The most admiring reader is liable to let out a groan after reading thousands of lines of Wordsworth, Whitman, or Pound over a short period of time. What at onset is an original style and a work of genius ends up being a collection of new clichés. Despite such risk of exhaustion and disappointment, there’s really no better way to get to know a poet.
In James Merrill’s case, there is a surprise awaiting the reader already on the first page of his Collected Poems. One has every reason to expect, as is usually the case, that the youthful poems of any poet are bound to be fairly mediocre. It is absolutely amazing how many great poets started as seemingly talentless half-wits. Not James Merrill. First Poems, published in 1951 in an edition of only one hundred copies and written as early as 1945, exhibits many of the virtues of his mature style: a breathtaking ability to handle the most intricate forms and rhyme schemes, and to do so with apparent ease. The poems are ornate, dense, obscure, and very literary. Wallace Stevens is clearly a major influence, and so are the French symbolist poets Mallarmé and Baudelaire. Merrill’s early poems read like virtuoso performances by a prodigy who still hasn’t discovered that there is life outside literature. What seems to be of primary concern to this young poet is the creation of a sensibility in the process of refining a limited number of strategies within a long lyrical tradition. This poetry with no hint of America of the 1940s, one needs to be reminded, was written by an ex-GI. It’s as odd and improbable as seeing a performance of an opera at a country fair.
Still, despite the feeling of self-indulgent aestheticism, the opening poem in Collected Poems, “The Black Swan,” only slightly revised years later, is in my view one of the poet’s masterpieces. It is worth quoting in full:
Black on flat water past the jonquil lawns
Riding, the black swan draws
A private chaos warbling in its wake,
Assuming, like a fourth dimension, splendor
That calls the child with white ideas of swans
Nearer to that green lake
Where every paradox means wonder.
Though the black swan’s arched neck is like
A question-mark on the lake,
The swan outlaws all possible questioning:
A thing in itself, like love, like submarine
Disaster, or the first sound when we wake;
And the swan-song it sings
Is the huge silence of the swan.
Illusion: the black swan knows how to break
Through expectation, beak
Aimed now at its own breast, now at its image,
And move across our lives, if the lake is life,
And by the gentlest turning of its neck
Transform, in time, time’s damage;
To less than a black plume, time’s grief.
Enchanter: the black swan has learned to enter
Sorrow’s lost secret center
Where like a maypole separate tragedies
Are wound about a tower of ribbons, and where
The central hollowness is that pure winter
That doesn’t change but is
Always brilliant ice and air.
Always the black swan moves on the lake; always
The blond child stands to gaze
As the tall emblem pivots and rides out
To the opposite side, always. The child upon
The bank, hands full of difficult marvels, stays
Forever to cry aloud
In anguish: I love the black swan.
Merrill was then and continued to be the poet of a troubled childhood. He was the only child of Charles Edward Merrill, a founder of the highly successful brokerage firm Merrill Lynch, and his second wife, Hellen Ingram, who came from a socially prominent family in Jacksonville, Florida. His parents divorced when he was thirteen years old. He grew up lonely, raised primarily by a French governess in an atmosphere of enormous wealth in New York, Palm Beach, and Southampton, Long Island. In “The Black Swan,” he reminds me of another solitary child, the one in Arthur Rimbaud’s “The Drunken Boat,” whom we discover at the end of the poem to be the originator of the fabulous voyages the poem has just described. He is the one floating a small paper boat in a cold puddle in the street.
That vulnerable, dreaming child, who relives a moment of terror or happiness, is the hero of many of Merrill’s poems. “I love the black swan,” the boy says. What he loves is the self-enclosed, beautiful world his imagination has constructed. “Poets convince us that all our childhood reveries are worth starting again,” Gaston Bache-lard wrote.1 Merrill certainly did that. What is remarkable to me about the poem is how the reality of that child’s solitude nevertheless breaks through the artifice. The poem is both poignant and prophetic. He will write many others about his childhood in search of a key to the secret of his identity and the sources of his poetic vision.
