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. Now Merrill is available to the English in a slim volume of his best work, selected by him shortly before his death in 1995.
Merrill was far from anyone’s received idea of a poet. He wasn’t poor: in fact, he was very rich, the son of Charles Merrill, founder of the biggest Wall Street brokerage firm, Merrill Lynch. He wasn’t tormented – at least he didn’t have mental breakdowns or attempt suicide. He drank a lot but not famously and he eventually joined AA without becoming sanctimonious or losing his talent; some of his best poems were written in sobriety. He wasn’t a primarily lyric poet who burned out early but a strange blend of elements that weren’t perfectly synthesised until he was well into his thirties. He wasn’t experimental, at least not in the beguiling fashion of the far better known John Ashbery, who combines the exaltation of Wallace Stevens with the shrugging insouciance of Frank O’Hara in order to come up with poems as expressive and as inscrutable as Reverdy’s. If Merrill was experimental, then it was in the way Bach played with harmonics and textual interpretation in a late cantata such as ‘Ich glaube, lieber Herr, hilf meinem Unglauben!’ – that is, through daring variations on forms even then considered to be outmoded. He is, for instance, the modern master of the sonnet, but his sonnets are often buried in what reads like a simple, flowing narrative – ‘Matinées’ is a good example of a narrative sonnet.
Merrill signed few books and gave even fewer interviews; the interviews, moreover, are as stagey as Nabokov’s, and just as teasing and infuriating. He spoke in an accent of his own devising, a blend of his mother’s Tidewater drawl and an ancient North-East boarding-school dialect; depending on the listener’s predisposition, during his readings he would sound either affected and bratty or elevated, even Orphic, especially when speaking of or for the dead. Although he was one of the most philosophical poets – he devised a system as complex (and, alas, as demanding) as Dante’s – he could seem irritatingly frivolous, irresponsible, self-regarding in his off-the-cuffremarks. ‘And what a cuff!’ one is tempted to add, all stiff with brocade. Early on, the poet and critic Richard Howard stigmatised him as a bejewelled poet, and that characterisation stuck, though it suited only his earliest work.
In that way, as in so many others, Merrill was like Proust. Just as no one, after reading Les Plaisirs et les jours or Proust’s society portraits in the Figaro, would have predicted the depth and delirium of A la recherche du temps perdu, so no one would have expected much more than brilliance from the author of ‘The Black Swan’ (1946), the first poem in Selected Poems:
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, splendour
That calls the child with white ideas of swans
Nearer to that green lake
Where every paradox means wonder.
The Mallarméan subject, though more accessible than in ‘Le vierge, le vivace et le bel aujourd’hui’, is every bit as immobilised; notice in the following lines Merrill’s ‘always’, the bell-jar dropped over the paralysed moment:
The moment comes to gaze
As the tall emblem pivots and rides out
To the opposite side, always ...
By 1962, with the publication of Water Street, Merrill had hit his stride. Now he could find perfection, or at least significant meaning, in the broken shards of daily experience. He no longer relied on poetic props, on swans or the antique subject of Medusa or on the improprieties of a broken bit of faience. Now he could meditate on a casual subject thrown up by daily life (‘Out for a walk, after a week in bed, / I find them tearing up part of my block’) in a language by turns casual and humorously cultural:
An old man
Laughs and curses in her brain,
Bringing to mind the close of The While Goddess.
The sight of the collapsing building allows his thoughts to cross several stepping-stones of memory until he has half-recalled a moment from his own past. He thinks of a ‘cheap en-graving of garlands’ crumpled up
Boughs dripping, whose white gestures filled a cab,
And thought of neither then nor since.
Also, to clasp them, the small, red-nailed hand
Of no one I can place. Wait. No. Her name, her features
Lie toppled underneath that year’s fashions ...
The memory comes back not all at once but in pieces. The hand is fitted in at the end of a strangely constructed line that the words after the line break instantly negate. The next two words (‘Wait. No.’) suggest a sudden recovery that the following line dissolves. The decision to reject Latinate subtleties for Anglo-Saxon certainties informs the last two paragraphs. The poet swallows a sedative prescribed for ‘much later’:
With the result that back into my imagination
The city glides, like cities seen from the air,
Mere smoke and sparkle to the passenger
Having in mind another destination
Which now is not that honey-slow descent
Of the Champs-Elysées, her hand in his,
But the dull need to make some kind of house
Out of the life lived, out of the love spent.
I think it’s fair enough to say that the contrast between the first six lines and the last two could not have been achieved without Wallace Stevens’s
The tomb in Palestine
Is not the porch of spirits lingering.
It is the grave of Jesus, where he lay.
What had happened to Merrill in the intervening years was his discovery of the theatre (‘Wait. No.’), for in that period he had written two plays, The Balt and The Immortal Husband. The relationship of poetry to theatre is spelled out in Stephen Yenser’s indispensable study, The Consuming Myth, to which I owe many of my thoughts about Merrill. As Merrill said in an interview, ‘In “An Urban Convalescence” I first hit upon this sense of the sell-reflexive side of the poem – that you can break up the argument in a very fruitful way. This is probably something learned from working in the theatre where you write a line and you can have someone else contradict it.’
