Merrill’s work is considered difficult, but he did not write difficult poetry to forbid the reader access to his work; he was a poet with W. H. Auden’s sense: one who simply liked to have fun with words and was deeply sensitive to the multiple valences, the mercurial surfaces, that words present. Merrill’s early poetry was often labeled as being merely clever. Indeed, the early poems are among the small number of true modernist poems written in the United States along with those of Wallace Stevens, the great American poet of the 1920’s and 1930’s. These poems are congeries of imagery surrounding a central intuition, often not clearly stated, creating a feeling where none existed before.
Unfortunately for Merrill, the age of the modernist poets was passing, and the critics lamented the lack of substance in his work. Indeed, many of his early poems (such as “The Mirror”) are symbols of the relationship between poetry and its subject. The reigning poetic fashion of the 1970’s was confessional poetry: trying to make some personal experience relevant for society. Perhaps this fashion inspired Merrill. He began writing longer poems, more influenced by the narrative technique he had shown in his early novel, The Seraglio, and they began to be about Merrill’s deeper life, rather than chance meetings and symbolist confrontations.
“Broken Home,” for example, is a reminiscence of his parents’ divorce and of his own frightening Oedipal encounter with his mother. In this period, certain images dominate. Fire imagery increases in importance; the house becomes a synecdoche for the identity of its occupants. Most of all, the mirror comes to the fore as an image of poetry, that reflection of reality that is supposed to tell readers something about themselves. The image appears everywhere in Merrill’s poetry—subtly, as a pond, a lake, skies, or even broken glass, or directly, as in the earlier poem “The Mirror.”
After Merrill set up his winter home in Athens, the landscapes of his poetry became more and more Greek and more mythological. The Greek house gets its own treatment, especially after a fire forced its thorough reconditioning. Merrill begins to combine his mythic sense with a perhaps even stronger animism, and one hears a black mesa and a stream bank speak in soliloquy. Intimations of immortality appear here and there in his poems, as long poems appear more frequently.
All of this seems like a preparation for The Changing Light at Sandover, certainly the most individual book of poetry published in the United States since Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass (1855). The technique of this book, of transcribing (actually, more or less editing) the messages of the Ouija board into poetry, allows Merrill the freedom to create a dramatic epic. The voices of the Ouija board bear witness to a world of the spirit to which Merrill the witness can act as either a skeptic or a believer, and a true dialogue can be set up between the voices of the board and the reflections and responses of the poet.
Dotted throughout The Changing Light at Sandover are set pieces showing some remarkable prosodic advances over his earlier poetry. He had always shown a skill at creating unique verse forms, often some combination of quatrains in tetrameter or pentameter, especially with his favorite rhyme scheme (abba), but with the long poem came some even more memorable set pieces. For example, there is the W section of “The Book of Ephraim,” written in a masterful terza rima, reinforcing its allusions to Dante, the medieval Italian epic poet. These allusions begin with the title of the book, Divine Comedies, in which “The Book of Ephraim” first appeared.
There is a section of pentameters with random rhymes reminiscent of the meditative poems of W. H. Auden, the brilliant modern British American writer. Scripts for the Pageant contains a modernist set piece called “House in Athens,” written in six-line stanzas of trochaic trimeter broken by a fourth line in pentameter, rhymed haphazardly, sometimes with consonance.
The same book also includes a poem, “Samos,” written in the form of a medieval canzone or sestina, with five twelve-line stanzas repeating the sounds of “sense,” “light,” “water,” “fire,” and “land,” arranged abaacaaddaee. The sounds change in each stanza so that a different sound ends the first line of each one.
On the surface, Merrill’s poetry is difficult, exploiting the modernist device of not specifying his nouns—his characters and places. His goal is to render, as exactly as possible, the movements of the human spirit in its encounter with reality, the world, or other people. In doing so, he acts as if the word as medium contains the realities it names. His work, as a result, has a profound civilizing function. Merrill also wants to know how he feels toward (and among) his own poetry, that wisdom of the imagination which gives value to life. He stands in a line of great writers, including Auden and Proust, who taught him how each sensation is a seed which, if properly nurtured, can turn into a work of art.
“The Broken Home”
First published: 1965 (collected in Collected Poems, James Merrill, 2001)
Type of work: Poem
Merrill reminisces about his old house and his parents’ divorce.
“The Broken Home” uses a unique form, a combination of seven different types of sonnet, to explore the meaning of family in the life of a child. The first sonnet is unrhymed and begins with the apparent genesis of the poem: He is going home one night and sees a family through the windows of the apartment above his. He goes to his own room and, trying to read a book of maxims, asks if his lonely life has any value.
The second sonnet, written in pentameters and rhyming abbacddceffe gg, talks about his father’s world. His father had two goals—sex and business—and a desire to “win.” “Time was money.” He married “every thirteen years,” but when he was seventy, he died: “Money was not time.”
