James Merrill

1926–1995
James Merrill
The late James Merrill was recognized as one of the leading poets of his generation. Praised for his stylish elegance, moral sensibilities, and transformation of autobiographical moments into deep and complex meditations, Merrill’s work spans genres—including plays and prose—but the bulk of his artistic expression can be found in his poetry. Merrill’s talent was recognized immediately, though his earliest work was seen as polished and technically proficient rather than deep. It was not until his themes became more dramatic and personal that he began to win serious attention and literary acclaim. Over the long course of his career, Merrill won nearly every major literary award in America: he received two National Book Awards, for Nights and Days (1966) and Mirabell: Books of Numbers (1978); Merrill’s long Ouija-inspired epic poem The Changing Light at Sandover (1982) won the National Book Critics Circle Award, and he was awarded the inaugural Bobbitt National Prize for Poetry by the Library of Congress for his book The Inner Room (1988); he also received both the Bollingen Prize in Poetry and the Pulitzer Prize, the latter for a book of occult poetry called Divine Comedies (1976).

James Merrill was born in 1926 in New York City, the son of investment banker Charles E. Merrill, co-founder of the Merrill Lynch brokerage firm. Brought up in fabulous wealth, Merrill’s interest in language was piqued by his governess—a Prussian-English widow called Mademoiselle who was fluent in both German and French. Merrill’s first book of poems was privately printed by his father during James's senior year of high school. He attended Amherst College; though his education was interrupted by a stint in the U.S. army during World War II, Merrill’s future as a poet was all but decided during his years in college. In 1946 he published his first collection, The Black Swan. Spending a few years traveling abroad in Europe after graduating, Merrill eventually settled in Stonington, Connecticut with his long-term partner, the writer David Jackson. Though Merrill was wealthy his entire life, he understood the plight of many artists and founded the Ingram Merrill Foundation in 1956, a permanent endowment created for writers and painters.

While at Amherst, Merrill wrote his thesis on Marcel Proust, and in many ways the great French writer’s themes of memory, nostalgia, and loss became Merrill’s own. The fusion of autobiography and archetype was a hallmark of Merrill's verse. David Kalstone explained in the Times Literary Supplement that Merrill’s relatively privileged existence allowed him to focus intensely on the poetic act itself: “He [Merrill] has not led the kind of outwardly dramatic life which would make external changes the centre of his poetry. Instead, poetry itself has been one of the changes, something which continually happens to him, and Merrill’s subject proves to be the subject of the great Romantics: the constant revisions of the self that come through writing verse. Each book seems more specious because of the one which has come before.” Though centered on the self, Merrill’s poetry is far from self-centered. Helen Vendler observed in the New York Times Book Review that the best of Merrill's poems “are autobiographical without being 'confessional': they show none of that urgency to reveal the untellable or unspeakable that we associate with the poetry we call 'confessional'.”

A master of forms, Merrill’s later poetry rarely feels formal. In the Atlantic Monthly, poet X.J. Kennedy observed that “Merrill never sprawls, never flails about, never strikes postures. Intuitively he knows that, as Yeats once pointed out, in poetry, 'all that is personal soon rots; it must be packed in ice or salt.'“ Comparisons to Yeats recurred throughout Merrill’s career, particularly during the periods in which Merrill wrote Divine Comedies and his master-work, The Changing Light at Sandover. Embracing mysticism and the occult, Merrill believed, like Yeats—whose wife was a medium—that he received inspiration from the world beyond. His Divine Comedies features an affable ghost named Ephraim who instructs the poet; Yeats's “A Vision” features the spirit Leo Africanus in a similar role. Critics have found other influences at work in Merrill's poems as well, drawing parallels between his writing and the work of Dante, W. H. Auden, and Marcel Proust—who was also somewhat dismissed as a mere aesthete early in his career.

