By Catherine Wagley
By Catherine Wagley
By Wendy Gilmartin
By Jennifer Swann
By Claire de Dobay Rifelj
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Catherine Wagley
By Zachary Pincus-Roth
Through no fault of his own, the poet James Merrill (1926--1995) was separated from the ordinary run of humanity in three ways: He was extremely rich (his father was a founder of the brokerage firm Merrill-Lynch), he was gay and he was a genius. Not many people are dealt such a hand in life, but Merrill played his wisely. He never had to work, but he worked hard from childhood on, first learning, then mastering, the art of poetry. He spent most of his life in a long relationship with one man, David Jackson. And he lived far more frugally than necessary while quietly supporting other artists, either privately or through the auspices of the Ingram-Merrill foundation, which he set up.
Given such a background, one doesn‘t look to Merrill for the literary equivalent of Aaron Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man. Though he could do almost anything with a line of verse, the one thing he couldn‘t do is be plain (as, say, Auden could be). Even his most straightforward poems come adorned in prosodic jewelry. Reading Merrill’s work, one is always aware of seeing things through the scrim of a particularly privileged consciousness and life. His is an ironic, lucid, gifted, graceful presence, funny and kind, curious and extraordinarily clever.
Confronted with a tome the size of his newly published Collected Poems, one hardly knows where to start, such is the variety of subject matter and form. And the book does not include Merrill‘s controversial epic poem The Changing Light at Sandover, published in installments from 1976--82, in which Merrill and Jackson recorded their conversations with the spirit world through the medium of a Ouija board. For some critics, the 500-page work merited comparison with the giants of visionary literature -- Dante, Homer, Milton, Blake. For others, it was a more dubious enterprise. In the recently published Familiar Spirits: A Memoir of James Merrill and David Jackson, the novelist Alison Lurie treats Merrill and Jackson’s Ouija sessions as a form of madness that destroyed their relationship and corrupted the poetry. Although most critics would disagree with that assessment, the balance of opinion does lean toward Merrill‘s shorter lyric poems as representing his best work.
What’s extraordinary about Merrill is that a poet whose early poems tended toward the miniaturized and precious could have become a writer capable of encompassing so much of the world in his work. In this sense, the late poem “Self-Portrait in Tyvek™ Windbreaker” seems particularly suggestive. In it, Merrill describes the reaction to a jacket he has bought, a windbreaker with a map of the world printed on it. The jacket fascinates people; suddenly, everyone loves him:
“Great jacket!” strangers on streetcorners impart.
The Albanian doorman pats it: “Where you buy?”
Over his ear-splitting drill a hunky guy
Yells, “Hey, you‘ll always know where you are, right?”
“Ever the fashionable cosmopolite,”
Beams Ray. And “Voila mon pays” -- the carrot-haired
Girl in the bakery, touching with her finger
The little orange France above my heart.
Everyman, c’est moi, the whole world‘s pal! . . .
In her memoir, Lurie likens Merrill to “a highly civilized alien from another planet.” A Different Person was the title Merrill gave to his own autobiographical memoir, published in 1993, and the idea that he could end up describing himself as an Everyman, the whole world’s pal, would have been unthinkable earlier in his career. In fact, it‘s still unthinkable. (The next line is “The pity is how soon such feelings sour.”) Merrill was, in the best sense, an elitist; he was also conservative politically and (his critics would say) artistically.
Merrill helped a lot of writers during his career, including Lurie, whose first book he published. Another beneficiary was Stephen Yenser, now professor of English literature at UCLA and a distinguished poet himself. Yenser was in his 20s when he met Merrill at a creative-writing workshop in 1967. It was the only workshop Yenser ever took, and one of the few that Merrill taught. After it was over, Yenser asked the then-40-year-old poet by what criteria one could possibly grade a creative-writing workshop. Merrill replied, “It’s easy. I gave an ‘A’ to those people who loved poetry. I gave a ‘B’ to those people who loved themselves. And I gave a ‘C’ to those people who didn‘t love anything.”
One presumes that Yenser got an “A,” for he and Merrill soon became friends. A Scattering of Salts, the last book of poems Merrill saw through production, was dedicated to him. Together with poet J.D. McClatchy, he is also the co-editor of the Collected Poems and is working on an edition of Merrill’s letters. Recently, Yenser and I sat down at a restaurant in Westwood to discuss the life and work of his late friend.
L.A. WEEKLY: Having known Merrill‘s work as long as you have, what impresses you about it the most?
STEPHEN YENSER: I think that the most impressive thing about Merrill, both as a person and a poet, was his inclusiveness. There was no genre he didn’t try: the novel, the play, the epic, the lyric, the haiku . . . He loved to experiment. He wrote a couple of ballads, and they‘re perfectly limpid, colorful stories with witty rhymes. But there are also some very, very dense lyrics. There were those two different directions -- the symbolist, dense layering of language, and the narrative poems. In his strongest work, you see both things working at once. So I guess I would say the sheer variety and the ability to bring these things together -- it’s beyond virtuoso.
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