The third sonnet is in a sort of free verse, rhymed abba cddc efg efg. It comments on what Merrill says was a popular “act” when he was a boy. A woman would accost a famous man and, after calling him names, would demand that he give women the vote; he would, in return, implicitly tell her to go back to homemaking. The last three lines of the sonnet turn it into an allegory of what Merrill feels is the eternal battle of the sexes between “Father Time and Mother Earth.” He begins to see his own parents’ divorce as part of a larger rift in the world between the male and female principles, a theme he will further develop in his famous trilogy.
The fourth sonnet is written in a sort of tetrameter, rhyming abba bccb dee bdb, and is the celebrated center of the poem. The young boy, led by his dog, enters the bedroom of his distraught mother; she is in bed, sleeping, “clad in taboos.” He wonders if she is dead; she jumps and reaches for him, and he runs from the room in terror. This Oedipal incident seems to color the whole poem. The fifth sonnet is again in free verse, rhyming abc db cdc eee fef; the rhyme scheme includes many slant rhymes. The poem centers on the conceit of a lead toy soldier. The parents decide to separate; he feels that they were full of passions but that everything is now cold and heavy.
The sixth sonnet, rhyming (or slant rhyming) abba cddc eff ghh, tells what he believes is the result of his parents’ divorce: He refuses to be like his father, active and competitive, or like his mother, nurturing, a gardener.
The last sonnet is the closest to the Petrarchan model, rhyming abab cdcd efg efg. The octave celebrates the whole event, telling of the little boy and his dog frozen back in time. The sestet points out that the house is now a boarding school; perhaps its inhabitants will learn more there than he did. The poem is not didactic or condemnatory; it merely delineates a history and relates it to today and to the world.
“18 West 11th Street”
First published: 1972 (collected in Braving the Elements, 1972)
Type of work: Poem
The poet treats an accidental bomb explosion by antiwar protesters as symbolic of humankind’s troubles.
“18 West 11th Street” seems to have been inspired by a newspaper report: Certain anti-Vietnam War protesters had a house blow up around them while they were trying to make bombs. The only survivor was a young woman named Cathy Wilkerson, seen running from the building naked and covered with blood.
The poem is one of Merrill’s most difficult—at least partially because it tries to tell three stories at once. The first is the story of the bombing: The five revolutionaries are fed up with society and its warmongering leaders. They have given up trying to use words to get their message across and are now resorting to bombs, a means of “incommunication.” Instead of bombing “The Establishment,” however,...
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The late James Merrill was recognized as one of the leading poets of his generation. Praised for his stylish elegance, moral sensibilities, and transformation of autobiographical moments into deep and complex meditations, Merrill’s work spans genres—including plays and prose—but the bulk of his artistic expression can be found in his poetry. Merrill’s talent was recognized immediately, though his earliest work was seen as polished and technically proficient rather than deep. It was not until his themes became more dramatic and personal that he began to win serious attention and literary acclaim. Over the long course of his career, Merrill won nearly every major literary award in America: he received two National Book Awards, for Nights and Days (1966) and Mirabell: Books of Numbers (1978); Merrill’s long Ouija-inspired epic poem The Changing Light at Sandover (1982) won the National Book Critics Circle Award, and he was awarded the inaugural Bobbitt National Prize for Poetry by the Library of Congress for his book The Inner Room (1988); he also received both the Bollingen Prize in Poetry and the Pulitzer Prize, the latter for a book of occult poetry called Divine Comedies (1976).
James Merrill was born in 1926 in New York City, the son of investment banker Charles E. Merrill, co-founder of the Merrill Lynch brokerage firm. Brought up in fabulous wealth, Merrill’s interest in language was piqued by his governess—a Prussian-English widow called Mademoiselle who was fluent in both German and French. Merrill’s first book of poems was privately printed by his father during James's senior year of high school. He attended Amherst College; though his education was interrupted by a stint in the U.S. army during World War II, Merrill’s future as a poet was all but decided during his years in college. In 1946 he published his first collection, The Black Swan. Spending a few years traveling abroad in Europe after graduating, Merrill eventually settled in Stonington, Connecticut with his long-term partner, the writer David Jackson. Though Merrill was wealthy his entire life, he understood the plight of many artists and founded the Ingram Merrill Foundation in 1956, a permanent endowment created for writers and painters.
While at Amherst, Merrill wrote his thesis on Marcel Proust, and in many ways the great French writer’s themes of memory, nostalgia, and loss became Merrill’s own. The fusion of autobiography and archetype was a hallmark of Merrill's verse. David Kalstone explained in the Times Literary Supplement that Merrill’s relatively privileged existence allowed him to focus intensely on the poetic act itself: “He [Merrill] has not led the kind of outwardly dramatic life which would make external changes the centre of his poetry. Instead, poetry itself has been one of the changes, something which continually happens to him, and Merrill’s subject proves to be the subject of the great Romantics: the constant revisions of the self that come through writing verse. Each book seems more spacious because of the one which has come before.” Though centered on the self, Merrill’s poetry is far from self-centered. Helen Vendler observed in the New York Times Book Review that the best of Merrill's poems “are autobiographical without being 'confessional': they show none of that urgency to reveal the untellable or unspeakable that we associate with the poetry we call 'confessional'.”