Merrill’s early work, in First Poems (1951) and The Country of a Thousand Years of Peace and Other Poems (1959), was criticized for its insistence on “connoisseurish aesthetic contemplation,” in the words of James Dickey. In the 1960s Merrill began to incorporate more autobiographical and personal elements into his work, leading to “a toughened and colloquialized…verse line” free of “the wan artifice that marked his very early work” according to Ian Hamilton in the Washington Post Book World. With each step he took away from formalism, Merrill gained critical ground. As his verse became more conversational, it began to ape the structures of prose, as Helen Vendler noted in the New York Review of Books: “The flashes and glimpses of 'plot' in some of the lyrics—especially the longer poems—reminded Merrill's readers that he wanted more than the usual proportion of dailiness and detail in his lyrics, while preserving a language far from the plainness of journalistic poetry, a language full of arabesques, fancifulness, play of wit, and oblique metaphor.” In fact, Merrill considered writing his epic poem “The Book of Ephraim” as a prose narrative, though he eventually abandoned the idea. “The Book of Ephraim”—which appeared in Divine Comedies, considered to be Merrill’s breakthrough—prompted many critics to reevaluate the poet. Among them was Harold Bloom, who wrote in the New Republic that “the book's eight shorter poems surpass nearly all the earlier Merrill, but its apocalypse (a lesser word won't do) is a 100-page verse-tale, 'The Book of Ephraim,' an occult splendor in which Merrill rivals Yeats' 'A Vision,'…and even some aspects of Proust.”

The two volumes that followed Divine Comedies, Mirabell: Books of Number (1978) and Scripts for the Pageant (1980), continue the narrative that “The Book of Ephraim” begins. Together these three poems form a trilogy that was published with a new coda in The Changing Light at Sandover, an unprecedented 560-page epic that records the Ouija board sessions Merrill and David Jackson conducted with spirits from the other world. Merrill organized each section of the trilogy to reflect a different component of their homemade Ouija board. The twenty-six sections of “The Book of Ephraim” correspond to the board's A to Z alphabet, the ten sections of Mirabell: Books of Number correspond to the board's numbering from zero to nine, and the three sections of Scripts for the Pageant (“Yes,” “&,” and “No”) correspond to the board's Yes & No. The progression of poems also represents a kind of celestial hierarchy, with each book representing communication with a higher order of spirits than the one before. Humans in the poem are identified by their initials—DJ and JM; spirits speak in all capitals. By the time Merrill transcribed the lessons of the archangels in book three, he offered nothing less than a model of the universe. According to Mary Jo Salter in the Atlantic Monthly, the long poem is “a hymn celebrating, among other things, 'resistance' as 'Nature's gift to man.'“ As the myth is reappraised and corrected by the characters who are themselves a part of it, Salter believed that “'Yes No' becomes an answer to every question: not an equivocation of authorial (or divine) responsibility, but an acknowledgment that 'fact is fable,' that the question of man's future, if any, is one he must answer for himself.”

James Merrill died of a heart attack in February of 1995 while vacationing in Tucson, Arizona. He continued to write poetry and prose until his death, often treating, in subtle ways, the AIDS epidemic that ravaged his friend group, and which he himself battled. Merrill published a memoir, A Different Person, in 1993; his final volume of poetry, A Scattering of Salts (1995), “provides an elegant closure for his life's work, the kind of bittersweet ending he treasured,” remarked Phoebe Pettingell in The New Leader. Other posthumous volumes followed, including Collected Poems (2001) and Selected Poems (2008), both edited by J. D. McClatchy and Stephen Yenser. Collected Poems is the first in a series that will present all of Merrill's work, including his novels, plays, and collected prose. It includes his entire body of poetry excluding juvenilia and The Changing Light at Sandover. In addition, Collected Poems brings together for the first time twenty-one translations from Apollinaire, Montale, Cavafy, and others and forty-four previously uncollected poems, including elegies to Philip Larkin, Elizabeth Bishop, and others. Selected Poems does excerpt The Changing Light at Sandover, presenting a sampler of a poet who wrote “New Critical Rococo” in the words of August Kleinzhaler in the New York Times Book Review. Kleinzhaler added: “Where a straight line would do, Merrill cannot resist using filigree. But if one were to bypass his work, one would be missing some of the finest poems written in English in the middle of last century.”





