Merrill, James 1926–1995
Merrill, James 1926–1995
(James Ingram Merrill)
PERSONAL: Born March 3, 1926, in New York, NY; died of a heart attack, a complication of AIDS, February 6, 1995, in Tucson, AZ; son of Charles Edward (a stockbroker) and Hellen (Ingram) Merrill; partner of David Jackson. Education: Amherst College, B.A., 1947.
CAREER: Poet, novelist, and playwright. Military service: U.S. Army, 1944–45.
AWARDS, HONORS: Oscar Blumenthal Prize, 1947; Levinson Prize, Poetry magazine, 1949, and Harriet Monroe Memorial Prize, 1951; Morton Dauwen Zabel Memorial Prize, 1965, for "From the Cupola"; National Book Award in poetry, 1967, for Nights and Days, and 1979, for Mirabell: Books of Number; D.Litt., Amherst College, 1968; Bollingen Prize in Poetry, 1973; Pulitzer Prize, 1976, for Divine Comedies; Scripts for the Pageant was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award, 1980; Los Angeles Times Book Award for Poetry, 1983, and National Books Critics Circle Award, 1989, both for The Changing Light at Sandover; Rebekah Johnson Bobbitt National Prize in poetry, 1990.
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.
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.
Collected Novels and Plays, edited by J.D. McClatchy and Stephen Yenser. Knopf (New York, NY), 2002.
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 and Poetry. Selections of Merrill's poetry, read by Merrill, was released by Random Audio as part of its "The Voice of the Poet" series, 1999.
Some of Merrill's poetry has been translated into Greek.
SIDELIGHTS: The late James Merrill was recognized as one of the master poets of his generation. Merrill's work was praised for its elegance of style, its moral sensibilities, and its transformation of autobiographical moments into deep and complex poetry. Through a long and productive career, Merrill wrote plays, prose, and fiction, but the bulk of his artistic expression can be found in his poetry. His work won almost every important literary citation from the Pulitzer Prize to the Bollingen Prize and the National Book Award, and he was, according to New York Times Book Review essayist Petet Stitt, "one of the most cunning, elusive, thoughtful, challenging and rewarding poets writing." New York Times columnist Michiko Kakutani commended Merrill for his "mastery of various verse forms and conventions, his exquisite command of irony and wit … his achievement of a wholly distinctive voice—a voice that is cooly elusive as melting sherbet, poised and elaborate as a finely-wrought antique clock." Washington Post Book World contributor Joel Conarroe called Merrill "an extravagantly gifted artist … America's leading poet."
As soon as he began publishing poetry in 1951, Merrill was recognized as a virtual master of poetic forms. He once explained in the New York Review of Books how he took "instinctively … to quatrains, to octaves and sestets, when I began to write poems." His earliest works reflect the gentility of his upperclass upbringing as well as his eloquence and wit. But for all their technical virtuosity, his early verses are largely static works, more concerned with objects than people. It was not until his themes became more dramatic and personal that he began to win serious attention and literary acclaim. Merrill received his first National Book Award in 1967 for Nights and Days, and his second in 1979 for Mirabell: Books of Number. In the interim he won both the Bollingen Prize in Poetry and the Pulitzer Prize, the latter for a book of occult poetry called Divine Comedies.
Known in popular circles as "the Ouija poet"—one who composed with assistance from the spirit world—Merrill was always most popular with scholarly audiences. As Brigitte Weeks noted in the New York Times Book Review, "Merrill's artistic distinction is for the most part acknowledged, particularly in the academy, where he has already become part of the permanent canon. With his technical virtuosity and his metaphysical broodings, he is, like Wallace Stevens, an ideal seminar poet whose complex work lends itself to exhaustive explication."
Born into a wealthy New York family, Merrill was privately educated in schools that placed a good deal of emphasis on poetry. His interest in language was also fired by his governess—a Prussian-English widow who was fluent in both German and French. She taught young James that English was merely one way of expressing things, while his parents encouraged his early efforts at verse. His first book of poems was privately printed by his father—cofounder of the stockbrokerage firm Merrill-Lynch—during his senior year at Lawrenceville.
