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The Magician

Caroline Fraser is the author of "God's Perfect Child: Living and Dying in the Christian Science Church."

I

In Edmund White’s 1997 roman a clef, “The Farewell Symphony"--the final volume of an autobiographical trilogy about the recent history of gay America--James Merrill makes a few cameo appearances as a character named Eddie, the wealthy, renowned, preternaturally gifted poet whose favor White’s narrator both courts and disdains. In one scene, the narrator and his friend Joshua (a portrait of the late critic David Kalstone) visit Eddie at his home in a New England village and are invited to have a look at a poem in progress:

“Joshua and I read the new poem . . . worked our way through its elaborate astrological conceits and consulted with each other. Finally Joshua, despite an admiration that bordered on awe, dared to say to Eddie, ‘Isn’t it . . . a bit . . . cold?’ Eddie slapped his forehead and said, ‘Of course! I forgot to put the feeling in!’ He rushed upstairs to the cupola that served as a study and fiddled with the verses for an hour before he descended with lines that made us weep, so tender were they, so melting and exalted. That night, when we were alone, Joshua whispered, ‘A rather chilling vision of the creative process, I’d say. We must never tell anyone about this, since how many people would understand and forgive the heartless, manipulative craftsmanship of great art?’ ”

Whether such a scene took place in real life or not, it captures--in the light, comic vein Merrill himself prized--the perception that he was a veritable magician, a master of special poetic effects, who had simply to pass his hands over a poem to imbue it with “feeling.” And that, in the manner of such masters, he was also capable of a certain concomitant detachment, in the manner of the famous Joycean artist: “the God of the creation . . . within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails.” White’s homage to Merrill suggests just how “exalted"--and intimidating--he seemed to his peers and readers.

As early as 1972, in a review of Merrill’s “Braving the Elements,” critic Helen Vendler defined the expectations his work had summoned up in what has become one of the most oft-quoted characterizations of it:

“The time eventually comes, in a good poet’s career, when readers actively long for his books: to know that someone out there is writing down your century, your generation, your language, your life--under whatever terms of difference--makes you wish for news of yourself, for those authentic tidings of invisible things . . . that only come in the interpretation of life voiced by poetry.”

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Now, with the publication of Merrill’s “Collected Poems,” we can finally see, at 888 pages (and not including the vast epic poem, “The Changing Light at Sandover,” available in a separate volume), how strange and momentous that news of ourselves was and is. And yet, aren’t the “terms of difference” Vendler spoke of particularly daunting in Merrill’s work? This aristocratic poet’s experience was, as one critic put it, “cultivated, leisured, privileged”; Merrill claimed, in a poem published during the mid-1960s, that “I rarely buy a newspaper, or vote” and once expressed a desire not for a mass audience but for “one perfect reader.” His work was criticized for being decorative, precious, elitist, apolitical. So what makes him, in the estimation of Harold Bloom and virtually every other eminent poetry critic in the country, “one of the central American poets of the twentieth century”?

II

Even in the grand tradition of America’s eccentric poets--the Recluse (Emily Dickinson), the Ecstatic Homosexual (Walt Whitman), the Aesthete-Expatriate (T.S. Eliot), the Poet-Doctor (William Carlos Williams) and the Insurance Man (Wallace Stevens)--James Merrill stood out. Reclusive and intensely social, fabulously wealthy and notably frugal, a homosexual aesthete, opera buff, part-time expatriate and workaholic, as well as a devotee of the Ouija board, Merrill was--as his friend and fellow poet Richard Howard once said--"the most glamour-clogged and mandarin figure America has produced in 35 years.”

Born March 3, 1926, James Ingram Merrill was marked for difference at birth, the only child of the self-made Charles E. Merrill, co-founder of Merrill Lynch & Co., and his second wife, Hellen Ingram. Charles Merrill, who had two older children from a previous marriage, made James rich at the tender age of 5, establishing an unbreakable trust in his name and raising him in isolated splendor in Manhattan, at a vast estate in Southampton, Long Island, and in Palm Beach. In 1939, James’ parents finalized a scandalous high society divorce whose headlines, at the age of 11, he “tracked down . . . in the kind of New York newspaper ‘we’ never saw; the caption beneath my photograph read ‘Pawn in Parents’ Fight.’ ” After their split, which would rise to the level of allegory in their son’s poetry and mold his outlook on the transience of love, James was educated at Lawrenceville, a private boarding school in New Jersey, where he published some of his first poems in the school’s literary magazine; from there, he went to Amherst College, graduating, with a year off spent in the Army, in 1947.