Career

Poet, novelist, and playwright. Military service: U.S. Army, 1944-45.

Bibliography

POETRY
  • Jim's Book: A Collection of Poems and Short Stories, privately printed, 1942.
  • The Black Swan, Icarus (Athens, Greece), 1946.
  • First Poems, Knopf (New York, NY), 1951.
  • Short Stories, Banyan Press (Pawlet, VT), 1954.
  • The Country of a Thousand Years of Peace, Knopf (New York, NY), 1959, revised edition, Atheneum (New York, NY), 1970.
  • Selected Poems, Chatto & Windus (London, England), 1961.
  • Water Street, Atheneum (New York, NY), 1962.
  • Nights and Days, Atheneum (New York, NY), 1966.
  • The Fire Screen, Atheneum (New York, NY), 1969.
  • Braving the Elements, Atheneum (New York, NY), 1972.
  • Two Poems: From the Cupola and the Summer People, Chatto & Windus (London, England), 1972.
  • Yannina, Phoenix Book Shop (New York, NY), 1973.
  • The Yellow Pages: 59 Poems, Temple Bar Bookshop (Cambridge, MA), 1974.
  • Divine Comedies (includes "The Book of Ephraim"; also see below), Atheneum (New York, NY), 1976.
  • Metamorphosis of 741, Banyan Press (Chicago, IL), 1977.
  • Mirabell: Books of Number (published as "Mirabell's Books of Number" in The Changing Light at Sandover; also see below), Atheneum (New York, NY), 1978.
  • Scripts for the Pageant (also see below), Atheneum (New York, NY), 1980.
  • The Changing Light at Sandover (contains "The Book of Ephraim," "Mirabell's Books of Number," "Scripts for the Pageant," and a new coda), Atheneum (New York, NY), 1982.
  • From the First Nine: Poems 1946-1976, Atheneum (New York, NY), 1982.
  • From the Cutting-Room Floor, University of Nebraska Press (Lincoln, NE), 1983.
  • Late Settings, Atheneum (New York, NY), 1985.
  • The Inner Room, Knopf (New York, NY), 1988.
  • Selected Poems, 1946-1985, Knopf (New York, NY), 1992.
  • A Scattering of Salts, Knopf (New York, NY), 1995.
  • Self-Portrait in Tyvek Windbreaker and Other Poems, Dedalus Press (Dublin, Ireland), 1995.
  • Collected Poems, edited by J. D. McClatchy and Stephen Yenser, Knopf (New York, NY), 2001.
  • Selected Poems, edited by J.D. McClatchy and Stephen Yenser, Knopf (New York, NY), 2008.
PLAYS
  • The Immortal Husband (produced in New York, NY, 1955), published in Playbook, New Directions (New York, NY), 1956.
  • The Bait (produced in New York, NY, 1953), published in Artists Theatre, Grove (New York, NY), 1960.
  • The Image Maker: A Play in One Act, Sea Cliff Press (New York, NY), 1986.
OTHER
  • The Seraglio (novel), Knopf (New York, NY), 1957, reprinted, Atheneum (New York, NY), 1987.
  • The (Diblos) Notebook (novel), Atheneum (New York, NY), 1965, reprinted, Dalkey Archive Press (Normal, IL), 1994.
  • Recitative: Prose (nonfiction), North Point Press (San Francisco, CA), 1986.
  • A Different Person: A Memoir (nonfiction), Knopf (New York, NY), 1993.
  • Collected Prose, edited by J.D. McClatchy and Stephen Yenser, Knopf (New York, NY), 2004.
Contributor to anthologies, including Poems on Poetry, edited by Robert Wallace and J. G. Taaffe, Dutton, 1965, Poems of Our Moment, edited by John Hollander, Pegasus, 1968, and New Yorker Book of Poems, Viking, 1970. Contributor to periodicals, including Hudson Review, andPoetry. Some of Merrill's poetry has been translated into Greek. Audio cassette of poetry, read by Merrill, released by Random Audio as part of its "The Voice of the Poet" series, 1999.

