sensibility and his ability to transform moments of autobiography into deeply meaningful poetry. He once described his poetry as "chronicles of love and loss."

He won every major award, including the Pulitzer, the Bollingen Prize, two National Book Awards and a National Book Critics Circle Award. He was a member of the National Institute of Arts and Letters. In 1966, he was named Connecticut's first poet laureate (his verse is filled with references to his home there and to other places he lived, including Key West, Fla., and Greece). His 15th volume of poetry, A Scattering of Salts, is scheduled to be published in March by Alfred A. Knopf.

He was also a novelist, playwright and essayist and in 1993 published a memoir of his early years, A Different Person.

When Mr. Merrill won the Bollingen Prize in 1973, he was praised for his "wit and delight in language, his exceptional craft, his ability to enter into personalities other than his own, and his sustained vitality." These are qualities that resonated throughout his long, productive career. In his work, he often mixed lyrical language with contemporary conversation. "His common style is a net of loose talk tightening to verse," wrote the critic Denis Donoghue, "a mode in which anything can be said with grace."

James Ingram Merrill was born in New York City in 1926. His father was Charles Merrill, a founder of the stock brokerage now known as Merrill, Lynch & Company. James Merrill, grew up in luxurious surroundings, and because of family wealth never had to depend on his writing to make a living. He had been, he said in his memoir, rich since he was 5 "whether I liked it or not," and added that he was "as American as lemon chiffon pie." Nothing deterred him from his desire to be a poet.

At the age of 11, he discovered opera, a first love before literature and a guiding force in his poetry. He went to Lawrenceville School, where one of his close friends and classmates was the novelist Frederick Buechner. Mr. Buechner later said that their friendly competition was an impetus for each becoming a writer. At Lawrenceville, the young poet privately published a book of poetry and stories.

Mr. Merrill's studies at Amherst College were interrupted by a year of service in the infantry in World War II. He returned to Amherst in 1945, published poems in Poetry and The Kenyon Review, and wrote a thesis on Marcel Proust, who remained an inspiration in his writing.

After graduating from Amherst summa cum laude, he formally began his career, and his writing remained unabated for the next 48 years. His first book, First Poems (1951), received mixed reviews. Perhaps in response to that reaction, he switched briefly to...

(This entire section contains 8492 words.)

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fiction and play-writing: his first play,The Immortal Husband, was done off Broadway in 1955 and his first novel, The Seraglio, was published in 1957.

His return to poetry came in 1959 with The Country of a Thousand Years of Peace, and he then made his breakthrough in 1963 with Water Street. Reviewing that collection in The New York Times Book Review, X. J. Kennedy said that Mr. Merrill had become "one of the American poets most worth reading."

In 1967, Mr. Merrill won his first National Book Award, for Nights and Days. That book was followed by The Fire Screen (1969) and Braving the Elements (1972).

In her review of Braving the Elements in The New York Times Book Review, Helen Vendler said that "in the last 10 years, with his last four books of poems," Mr. Merrill "has become one of our indispensable poets." He won the Bollingen Prize in 1973.

He won the Pulitzer Prize for Divine Comedies (1976), and his second National Book Award for Mirabell: Books of Number (1978). In a review in The New Republic, Charles Molesworth compared Scripts for the Pageant (1980) to "Yeats and Blake, if not Milton and Dante." Within these three books was a long connected poem, inspired by Mr. Merrill's sessions at a Ouija board with his companion, David Jackson. The trilogy was republished in 1982, with a new epilogue, as The Changing Light at Sandover.

When he was 24, Mr. Merrill undertook what became a two-and-a-half-year journey of discovery in Europe. In A Different Person, he reflected on that trip, on his family life, his relationship with his parents and his homosexuality.

Reviewing the book in The New York Times Book Review, Brigitte Weeks said it was "a beguiling and deceptively simple memoir." Referring to the author at 67 and his younger incarnation, she said that "both make exhilarating and charming traveling companions."

When his father died, Mr. Merrill used money from his inheritance to establish the Ingram Merrill Foundation to give grants to writers and painters.

He is survived by his mother, Hellen Plummer of Atlanta, and by a half-sister, a half-brother and a stepsister.

J. D. McClatchy (essay date 27 March 1995)

SOURCE: "Braving the Elements," in The New Yorker, Vol. LXXI, No. 5, March 27, 1995, pp. 49-52, 59-61.

[An American poet, critic, and educator, McClatchy was a close friend of Merrill's. In the following reminiscence, he discusses Merrill's development as a poet, surveying his life and works through personal insights and anecdotes.]

The news that James Merrill had died last month in Arizona at the age of sixty-eight, of a sudden heart attack, caused a palpable shock in the literary world. Spontaneous tributes and readings sprang up all around the country. Disbelieving letters and phone calls crisscrossed the circle of professional writers. Not since a starry chapter closed in the nineteen-seventies with the deaths of W. H. Auden, Robert Lowell, and Elizabeth Bishop has the loss of an American poet been as momentous, or as widely acknowledged to be so.

