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.