ISSN:1532-558X - Volume II, Number 1

Piotr Gwiazda

COLLECTED POEMS by James Merrill

In March of 1999, the University of Liège in Belgium hosted a largely successful conference on experimental aspects of post-war American poetry. The list of participants included distinguished artists and scholars from Europe and the United States, with numerous sessions featuring papers on Ezra Pound, e.e. cummings, John Ashbery, Lyn Hejinian, and scores of other artists associated with avant-garde poetics. It came as a surprise that one session featured a paper on James Merrill, perhaps the most form-obsessed poet in the history of American verse. After the panelist's rather unadventurous presentation on the survival of traditional forms in Merrill's poetry, an interesting discussion ensued. Although several members of the audience expressed disapproval and criticism of Merrill's life-long traditional formal stance in the era of artistic revolutions and innovations, in the end many of them admitted to admiring his poetry nevertheless. "Don't get me wrong," said one participant, "I absolutely adore Merrill's poems." Another added something to this effect: "Although I rarely read his poems, I agree that they offer an aesthetic experience quite unlike any other found in the works of contemporary American poets." The moral? I'm afraid I don't have one. But the story seems somehow relevant now that James Merrill's Collected Poems, spanning almost 900 pages, is available in bookstores.

Born in New York City exactly 75 years ago, Merrill was the author of a dozen of poetry volumes, which won him two National Book Awards (for Nights and Days and Mirabell), the Bollingen Prize in Poetry (for Braving the Elements), the Pulitzer Prize (for Divine Comedies ) and the National Book Critics Circle Award in Poetry for The Changing Light at Sandover, a verse trilogy based on his and his partner David Jackson's communications with dead souls and otherworldly spirits by way of the Ouija board (due to its enormous size, the trilogy is not included in this volume). Two representative selections of Merrill's poetry appeared in 1982 and 1992; he was also the author of two novels, two plays, a book of essays, and a memoir. Collected Poems is the product of cumulative efforts of Merrill's two literary executors, J.D. McClatchy and Stephen Yenser, who have done an exceptional job assembling compositions from practically every stage of Merrill's writing career, beginning with debut volume First Poems (1951) and ending with poems he completed shortly before his death in 1995.

Throughout his poetic career Merrill was able to secure a highly respectable status in the ranks of literary establishment; even if one did not read or like his poetry, at least one could not ignore his presence on the official (meaning honors-granting) stage of American letters. Although he himself always preferred to remain on the margins of whatever at a given time qualified as mainstream poetry—his formalist and anti-political stance reveal just that—Merrill eventually came to be hailed as an indispensable contemporary poet, one whose work is said to reflect the experience of living in the twentieth century, and one whose new volumes are awaited by readers (a small though extremely loyal bunch) with curiosity and excitement. The speed with which these Collected Poems have been assembled also indicates that there is a sort of concerted effort under way to promote and popularize (the very words make one cringe!) his work. A selection of Merrill's letters, many of them literary masterpieces in themselves, will be published soon; a biography is reportedly in the works. Merrill and his partner David Jackson are also the subject of a recent memoir by Alison Lurie. So far, most reviewers of Collected Poems have been generous to the poet, portraying him as a maverick literary figure, a superb imitator of other writers, such as Cavafy, Auden, Stevens, and Bishop, as well as a distinctly original voice. Alluding to his frequent travels across the world, Merrill once confessed that he always felt like an American citizen in other countries, but as a foreigner in his own. It is rather the same with his poetry. Like Robert Frost or Wallace Stevens before him, Merrill might have added another definition to what it means to be an American poet, especially a gay one, but his perspective is so singular and, yes, so marginal that we may still have to take a long time to fully understand and appreciate it.

Merrill first began to write poems when the New Criticism was all the rage as a literary theory and practice; no wonder he readily subscribed to the notion of a poem as an ambiguous, complex, and ironic verbal artifact, which is never the expression of personality (to use a famous phrase from T.S. Eliot's "Tradition and the Individual Talent"), but an escape from personality. In his early work, Merrill often places himself in the position of a self-conscious, yet at the same time self-effacing creator of his poems, assuming that he can only convey an experience or emotion by means of symbolic representation. A quick glance at those pieces reveals his indebtedness to poets fascinated with interactions between reality and the imagination—Yeats and Stevens. Merrill believed in the essential "oneness" of ideas and thoughts, claiming a dual aspect of the creative temperament which fuses conception and execution, fact and fiction, life and art. Here is a sample from "The Thousand and Second Night":

O skimmerof deep blue,
Volumes fraught with rhyme and reason,
Once the phosphorescent meshes loosen
And the objects of your quest slip through,
Almost you can overlook a risen
Brow, a thin, black dawn on the horizon.