That is in part because, however compelling Merrill's ambitions or demanding his methods, his readers always felt a sort of intimacy with him. For fifty years, the poet had used the details of his own life to shape a portrait that in turn mirrored back to us an image of our world and our moment. When his sixth book of poems, Braving the Elements, appeared, in 1972, Helen Vendler's review in the Times [see The New York Times Book Review, September 24, 1972] struck early what has since come to be the dominant note in appraisals of Merrill: "The time eventually comes, in a good poet's career, when readers actively long [Vendler used the word "wait"] for his books: to know that someone out there is writing down your century, your generation, your language, your life—under whatever terms of difference—makes you wish for news of yourself, for those authentic tidings of invisible things, as Wordsworth called them, that only come in the interpretation of life voiced by poetry."

For Merrill's funeral service, in Stonington, Connecticut, on a raw February afternoon, the little village church—its whitewashed interior suddenly looking rather Greek—was filled. A piping soprano sang "Bist du bei mir" to the plaintive accompaniment of a virginal, and Merrill's good friend the novelist Allan Gurganus delivered a brief eulogy. "Some people contain their grace," he said. "James dispersed his. It was a molecular nimbus he lived within, and he seemed, after nearly seven decades in there, largely unaware of its effervescent impact on the rest of us." Later, at the cemetery, where a mossy oblong of sod lay beside a tiny grave, friend after friend sprinkled a handful of dirt over the poet's ashes. One young poet, when it was his turn, also dropped into the grave a dime-store marble painted to resemble the globe.

For Merrill's friends, the shock has slowly subsided into the dull realization that there will be no more of his witty company. Yes, he was a great poet and knew he was meant to end up as books on a shelf. Those books—the last one, A Scattering of Salts, is, as it happens, to be published this week—have long since confirmed his mastery: he knew more about the language of poetry than anyone else since Auden and used it to make poems that will remain part of anyone's definition of the art. But so, too, his conversation. He liked, as he once said, "English in its billiard-table sense—words that have been set spinning against their own gravity." At a large dinner party or on a casual stroll with an old acquaintance or a perfect stranger, he had an uncanny, almost anarchic habit of turning everything upside down. By his slight adjustment of perspective or realignment of a syllable, the dire became droll. He rarely relaxed his instinctive habit of reversing a truth or upending the mawkish, and his face loved to anticipate—with its pursed smile and arched brow—the pleasure his remark was about to give.

Last season, for instance, at a Met performance of "Otello," the Desdemona was in trouble long before her tragic end. Carol Vaness became ill during the opera and decided to withdraw. Her Russian cover, hastily done up in such a way as to make her quite a different woman from Vaness, took over the last act. After the performance, Merrill, ambling up the aisle, turned to a friend and shook his head with a rueful giddiness: "Poor Desdemona! She changed the color of her hair, but it didn't save her marriage."

The crack is characteristic in more ways than one. To begin with, he was at the opera, and nothing over the years had given him more pleasure or, at the start, had taught him more. He began going to the Met when he was eleven, and one of his best-known poems, "Matinees," describes its effect: "The point thereafter was to arrange for one's / Own chills and fever, passions and betrayals, / Chiefly in order to make song of them." Opera—its ecstasies and deceptions, its transcendent fires and icy grandeurs—is, above all, a stylized dramatization of our inner lives, our forbidden desires and repressed fears. It may seem surprising in a poet like Merrill, whose surfaces can be so elegant and elusive, but center stage in his work is passion. However his words may work to heighten and refine it, the urgency of the heart's desires is his constant subject.

That Merrill would joke not about Desdemona's murder but about her failed marriage also points to a distant event that had come to shape his imagination. At about the time he starting going to the opera, his parents separated. A bitter divorce trial followed, and, because Merrill's father was one of the most powerful financiers in America—a cofounder of the great brokerage house of Merrill, Lynch—the story was national news. One tabloid even ran a photograph of young James with the caption "PAWN IN PARENTS' FIGHT." Again and again in the course of his career, Merrill revisited the scene, and nowhere more memorably than in his sequence of sonnets called "The Broken Home." Thirty years after the fact, the poem manages a knowing shrug: "Always that same old story—/ Father Time and Mother Earth, / A marriage on the rocks." But the poem's impulse here to mythologize the trauma is part of a larger scheme. It is as if the divorce represented Merrill's own split personality. As much his father's son as his mother's boy, he had a temperament that by turns revealed what we may as well call paternal and maternal sides. He was drawn equally to the rational and the fanciful, the passionate and the ironic, America and Europe. And, from the very beginning, his ambition as a poet was—like the child attempting to reconcile his warring parents—to harmonize those two sides of his life. More often than not, he preferred to remain of two minds about all matters. And the energy spent exploring these divisions and doublings, all the obsessions and inventions of his work, from the delicacies of metaphor on to the creation of an entire cosmogony, fuelled a career as remarkable as any in American literary history.

