James Merrill Merrill, James (Vol. 3) - Essay

Merrill, James (Vol. 3)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Merrill, James 1926–

Merrill is an award-winning American poet, novelist, and playwright. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-14.)

James Merrill is an elegant, polished and witty performer of the old (i e, 1950s) American school. The two long poems that form his new book [Two Poems] show him in the guise of entertainer and satirist, manipulating the mandarin society of New England with mordant, po-faced relish.

"From Crag and Kitchen," in The Times Literary Supplement (reproduced by permission), September 29, 1972, p. 1146.

For Merrill, language is tortured and muscular, a labor that blossoms where body is bruised to pleasure soul (to reverse Yeats's line). But whether they wrestle with themselves or with a fact of the world, the contortions, the words like twisted muscles, seem to be struggling in a manner out of proportion to their content. It's like Charles Atlas trying to lift a pea….

Merrill's best poems are those in which he avoids such excesses altogether, and lets his language be a mouth rather than a mirror. His much praised sense of rhythm suffers when he tries to stuff it overfull with ingenious, labored words and images. Instead of dancing, his poems become like actors who don't know how to carry their arms, or like children born with an ear too large and a cheek to small. The only thing that holds them together is an act of the will…. Merrill writes too much from the outside in, imposing his absolute will on the poems, and consequently driving the language like a wedge into itself….

Merrill's world seems to be manufactured; there is too much of a split between the world as it is, which is after all, ordinary, and the world as Merrill's language describes it, too much of a split between outside and in, between object and word. Part of the problem is certainly his technical ingenuity. For Merrill, as for all of the formalists of the last three decades (excepting Roethke), technique and form are a function not of music, but of wit. That is, the wit is manufactured along with the form, as its justification. The result is a poetry that is simply too ingratiating, that talks around its subject too much, that exclaims, asks rhetorical questions, plays with language, but seldom hits the nail on the head….

John Vernon, in Western Humanities Review, Winter, 1973, pp. 107-09.

There is no unevenness in James Merrill's Braving the Elements. Merrill is a hermetic, brilliant, and very Alexandrian writer. The uniqueness of his poetry is determined by his particular language, by the quick tempo of his lines, the elusive prose structure that he works against the verse structure of the poem, the sketchiness of his mainly autobiographical material. His language is a singular achievement; it is at once lyrical and sarcastic, conversational and quaintly formal….

No form of illusion will be spared the edge of his irony; his lyricism touches only finite, mortal objects and persons, exposed to the elements and only then revealed in their true condition. It remains to be said that this is a specifically middle class vision or poetic mechanism. There is no labor in Merrill's world, and there is no richness of human culture; there is nothing that abides, nothing to be preserved; and so there is no responsibility….

What I am saying about Merrill's work is not intended to be a negative judgment; I want to point out that his vision is true, but with a very particular truth, and that ambivalence runs deep in his nature. The art he calls on in these lines is not an art of ambiguities, ironies, alienations, in which only a modicum of personal feeling is left for warmth; it is not his own art, it is a more radical art.

The essential quality of literary poetry is its lack of radical spirit. Radical, pertaining to root, origin, what is fundamental, but keeping its political associations. In Merrill's work there is a constant play with words, but there is no play with meanings, roots, the source of language. The language he uses is made up of bits and remains; and his vision, his particular poetic mechanism, has little to do with the fundamental conditions of existence….

The truth of James Merrill's poetry is that it is not simply a series of well-made poems, that it embodies the ethos of a particular class at a particular time in its history. The limitation of his work is in its acceptance of that condition, that is, in Merrill's identification of a particular ethos with the whole of human experience and the truth of history. There is nothing happening in the world he portrays.

Richard Pevear, in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1973 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXVI, No. 1, Spring, 1973, pp. 201-03.

Because it was once the fashion to regard James Merrill as the Fabergé of contemporary poetry, one hesitates to begin a review of his new volume [Braving the Elements] by applying to it his description (in Up and Down) of a bracelet. One hesitates—thinking that if this poet ever was handcuffed by artificiality, he long ago slipped those particular bracelets, and no one should be led to think otherwise—and then censures the impulse….

The dialectical process—the sublation of the elegant fiction of First Poems and the rude reality of the criticism in a poem based on the Psyche-Eros relationship—is characteristic. Everything is fuel for "the consuming myth". The phrase could not have displeased the man who wrote of "Dying into a dance"; and perhaps no poet since Yeats has seen as much by the flickering light of that paradox….

Art's task, it appears, is to clean and press the poet's various suits, to help him brave the elements in style. Although the clothes will still, will therefore turn up with "holes made by the myth", it does not follow that "there's more enterprise / In walking naked". Yeats, like the old strippers, knew that nakedness was the end of disclosure, that one would be well-advised to put such lines at the conclusion of a volume, that the lights go off with the last article of apparel. And so does Merrill….

[The] firm grasp of the knot, the slipknot of contrariety that is the self, is one with Merrill's ability to slide, as though from the real into the fictive, from the lyric into the dramatic; and this ability is one reason that he can get so much of his experience into his poetry. "Ze ne suis plus voleur, seulement volaze!", exclaims the character suspected of starting the fire. One wants to respond, on the one hand, with Rimbaud and a latent sense of the title in mind, "Donc le poète est vraiment voleur de feu"; and, on the other, that if Panayioti is fickle, it is because he is the poet, who has donned that disguise….

This volume ends with that squaring of the circle, a startling emblem of Merrill's furiously patient attempt to frame the fiction of a life. The results of that attempt have put him, in the middle of his career, in that awesome position of being incapable of writing less than some of the best poetry of his time.

Stephen Yenser, "Feux d'Artifice," in Poetry (© 1973 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), June, 1973, pp. 163-68.

[Merrill] is a poet in a situation of leisure, travel, civilized friendships, airplanes, motor cars, Mexico, Greece. He can be unashamedly "camp" and he has fun and wit, but his brittleness is redeemed by his sympathy. His themes are often those of pathos, a rather unfashionable emotion today. But the subjects of his poems (which can be extremely obscure) are really only excuses for the very rich harvest of a purely poetic—imagistic, allusive, word-jocular—world….

But perhaps with James Merrill's poetry the pathos is the nail upon which he hangs the poetry that is about itself, its own richness and baroque density. The emotions themselves are not very strong and tend to become overgrown by the shrubbery.

Stephen Spender, "Can Poetry Be Reviewed?," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; © 1973 by NYREV, Inc.), September 20, 1973, pp. 8-14.