When Merrill was twelve, his parents divorced, his governess was discharged, and he was sent to boarding school. The diary he kept during a subsequent vacation in Silver Springs, Florida, included what, in retrospect, would prove to be a revealing entry: "Silver Springs—heavenly colors and swell fish." Years later, in the New York Review of Books, Merrill explained how that statement reflected his feelings of loss and foreshadowed a major theme in his poetry. "'Heavenly colors and swell fish.' What is that phrase but an attempt to bring my parents together, to remarry on the page their characteristic inflections—the ladylike gush and the regular-guy terseness? In reality my parents have tones more personal and complex than these, but the time is still far off when I can dream of echoing them."
A fusion of autobiography and archetype would become a hallmark of Merrill's verse, according to Andrew V. Ettin who wrote in Perspective, "The transformation of the natural, autobiographical, narrative events and tone into the magical, universal, sonorous, eternal is one of the principal characteristics of Merrill's poetry, perhaps the main source of its splendid and moving qualities." Dictionary of Literary Biography contributor William Spiegelman credited Merrill with discovering "what most lyric poets … have yet to find: a context for a life, a pattern for presenting autobiography in lyric verse through the mediation of myth and fable."
Influenced not only by events, but also by the act of writing, Merrill, "with increasing awareness, courage and delight, has been developing an autobiography: 'de-veloping' as from a photographic negative which becomes increasingly clear," David Kalstone explained in the Times Literary Supplement. "He 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."
While Merrill's verse abounds with details from daily life, Joseph Parisi noted in Poetry that it "never reeks of ego." Or, as Helen Vendler observed in the New York Times Book Review, 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'…. It is as though a curtain had been drawn aside, and we are permitted a glimpse of … a life that goes on unconscious of us, with the narrator so perfectly an actor in his own drama that his presence as narrator is rendered transparent, invisible."
One of the ways Merrill achieved this stance was through the manipulation of meter and rhyme. "His mastery of forms, whether old or new, keeps his self-revelatory poems (and some of them are painful) from the worst lapses of recent poets of the confessional school," X.J. Kennedy observed in the Atlantic. "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.'"
Because they both wrote mystical poems, Yeats and Merrill have often been compared. Like Yeats, whose wife was a medium, Merrill believed he received inspiration from the world beyond. His Divine Comedies features an affable ghost named Ephraim who instructs the poet, while 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 (whose Divine Comedy was the inspiration for Merrill's title), W.H. Auden (who, like Merrill, believed that poems are constructed of words, not emotions), and Marcel Proust (who was also dismissed as a mere aesthete early in his career).
In a Times Literary Supplement review, David Kalstone further explained how Proust's vision colored Merrill's world. "When he turned to narrative and social comedy, it was always with the sense—Proust's sense—that the world discerned is not quite real, that in its flashing action he might catch glimpses of patterns activated by charged moments of his life." Spiegelman believed that as "an heir to Proust, Merrill achieves a scope in poetry comparable to that of the major novelists: his great themes are the recovery of time (in spite of loss) through willed or automatic memory, and the alternating erosions and bequests of erotic experience. He focuses on what is taken, what abides, in love and time, and considers how to handle them."
In Merrill's early poems these concerns seldom surface. The verse of First Poems and The Country of a Thousand Years of Peace and Other Poems sometimes struck reviewers as needlessly obscure, devoid of human passion, and removed from actual life. In his Babel to Byzantium, James Dickey wrote that to read such poems is "to enter a realm of connoisseurish aesthetic contemplation, where there are no things more serious than gardens (usually formal), dolls, swans, statues, works of art, operas, delightful places in Europe, the ancient gods in tasteful and thought-provoking array, more statues, many birds and public parks, and, always, 'the lovers,' wandering through it all as if they surely lived." Writing of this kind, continued Dickey, "has enough of [Henry] James's insistence upon manners and decorum to evoke a limited admiration for the taste, wit, and eloquence that such an attitude makes possible, and also enough to drive you mad over the needless artificiality, prim finickiness, and determined inconsequence of it all."
