Scripts for the Pageant
by James Merrill
Atheneum, 235 pp., $12.95
Anyone who wants evidence that James Merrill has held on to his formidable gifts as a poet should look at a few sections of his recent books, Mirabell: Books of Number (1978) and Scripts for the Pageant. Merrill’s versatility and inventiveness fill a description of the small town of Stonington, Connecticut, on Block Island Sound:
White or white-trimmed canary clapboard homes
Set in the rustling shade of monochromes;
Lighthouse and clock tower, Village Green and neat
Roseblush factory which makes, upstreet,
Exactly what, one once knew but forgets—
Something of plastic found in luncheonettes;
The Sound’s quick sapphire that each day recurs
Aflock with pouter-pigeon spin- nakers….
[Mirabell, pp. 53-54]
Here, honest observation and smiling affection make themselves known through the clever rhymes, the exact epithets, and a witty mixture of colloquial with elegant phrasing. Later in the book, the rendition of a storm in musical terms, supported by startling metaphors and (again) rhyming couplets, provides a tour de force of steady movement and shifting points of view (pp. 149-150). In Scripts for the Pageant the incantatory, expanded sestina “Samos” (pp. 87-88) will fill the auditory imagination of an attentive listener; and the evocation of a moonlit red bedroom (pp. 208-209) will delight connoisseurs of nightscapes.
Woken—a bark? Night freshness and dazzle edging
The room’s pitch bright as day. Shutter flung wide,
In streams moonlight, her last quarter blazing
Inches above that wall of carbon mist
Made of the neighbors’. Where- upon the bedside
Tumbler brims and, the tallest story becoming
Swallowable, a mind-altering span- sule,
This red, self-shuttered poverty and Heaven’s
Glittering oxygen tent as one con- spire
Dark dark the bogs do hark… In- streaming, overwhelming
Even as it pulls back, the skyward undertow
Leaves, throughout city and coun- tryside wherever
Somebody wakes and goes to his window, a glowing
Tide-pool dram of bliss, diminuen- do….
Normally, a critic pursues such articles of praise with the judgment that the separate bits of a long poem gain power from their relation to the whole. I am not inclined to say so much. It is true that some obscurities in the best-turned lines may be illuminated by other parts of Merrill’s volumes. So also a reader may profitably recall earlier appearances (in either book) of themes, places, or characters employed in the marked passages. Still I think those passages might win strength if we read them independently.
Wallace Stevens once told Harriet Monroe that he wished to put everything else aside and amuse himself “on a large scale for a while.” If he supposed the advice was good for American poets in general, I disagree. Our best poets came of age after extended narratives and lengthy works of exposition had deserted verse for prose. The so-called long poems of the last hundred twenty-five years (or since the first edition of Leaves of Grass) never represent a triumph of structure; the stronger the narrative, the weaker the verse.
Too many learned critics have wasted too …