As children, most of us fantasize a glamorous alternative: our parents are royal and rich, we live in a palace, we are adored and powerful. But if those happen to be the facts of your life instead of your fantasies? Merrill's parents had a brownstone on West Eleventh Street and a stately Stanford White pile in Southampton—The Orchard—with a dozen bedrooms, with conservatories and rose arbors, cooks and chauffeurs. In his 1957 roman à clef, The Seraglio, Merrill portrays his father in his later years as a sort of pasha, surrounded by wife, ex-wives, mistresses, nurses, and flatterers—a man who loved his wives deeply but cheerlessly while counting on other women for companionship and fun. He was a man whose face "would have made the fortune of any actor. Frank, earnest, noble in repose, it was kept from plain tiresome fineness by being always on the verge of some unlikely humor, mischief or doltishness or greed." Merrill's mother, Hellen Ingram, was Charles Merrill's second wife, a Jacksonville beauty who had once been a newspaper reporter, and she kept close tabs on her son. It's almost natural that Merrill's childhood fantasies weren't the usual ones. If his ballad "Days of 1935" is a fair account of them, he imagined himself kidnapped, like the Lindbergh baby, and carried off to some shabby hideout by a gangster and his moll, with whose cheap looks—her rosebud chewing gum, his sallow, lantern-jawed menace—he falls in love, and from whose violent ways he longs not to be ransomed.

In a 1982 Paris Review interview, he said, "It strikes me now maybe that during much of my childhood I found it difficult to believe in the way my parents lived. They seemed so utterly taken up with engagements, obligations, ceremonies—every child must feel that, to some extent, about the grown-ups in his life." In fact, like most childhoods, his was lonely. He craved affection, and spent most of his time with a beloved governess, reading up on the Norse myths or devising plots to present in his marionette theatre. The loneliness—perhaps a necessary condition for any poet's working life—and a need to charm run right through his work. By the time he was eight, he was writing poems. By the time he was at Lawrenceville, he meant to make a career of it and told his father so. Charles Merrill had a volume of the boy's early poems and stories—called Jim's Book—privately printed, to the young author's immediate delight and future chagrin. Later, distressed by his son's determination, Charles nonetheless took a businessman's approach. He secretly sent his son's fledgling work to several "experts," including the president of Amherst, and asked for their frank opinion. When they all agreed on a precocious talent, the patriarch was overheard to say proudly that he would rather have a poet for a son than a third-rate polo player.

Recently, Merrill had begun to notice in his shaving mirror each morning how much he had come to resemble his father: "a face no longer / sought in dreams but worn as my own" is how one poem puts it. He had never thought to look for that face earlier, since the young need always to consider themselves unique. In his memoir A Different Person, published two years ago, he remembers looking at himself in 1950:

From the mirror stares inquiringly a slim person neither tall nor short, in a made-to-order suit of sandy covert cloth and a bowtie. My bespectacled face is so young and unstretched that only by concentration do the lips close over two glinting chipmunk teeth. My hair, dark with fair highlights, is close-cropped. I have brown eyes, an unexceptionable nose, a good jaw. My brow wrinkles when I am sad or worried, as now.

Not that what I see dismays me. Until recently I've been an overweight, untidy adolescent; now my image in the glass is the best I can hope for. Something, however, tells me that time will do little to improve it. The outward bloom of youth upon my features will fade long before the budlike spirit behind them opens—if ever it does. It is inside that I need to change. To this end I hope very diffidently to get away from the kind of poetry I've been writing.

The kind of poetry he was writing then—his First Poems appeared in 1951—was very much of its time. The aloof, lapidary glamour of the poems, their dissolves and emblems were meant both to disguise feelings only dimly known and to declare his allegiance to a line of poets that could be traced from Wallace Stevens back to the French Symbolists. But before long he had written a novel and had a couple of plays produced Off Broadway, and from both experiences he had learned to write a more fluent and inflected line, often coaxed by narrative.

In 1954, Merrill decided to abandon New York City. He moved, with his companion, David Jackson, to Stonington, a small coastal village—half fishing fleet, half Yankee clapboard—that a friend had suggested might remind him of a Mediterranean port. He and Jackson bought a house; they had a brass bed, a record player, a rowboat, a table and two chairs to work on, and no telephone. He loved the light glinting on Long Island Sound, and the cozy, settled routines of village life; the town, he said, was "full of clever wrinkled semi-famous people whom by the end of our second season we couldn't live without." In 1959, he and Jackson made another move—to Athens. They soon bought a house there, too, and for the next two decades spent half of each year in Greece.

Both moves were, in a sense, strategic withdrawals. Like his friend Elizabeth Bishop, Merrill did what he could to avoid having to lead a Literary Life. Stonington's bright calm began to give his work a more domestic focus. In the collection named for his address, Water Street (1962), there is a poem that speaks of his "dull need to make some kind of house/Out of the life lived, out of the love spent." Always aware that the word "stanza" is Italian for "room," Merrill put together poems that would shelter his memories. Increasingly, his poems were autobiographical, reaching back to his childhood or puzzling over some passing event or involvement. He eventually described his poems as "chronicles of love and loss," and that term aptly stresses his sense of a life lived and understood over time, and links his two recurrent themes. From Merrill's college days on, his favorite writer had been Proust, for whom the only true paradise was a lost paradise. For both writers, love is not fully itself until it is lost, until it becomes memory, becomes art.