There’s a general agreement that with Water Street (1962) and succeeding volumes, Merrill’s poetry changes for the better. He leaves behind the aesthete’s aloofness of his earlier poetry, that impression of wanting to dazzle the reader with his quick wit and nothing terribly urgent at stake. The late 1950s and early 1960s were the period when the so-called confessional poetry was all the rage in this country. The poems in Robert Lowell’s Life Studies, with their autobiographical bent and shameless self-concentration, were widely imitated. Merrill’s poems, too, begin to sound more personal, although he does not share Lowell’s need to blurt out dark secrets and appall the reader. He’s more reticent, more sneaky, and in his own way more terrifying. Here, for instance, is a section from the sequence “The Broken Home” in Nights and Days (1966), which describes a troubling and never to be forgotten encounter with his Medusa-like mother:
One afternoon, red, satyr-thighed
Michael, the Irish setter, head
Passionately lowered, led
The child I was to a shut door. Inside,
Blinds beat sun from the bed.
The green-gold room throbbed like a bruise.
Under a sheet, clad in taboos
Lay whom we sought, her hair undone, outspread,
And of a blackness found, if ever now, in old
Engravings where the acid bit.
I must have needed to touch it
Or the whiteness—was she dead?
Her eyes flew open, startled strange and cold.
The dog slumped to the floor. She reached for me. I fled.
Merrill is both a poet of memory and an epicure of daily life. He speaks approvingly of Eugenio Montale’s poetry that is “surprisingly permeable by quite ordinary objects—ladles, hens, pianos, half-read letters.” “To me,” he continues, “he’s the twentieth-century nature poet.”2 This is true of Merrill himself. He’s the poet of intimate spaces as much as he is the poet of travel. A cozy room with all its furnishings carefully enumerated, where the comedy of manners unfolds between four walls, is the setting of many of his poems. People gossip, fall in and out of love, grow bored or introspective. It’s all very theatrical and very civilized. Then, as on the stage, something out of the ordinary happens. There’s a moment of revelation, a small epiphany that transforms the commonplace event:
CHARLES ON FIRE
Another evening we sprawled about discussing
Appearances. And it was the consensus
That while uncommon physical good looks
Continued to launch one, as before, in life
(Among its vaporous eddies and false calms),
Still, as one of us said into his beard,
“Without your intellectual and spiritual
Values, man, you are sunk.” No one but squared
The shoulders of his own unloveliness.
Long-suffering Charles, having cooked and served the meal,
Now brought out little tumblers finely etched
He filled with amber liquor and then passed.
“Say,” said the same young man, “in Paris, France,
They do it this way”—bounding to his feet
And touching a lit match to our host’s full glass.
A blue flame, gentle, beautiful, came, went
Above the surface. In a hush that fell
We heard the vessel crack. The contents drained
As who should step down from a crystal coach.
Steward of spirits, Charles’s glistening hand
All at once gloved itself in eeriness.
The moment passed. He made two quick sweeps and
Was flesh again. “It couldn’t matter less,”
He said, but with a shocked, unconscious glance
Into the mirror. Finding nothing changed,
He filled a fresh glass and sank down among us.
There are a good many equally marvelous poems in Merrill’s middle period. I’ll mention a few that struck me as being even better than I remembered them: “Hôtel de l’Univers et Portugal,” “The Octopus,” “Doodler,” “The Urban Convalescence,” “A Vision of the Garden,” “Prism,” “For Proust,” “Nightgown,” “From the Cupola,” “Remora,” “Days of 1935,” “The Victor Dog,” and “Lost in Translation.” Merrill demands that he be read with extreme care. The poems’ pleasures lie in details where his impeccable ear for language, his huge vocabulary and play of wit are on display. He can spin a tale, keep the poem going through countless twists and turns of the plot, and hold us spellbound. That extraordinary facility can at times be irritating. One begins to suspect that he can make a poem out of any occasion, no matter how trivial. Merrill admitted that he never learned how to read newspapers, and indeed, his references to contemporary events are infrequent. Even his few New York poems are not particularly vivid for me. That is not where his heart is. His milieu is social, intimate, and domestic. In his fascination with manners throughout the Collected Poems, he is as much a satirist as he is a lyric poet.