After living in New York City and teaching at Bard College from 1948-'49, Merrill sailed for Europe in the spring of 1950, staying for more than two years, traveling, eventually settling in Rome and undergoing psychoanalysis. Described in his 1993 memoir, “A Different Person,” this crucial period seems to have been, in part, a reckoning with his homosexuality and his melodramatic family life: His fond but bombastic father had once impulsively threatened to have James’ first lover, Amherst professor Kimon Friar, “rubbed out” by Murder, Incorporated; his mother was not above tearfully pleading with him to abandon his proclivities and, fearing blackmail, had destroyed his personal letters.

His “First Poems” was published while he was still abroad in 1951. With titles like “The Parrot,” “The Pelican” and “The Peacock,” these self-consciously symbolist and obscure poems displayed a precocious facility with form and an unresolved infatuation with the heavyweights Merrill had fallen for as a youth: William Butler Yeats, Henry James, Wallace Stevens. After returning from Europe, he wrote two plays (“The Bait” and “The Immortal Husband”) and a novel (“The Seraglio”). These stylized, affected works weren’t successful with audiences (Merrill reports in his autobiography that Arthur Miller, who attended the premiere of “The Bait” at New York’s Comedy Club in 1953 with Dylan Thomas, whispered audibly: “You know, this guy’s got a secret, and he’s gonna keep it.”) But they did steer Merrill toward his mythopoetic metier, in which family, friends, lovers, even himself would be transformed into figures freighted with meaning.

In 1954, he removed himself from the social whirl of New York City, moving with the novelist David Jackson to a house in the seaside village of Stonington, Conn., a home and a relationship he would maintain for the rest of his life. He soon published two more volumes of poetry, “The Country of a Thousand Years of Peace” (1959) and “Water Street” (1962), named after his Stonington address. In these volumes, an increasingly easy, conversational tone begins to soften the stiffness of his earlier work. “A Tenancy,” the final poem in “Water Street,” with its forthright first person, is widely recognized as introducing Merrill’s mature phase with its final lines, “If I am host at last / It is of little more than my own past. / May others be at home in it.”

What a home it would be. “Nights and Days,” which won the National Book Award in 1966, was perhaps the most perfectly assured, intricately composed, ambitious volume of American poetry since Robert Lowell’s “Life Studies” a decade earlier. It included some of Merrill’s greatest lyric poems: “The Broken Home,” a sonnet sequence about “that same old story-- / Father Time and Mother Earth, / A marriage on the rocks”; “Days of 1964,” an unsparing poem of love and its attendant humbling humiliations; and two extravagant long poems, “The Thousand and Second Night” and “From the Cupola,” in which his comedic, dramatic and narrative gifts found expression in a dazzling deployment of rhyme, meter, form (sonnets, prose passages, pentameter quatrains, free verse) and rare rhetorical devices, including puns.

In a departure from Lowell’s gritty bare-all manifesto, Merrill had found a way to write about the self that, as Vendler described it, showed “none of that urgency to reveal the untellable or unspeakable that we associate with the poetry we call ‘confessional.’ ” Far from feeling like the wide-eyed voyeurs we are before one of Sylvia Plath’s late poems, the reader of “The Thousand and Second Night” finds himself drawn gradually, companionably, into the comic plot of the poem--its speaker waking in Istanbul “with an absurd complaint. The whole right half / Of my face refuses to move.” The infirmity mirrors the poet’s growing disassociation from his experience, his weary sense of having seen and done it all, much like the central figure of the “Arabian Nights,” simultaneously jaded and insatiable, sexually consuming and then disposing of his conquests night after night. In a transport of self-disgust, the speaker cries out, “A thousand and one nights! They were grotesque,” and then promptly indulges in a little digression entitled “Postcards from Hamburg, Circa 1912,” a meditation on the nature of art, in this case some dirty postcards featuring a man, a woman and a dwarf (“he steers her ankles like--like a wheelbarrow,”) that inevitably leads to self-abuse:

We found the postcards after her divorce,

I and Aunt Alix. She turned red with shame,

Then white, then thoughtful. “Ah, they’re all

the same--

Men, I mean.” A pause. “Not you, of course.”

And then: “We’ll burn them. Light the fire.”

I must

Meanwhile have tucked a few into my shirt.

I spent the night rekindling with expert

Fingers--but that phase needn’t be

discussed. . . .