In 1959, when Merrill began spending six months of each year in Athens, his poetry took on some of the warmth and intimacy of the old Greek culture. And, as the poems became more personal, they also became more accessible, although their appeal was still limited, as Ian Hamilton explained. "Even though—with Water Street in 1962—he had toughened and colloquialized his verse line and eliminated much of the wan artifice that marked his very early work, there was still—in his usual persona—a delicate strain of yearning otherworld-liness, a delicate discomfiture which was neither neurotic nor ideological. His was a poetry of, and for, the few—the few kindred spirits," Hamilton wrote in the Washington Post Book World.
With each step he took away from rigid formalism, Merrill gained critical ground. Unwilling to restrict his choice and assembly of language, he nevertheless progressed toward a more conversational verse reminiscent of the structure of prose. "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," wrote Helen Vendler in the New York Review of Books. In fact, Merrill tried his hand at both plays and novels and considered writing his epic poem "The Book of Ephraim" as a prose narrative. He abandoned the idea, for reasons that he explains in the poem: "The more I struggled to be plain, the more / Mannerism hobbled me. What for? / Since it had never truly fit, why wear / The shoe of prose? In verse the feet went bare."
It was "The Book of Ephraim"—which appeared in Divine Comedies—that prompted many critics to reevaluate the poet. Among them was Harold Bloom, who wrote in the New Republic, "James Merrill … has convinced many discerning readers of a greatness, or something like it, in his first six volumes of verse, but until this year I remained a stubborn holdout. The publication of Divine Comedies … converts me, absolutely if belatedly, to Merrill…. 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."
Spiegelman described Divine Comedies as "Merrill's supreme fiction, a self-mythologizing within an epic program. At last Merrill's masters combine with graceful fluency in a confection entirely his own: the reader finds Proust's social world, his analysis of the human heart and the artist's growth; Dante's encyclopedia of a vast universal organization; and Yeats's spiritualism, for which the hints in the earlier volumes gave only small promise. Added to these are the offhand humor of Lord Byron and W.H. Auden, a Neoplatonic theory of reincarnation, a self-reflexiveness about the process of composition, and a virtual handbook of poetic technique. 'The Book of Ephraim,' the volume's long poem, is chapter one of Merrill's central statement."
The two volumes that followed, Mirabell: Books of Number and Scripts for the Pageant, 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. This unprecedented 560-page epic records the Ouija board sessions that Merrill and David Jackson, his companion, conducted with spirits from the other world.
Appropriately, 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. "Were such information conveyed to us by a carnival 'spiritual adviser,' we could dismiss it as mere nonsense," observed Fred Moramarco in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, "but as it comes from a poet of Merrill's extraordinary poetic and intellectual gifts, we sit up and take notice."
In the first book, Merrill's guide is Ephraim, "a Greek Jew / Born AD 8 at XANTHOS," later identified as "Our Familiar Spirit." Over a period of twenty years and in a variety of settings, Ephraim alerts DJ and JM to certain cosmic truths, including the fact that "on Earth / We're each the REPRESENTATIVE of a PATRON" who guides our souls through the nine stages of being until we become patrons for other souls. Witty, refined, full of gossip, Ephraim is "a clear cousin to Merrill's poetic voice," Kalstone wrote in the Times Literary Supplement.
Other spirits also appear in the poem, many of them family members or old friends who have died: Merrill's mother and father, the young poet Hans Lodeizen (whose death Merrill addressed in The Country of a Thousand Years of Peace), the Athenian Maria Mitso-taki (a green-thumbed gardener who died of cancer), as well as literary figures such as W.H. Auden and Plato. They form a community, according to Ephraim, "WITHIN SIGHT OF ALL CONNECTED TO EACH OTHER DEAD OR ALIVE NOW DO YOU UNDERSTAND WHAT HEAVEN IS IT IS THE SURROUND OF THE LIVING." As Helen Vendler explained in the New York Review of Books, "The host receives his visible and invisible guests, convinced that … the poet's paradise is nothing other than all those beings whom he has known and has imagined." For this reason, Vendler maintained that "The Book of Ephraim" is "centrally a hymn to history and a meditation on memory—personal history and personal memory, which are, for this poet at least, the muse's materials."