This poetics of containment, as it were, takes for granted that the world is a describable place, that human beings are describable creatures; in short, that there is a kind of truth "out there" to be presented by the craftsman-poet in primarily indirect and ambiguous terms. This kind of poetry works best when it is considered solely on its own terms, transcending biographical, cultural, and historical contexts; it lends itself wonderfully to the practice of explication.

Merrill's poems, however, are more than just well-constructed verbal icons, for they are characterized by a highly versatile and promiscuous poetic style. One of the indisputable advantages of the present collection is that it fully demonstrates how Merrill's style evolves from the world-weary, post-symbolist approach of the early years to the neoclassicist precision and sophistication of the middle and late period. Many of his most distinctive poems reveal his debt to the tradition of poetic wit. Merrill's infatuation with the pun, his commitment to conversational yet polished tone, and his tendency to find unexpected pleasures in simply doing unexpected things with words remind us of similar verbal fireworks out of Byron and Auden, as in these lines from his sonnet sequence "The Broken Home":

What had the man done? Oh, made history.
Her business (he had implied) was giving birth,
Tending the house, mending the socks.

Always that same old story—
Father Time and Mother Earth,
A marriage on the rocks.

Merrill possessed Auden's formal skill, but not quite his phrasing ability. Despite his facility with various modes, moods, colors, and dictions, many of Merrill's poems show a certain roughness or awkwardness, as if the poet sometimes intentionally aimed to offset their high artifice with the authenticity of unrehearsed speech. For instance, Merrill will never be remembered by his opening lines; he was not afraid to begin his poems with lines like "Indigo, magenta, color of ghee" or "Divine uncultivation, and look, invariably" or "Unjeweled in black as ever comedienne" — although what follows usually rectifies such inauspicious beginnings. Merrill's poems take time to congeal, crystallize, and settle into form; his skill cannot be measured on a single line level, but on the basis of an entire poem. With regard to his poetry as a whole, Merrill's commitment to traditional (and at times not so traditional) forms and his inventive poetic technique combined with a range of genres he chose for his compositions — from lyric and dramatic to narrative and epic verse —testify to an advanced understanding of literary tradition, a knowledge of how one can engage the literary past wholly on its own terms and still remain an original rather than derivative poet. In Merrill's work, self-imposed formal restrictions do not reduce, but procure an individual tone. At the same time, form is never predictable in any of his poems. On the contrary, it always guarantees, as it should, an element of surprise.

Merrill is promiscuous in the choice of his exemplars; like Seneca's bee, he gathers the nectar of multiple poetic models and transforms it into the pure honey of his own oeuvre. As if the synthesis of symbolism and classicism were not enough, Merrill's poems also demonstrate a marked confessional impulse, but quite unlike the kind shown by Robert Lowell and Sylvia Plath. Merrill's sometimes very personal statements are always presented through the prism of wit, irony, self-deprecation, and even self-estrangement, as if always conscious of that invisible barrier that exists between what is intended to say and what is actually being said: language itself. We see examples of such poetic approach in his best-known pieces, like "Days of 1964" "Yánnina," "Lost in Translation," and "Verse for Urania," which address the poet's own life experiences in a way that is both personal and universal. These poems are preoccupied with the creative process, allowing us to consider them as allegories of writing, chronicles of the very process of signification and representation, combinations of invention and recognition, reticence and effusiveness, implication and statement. For Merrill a poem is no longer what Robert Frost used to call "a momentary stay against confusion," but a sustained investigation of the world's perplexities, an exploration of the psyche's bafflements within a combined sphere of fact and fiction in which all the opposites inevitably attract.

As a poet, Merrill rejects the idea that reality always lends itself to full description or representation. He does not believe that one should convey some actual or imagined experience, some recoverable meaning, some version of the truth communicable only through language. Or at least he conveys it with a conviction that experience and language do not always follow an accustomed trajectory. Merrill's poems may look conventional, but the artistic principle behind them—that conception and execution take place more or less at the same time —makes him a more daring and complex poet than many of his contemporaries. His work demonstrates that no matter how well-conceived and well-executed a poem may be, it is still a product of random agglomeration of various accidents of language; it is still a result of inherent instability of words. His poems are formal, but they also have a certain quizzical and improvisational quality; they are not verbal artifacts frozen in time, but lavish and exuberant verbal endeavors, which do not pretend to be anything but approximations of the unspeakable reality. For Merrill, language exists neither prior nor subsequent to experience, but alongside experience.

It is probably too early to judge whether Merrill was a major American poet or only a particularly gifted minor one, especially since such distinctions have long been subjected to critical reexaminations. Not every poem in this collection is a masterpiece, but this is also the case with collected editions of Hart Crane, Frost, Eliot, Stevens, and Bishop, in whose company the author of The Changing Light at Sandover can be (at least for now) safely installed. Collected Poems offers the full range of Merrill's unpredictable and multifaceted work—if some poems in this book leave you cold, others will make you cry.

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