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A Peacock Called Mirabell

August Kleinzahler: James Merrill, 30 March 2016

James MerrillLife and Art 
by Langdon Hammer.
Knopf, 913 pp., £27, April 2015, 978 0 375 41333 9
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... James Merrill​ has in Langdon Hammer the biographer he would have wished for: intelligent, appreciative, sympathetic, thorough, a first-rate reader of the poems, and an excellent writer to boot. Merrill would have hated to be the subject of a plodding biography. He was all about stylishness and elegance, in poetry and in life ...
Selected Poems 
by James Merrill.
Carcanet, 152 pp., £9.95, April 1996, 1 85754 228 2
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... That the English have been slow to recognise James Merrill as the best poet in the language after Elizabeth Bishop has long seemed strange to Americans. Come to think of it, British recognition of Bishop herself was belated; for decades she was upstaged by Robert Lowell, probably because he lived in England and behaved in a way that seemed more certifiably poetic ...

Kohl-Rimmed

Laura Quinney: James Merrill, 4 April 2002

Collected Poems 
by James Merrill, edited by J.D. McClatchy and Stephen Yenser.
Knopf, 736 pp., £35.75, February 2001, 0 375 41139 9
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... This Collected Poems is not a ‘Complete Poetry’. It omits Merrill’s trilogy of book-length poems, The Changing Light at Sandover, as well as a number of uncollected or unpublished poems. The notes are minimal. Merrill died in 1995: the editors of this volume, who are also his literary executors, apparently decided to publish a reader’s edition in short order ...

Charmed Quarantine

James Wood, 21 March 1996

Soul Says: On Recent Poetry 
by Helen Vendler.
Harvard, 266 pp., £15.95, June 1995, 0 674 82146 7
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The Breaking of Style: Hopkins, Heaney, Graham 
by Helen Vendler.
Harvard, 100 pp., £18.95, January 1996, 0 674 08121 8
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The Given and the Made: Strategies of Poetic Redefinition 
by Helen Vendler.
Faber, 137 pp., £7.99, April 1995, 0 571 17078 1
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... in these three books, to polish a group of them with her calm, uncreased prose – John Ashbery, James Merrill, A.R. Ammons, Amy Clampitt, Charles Simic, Dave Smith, Seamus Heaney, Louise Glück, Jorie Graham and Rita Dove. Vendler is in love with the lyric, indeed so in love with it that she befriends strangers who appear to resemble it: in her ...

On Douglas Crase

Matthew Bevis, 25 November 2019

... The most interesting book of first poems in many years’, Richard Howard proclaimed in 1981. James Merrill, John Hollander and John Ashbery spoke in similarly emphatic terms, while Anthony Hecht saluted an ‘extraordinarily fine’ debut and Harold Bloom hailed the arrival of a great original. ‘I think I speak for many,’ David Kalstone wrote, ‘in saying it appeared with that sense of completeness of utterance and identity that must have come with the first books of Wallace Stevens (Harmonium) and Elizabeth Bishop (North and South ...

Fanfares

Ian Sansom, 11 December 1997

The Bounty 
by Derek Walcott.
Faber, 78 pp., £14.99, July 1997, 0 571 19130 4
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... force a rose from the sand. It’s a big, bold blowsy note to open on, and not at all untypical. James Merrill, a poet of some breeding and considerable refinement, once remarked, in his essay ‘On Literary Tradition’, that ‘it’s a bit snotty to nudge the reader too obviously with references to Virgil or Eliot’, but Walcott remains an unashamed ...

Lying doggo

Christopher Reid, 14 June 1990

Becoming a poet 
by David Kalstone, edited by Robert Hemenway.
Hogarth, 299 pp., £20, May 1990, 0 7012 0900 3
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... shortcoming is its lack of any full discussion of the volume which Kalstone is reported – by James Merrill, in an ‘Afterword’ – to have considered Bishop’s ‘in many senses’ greatest, Geography III. The story, perforce, breaks off just where some sort of climax and rounding-out might have been expected. Instead, ...

What became of Modernism?