The publication of The Book of Ephraim in Divine Comedies (1977), the first volume of the trilogy The Changing Light at Sandover, broadened his subject matter and attracted considerable attention. Ephraim was a spirit who communicated his revelations and those of other spirits to Merrill and his companion, David Jackson, by way of a Ouija board. What we have then is a poem that in addition to narrative and commentary in verse incorporates transcriptions of actual messages from the other world. The reception was mixed. There were those who like Harold Bloom spoke of “occult splendor in which Merrill rivals Yeats’s A Vision, Stevens’s ghostly The Owl in the Sarcophagus, and even some aspects of Proust,” and those leery of candlelit séances with ghosts who simply did not know what to make of it all. That it is the most unusual poem ever written in America and that its intellectual ambitions are immense, there’s no doubt. The controversy regarding the poem has continued and is not about to die down with the publication of the novelist Alison Lurie’s memoir about Merrill and Jackson and their twenty-five years of involvement with the Ouija board.
Lurie and Merrill met in the summer of 1950 in Salzburg, Austria, while both were traveling in Europe, but their friendship really began in 1955, when Merrill took a position as a visiting writer at Amherst College, where Lurie’s husband was teaching. He arrived accompanied by his new friend David Jackson. Lurie describes Merrill as an elegantly handsome man with impeccable manners he had learned as a child from his mother and his governess. He knew French, German, Italian, modern and classical Greek, and Latin, and could make puns in several languages at once. As she says,
The 1950s and early 1960s were a good time for David and Jimmy. They were young and in love; they had no economic worries; they lived in an odd but beautiful house in a picturesque village on the New England coast. When not at home they traveled together round the world and made friends everywhere.
She liked visiting them at their house in Stonington, Connecticut:
To go to 107 Water Street from a house cluttered with shabby, worn furniture and toys and dirty laundry and the cries of children was like being transported to another world: one not only more attractive, but more luxurious, calm, and voluptuous; more free and leisured—a world in which the highest goods were friendship, pleasure, and art.
As pleasant as their lives were, Lurie became sure of underlying tensions. Jackson, who was also independently well-off, was an unsuccessful fiction writer, the author of a few well-received short stories and five unpublished novels. By 1959, Merrill had already published a short novel, The Seraglio, and another book of poems, The Country of a Thousand Years of Peace. Throughout the 1950s, from time to time, they would take out the Ouija board to entertain themselves with lighthearted messages, but in September of 1965, they took it up again, this time with great seriousness. On one hand, there was Jackson with his frustrated creative energy and, on the other, Merrill intrigued by the possibility that he may actually have been making contact with the dead. “It is inside that I need to change,” he wrote in his own memoir, A Different Person. “To this end I hope very diffidently to get away from the kind of poetry I’ve been writing.”
“They didn’t suspect,” Lurie remarks, “that what started as an evening’s amusement would consume so much of their lives over the years to come, how at times it would become so absorbing that reality itself would seem faded, flimsy, and ghostlike.” This is the puzzle her memoir tries to solve. It involves a furtive lovers’ quarrel between the two while they were ostensibly engaged in a spiritual adventure. In 1976, after over twenty years of intermittent sessions, Merrill decided to make use of the revelations, first in the form of a novel, and eventually in a poem, The Book of Ephraim, followed soon after by Mirabell’s Books of Number (1978) and Scripts for the Pageant (1980). All three, with Coda: The Higher Keys, were published in 1982 as The Changing Light at Sandover. The long poem, or so we believe in America, is supposed to be the test of any poet’s true powers. “The notion,” Merrill wrote in his memoirs, “struck me at twenty—at forty, too, for that matter—as a dangerous form of megalomania, and I wasn’t buying any of it. But at fifty? Longer than Dante, dottier than Pound, and full of spirits more talkative than Yeats himself might have wished….”
Lurie doesn’t think much of the trilogy as metaphysics. She admires the poems in it, but cannot accept its fundamental premise, and neither can I. The claim that a poet is a medium who merely transmits what he has received from some unknown source has been around since the Romantics. However, such inspired moments of automatic writing were thought to be rare. Merrill’s immortals in the hereafter, on the other hand, are garrulous. They are not just a poetic conceit, it turns out, but are to be taken seriously. What at first in The Book of Ephraim’s twenty-six poems had a tongue in cheek quality becomes farfetched in later books, where transcriptions of messages in blocks of uppercase letters predominate and Plato, Buddha, Homer, Mohammed, Jesus, and scores of other illustrious names have their say. Merrill and Jackson occasionally hint that they suspect the whole thing is a delightful fabrication, a genie conjured up out of their unconscious selves, and then they seem to forget that.
