A Peacock Called Mirabell

August Kleinzahler

  • James Merrill: Life and Art by Langdon Hammer
    Knopf, 913 pp, £27.00, April 2015, ISBN 978 0 375 41333 9

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. But James Merrill: Life and Art shows that you should be careful what you wish for. At 809 pages, not including a hundred pages of notes and index, this biography is about the size of The Brothers Karamazov, recounting in exhaustive detail the not terribly eventful or interesting life of this least Dostoevskian of writers. Poets’ lives are seldom eventful or interesting. There’s a great deal of looking out the window, pacing around, reading, writing, drinking, gossiping, complaining, especially about money and neglect, and more often than not ill-advised romantic attachments. Though money, or the want of it, was not among Merrill’s complaints.

Merrill seems to have believed that his life was an extension of his poetry, both of them works of art. His own life, or his life recalled, was his principal theme, and Proust, with whom he fell in love during his first year at college, his principal model. The considerable archive he donated to the Olin Library at Washington University in St Louis includes not only drafts of poems and letters but notebooks, calendars, guest books, along with more than fifty years’ worth of diaries and journals, most of which no one but Merrill had ever read. He encouraged and in some cases paid friends and lovers, of whom there were legions, to donate letters they’d received from him to the Olin archive. Hammer mines this trove with tireless ardour.

Merrill’s 2001 Collected Poems is much the same length as the biography, at 885 pages. A companion volume, The Changing Light at Sandover, which comprises three books and a 37-page coda, incorporates ‘supernatural communication’ with assorted spirits including various deceased friends, Auden, Plato and a peacock called Mirabell, all of it recorded with the help of Merrill’s longtime partner, David Jackson, during twenty years of séances using a Ouija board at their home in Stonington, Connecticut. This volume tips in at 560 pages. Merrill also wrote novels, plays and two memoirs. Born to enormous wealth, he had little to distract him from his writing apart from endless rounds of socialising and travel. His father was Charles ‘Good-time Charlie’ Merrill, cofounder of Merrill Lynch, who earned his moniker through prodigious accumulation of money and women.

James Merrill was at the forefront of American poetry in the 1970s but is seldom read today. Despite this, he is a significant poet, preternaturally gifted, a master of form (metre and rhyme) and design, and often elicited comparisons with Mozart, who liked to boast that he ‘pissed’ music. Busoni would be a better comparison with his huge technical skill, high surface finish and complexity of design, much of it gratuitously decorative, and often with not terribly much going on underneath. Both had a large gift that was also a vice, one Merrill was certainly aware of, occasionally warred against, but usually succumbed to. Hammer, whose appreciation of his subject tends to lapse into worship, does not shy away from Merrill’s virtuosity and the poet’s own quarrel with it. Hammer met Merrill when, as a student at Yale, he was designated to pick up Merrill from Stonington and drive him to a reading. He was thoroughly charmed by the man whose life he now, as head of the English Department at Yale, exhaustively records. Hammer finds Merrill to be a wonderful, even exemplary man. It’s hard to disagree: he was brilliant; his capacity for friendship and love, sexual and otherwise, appears to have been boundless; he was supremely generous to friends, and through the Ingram Merrill Foundation he established in the 1950s, to artists and arts organisations.

I never met him. I missed him by a semester when he was teaching at the University of Wisconsin in the spring of 1967. By all accounts, even his own, he wasn’t much of a teacher, but was a delightful presence. One of his students that term, Stephen Yenser, became not only a lifelong friend but one of Merrill’s very best readers, and co-editor, with J.D. McClatchy, of an excellent though overlong 2008 Selected Poems. Reading Merrill at length can feel like being trapped in endless rooms full of Ming Dynasty black lacquer furniture with mother-of-pearl inlays, and flowering begonias painted on, along with birds and butterflies alighting on pomegranate stems – it’s exquisitely fashioned, but makes you want to find the sanctuary of a Shaker meeting hall where one might sit on a hard wooden bench and stare at not very much at all.

It didn’t come out of nowhere. In one of his most restrained, and most successful poems, from the sonnet sequence ‘The Broken Home’, he provides this portrait of his father late in life:

My father, who had flown in World War I,
Might have continued to invest his life
In cloud banks well above Wall Street and wife.
But the race was run below, and the point was to win.

Too late now, I make out in his blue gaze
(Through the smoked glass of being thirty-six)
The soul eclipsed by twin black pupils, sex
And business; time was money in those days.

Each thirteenth year he married. When he died
There were already several chilled wives
In sable orbit – rings, cars, permanent waves.
We’d felt him warming up for a green bride.

He could afford it. He was ‘in his prime’
At three score ten. But money was not time.

‘I am a mixture of Santa Claus, Lady Bountiful, the Good Samaritan, Baron Richthofen, J.P. Morgan, Casanova. I am tender as a woman, brave as a lion, and can fight like a cat.’ This is the way Charles E. Merrill described himself. In truth, his considerable generosity notwithstanding, he was a rapacious monster. Merrill père can probably be credited with the introduction of the chain store – he developed the Safeway supermarket chain and was the underwriter for McCrory’s five and dime stores as well as the Kresge chain, the ‘ancestor of Kmart’ – and regarded himself as a great benefactor of the common man. When he wasn’t working he was chasing women, who seem to have been pleased to be caught by the diminutive tycoon. ‘He was the banker as Jazz Age celebrity,’ Hammer writes, ‘in plus fours or a double-breasted Van Sickle suit, a confessed hedonist and the hardest worker going.’ James, his only child by his second marriage, to Hellen Ingram, seldom saw his father. His parents separated when he was 11 and divorced when he was 13; the break-up traumatised him.

When he was six, he wrote ‘Looking at Mummy’:

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