Thursday, Feb. 16, was the date James Merrill did not appear at the UCLA reading series at the Armand Hammer Museum. He did not appear because, as Henry James might say, the Great Event took place for him on Feb. 6, when he died of a heart attack at the age of 68.
Those of us who had planned to go to Merrill's Westwood reading went out to dinner and talked about him, instead. We exchanged thoughts and bits of third-hand gossip about the affable, elegant, prize-garnering poet whose greatest work was probably the three-part, 560-page poem based on 1,001 nights at the ouija board entitled "The Changing Light at Sandover."
One of us said she'd never read "The Changing Light," but that "A Different Person," Merrill's charming memoir of his European wanderjahre, had kindled an interest in the man and his work.
Another said: "Oh yes! That time he went alone to Ravenna and saw the mosaics, and felt his own, independent response to art? A great moment. Ironically, every time I've seen any image of those mosaics since reading 'A Different Person,' I think of Merrill and his epiphany. But I also like that he was a fearless rhymer: reptilian with billion; green with Tolkien, and, my favorite, albeit a slant rhyme, noodle with nebula. "
Someone quoted Elizabeth Bishop's letter to Merrill sent in March of 1955 in which she said his poetry reminded her of "The Golden Bowl (without cracks)" . . . "a liqueur du voyage with a great many evocative but unplaceable flavors. . . ."
Someone else said her friend George was Merrill's computer tutor in New York. "George says that James Merrill was his best student, that he asked the most intelligent questions, but given his famous wealth, his apartment was furnished less than beautifully."
We talked for a bit about how rich Merrill was (his father Charles was a founder of the Merrill Lynch brokerage house) and then devised a Merrill curriculum for the initiate. ("A Different Person," as an introduction, then, since all the early books are out of print, the selected poems "From the First Nine." Finally, if you're ready to read about angels instructing Merrill, his lover David Jackson, his friend Maria and Wystan Auden on the structure of the universe, there's "The Changing Light at Sandover.")
One person in our group has been a serious Merrill fan for years. He said, "Merrill is one of my heroes. His work is so exquisitely made, such a charming mixture of artifice, high formality, daily life, mundanity. I love reading him. I always feel like he's galloping several steps ahead of me and I don't quite get it, but there's a sense that I can get it and I will get it and then I do get it, and I love that. He has such a generous, funny voice that I knew--and have been told--that talking to him would be one of the great pleasures in the world. So I was really hoping to meet him and have a few words with him tonight, and I am so disappointed it didn't come to pass. . . ."