Further Reading

BOOKS
  • Blasing, Mutlu Konuk, Politics and Form in Postmodern Poetry: O'Hara, Bishop, Ashbery, and Merrill, Cambridge University Press, 1995.
  • Bloom, Harold, editor, James Merrill, Chelsea House (New York, NY), 1985.
  • Contemporary Literary Criticism, Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 2, 1974, Volume 3, 1975, Volume 6, 1976, Volume 8, 1978, Volume 13, 1980, Volume 18, 1981, Volume 34, 1988, Volume 91, 1996.
  • Dickey, James, Babel to Byzantium, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1968.
  • Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 5: American Poets since World War II, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1980.
  • Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook 1985, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1986.
  • Kalstone, David, Five Temperaments: Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell, James Merrill, Adrienne Rich, John Ashbery, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1977.
  • Lehman, David, and Charles Berger, editors, James Merrill: Essays in Criticism, Cornell University Press (Ithaca, NY), 1982.
  • Lurie, Alison, Familiar Spirits: A Memoir of James Merrill and David Jackson, Viking (New York, NY), 2001.
  • Merrill, James, A Different Person: A Memoir, Knopf (New York, NY), 1993.
  • Polito, Robert, A Reader's Guide to James Merrill's The Changing Light at Sandover, University of Michigan Press, 1994.
  • Rotella, Guy L., editor, Critical Essays on James Merrill, G. K. Hall, 1996.
  • White, Edmund, Loss within Loss: Artists in the Age of AIDS, University of Wisconsin Press (Madison, WI), 2001.
  • Yenser, Stephen,The Consuming Myth: The Work of James Merrill, Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA), 1987.
PERIODICALS
  • Advocate, May 8, 2001, David Bahr, review of Collected Poems, p. 74.
  • American Poetry Review, September-October, 1979.
  • American Spectator, January, 1994, p. 64.
  • Atlantic Monthly, March, 1973; October, 1980.
  • Book, May, 2001, Stephen Whited, review of Collected Poems, p. 78.
  • Booklist, February 1, 2001, Donna Seaman, review of Collected Poems, p. 1035.
  • Chicago Tribune Book World, December 17, 1978; April 24, 1983.
  • Kenyon Review, winter, 1997, Rachel Hadas, "'We Both Knew This Place': Reflections on the Art of James Merrill," p. 134; spring, 1998, Rachel Hadas, "James Merrill's Early Work: A Revaluation," p. 177.
  • Lambda Book Report, April, 2001, David Rosen, "Necessary Angel," p. 16.
  • Los Angeles Times Book Review, February 13, 1983.
  • Midwest Quarterly, spring, 2001, Kathryn Jacobs, "How Not to Shed Tears, and What to Do, Instead: James Merrill," p. 334.
  • New Leader, December 4, 1978; June 5, 1995, Phoebe Pettingell, review of A Scattering of Salts, p. 20.
  • New Republic, June 5, 1976; November 20, 1976; July 26, 1980; June 5, 1995; p. 38; May 7, 2001, Adam Kirsch, "All That Glitters," p. 40.
  • Newsweek, February 28, 1983; March 5, 2001, David Gates, "Jimmy of the Spirits: James Merrill Was Notorious for an Epic 'Dictated' via a Ouija Board. Now His Collected Poems and Memoirs by His Friends Suggest He Was a Tad More Complicated," p. 56.
  • New Yorker, March 27, 1995, p. 49; March 12, 2000, Helen Vendler, "James Merrill: Collected Poems," p. 100.