The abstruse mystical doctrine that purports to explain God and his creation, including such perennial brain-twisters as Atlantis, Stonehenge, the Bermuda Triangle, black holes, and flying saucers—to name only a few—inevitably drowns out the poetry. Merrill’s enlightened voices from above are, of course, a familiar phenomenon in our culture, where, as Lurie points out,
apparently, celebrities from everywhere in the world and over three thousand years of history are eager to communicate with contemporary housewives and small businessmen, secretaries and schoolteachers, teenagers and senior citizens. Egyptian pharaohs and Greek philosophers, European kings and queens and world-renowned writers and artists and musicians crowd into small-town sitting rooms to discuss art, religion, philosophy, and current events.
Imparting wisdom from on high is never an advisable strategy in poetry. Merrill’s best poems let the readers’ imagination draw out their meanings for themselves. Not here. There are narrative and lyric interludes in the trilogy that rank among some of the liveliest poetry Merrill ever wrote, but they do not salvage the epic from being a largely didactic poem.
“When two sophisticated, extremely intelligent people devote over twenty-five years to recording messages from imaginary beings, you have to ask, What was in it for them?” Lurie writes. As a novelist, she is less interested in angels than in the games her two friends were playing. Her memoir seeks to unearth what was psychologically at stake for the participants. For Merrill, the messages from the spirits were primarily raw material for what was hoped to be a major poem. For Jackson, who is the unacknowledged coauthor of the trilogy and whose experience as a novelist undoubtedly contributed to the creation of its cast of characters, it was a way of sustaining the increasingly complex and destructive relationship with his lover. One may not agree entirely with Lurie’s conclusions, but Familiar Spirits is an exquisitely written and powerful little book.
Merrill is at the top of his form in his later books of poems, Late Settings (1985), The Inner Room (1988), and A Scattering of Salts (1995). The poems, with their accretion of detail, have a novelistic richness. One of Merrill’s great talents was always his ability to describe well. About his first visit to Rome as a young man, Merrill says: “A thousand details reached me, but like a primitive painter ignorant of perspective, I had no way to order them; the mosquito was the same size as the horse or the purple blossom of the artichoke.” Now he knows how to do it.
Merrill is a poet quivering with awareness, alert to every sight and new sensation in his surroundings as he is to every nuance of language. Again and again, he is the poet of a memorable occasion, of exhilaration and delight some chance event brought to him. Here’s one such poem:
Deep in weeds, on a smooth chunk of stone
Fallen from the cornice of the church
(Originally a temple to Fortuna),
Appears this forearm neatly drawn in black,
Wearing, lest we misunderstand,
Like a tattoo the cross-within-a-circle
Of the majority—Christian Democrat.
Arms and the man. This arm ends in a hand
Which grasps a neatly, elegantly drawn
Cock—erect and spurting tiny stars—
And balls. One sports…a swastika?
Yes, and its twin, if you please, a hammer-and-sickle!
The tiny stars, seen close, are stars of David.
Now what are we supposed to make of that?
Wink from Lorenzo, pout from Mrs. Pratt.
Hold on, I want to photograph this latest
Fountain of Rome, whose twinkling gist
Gusts my way from an age when isms were largely
Come-ons for the priapic satirist,
And any young guy with a pencil felt
He held the fate of nations in his fist.
It’s all here: paganism, Catholic religion, fascism, communism, Nazism, and even a hint of anti-Semitism. Long before Freud, the graffiti artists everywhere have known that sex and power go hand in hand. This lucky find is worth photographing like any other tourist attraction in Rome. The poem, too, is a snapshot, so clear one instantly intuits the larger implications of what one has just seen, down to the final jest about the young political visionary holding his pen and presumably also his cock in his fist.