American poetry had spent its adolescence self-consciously preoccupied with the edict of Making It New. Turning his back on that endeavor, Merrill embarked on his own peculiarly American urban renewal, dazzlingly restoring High Culture--the satirical bite of Alexander Pope, Byron’s recklessness, Proust’s immersion in memory, and the passion of Cavafy, the Greek poet of gay love--to accessibility.

III

In 1964, Merrill and Jackson had bought a home in Athens and had begun spending winters there, reveling in the freedom of a culture accepting of homosexuality. With “Nights and Days” and his next volume, “The Fire Screen” (1969), his reticence about his sexuality (earlier love poems were often veiled by ambiguous pronouns) could be seen subsiding in poems like “To My Greek” and “Matinees,” a comic sonnet sequence dedicated to David Kalstone and perhaps the quintessential queer celebration of Grand Opera:

What havoc certain Saturday afternoons

Wrought upon a bright young person’s

morals

I now leave to the public to condemn.

The point thereafter was to arrange for one’s

Own chills and fever, passions and

betrayals,

Chiefly in order to make song of them.

Merrill’s poems often concerned love affairs, friends, parties--"socializing of one sort or another,” as poet-critic William Logan puts it--but they were never trivial. Indeed, they were often subversively stark about the subterfuge and inadequacy of human relations, what the poet would define as “Proust’s Law”:

(a) What least thing our self-love longs for

most

Others instinctively withhold;

(b) Only when time has slain desire

Is his wish granted to a smiling ghost

Neither harmed nor warmed, now, by the

fire.

But ironically, at a time when avant-garde poets were hard at it, diving for deep images and disordering their syntax in search of topical relevance, Merrill was forging out of his personal, lyric poems an extraordinary vehicle for larger subjects.

Almost as soon as he had defined himself as an accomplished love poet, Merrill waved his hands and created himself anew, with “Braving the Elements” (1972). Alongside the familiar--if ever more masterfully accomplished--narrative poems (“After the Fire,” the ballad “Days of 1935"), Merrill produced a series of oblique, commanding, oracular poems. One of these was “18 West 11th Street,” a poem so mysterious that Merrill eventually added an explanatory epigraph: “a house in Manhattan, our home until I was five, carelessly exploded by the ‘Weatherman'--young, bomb-making activists--in 1970.” Without once invoking the words “Vietnam” or “protest,” it is one of the most powerful poems yet written about the pretensions--moral and rhetorical--of the 1960s:

In what at least

Seemed anger the Aquarians in the

basement

Had been perfecting a device

For making sense to us

If only briefly and on pain

Of incommunication ever after.

Now look who’s here. Our prodigal

Sunset. Just passing through from Isfahan.

Filled by him the glass

Disorients. The swallow-flights

Go word by numbskull word

--Rebellion . . . Pentagon . . . Black

Studies. . . .

Somehow, in this political poem masquerading as a personal one, Merrill assumes a new and frankly sinister voice (one that will reappear in his long Ouija board poem). The poem takes the long view of history, an astonishing development from a poet who had said, in an interview in 1967, “I draw the line at politics or hippies,” insisting: “These immensely real concerns do not produce poetry. . . . A word-cluster like napalm-baby-burn stimulates the juices as infallibly as the high C of a Donizetti mad scene. . . . The trouble with overtly political or social writing is that when the tide of feeling goes out, the language begins to stink.”

It was also a development lost on the ever-earnest New York Times which, in an editorial, denounced the Yale library after it awarded Merrill the 1973 Bollingen Prize for “poetry that is literary, private, traditional . . . a hermetic cultivation of one’s sensibility and a fastidious manipulation of received forms.” But Merrill would have the last laugh: If some “overtly political” poems of the period have developed a certain whiff, “18 West 11th Street” remains as strange, inviolate and unforgettable as it was the day it was written.

IV

When Merrill returned from Europe in 1953, he found a gift waiting for him at New York’s Plaza Hotel from the novelist Frederick Buechner, his friend since their days at the Lawrenceville school. “The card read,” Merrill says in his memoir, “ ‘Welcome home. You know you’ve always wanted one.’ It was a Ouija Board.”