  • New York Review of Books, May 6, 1971; September 20, 1973; March 18, 1976; December 21, 1978; May 3, 1979; February 21, 1982; November 4, 1993, p. 31; January 13, 1994, p. 15; May 11, 1995, p. 46.
  • New York Times, January 29, 1983; May 29, 1985; September 15, 1993; March 14, 2001, Mel Gussow, "An Anthology and Conferences Celebrate James Merrill's Work," p. E1, and "A Year for Reconnecting with the Spirit of a Departed Poet," p. B10.
  • New York Times Book Review, September 24, 1972; March 21, 1976; April 4, 1976; April 22, 1977, Herbert Mitgang, "Publishing: A Touch of the Pulitzer"; April 29, 1979, Robert B. Shaw, "James Merrill and the Ouija Board"; June 15, 1980, Denis Donoghue, "What the Ouija Board Said"; March 13, 1983; November 12, 1984; September 1, 1985, Petet Stitt, "Poets Witty and Elegiac"; February 15, 1987, Helen Benedict, "In Short"; November 12, 1989, Carolyn Kizer, "Necessities of Life and Death"; December 12, 1993, Brigitte Weeks, "How James Merrill Came of Age"; March 26, 1995, W. S. Merwin, "The End of More than a Book," p. 3; May 22, 1995; February 22, 2001, Janet Maslin, "Bound by the Spirit World as They Drifted Apart"; March 4, 2001, Daniel Mendelsohn, "A Poet of Love and Loss," p. 16.
  • Partisan Review, winter, 1967.
  • Perspective, spring, 1967.
  • Poetry, June, 1973; October, 1976; December, 1979; September, 1995, p. 354.
  • Publishers Weekly, February 27, 1995, p. 98.
  • San Francisco Chronicle, March 11, 2001, David Wiegand, "How a Ouija Board Called Forth a Collective Spirit," p. 3.
  • Saturday Review, December 2, 1972.
  • Shenandoah, summer, 1976; fall, 1976.
  • Time, April 26, 1976; June 25, 1979.
  • Times Literary Supplement, September 29, 1972; October 28, 1977; January 18, 1980; May 22, 1987; December 2, 1988; December 31, 1993, p. 20; January 17, 1997, Stephen Burt, review of Selected Poems, p. 22.
  • Village Voice, December 21, 1993.
  • Village Voice Literary Supplement, March, 1983.
  • Wall Street Journal, April 13, 2001, Ben Downing, "Poetry and Parlor Tricks," p. 10.
  • Washington Post Book World, July 6, 1980; March 27, 1983; July 28, 1985; December 14, 1986.
  • Yale Review, winter, 1971; spring, 1975; January, 1994, p. 161; October, 1995, p. 144.
OTHER
  • Academy of American Poets, http://www.poets.org/ (September 26, 2001), "James Merrill."
  • Modern American Poetry, http://www.english.uiuc.edu/ (September 26, 2001), Ann T. Keene, "James Merrill's Life," Alan Nadel, "Replacing the Waste Land—James Merrill's Quest for Transcendent Authority," James Merrill, "Merrill: On Puns [1972]," and "Merrill in Correspondence."
OBITUARIES
  • Los Angeles Times, February 8, 1995, pp. A3, A13.
  • New Republic, March 6, 1995, p. 46.
  • Newsweek, February 20, 1995, p. 76.
  • New York Times, February 7, 1995.
  • Poetry, September, 1995, p. 311.
  • Time, February 20, 1995, p. 81.
  • Times (London), February 15, 1995, p. 19.

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LIFE SPAN 1926–1995

James Merrill

Biography

The late James Merrill was recognized as one of the leading poets of his generation. Praised for his stylish elegance, moral sensibilities, and transformation of autobiographical moments into deep and complex meditations, Merrill’s work spans genres—including plays and prose—but the bulk of his artistic expression can be found in his poetry. Merrill’s talent was recognized immediately, though his earliest work was seen as . . .

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