A master of forms, Merrill’s later poetry rarely feels formal. In the Atlantic Monthly, poet X.J. Kennedy observed that “Merrill never sprawls, never flails about, never strikes postures. Intuitively he knows that, as Yeats once pointed out, in poetry, 'all that is personal soon rots; it must be packed in ice or salt.'“ Comparisons to Yeats recurred throughout Merrill’s career, particularly during the periods in which Merrill wrote Divine Comedies and his master-work, The Changing Light at Sandover. Embracing mysticism and the occult, Merrill believed, like Yeats—whose wife was a medium—that he received inspiration from the world beyond. His Divine Comedies features an affable ghost named Ephraim who instructs the poet; Yeats's “A Vision” features the spirit Leo Africanus in a similar role. Critics have found other influences at work in Merrill's poems as well, drawing parallels between his writing and the work of Dante, W. H. Auden, and Marcel Proust—who was also somewhat dismissed as a mere aesthete early in his career.
Merrill’s early work, in First Poems (1951) and The Country of a Thousand Years of Peace and Other Poems (1959), was criticized for its insistence on “connoisseurish aesthetic contemplation,” in the words of James Dickey. In the 1960s Merrill began to incorporate more autobiographical and personal elements into his work, leading to “a toughened and colloquialized…verse line” free of “the wan artifice that marked his very early work” according to Ian Hamilton in the Washington Post Book World. With each step he took away from formalism, Merrill gained critical ground. As his verse became more conversational, it began to ape the structures of prose, as Helen Vendler noted in the New York Review of Books: “The flashes and glimpses of 'plot' in some of the lyrics—especially the longer poems—reminded Merrill's readers that he wanted more than the usual proportion of dailiness and detail in his lyrics, while preserving a language far from the plainness of journalistic poetry, a language full of arabesques, fancifulness, play of wit, and oblique metaphor.” In fact, Merrill considered writing his epic poem “The Book of Ephraim” as a prose narrative, though he eventually abandoned the idea. “The Book of Ephraim”—which appeared in Divine Comedies, considered to be Merrill’s breakthrough—prompted many critics to reevaluate the poet. Among them was Harold Bloom, who wrote in the New Republic that “the book's eight shorter poems surpass nearly all the earlier Merrill, but its apocalypse (a lesser word won't do) is a 100-page verse-tale, 'The Book of Ephraim,' an occult splendor in which Merrill rivals Yeats' 'A Vision,'…and even some aspects of Proust.”
The two volumes that followed Divine Comedies, Mirabell: Books of Number (1978) and Scripts for the Pageant (1980), continue the narrative that “The Book of Ephraim” begins. Together these three poems form a trilogy that was published with a new coda in The Changing Light at Sandover, an unprecedented 560-page epic that records the Ouija board sessions Merrill and David Jackson conducted with spirits from the other world. Merrill organized each section of the trilogy to reflect a different component of their homemade Ouija board. The twenty-six sections of “The Book of Ephraim” correspond to the board's A to Z alphabet, the ten sections of Mirabell: Books of Number correspond to the board's numbering from zero to nine, and the three sections of Scripts for the Pageant (“Yes,” “&,” and “No”) correspond to the board's Yes & No. The progression of poems also represents a kind of celestial hierarchy, with each book representing communication with a higher order of spirits than the one before. Humans in the poem are identified by their initials—DJ and JM; spirits speak in all capitals. By the time Merrill transcribed the lessons of the archangels in book three, he offered nothing less than a model of the universe. According to Mary Jo Salter in the Atlantic Monthly, the long poem is “a hymn celebrating, among other things, 'resistance' as 'Nature's gift to man.'“ As the myth is reappraised and corrected by the characters who are themselves a part of it, Salter believed that “'Yes No' becomes an answer to every question: not an equivocation of authorial (or divine) responsibility, but an acknowledgment that 'fact is fable,' that the question of man's future, if any, is one he must answer for himself.”
James Merrill died of a heart attack in February of 1995 while vacationing in Tucson, Arizona. He continued to write poetry and prose until his death, often treating, in subtle ways, the AIDS epidemic that ravaged his friend group, and which he himself battled. Merrill published a memoir, A Different Person, in 1993; his final volume of poetry, A Scattering of Salts (1995), “provides an elegant closure for his life's work, the kind of bittersweet ending he treasured,” remarked Phoebe Pettingell in The New Leader. Other posthumous volumes followed, including Collected Poems (2001) and Selected Poems (2008), both edited by J. D. McClatchy and Stephen Yenser. Collected Poems is the first in a series that will present all of Merrill's work, including his novels, plays, and collected prose. It includes his entire body of poetry excluding juvenilia and The Changing Light at Sandover. In addition, Collected Poems brings together for the first time twenty-one translations from Apollinaire, Montale, Cavafy, and others and forty-four previously uncollected poems, including elegies to Philip Larkin, Elizabeth Bishop, and others. Selected Poems does excerpt The Changing Light at Sandover, presenting a sampler of a poet who wrote “New Critical Rococo” in the words of August Kleinzhaler in the New York Times Book Review. Kleinzhaler added: “Where a straight line would do, Merrill cannot resist using filigree. But if one were to bypass his work, one would be missing some of the finest poems written in English in the middle of last century.”