If the familiarities of Stonington afforded both distance and security, Greece gave him something else. Here was a landscape of ravishing ruggedness, a culture of exotic simplicities. Better still, a language—he quickly mastered it—in which his accent wouldn't at once betray his class. He loved the anonymity it gave him; he loved the very sound of it: "kaló-kakó, cockatoo-raucous / Coastline of white printless coves / Already strewn with offbeat echolalia."

The poems set in Greece, vivid with local color, are the highlight of his two subsequent books—Nights and Days (1966) and The Fire Screen (1969). Landscapes as different as New Mexico, Rome, and Key West would later figure in his work as well. Merrill was a poet who looked out at a scene or around a room for prompting. "I always find when I don't like a poem I'm writing, I don't look any more into the human components," he told an interviewer. "I look more to the setting—a room, the objects in it." What was in front of his eyes would reveal what was in his mind. It was a quality he especially admired in the poems of Eugenio Montale—the way their "ladles and love letters, their furniture and pets" led finally deep into a labyrinth of feeling. The rooms of Merrill's Stonington house, which gave the impression of a boutique fantasque, were themselves an image of his inner life: a clutter of beloved totems. An immense Victorian mirror would reflect masterpiece and tchotchke, piles of books on the horsehair divan, a glass bowl filled with glass globes, bat-motif wall-paper, a Maxfield Parrish, a Tanagra figurine, a snapshot of his goddaughter, a Mogul miniature, a wooden nickel, cacti and shells, a Meissen plate, a lacquered Japanese travelling box, a windup toy bird, the upheld hand of a Buddha.

A couple of years ago, Allan Gurganus wrote to Merrill urging him to reread Tolstoy's novella "Family Happiness." The poet dutifully looked for it but could find it only in French, in one of the worn Pléïade editions he kept by his bed. When he opened to "Le Bonheur Conjugal," out fluttered a piece of paper on which, twenty years earlier, he had typed a stanza from Byron's poem "Beppo"—lines that he imagined at the time described a person he might grow to resemble:

      Then he was faithful, too, as well as amorous,         So that no sort of female could complain,       Although they're now and then a little clamorous;         He never put the pretty souls in pain;       His heart was one of those which most enamour us,         Wax to receive and marble to retain:       He was a lover of the good old school,       Who still become more constant as they cool.

Rather like his father, Merrill was a lover of the good old school. He'd found his own bonheur conjugal in 1953 with David Jackson. Jackson could play the piano, write a story, dash off a watercolor; he was ebullient, daring, funny, irresistible. Over their years together, strains in their relationship were sometimes apparent. But they stayed together—if, lately, at a certain distance from each other. It was as if Merrill were determined to keep for himself the kind of relationship his parents had thrown away. He was constant to his other lovers, as well. He'd had affairs before he met Jackson, and several afterward. (For the last dozen years, he was devoted to a young actor, Peter Hooten.) He had a way of turning each affair not only into an abiding friendship but into poetry. He wrote some of the most beautiful love poems of this century. He relished Borges's description of love as "a religion with a fallible god," and few poets have looked on love with such a vulnerable and wary eye:

      Where I hid my face, your touch, quick, merciful       Blindfolded me. A god breathed from my lips.       If that was illusion, I wanted it to last long;       To dwell, for its daily pittance, with us there,       Cleaning and watering, sighing with love or pain.       I hoped it would climb when it needed to the heights       Even of degradation, as I for one       Seemed, those days, to be always climbing       Into a world of wild       Flowers, feasting, tears—or was I falling, legs       Buckling, heights, depths,       Into a pool of each night's rain?       But you were everywhere beside me, masked,       As who was not, in laughter, pain, and love.

Merrill's sexuality was like a drop of dye let fall into a glass of water: it is subdued but suffuses everything. He wrote openly and seriously about homosexual love long before that was fashionable. In his memoir he writes, "As in the classic account of Sarah Bernhardt descending a spiral staircase—she stood still and it revolved around her—my good fortune was to stay in one place while the closet simply disintegrated."

When I met Merrill, he was forty-six and had earned his first full measure of fame. Nights and Days had won the 1967 National Book Award, whose judges (W. H. Auden, James Dickey, and Howard Nemerov) singled out "his insistence on taking the kind of tough, poetic chances which make the difference between esthetic success or failure." And he had just published Braving the Elements, whose exquisite austerities mark a kind of extreme in his work. Dense and rapturous, the poems are set amid the hazards of history and romance. His narrative skills turn out Chekhovian vignettes like "After the Fire" or "Days of 1971," where the end of an affair helps him to a wistful self-knowledge:

      "Proust's Law" (are you listening?) is two-fold:       a) What least thing our self-love longs for most       Others instinctively withhold;       b) Only when time has slain desire       Is his wish granted to a smiling ghost       Neither harmed nor warmed, now, by the fire.

