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…
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