On James Merrill (1926–1995)

James Merrill was an original supporter of The New York Review, and an occasional contributor. He published many poems here as well as pieces on Cavafy, Francis Ponge, and Elizabeth Bishop. There was also a wonderful essay, “Japan: Prose of Departure”—a travelogue that flows effortlessly into and out of a series of haiku and thoughts of a dying friend in New York.

It is rare for those born with great talent and great wealth never ostentatiously to display or coast on these golden carpets of advantage; James Merrill did neither. All his life he almost invisibly shared his fortune with less fortunate artists and writers through the Ingram Merrill Foundation—the name of which reunited his long-divorced parents, Hellen Ingram and Charles Merrill. There were also many individual gifts. (And it wasn’t only financial support that he and his friend David Jackson gave: they were also generous with their time, concern, and affection. For years, whenever I thought I had finished a manuscript I showed it to them, and many of my books were saved by their comments from a fate worse than publication.)

In the same way, James Merrill did not use his astonishing gifts to trumpet his own brilliance. On first reading, his work often seemed unassuming, even casual; only gradually did its wit, invention, and serious engagement with life appear. Even in his autobiography and the Sandover poems, Merrill gave “JM” no special privileges, but turned his cool amused, sometimes frighteningly penetrating gaze on himself, as on the world. It was the same in “real life”: everything, even the lightest flicker of a match or a joke, might be serious—nothing was solemn.

When I try to write about him, words fail me, except for his own. He is a ringmaster of language: alert to every possible twitch and roar. He must be one of the few poets who can successfully use words like “asymmetries,” “X-raywise,” and “oops!” in the same poem. In his work the flattest clichés are transformed into glowing images, and worn-out puns and similes catch fire. And almost always, behind the flash and shimmer of language are denser meanings.

In the black light of James Merrill’s death, many of his lines reverberate even more. In “Japan,” for instance, he remarks that the New York clinic where his friend is dying is “vast and complex as an ocean liner.” He goes on to speak of the passengers, “all in the same boat … each of them visibly

at sea. Yes, yes, these
old folks grown unpresuming,
almost Japanese,

had embarked too soon
—Bon voyage! Write—upon their
final honeymoon.

Later he describes a visit to a Noh theater, where an actor plays the parts successively of a maiden pearl-diver, her mother’s ghost, and a dancing dragon. The performer is

a middle-aged man—
but time, gender, self are laws
waived by his gold fan.

A diver, a benevolent ghost, and a dancing dragon: that sounds about right! Bon voyage! I miss you …

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