Acrostics, the Ouija Board, a Picture Puzzle, Amateur Theatricals, Garden Parties

Edmund White

  • Selected Poems by James Merrill
    Carcanet, 152 pp, £9.95, April 1996, ISBN 1 85754 228 2

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.

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