When Braving the Elements was awarded the 1973 Bollingen Prize, Merrill was the subject of a Times editorial attacking those who continue to "reward poetry that is literary, private, traditional." That has been a sentiment, a peculiarly American fear of the Fancy, that other readers have shared. Some early critics condescended to his work by calling it "bejewelled." Ironically, their contemptuous dismissal hinted at a larger truth. From the start, but nowhere more than in this book, Merrill took his bearings from the four elements—earth, air, fire, water—and in many of his poems the jewel is their embodiment. Crystal prism or emerald brooch, waterfall or geode, dragonfly or planet, or whatever other brilliant lens he chose, it was to inspect more carefully the natural world's wonders. He once told a young writer, "It's not the precious but the semiprecious one has to resist." And, like most strong poets, he seemed largely indifferent to his critics. He knew his worth, and disdained the lust for celebrity. "Think what one has to do to get a mass audience," he once noted wryly to his friend the critic David Kalstone. "I'd rather have one perfect reader. Why dynamite the pond in order to catch that single silver carp? Better to find a bait that only the carp will take."

He was a poet who trusted language to tell him what anything means. Rhyme, wordplay, paradox only help reveal the hidden wish of words. Indeed, the O.E.D. is the collective unconscious of English speakers, he would say, for all our ideas and feelings are to be found there, in the endless recombinations of our words. He was himself rather shy of ideas in poems. "Shaped by ideas like everyone else, I nevertheless avert my eyes from them," he joked, "as from the sight of a nude grandparent, not presentable, indeed taboo, until robed in images." Those images are an astonishment. He notes a hotel's "strange bed, whose recurrent dream we are," or describes a plot of zinnias as "pine cones in drag," or Kufic script as "all trigger tail and gold vowel-sac." His lines are animated with colloquial idiom and quicksilver wit. Their perfection of tone is made to seem offhanded, their weight of allusion and symbol is deftly balanced. If the surfaces of his poems sometimes seemed difficult, it may have been because for most of his career other poets were loudly trumpeting the virtues of the plain style. For his part, Merrill would say that the natural world order isn't "See Jane run." The more natural way to put it is actually more complex: "Where on earth can that child be racing off to? Why, it's little—you know, the neighbor's brat—Jane!" So, too, the syntax of his poems darts and capers. The effect on a reader can be vertiginous. The long feather boa of some intellectually complex sentence may suddenly give way to a tank-top phrase. Merrill would have agreed with George Balanchine, who once said that the true figure for the artist should be the gardener or the chef: you love everything because you need everything.

By the mid-seventies, his poems were growing longer. He attributed that change to "middle-age spread." But even he was surprised by the project that occupied him for seven years, from 1974 until 1980. In fact, it was a project that preëmpted him. Ever since moving to Stonington, he and David Jackson had, on spare evenings, sat down at a homemade Ouija board and chatted with the great dead. No sooner did Merrill write up these encounters, in the volume Divine Comedies, which won him the 1976 Pulitzer Prize, than the spirits demanded that he attend to more rigorous lessons they would give him. "Don't you think there comes a time when everyone, not just a poet, wants to get beyond the self?" Merrill said in an interview. "To reach, if you like, the 'god' within you? The board, in however clumsy or absurd a way, allows for precisely that. Or if it's still yourself that you're drawing upon, then that self is much stranger and freer and more farseeing than the one you thought you knew." Resisting the impulse to be either wholly skeptical or merely credulous, Merrill sat for the lessons. The curriculum ranged from subatomic particles to cosmic forces, and the cast included Akhenaton, Pythagoras, Montezuma, T. S. Eliot, Maria Callas, bats and unicorns, scientists and neighbors, God Biology and Mother Nature. In his epic account of it all, the poet managed to make the otherworldly revelations into a very human drama of acceptance, resistance, and ambivalence. And by the time he had gathered all seventeen thousand lines of his adventure into a single volume, The Changing Light at Sandover (1982), he had written what is—with the possible exception of Whitman's "Song of Myself"—the strangest and grandest American poem ever: at once eerie, hilarious, and heartbreaking.

A Scattering of Salts (to call it his last book instead of his latest sticks in my throat) is a wonderful anthology of Merrill's characteristic strengths as a poet. There are portraits and elegies, sonnets and free-verse riffs, high style and slang. There are pungent, elliptical little lyrics and the longer, loping narratives that were his specialty. In one he describes "family week" at a dude-ranch rehab center he is visiting to be with a friend, who has sought treatment there. The poet tries to adjust to the New Age therapies:

      This wide-angle moonscape, lawns and pool,       Patients sharing pain like fudge from home—       As if these were the essentials,       As if a month at what it invites us to think       Is little more than a fat farm for Anorexics,       Substance Abusers, Love & Relationship Addicts       Could help you, light of my life, when even your shrink …       The message, then? That costly folderol,       Underwear made to order in Vienna,       Who needs it! Let the soul hang out       At Benetton—stone-washed, one size fits all.

It ends with a haunting, lovelorn speculation that blends the newest jargon with one of poetry's oldest images:

      And if the old patterns recur?       Ask how the co-dependent moon, another night,       Feels when the light drains wholly from her face.       Ask what that cold comfort means to her.