He also learned, perhaps through a deeper reading of Auden and Proust, that the world can be made to yield up its secrets if you just stare at it, any patch of it, long enough. He certainly broadened his notion of what poetry can do by writing two novels and reading many more; he is perhaps the only contemporary poet who owes as much to two novelists (Proust and Nabokov) as he does to his key poets (Auden, Bishop, Stevens, Mallarmé, Valéry, Rilke and Montale – Valéry and Montale, by the way, Merrill translated and ‘Lost in Translation’ is built around Rilke’s translation of Valéry’s ‘Palme’). If sometimes Merrill seems American only in his eclecticism, his ambition and his submission to an exalted, home-made religion, then this internationalism can be credited to (or at least is reflected in) this list of novelists and poets, which includes only two bona fide Americans. I say ‘bona fide’, but Bishop lived in Brazil and translated from the Portuguese, and Stevens, like Joseph Cornell, dreamed constantly of a ‘Europe’ of the imagination which neither, mercifully, ever had to test by actual travel.
Just as Proust (the subject of one of Merrill’s poems) can make minor, neurotic childhood events render universal truths and can turn social notes into modern mythology, so Merrill starts out with the least promising materials – acrostics, the ouija board, a picture puzzle, amateur theatricals, garden parties, house-moving – and builds them into masterful, all-embracing compositions. As his friend and admirer, the critic David Kalstone, once put it,
Frivolity is always a form of invocation for JM, a preparation like the dancer’s at the barre. I have glimpsed him through the half-open study door, after a morning of work, playing a game of patience, waiting for it all to cohere. He used to like those acrostic puzzles in which a phalanx of unrelated words, rearranged, fall into a quotation from great or not so great authors. And then there is the jigsaw puzzle of ‘Lost in Translation’ slowly massing into meaning.
Kalstone, by the way, is not only a character in Merrill’s epic poem, The Changing Light at Sandover, but also the subject or dedicatee of three splendid lyrics, ‘Matinées’, ‘Investiture at Cecconi’s’ and ‘Farewell Performance’.
Imagine Cavalcanti crossed with Noel Coward, for Merrill slips easily from sybilline utterance into silkiest nonsense. He was hissed at a literary festival on ‘regional poetry’ in northern Minnesota when he expressed his disdain of the local product. As he scurried out, he whispered to Richard Howard: ‘You see, my dear, what happens when the Great Plains meet the great fancies ...’ Not that Merrill was usually stinting in his encouragement of lesser (or even equal) writers. ‘Was anybody ever better company?’ Allan Gurganus recalls. ‘Ready as he was to laugh, making James Merrill laugh pleased us like a good week’s work. And oh to be thought talented and graceful by the one person alive who was most purely both’.
Nights and Days (1966) contains three of Merrill’s most memorable poems: ‘The Thousand and Second Night’, ‘The Broken Home’ and ‘Days of 1964’. Merrill had started going to Greece in about 1959 and soon bought a house in Athens, where he lived every winter for years. It is to Greece that many of the poems in this book and in later collections owe their settings, their characters and their very un-American blend of refined sensuality and sense of the divine inhabiting the human, of the god breathing through the mask of the everyday.
‘Days of 1964’, with its title from Cavafy, is an invocation to an ungendered ‘you’. As Merrill much later acknowledged, closeted gay poetry of the pre-Stonewall era owed a lot to the ‘you strategy’, an evasiveness that doesn’t work well in most other languages, in which the adjectives applied to this ‘you’ must be either masculine or feminine. The sexual ambiguity in this poem, however, is appropriate to its overall slipperiness, for in it the narrator again and again sets up oppositions that he instantly cancels out ‘With love, or laughter, or both’ (earlier, speaking of the char, Kyria Kleo: ‘I think now she was love. She sighed and glistened/All day with it, or pain, or both’). Although this poem, just two pages long, starts casually enough with tepid jokiness about the steep hill across the street that can be climbed ‘for some literally breathtaking views’, its inherent ambiguity quickly builds towards the vertigo of the closing lines in which up and down, pain and love, human weaknesses and divine attributes are all confounded, in which the cleaning woman is allegorised as love and the narrator and the ‘you’ are transformed into stand-ins for divinities, as though Cavafy himself had synthesised his anecdotes of modern homoerotic passion with his odes to ancient Greek heroes or Byzantine kings:
Where I hid my face, your touch, quick, merciful,
Blindfolded me. A god breathed from my lips.
If that was illusion, I wanted it to last long;
To dwell, for its daily pittance, with us there,
Cleaning and watering, sighing with love or pain.
I hoped it would climb when it needed to the heights
Even of degradation, as for one
Seemed, those days, to be always climbing
Into a world of wild
Flowers, feasting, tears – or was I falling, legs
Buckling, heights, depths,
Into a pool of each night’s rain?
