The House of Merrill

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James Merrill (left) and David Jackson at home in Athens, Greece, October 1973 (Judith Moffett/Wikimedia Commons)

In honor of National Poetry Month, Commonweal’s literary critic, Anthony Domestico, will be offering weekly reflections on poets and new collections of poetry throughout the month of April. You can find the entire series here.

Wilfrid Sheed had this to say about the tendency of critics to devolve into “the ratings game”: “When a reviewer says that Malamud is second only to Bellow, it means he really isn’t thinking about either of them.” Sheed is right (he almost always is), but I’ll play the game anyway: James Merrill is arguably the best American poet of the second half of the twentieth century. No one better understood the freedom offered by form: “Shapes known already—the craftsman’s repertoire / Nice in its limitation.” No one better rendered the “casual patter” of intimacy or the terrible beauties of familial history, both “juggled slowly by the changing light.”

So I had impossibly high expectations for A Whole World: Letters from James Merrill (Knopf, $45, 736 pp.). Somehow, the epistolary collection is better than I’d hoped for. Merrill’s letters, edited and annotated by Langdon Hammer and Stephen Yenser, offer varied pleasures. In a throwaway line, Merrill captures his love of artifice and indirection: “Later on, it developed that the alternative to the brocaded coat didn’t have to be nakedness—an ironic leotard, for instance, did just as well.” He shares the sorrows of aging: “As never before (or so it seems) a whole segment of my life strikes me as over + done with, like so many summer clothes crammed, dirty or clean, into a suitcase I need my full weight to shut.” (This comes from a 1971 letter. Merrill, who discovered that he was HIV positive in 1986 and died of a heart attack in 1995, had many miles to go before he slept.)

Merrill’s correspondents—Elizabeth Bishop, Mary McCarthy, John Hollander, J. D. McClatchy—comprise a Who’s Who of twentieth-century American literary culture. (It’s striking how little time, at least comparatively, Merrill spent scheming over the promotion and reception of his work.) His love letters are tender and self-revealing. “What you might learn from me I can’t imagine,” he wrote to the artist David McIntosh in 1968. “I’m something of a waterbug, skating upon the depths—but love does learn & love does teach, and love supplies even the most ordinary person with a wizard’s hat & wand.” He includes flashes of critical insight (a letter on Vermeer is too good to excerpt) and Proustian social portraiture (a joking letter on the “German looking boys” he was looking to procure for W. H. Auden is too raunchy to quote). He even offers sartorial takes (“I have been much distressed by the gradual lowering of the hemline in the shorts worn by basketball players.”). The Merrill that emerges is tactful, gracious, witty, and whole. In his poem “For Proust,” Merrill writes, “What happened is becoming literature.” That’s one of the many delights of reading Merrill, in poem or letter form: seeing that alchemy somehow both in process and completed.

 

But these three poets are most Merrill-like in their surprising rhymes and intricate music.

New books by the poets Deborah Warren, Aaron Poochigian, and Maryann Corbett all follow, in one way or another, the Merrill line. Like him, they’re interested in arcana, mysteries that might yield themselves up to patient examination. For Merrill, the arcana of choice was the Ouija board and the spirit world it—maybe, hopefully—offered access to. For Warren, it can be consciousness (“my habitat is thought, / where I grope and sweat and scrabble out a living”) or imagined beasts like the gyascutus: “Spiraling widdershins around a hill, / he noses the alpine vetches.” For Poochigian, it can be a group of teenage Satanists or the prosperity gospel. “Is this the wisdom,” he wonders, “this the system that / will make you in the Valley of Jehoshaphat?” For Corbett, it can be something as insignificant as the fruit fly (“The arcana of creation / bloom from the totting up of tiny specks”) or as staggering as Big Tech: “The new design of darkness to appall: / the data cloud, and not the sparrow’s fall.” (That last line hints at another presiding genius, Robert Frost.)

But these three poets are most Merrill-like in their surprising rhymes and intricate music. In Warren’s Connoisseurs of Worms (Paul Dry Books, $13.56, 86 pp.), “chromosomes” echo “hippodromes” and the dance of t’s mirrors the dance of electrons: “A particle and a wave concurrently / without the trauma of toggling between the two.” In Poochigian’s American Divine (University of Evansville Press, $15, 78 pp.), three gonzo lines end with “hotsy-totsy,” “paparazzi,” and “Trumpist or Nazi,” while another poem builds to an explosion of plosives before giving way to softness in the final syllable: “You are a church of one, a private parish; / be passionate in the pursuit of awe.” Corbett’s In Code (Able Muse Press, $19.95, 92 pp.) rhymes “candles’ lighting” with “fighting,” the “harmonies” of song with the “ODs” of the suffering. In the title poem, Corbett, who worked for decades for the Minnesota Legislature, admits the ugliness of legal language in lines that themselves sing: “Ours is a stunted tongue, / mostly untouched, rarely licked into life.” All three poets work in traditional forms. As Warren writes in “Ex Nihilo,” a poem about gryphons and other compound creatures, “You take what you’ve already got— / with pre-existing pieces draft / a hybrid; it’s a snap to patch / one part to another.” Here’s Merrill in a letter to a young would-be writer: “Am I urging you to write sestinas, villanelles, sonnets? I am. Because to have done so implies a level of skill you may one day go far beyond, but which meanwhile will not turn to ashes in your mouth like This Season’s Deep Thought.” 

The house of Merrill has many rooms, and this trio often parts ways in tenor and tone. Poochigian is a punk classicist, an accomplished translator of the Greeks and a poet of the demotic: “Hey, you hearing me— / yeah you—my countryman, my fellow ape?” Warren is understated, funny, and wise. After an exchange with her neighbor in “Late Mowing,” the speaker remarks, “Money is money, green or gold.” (The understatement, the neighborly exchange, the mowing, the green and gold: there’s Frost again.) Corbett writes with great moral seriousness, though not without a sense of fun. She knows that the “world’s still broken” and that “the poetry I’m here to read mends nothing, / merely piecing the breakage into beauty.” The world as broken and poetry as an act of piecing the breakage into beauty: Merrill would agree.  

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Anthony Domestico is Associate Professor of Literature at Purchase College, and a frequent contributor to Commonweal. His book Poetry and Theology in the Modernist Period is available from Johns Hopkins University Press.

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