More than 20 years later, in 1976, Merrill published “Divine Comedies,” a book that contained, in addition to nine lyric poems, “The Book of Ephraim,” a long poem in 26 sections, each beginning with successive letters of the alphabet as displayed on the Ouija board, describing his and Jackson’s relationship to Ephraim: “A Greek Jew / Born AD 8 at XANTHOS,” their “Familiar Spirit” and their guide to the dead over the previous two decades. “Divine Comedies” won the Pulitzer Prize, and “The Book of Ephraim” was hailed by critics as a “watershed,” an “apocalypse.” Harold Bloom wrote that “nothing since the greatest writers of our century equals it in daemonic force.”

Merrill’s next two books--"Mirabell: Books of Number” (which won the National Book Award for poetry in 1978) and “Scripts for the Pageant” (1980)--continued the Ouija board epic, and all three parts of the work, along with a coda, were published as a single volume, “The Changing Light at Sandover,” in 1982. The epic received mixed reviews; its goofy New Age philosophy--often compared to William Blake’s prophetic books or Yeats’ “A Vision"--encompassed everything from the lost civilization of Atlantis to black holes, offending some and baffling others.

Included in the Sandover volume, “The Book of Ephraim” doesn’t appear in the “Collected Poems,” but its influence can be felt throughout the work that followed. In it, Merrill had achieved a kind of apotheosis, melding lyrical virtuosity with narrative. The other poems in “Divine Comedies,” as well as those of the three volumes that followed--"Late Settings” (1985), “The Inner Room” (1988) and “A Scattering of Salts” (1995)--displayed an uncanny marriage of technical mastery with conversational ease. The process of grappling with big bizarre questions about the future of humanity in the trilogy had somehow opened wider the doors in Merrill’s mind that had seemed closed--given his fey remarks about politics and hippies--leading to a number of topical poems that took up the environment, terrorism and the media in breathtakingly innovative ways.

See, for example, the numerical rhymes in “Casual Wear,” underscoring his unexceptional subject--

Your average tourist: Fifty. 2.3

Times married. Dressed, this year, in

Ferdi Plinthbower

Originals. Odds 1 to 9 [to the 10th power]

Against her strolling past the Embassy

Today at noon

--or the deployment of the French ballade form in “Snow Jobs,” with its refrain--"where’s the slush of yesteryear?"--recalling once infamous, now-forgotten scandals: “We hardly felt them disappear, / The crooked and the somewhat straight.” Merrill also took up--albeit in his own oblique way--the catastrophe of AIDS.

V

We now know, with the publication of J.D. McClatchy’s essay about Merrill and another writer, Paul Monette--"Two Deaths, Two Lives,” (in “Loss Within Loss: Artists in the Age of AIDS,” edited by Edmund White)--that Merrill had AIDS and that his death at 68, on Feb. 6, 1995, was the result of its complications. Merrill had learned of his diagnosis in the mid-'80s but told only those closest to him, eventually asking McClatchy, a fellow poet and longtime friend, “to start covering for him” in 1993, a role McClatchy filled even after Merrill’s death, until he felt that the need for the secret had abated. Merrill, McClatchy writes, “didn’t want to become a spokesman, a hero, a case study. He didn’t want to run away with the AIDS circus, in the company of a menagerie of less than minor talents hoisting a banner. He didn’t want to have himself be the object of anyone’s pity or praise because he was ill.”

This should surprise no one familiar with Merrill from his poetry. In one late poem, “Losing the Marbles,” he wrote: “Here in the gathering dusk one could no doubt / ‘Rage against the dying of the light.’ / But really--rage?” Merrill’s reticence and impatience with cant didn’t keep him, however, from producing what are among the finest works of art about this slow, foretold death. In “Prose of Departure,” a series of prose poems occasioned by a trip to Japan, undertaken around the time his friend Kalstone died of AIDS, and in poems about others’ dying, Merrill wrote about AIDS--as McClatchy deftly puts it--"in a way few of its victims ever have. There is no rage, no sentimentality, no up-close-and-personal. . . . He writes an apologetics of aftermath. He is the supreme elegist of AIDS.”

We also now know under what difficult circumstances those late poems were written, from “Familiar Spirits: A Memoir of James Merrill and David Jackson,” by the novelist Alison Lurie, their friend of many years. More in sorrow than in anger--but with the merciless insight that readers of her work will recognize--Lurie reveals her long-held reservations about the Ouija board folie a deux. Raising widespread criticisms of Merrill’s strange supernatural cosmology (which even the enthusiastic Bloom conceded to be “a heap of gorgeous nonsense, dreadful science fiction”), Lurie argues convincingly that her friends’ affair with the afterlife represented “a last-ditch effort on the part of one or both . . . to save [their] marriage” as well as a perhaps unconscious attempt to include Jackson--a frustrated failed novelist--in a grand creative collaboration (a yearning that Merrill himself speculated “fueled our seances” in his memoir).