C.K. Stead, 1 May 1980

Five American Poets 
by John Matthias, introduced by Michael Schmidt.
Carcanet, 160 pp., £3.25, November 1979, 0 85635 259 4
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The New Australian Poetry 
edited by John Tranter.
Makar Press, 330 pp., £6.50, November 1979
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Carpenters of Light 
by Neil Powell.
Carcanet, 154 pp., £6.95, November 1979, 0 85635 305 1
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Mirabell: Books of Number 
by James Merrill.
Oxford, 182 pp., £3.25, June 1979, 0 19 211892 7
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The Book of the Body 
by Frank Bidart.
Faber, 44 pp., £4.50, October 1979, 0 374 11549 4
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Skull of Adam 
by Stanley Moss.
Anvil, 67 pp., £2.50, May 1979, 0 85646 041 9
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Poems 1928-1978 
by Stanley Kunitz.
Secker, 249 pp., £6.50, September 1979, 0 436 23932 9
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... But it produces also a sense of spaciousness and energy in and beyond the language of the poem. James McMichael has a fine delicate touch in brief evocative lyrics and can open out into longer forms. John Matthias at his best achieves a steady tone, a dense texture, a clear focus on complex material. And in some of Robert Pinsky’s poems (‘Sadness and ...

Doubly Damned

Marina Warner: Literary riddles, 8 February 2007

Enigmas and Riddles in Literature 
by Eleanor Cook.
Cambridge, 291 pp., £48, February 2006, 0 521 85510 1
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... and acoustics are extraordinarily nimble, but can even so be seen as tricksy. A late poem by James Merrill, from the collection A Scattering of Salts, receives a brilliant and enjoyable decoding here, as the body shapes in the word ‘body’ are revealed in a poem set out with a head and shoulders and torso, the o ‘like a little kohl-rimmed ...

My Shirt-Front Starched

Adam Phillips: Proust’s Megalomania, 27 July 2016

Proust: The Search 
by Benjamin Taylor.
Yale, 199 pp., £16.99, November 2015, 978 0 300 16416 9
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... devoted to solitude, is inevitably a difficult life to write. As well as dedicating his book to James Merrill, Taylor chooses as an epigraph some lines from Merrill’s poem ‘The Book of Ephraim’, about the scene at the end of the novel in which, after a period away, Marcel meets a number of people he has ...

Living on Apple Crumble

August Kleinzahler: James Schuyler, 17 November 2005

Just the Thing: Selected Letters of James Schuyler 1951-91 
edited by William Corbett.
Turtle Point, 470 pp., £13.99, May 2005, 1 885586 30 2
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... the 8 p.m. cup of cocoa.’ The letter was written on 15 November 1951, a few days after James Schuyler had been admitted to Bloomingdale Hospital, a mental institution in White Plains, New York. Schuyler still gets his semi-colons right, and his appetite for gossip is undiminished: ‘Is it still Connecticut, the dear deer, the steady lay, the ...

Lyrics and Ironies

Christopher Ricks, 4 December 1986

The Alluring Problem: An Essay on Irony 
by D.J. Enright.
Oxford, 178 pp., £12.95, October 1986, 0 19 212253 3
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Czeslaw Milosz and the Insufficiency of Lyric 
by Donald Davie.
Cambridge, 76 pp., £15, September 1986, 0 521 32264 2
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... poets of the Sixties and Seventies, rest within the lyric’s privilege? Does Ted Hughes, or James Merrill? Does Geoffrey Hill, in The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Péguy? Does Donald Davie? As critic, Davie is ‘chiefly arguing’ for this: ‘that Milosz, like a few other ambitious poets of his time, refuses to be restricted in his poetry to ...

Life on the Town

Michael Wood, 22 May 1997

The Farewell Symphony 
by Edmund White.
Chatto, 504 pp., £16.99, May 1997, 0 7011 3621 9
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... usual swirls before pine’ – which White himself, in The Burning Library, traces to a poem by James Merrill. And the narrator of the novel has had jobs and written books identical to White’s own. As I have suggested, White is particularly interesting on the novel’s analogue to Forgetting Elena, but he also makes mild jokes about all the doubles ...
... gay literature the novels of William Burroughs and Jean Genet or the poetry of Allen Ginsberg or James Merrill simply because these works are superior, serious and consecrated is a rearguard action designed to trivialise the label ‘gay art’. It is also a strategy to recuperate for a purely imaginary if politically charged category of ‘universal ...

Mostly Middle

Michael Hofmann: Elizabeth Bishop, 8 September 2011

Poems 
by Elizabeth Bishop.
Chatto, 352 pp., £14.99, February 2011, 978 0 7011 8628 9
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... Moore and her mother finished her in Brooklyn (decorum studies?) after she left Vassar. James Laughlin, founder of New Directions, publisher and friend of Ezra Pound, was so desperate to publish her that even after he accepted he wasn’t going to be allowed to, he still hoped at least to be permitted to announce that he was. The alpha males – and ...

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