Cozy chats over the Ouija board acknowledge death as an event but not as a fact. They might even be said to represent at some level a denial of death. But the three collections that Merrill published during the past decade take a more realistic look at mortality. This final book has a nearly Yeatsian vigor in the face of the end. What Merrill sees on the microscope slide is everything we dread. "Dread? It crows for joy in the manger. / Joy? The tree sparkles on which it will die."

The earnest young poet I was in 1972 found the James Merrill who had kindly invited me to dinner one spring night dauntingly sophisticated. His features were faintly elfin, and his voice—a soft, cultivated baritone—drew one instinctively toward its flickering brightness. He had read everything (I found out later that in his twenties he had taken one winter to read all of Dickens, another for Balzac) but skated past any ponderous discussion of literature—though he could quote at will whole swatches of Baudelaire or Da Ponte or Cole Porter. He never played The Poet in company but felt himself "more like a doctor at a dinner party, just another guest until his hostess slumps to the floor or his little beeper goes off." He rarely read a newspaper and didn't vote, yet was scornfully eloquent about the technocracy's myopic bureaucrats and "their sad knowledge, their fingertip control." He worked at his desk every day, and, even to the extent that he lived for pleasure, he lived rather simply. If he meant to be a dandy in his dress, the results were more often merely eccentric. Old Auden wore carpet slippers to the opera. You could spot Merrill there in mauve Birkenstocks over limegreen socks, neatly pressed corduroys with a Navajo belt buckle, a shirt from the Gap, a Venetian bow tie, a loden cape, and a baseball cap.

His chief pleasure was friendship. Over the years, his friends ranged from Alice Toklas and Maya Deren to Richard Wilbur and Alison Lurie. To each he was tender and loyal. His friends, in turn, responded in such coin as they happened to have in their pockets. In 1968, when Stephen Yenser sent him a fervently used book—a palm-size, velvet-covered, dogeared copy of "The Rubáiyat of Omar Khayyám," a poem Merrill adored—the poet responded in kind:

      Fortunate those who back from a brief trip,       To equinoctial storms and scholarship,       Unwrap, first thing, a present from a friend,       And into Omar's honeyed pages dip.

Richard Howard once noted that the art of living was one of Merrill's unrivalled talents. "What one wants in this world," Merrill wrote, "isn't so much to 'live' as to … be lived, to be used by life for its own purposes. What has one to give but oneself?" It was always to Merrill that his friends turned when they needed advice. Here, for instance, is part of a 1973 letter he sent me from Greece. I seem then to have been in the throes of some now forgotten crisis of the heart. How sweetly he edged up to my worries. He began by describing the crowded summer in Athens, and his being content to stay blithely above it. Then he expanded from details to his theme:

The iron gates of life have seldom seen such traffic, to judge from the confused rumor that reaches us here in the shade of the pearly ones. The real absurdity, you will say (and I'll agree, it's all so novel), is to feel in one's bones how utterly a boundary has been crossed. Here one is in Later Life, and it's perfectly pleasant really, not for a moment that garden of cactus and sour grapes I'd always assumed it must be. Oh dear, this sort of thing is probably just what you mean by my being "recessed" into myself. But it's odd. I mean, the times of greatest recession into the self have always been, for me, times of helpless suffering, such as you're going through; when there's no escape from the self. Perhaps any circumstance, any frame of mind, content, pain, trust, distrust, is a niche that limits visibility—for both the occupant and the onlooker? I read your last letter, in any case, with pangs of recognition. There's no special comfort, is there? in being understood at times like these. One is so mortified by one's predicament, and at the same moment so curiously proud of its ramifications. You won't be ready yet to like the fact of belonging to a very large group who've all had—allowing for particular differences—the same general experience. Later on, when your sense of humor and proportion returns, that fact ought rather to please you: to have so shared in the—or at least a—human condition. Write me as much or as little about it as you see fit. As you say, the particulars should probably be saved for the couch. Don't waste time feeling superior to your doctor. You are no doubt cleverer and more presentable than he is, but (with any luck) he knows his business, and the shoes he is making for you will last and last.

Of course, he gave a great deal more than advice to his friends. He was a soft touch, and had learned the difficult art of giving money away gracefully. By a friend's staggering medical bill or the down payment on a house, appeals from ballet companies or animal shelters, stories of neglected old poets on the skids or a young painter who needed equipment his sympathy was easily sparked. In 1956, he used a portion of his inheritance to establish the Ingram Merrill Foundation, whose board of directors was empowered to award grants to writers and artists. Over the years, hundreds of people were helped. The edge was given to the promising beginner.

What Merrill couldn't give away was the stigma that came with his wealth and privilege. Epicurus famously said that riches don't alleviate, only change, one's troubles. The fortune that gave Merrill the chance both to distance himself from the family who made it and to pursue an odd, intricate career was, I'd guess, a nagging source of embarrassment for him and may have occasioned, in turn, his aversion to grand hotels and restaurants, his recycled razor blades and Spartan diet. He used, long ago, to confuse his companions by declaring, "Thank goodness I come from poor parents." He meant that his parents' values had been formed—by the example of their parents, who were hardworking and middle-class—before they had money. In a sense, his own values were old-fashioned. What sustained Merrill was dedication to his calling, a high ambition, and a deeply moral purpose. If we give equal weight to each word, then this definition of a poet he once offered sums him up: "a man choosing the words he lives by."