By the end of it, she suggests, after years spent in the surreal company of their own projected “spirits,” Jackson--estranged from his ambitions and his partner of many years--self-destructed, fatally compromising his health and his relationship with Merrill. Merrill, in turn, formed a troubled relationship with Peter Hooten, a volatile young actor whose credits included a made-for-TV movie (“Dr. Strange”) and an early Bo Derek film. A Jamesian figure--the Callow Adventurer, flattering his way to Fame and Fortune--Hooten starred in a kitschy dramatic version of “Sandover,” performed and videotaped at the Agassiz Theater in Cambridge in 1990, and he figured in many late Merrill poems. Merrill and Hooten attended “Family Week at Oracle Ranch,” which in turn begat this weary and wickedly satirical look at the recovery movement:

Ken, for example, blond brows

knitted: “When

James told the group he worried

about dying

Without his lover beside him, I felt

SAD.”

Thank you for sharing, Ken,

I keep from saying; it would come

out snide.

Someday, a biography of Merrill will help with what he himself once called “the unstiflement of the entire story.” But Lurie’s memoir--as well as Frederick Buechner’s touching “The Eyes of the Heart,” describing his long friendship with Merrill, are important steps, as is a new critical work, “James Merrill’s Apocalypse” by Timothy Materer, the first to make use of the Merrill archives at Washington University in St. Louis.

VI

Merrill’s last years were haunted by a truth he once spoke to Helen Vendler, in an interview in 1979: “In life, there are no perfect affections. Estrangements among the living reek of unfinished business. Poems get written to the person no longer reachable.” Merrill’s “Collected Poems"--his “planet on the table” in Stevens’ phrase--reaches across that divide.

Reading the collected works of certain poets can feel enervating or claustrophobic; one feels trapped in a mind that lacked range or variety of response. But here, there’s more than enough--in humor and sorrow, in tones of voice, in diction, in subjects--to keep one engaged for days, for years, for life. Reading Merrill is like reading Marvell or Keats or Dickinson; having his lines in mind is that unique thing, a voice that says somebody was here before.

Merrill--usually so fortunate in his friends--has been well-served by his executors and editors, McClatchy and poet and UCLA professor Stephen Yenser (author of “The Consuming Myth: The Work of James Merrill”), who have collected the trade volumes and limited editions that appeared in the poet’s lifetime (thankfully restoring the original order of “Braving the Elements” and other books, rearranged in earlier selected volumes), as well as his sterling translations of Montale, Cavafy and others and a rich section of previously uncollected work, including his last poems.

It will be up to other centuries to decide whether “Sandover” is the great American epic, but about Merrill’s lyric work there is no doubt. Reading it can, nonetheless, be wrenching. As Vendler once wrote, “Merrill’s lines, in their exquisite tones, are often painful to read.” His last lines are especially piercing, in such poems as “Christmas Tree,” a shaped poem in which the poet speaks as the withering, briefly beloved center of attention:

Yes, yes, what lay

ahead

Was clear: the stripping, the cold

street, my chemicals

Plowed back into the Earth for

lives to come--

No doubt a blessing, a harvest, but

one that doesn’t bear,

Now or ever, dwelling upon. To

have grown so thin.

Needles and bone. The little boy’s

hands meeting

About my spine. The mother’s

voice: Holding up wonderfully!

No dread. No bitterness. The end

beginning.

No stranger to the uncanny evocation of pain, James Joyce would have recognized his compatriot in another late Merrill poem, “Rhapsody on Czech Themes,” in which the poet calls for his clippers: “ghastly these long nails.” A “small voice” then comes to him, warning, “ ‘James, don’t leave out the humanity!’ ” He never did.

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Also mentioned in this review:

FAMILIAR SPIRITS

A Memoir of James Merrill and David Jackson

By Alison Lurie

Viking: 184 pp., $22.95

LOSS WITHIN LOSS

Artists in the Age of AIDS

Edited by Edmund White

University of Wisconsin Press: 310 pp., $29.95

THE EYES OF THE HEART

A Memoir of the Lost and Found

By Fredrick Buechner

HarperSanFrancisco: 176 pp., $13 paper

JAMES MERRILL’S APOCALYPSE

By Timothy Materer

Cornell University Press: 208 pp., $29.95


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