The later poems inevitably have an elegiac and introspective mood. A number of Merrill’s close friends had died of AIDS and he himself was diagnosed as having the virus in 1986, although he kept it a secret. Against such grim reality, the issue in a number of poems, even more than before, is how to recover in small measure and prolong some intensely lived moment. Merrill is still a poet who keeps what at times sounds like a diary in verse, writing poems about his father’s Irish setters, scrapping his computer, a dry-out farm, Wagner’s Ring cycle at the Met, his mother’s pearls, and even his contact lenses. There are many fine poems, among which I particularly admire “Page from the Koran,” “The House Fly,” “Santo,” “Trees Listening to Bach,” “The Dresden Doll,” “A Room at the Heart of Things,” “Walks in Rome,” “Snow Jobs,” “164 East 72nd Street,” and “Self-portrait in Tyvek[TM] Windbreaker.”
Merrill’s poems do not change much over the years. Collected Poems ends up by being an autobiography of a very private man with a small circle of friends and lovers to whom he remained devoted. There are poets, like Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, Frank O’Hara, and John Ashbery, who one feels get closer to our complex reality. Merrill is without equal in American poetry when it comes to formal mastery, but despite his considerable range of interests, his take on things may be a bit too mandarin for some tastes. Working within the tradition was his strength and his limitation. He’s clever and inventive, but he did not enlarge our idea of what poetry can be as much as these other poets, who took greater risks with the lyric by daring to be antipoetic both in how they wrote their poems and what they wrote about.
“Art. It cures affliction,” Merrill says in a late poem. Poetry staves off the inevitable for him by transforming our sensual experience into an aesthetic one and the aesthetic into a spiritual one. These transmutations, however, cannot be willed. The problem with the Sandover trilogy is that it omitted one important step. It sought transcendence without a credible basis in experience. As Stevens cautioned, “The imagination loses vitality as it ceases to adhere to what is real. When it adheres to the unreal and intensifies what is unreal, while its first effect may be extraordinary, the effect is the maximum effect that it will ever have.”3 Merrill is a better poet and a wiser man when he allows the meaning in his poems to come unbidden out of the ingredients at hand, where it lay hidden in some idiom or metaphor. When that happens, as in “An Upward Look,” the closing poem in A Scattering of Salts, one not only believes in the vision, but one is also deeply moved:
O heart green acre sown with salt
by the departing occupier
lay down your gallant spears of wheat
Salt of the earth each stellar pinch
flung in blind defiance backwards
now takes its toll Up from this quieted
quarry the lover colder and wiser
hauling himself finds the world turning
toys triumphs toxins into
this vast facility the living come
dearest to die in How did it happen
In bright alternation minutely mirrored
within the thinking of each and every
mortal creature halves of a clue
approach the earthlights Morning star
evening star salt of the sky
First the grave dissolving into dawn
then the crucial recrystallizing
from inmost depths of clear dark blue
“The ancient comic theater had it right,” he begins another late poem. He has in mind that “moment comedies beget/when escapade and hubbub die away,/Vows are renewed, masks dropped” and “Nature must do the rest.” There was always a conflict in Merrill between giving himself fully over to some all-consuming aesthetic emotion and his ironic detachment. Perhaps it is not surprising that these mixed feelings remained with him to the end of his life. In the previously uncollected poem “Days of 1994,” written months before his death, he describes waking in a friend’s room, watching the dawn light, an infant sun tottering on stilts of shade through misty greens, while close by a dragonfly shivers. However, it’s not only the magician but also the tough realist in Merrill who makes this farewell poem so heart-wrenching. The truth of his poetry turns out to be the stoic truth:
I shiver next, Light walking on my grave…
And sleep, and wake. This time, peer out
From just beneath the mirror of the lake
A gentle mile uphill.
Florets—the mountain laurel—float
Set swaying by the wake of the flatboat:
Barcarole whose chords of gloom
Draw forth the youngest, purest, faithfullest,
Hands crossed on breast,
Pre-Raphaelite face radiant—and look,
Not dead, O never dead!
To wake, to wake
Among the flaming dowels of a tomb
Below the world, the thousand things
Here risen to if not above
Before day ends:
The spectacles, the book,
Forgetful lover and forgotten love,
Cobweb hung with trophy wings,
The fading trumpet of a car,
The knowing glance from star to star,
The laughter of old friends.