But you were everywhere beside me, masked,
As who was not, in laughter, pain, and love.
In later volumes Merrill continued to explore the essentially humorous contrast between the dusty provincialism of modern Greece and the glory of its past. In ‘Verse for Urania’, for instance, which appeared in his 1976 book, Divine Comedies, he pokes gentle fun at the members of the Greek family who live downstairs from him in Connecticut; they’ve become the ultimate American consumers and the poet, who’s just been named their baby girl’s godfather, grumpily-good-naturedly complains about his unending responsibilities towards little Urania:
Music lessons from beyond the tomb,
Doll and dentist and dowry, the 3-D
Third television we attain so far
Exclusively in dreamland, where you are ...
A list, of course, that owes something to Lolita, in which Humbert is told by the headmistress of Beardsley School for girls that ‘we stress the four D’s: Dramatics, Dance, Debating and Dating.’
This light satire quickly gives way to metaphysics, a discourse (suggested by the child’s name) on the first human beings and their astrology, but the passage is never allowed to become too solemn:
Adamant nights in which our wisest apes
Met on a cracked mud terrace not yet Ur
And with presumption more than amateur
Stared the random starlight into shapes.
Here the strict metres and rhymes, the high-table mixture of speculation and urbane humour (the rhyme Ur/amateur), the conversational flow all make us think of Auden; it is a tribute to Auden’s fertility and, above all, usefulness, that he should have been the covering cherub to two such different poets, Ashbery and Merrill, as well as to hundreds of others in Britain and America.
The upstairs-downstairs theme of social difference, the climbing and falling, the heights and depths of love, all first stated in ‘Days of 1964’, are now refigured in ‘Verse for Urania’ as a trope about birth and death, about the newborn replacing her ageing godfather. Again the concluding lines synthesise these differences in a vision of balance appropriate, perhaps, only to art:
It was late
And early. I had seen you through shut eyes.
Our bond was sacred, being secular:
In time embedded, it is in us, near, far,
Flooding both levels with the same sunrise
Again the line (and stanza) breaks only emphasise the antinomies that are being resolved and provide a strict form for elusive meanings.
This formula in lit crit jargon would be called ‘formal overdetermination, semantic under-determination’, as though arranging the votive candles in the most rigid quincunx would allow the smoke they offer the gods to float in the loosest arabesques. It was a contrast that Merrill admired in poets ranging from Cavalcanti to Stevens; he himself explored it with dazzling, and sometimes chilling, results. Perhaps the most dazzling and chilling examples (still employing Greek themes) are ‘Yánnina’ and ‘Samos’.
‘Samos’ uses a rhyme scheme which would have strangled a lesser poet’s inventiveness, but Merrill masters it so thoroughly that the reader at first fails to notice that the poem, in Yenser’s description, has ‘five stanzas of 12 pentameter lines each, plus a coda of five lines; it also uses only five end words (and ingenious variants on them): “water”, “fire”, “land”, “light” (the angels’ four elements) and “sense” (which points to both the apprehension and the interpretation of these elements).’
‘Yánnina’ again plays of the degraded present (‘Look at those radiant young males./Their morning-glory nature neon blue / Wilts here on the provincial vine’) against the noble past (‘Where did it lead, / The race, the radiance?’) But now the past and the present, the humorous and the exalted, the personal and the mythic are intercut with magical ease, the ‘scissoring and mending’ of a moving barge on reflecting water. Ali Pasha, who was in love with Byron but whom Byron considered a ‘father’, is invoked, as are the Muslim woman who loved Ali and the Christian woman who resisted him and was drowned for her pains. Ali becomes an emblem for the poet’s recently dead father, a much-married pasha of sorts whom J.M. loved with unusual devotion, just as the two women become two versions of the Feminine (‘One virginal and tense, brief as a bubble, / One flesh and bone – gone up no less in smoke’).
It seems now, in retrospect, that Merrill’s mission was to find the numinal in the phenomenal. His phenomena were often the people and events of his own life, transfigured. He was reworking the story of his parents’ divorce into allegory as early as in ‘The Broken Home’ – ‘Father Time and Mother Earth, / A marriage on the rocks’. This autobiography mythologised, so Proustian, became the great subject of his epic, from which only one excerpt (‘The Ballroom at Sandover’) is included in this collection.
Merrill was a sort of Jungian but with this proviso: that the collective unconscious is language and pun the means by which we can tap its wisdom. And he had both the magical inventiveness of Ariel and the even-handedness of Prospero. Of all languages English is the wittiest, since it not only permits but craves sudden shifts in tone, the downshifting from the hieratic into the demotic, and in English imps always dance attendance on Solemnity. Pomposity is anathema to its spirit; it finds abstraction not only numbing but difficult to sustain; poetic prose – or even poetic poetry makes English-speakers giggle. Merrill knows how to deflect English irreverence, pin down his speculations with glinting details, dazzle the reader out of his suspicions. And if his work is always unpredictable, ironic and quick to take the piss out of itself, it is also the most sustained vision of beauty, goodness and immortality that we are likely to have.