When Merrill's ashes were sent back to be buried in Stonington, a box of papers came, too. Peter Hooten had gathered up poems and drafts from the poet's desk. Among them was a poem called "Koi." Behind the house he and Hooten had been renting in Tucson for the winter was a small ornamental pool of koi, the Japanese carp. The poem—the last he finished, a couple of weeks before he died—is about those fish and his little Jack Russell terrier, Cosmo. Of course, it wasn't written as a last poem, but circumstances give it a special poignancy.

Also sent home was his notebook. It is open now on my desk. He'd kept a series of notebooks over the years, their entries irregular, often fragmentary. Things overheard or undergone. Dreams, lists, lines. An image or anagram. The writing—even the handwriting—is swift and elegant. But the last page of this notebook is nearly indecipherable. Suddenly, at the end, you can see the difficulty he was having: the script is blurred, and that may be because he had lost his glasses. His breathing, too, was labored. On Friday, he'd been admitted to the hospital with a bout of acute pancreatitis. I spoke with him by telephone on Sunday, the night before he died, and asked about his breathing. He said that, though he'd been given oxygen, the doctors were not unduly concerned. The rest of the conversation was banter and gossip and plans for the future: a cataract operation, the new "Pelléas" at the Met. But his notebook tells another, more anxious story. The last page is dated "5.ii.95," the day before his death. There are two dozen lines, sketches for a poem to be titled "The Next to Last Scene." Typically, it starts by looking around the hospital room, and opens with what in retrospect seems an eerie line: "A room with every last convenience." It glances at TV set, cassette player, smiling lover. He would often, when drafting a poem, fill out the end of a line, knowing where he wanted to go but not exactly how he would get there. He'd done so here. I can make out "to see the other through." And then, the very last thing he wrote, "To set the other free."

To see the other through. To set the other free. Who or what is this "other"? The longer I gaze at the page, the more resonant these phrases become. Is it everything beyond and beloved by the self: the man in his life, the world's abundance, the ideal reader? Or all that burdens the soul, distracts the heart? Perhaps the psyche? Even the imagination? The impulse of Merrill's poems all along was both to brave the elements and to release them. Some poets try a change of style to force a change in their work. Merrill was a poet who instead sought fresh experience—a new landscape, a new lover—in order to abide by unexpected demands. At the same time, he sought to release, as if from a spell, the textures and colors of objects, the inner life of our arrangements, the hidden relationships among motives and emotions, the secrets of childhood and the energies of the unconscious.

It is still intolerable to think that there will be no more of his resplendent, plangent, mercurial, wise poems; that their author is like the mirror ceremonially broken at the end of Sandover, "giving up its whole / Lifetime of images." James Merrill gave his lifetime to language, and to the way its hard truths and mysterious graces come to constitute our lives. Only a few poets in each generation—and Merrill was preëminent in his—can use language to make a style, and style to make a whole world of flesh and spirit, a world as momentous as the heart's upheavals and heaven's order, or as casual as a dime-store marble.

Stephen Yenser (tribute date 13 May 1995)

SOURCE: "Metamorphoses," in Poetry, Vol. CLXVI, No. 6, September, 1995, pp. 331-34.

[An American critic, poet, and educator, Yenser was a friend of Merrill's and wrote the study The Consuming Myth: The Work of James Merrill (1987). In the following tribute, which was delivered at the New York Public Library on May 13, 1995, he offers his thoughts on why "James Merrill will be among the handful of poets by whom we remember this century."]

Over the twenty-eight years that it was given me to know him, I had the occasion to introduce James Merrill a dozen times, at readings in locations ranging from New York through St. Louis to Los Angeles, and I got to know something about how to do that. I have no experience whatever in bidding him farewell. So I am not going to do that.

Once upon a time, three Amherst undergraduates gained clandestine entry to the former home of Martha Dickinson Bianchi, Emily Dickinson's niece. One of this small cohort had the temerity to take as a souvenir a manuscript sheet (found in an old secretary), which, we must trust, was not in Dickinson's hand. The second borrowed a charming, small mirror. For his part, James Merrill, he later confided, rescued "a tiny wine glass." Was that the literal truth? Or was he somehow conflating the dregs of that romantic peccadillo with Emily Dickinson's famous description of the color of her eyes?

I believed him, when this story came to light, one evening thirty years later, on the island of Poros, when he and I were visiting an old Greek friend of his. James, Mina reminded him, had introduced her some years after the Amherst escapade, in New York, to the man who had salvaged the mirror, which Mina very much envied him. They got to know each other, but then she didn't see the man for some time, and when they did cross paths she learned that he had given away the precious object. She was dismayed, especially because, as he knew, she so admired Dickinson that she had translated her poems into German, and he could just as easily have passed it along to her. So this old injury was touched upon as we sat there in a library designed by her first husband as though for a set for the last act of Mignon, with thick walls, high ceilings, tremendous beams, plank floors, and a commanding fireplace with an exposed brass chimney. James, as gracious a guest as she was a hostess, assured her that the looking glass in question could never have "held the face" of the poet, as he put it. Mina, mollified, presently retired. Whereupon James admitted to me that, given the style of the mirror, "an oval framed by two sconces," he recalled, he thought it likely that it had indeed gazed deeply into Emily Dickinson's sherry-colored eyes.

Fluent in Greek and English and German, Mina had grown up in Russia and still had some of that language, and she had taught herself some Chinese and, in her mid-eighties, was translating Lao Tzu into Greek. Her second husband was a well-known American poet and translator; her brother had once seen the Abominable Snowman in the Himalayas and told me that he believed that the famous figure was an ascetic monk out gathering certain herbs in the snow; and while we were there, her son arrived, accompanied by a stunning young woman who was not his wife and who was never introduced. As some of you will have guessed, by then Mina had been—though she seemed not to know it—the model for the enchanting heroine in James's second novel, which he had begun fifteen years before, in the very house we were visiting.

This is a kind of parable. To go anywhere with James was to enter a realm where boundaries dissolved, intrigues multiplied, and the plot dipped and looped like the dragon kite we flew that afternoon from Mina's roof. If, that night, by the flickering, fickle light of the fire and a glass of Metaxis, I found myself following a flashlight through a hallway in a dark house in Amherst, I also walked from a room where we were talking about Czarist Russia into a guest house that I recognized from The (Diblos) Notebook—itself a book in which the reader shuttles between alleged fiction and purported diary, even as prose narrows into metrical channels that eventually flood back out into prose. No wonder that James loved myths of metamorphosis and doted on Scheherazade, felt a kinship with Nabokov and Calvino, and relished Venice. It is fitting that Hermes should figure prominently in his later work. The divine messenger, the god of travel and the psychopomp, he crosses at will from one country to another and from this world to the next. And, lest we forget that night in Amherst, Hermes is the patron of thieves.

Which patronage, since it presupposes his ability to slip through customs and to invade private property with impunity, is one with the sanctioning of the radical imagination itself. Hermes' magical passport is also a seditious license. It permits the bearer to subvert genres (to turn poetry into prose, to translate a novel into verse). It also permits the bearer to cross borders as secure as those between power and art. (As the patron of commerce, Hermes could mediate between James and his stockbroker father, each of whom could make good sense of Wallace Stevens's dictum, "Money is a kind of poetry.") And it permits the bearer to negotiate differences as entrenched as those between the genders. (You'll remember for instance that at a crucial point in "The Book of Ephraim" a recruit named Theodore changes into an officer named Teddy, who in turn passes himself off as Mrs. Smith, who flashes a compact from Hermès and who later becomes Mrs. Myth….)

I'm trying to suggest one reason that James Merrill will be among the handful of poets by whom we remember this century now ever more rapidly circling the drain. The principle that I'm getting at will not be caught to the extent that change is of its essence. One might call this principle—which allowed him to move so invisibly from his art to his life and back—Mercurial, or Hermetic, or Protean, or Ovidian. To put that another way, James echoed Keats when he called himself a "chameleon," and his own "negative capability" is everywhere in evidence; at the same time, he showed off his debt to Byron. Alone among poets in our time he was able to turn Byron into Keats. He crafted the consummate lyric, in which he loaded every rift with ore (to borrow Keats's theft of Spenser), and he wrote the wittily ramshackle narrative, and he sometimes, somehow, impossibly did both at once. At Auden's death, he came into the older poet's copy of the Oxford English Dictionary, which he treasured above all others, but his young love in his last years was the American Heritage Dictionary, with its "Appendix," which follows words back through their vivid etymological metamorphoses to their "origins." Having learned from him in this respect as in so many others, I can remind you that the words diligence and elegance derive from one root, just as the words orgy and work stem from a single source. I hardly need add that no modern poet whom I know could be so fittingly located at the center of those four ever-shifting winds: diligence, orgy, elegance, work.

As you will remember, "The Book of Ephraim," a poem rife with recollection, concludes with a passage recounting how a thief breaks into James's house—in Stonington—but takes nothing. As the poem has it, "nothing's gone, or nothing we recall." That is, on one reading, nothing that we recall is gone. And then this poem, which is to my mind as likely to be recalled as anything in America in this century, ends with a vision of the Earth from an otherworldly vantage, almost as though viewed posthumously. This is Earth as magna mater, described in terms that always remind me a little of Mina—and in a way of his own mother, whose presence (I paraphrase James, on this Mother's Day eve) permeates "The Book of Ephraim." My last words are his, from the end of "Ephraim":

       And look, the stars have wound in filigree        The ancient, ageless woman of the world.        She's seen us. She is not particular—        Everyone gets her injured, musical        "Why do you no longer come to me?"        To which there's no reply. For here we are.


Principal Works


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