Aware of the incredulity his spiritualism would provoke, Merrill addressed this issue early in book one: "The question / Of who or what we took Ephraim to be / And of what truths (if any) we considered / Him spokesman, had arisen from the start." Indeed, Vendler said, "for rationalists reading the poem, Merrill includes a good deal of self-protective irony, even incorporating in the tale a visit to his ex-shrink, who proclaims the evocation of Ephraim and the other Ouija 'guests' from the other world a folie a deux [mutual madness] between Merrill and his friend David Jackson."
In a Poetry review, Joseph Parisi suggested that Merrill used "his own doubt and hesitation to undercut and simultaneously to underscore his seriousness in recounting … his fabulous … message. Anticipating the incredulity of 'sophisticated' and even cynical readers, the poet portrays his own apparent skepticism at these tales from the spirit world to preempt and disarm the attacks, while making the reader feel he is learning the quasi-occult truths … along with the poet."
As the experience proceeded, Merrill's skepticism declined. And while the reader's may not, Judith Moffett suggested in American Poetry Review that disbelief is not the issue: "Surely any literary work ought to be judged not on its matter but on the way the matter is presented and treated…. The critical question, then, should not be, Is this the story he ought to have told? but How well has he told this story?" Moffett, as well as numerous other critics, believed Merrill has told it very well: "'The Book of Ephraim' is a genuinely great poem—a phrase no one should use lightly—and very possibly the most impressive poetic endeavor in English in this century."
In book two, Ephraim is overshadowed by a band of bat-like creatures who "SPEAK FROM WITHIN THE ATOM," demanding "POEMS OF SCIENCE" from JM. These are the fallen angels whose task is now to mind the machinery put in motion by God Biology, whose enemy is Chaos. Their request appears on the board: "FIND US BETTER PHRASES FOR THESE HISTORIES WE POUR FORTH / HOPING AGAINST HOPE THAT MAN WILL LOVE HIS MIND LANGUAGE." As poet, Merrill serves as a vehicle for divine revelation, and, by tapping his "word bank," the bats can combat Chaos. They explain: "THE SCRIBE SHALL / SUPPLANT RELIGION, & THE ENTIRE APPARATUS / DEVELOP THE WAY TO PARADISE." At another point, Merrill learns that he was chosen to receive this vision in part because of his homosexuality: he will devote his energies not to children, but to art.
God Biology's chief messenger is a spirit initially identified as 741, who Merrill names Mirabell. Mirabell warns of the two major threats to human existence: overpopulation and nuclear power. In passages that almost all critics consider elitist, Mirabell explains that there are only two million enlightened souls in the world. The rest are inferior animal souls who reproduce prolifically and into whose hands atomic weaponry now threatens to fall. Too little given to reason and restraint, these souls allow Chaos to gain ground.
While acknowledging that "one can see the intricate rationale of such statements in the context of Mirabell's general themes," Joseph Parisi maintained that readers "may be uncomfortable with the elitism which is implicit, and ultimately counterproductive, if indeed the poem pretends to enlighten and to teach…. For all the charm of Mirabell's small circle of friends, some may be put off by their blithe air of superiority, as others may be by the High Tea (not to mention Camp) atmosphere of the Heavenly get-togethers." Stephen Spender pointed out in the New York Review of Books that "this reader sometimes feels that Merrill's heaven is a tea party to which he is not likely to be invited because he will not understand the 'in' jokes." Remarked Moffett: "By portraying intelligent poetic and musical gays as the evolutionary creme de la creme, Merrill makes himself vulnerable to charges of narcissism; the same could be said of passages in which heaven lavishes praise upon its spokesmen." But, "to be fair," concluded Edmund White in his book, Loss within Loss: Artists in the Age of AIDS, "I should point out that the fault lies not in Merrill, but in his bats; they are the ones who portray the hierarchical system. He is merely their scribe."
One of the duties of the bats, Merrill once explained in the Kenyon Review, is to prepare David and him for "a seminar with the angels—whose twenty-five lessons are in fact the marrow of the third volume." While the poet here confronts essential questions about the mystery of creation, the structure of the universe, and the fate of man, some critics find the final message of Scripts for the Pageant in its organizing principle, "Yes No." Charles Molesworth explained in the New Republic that, "taken serially, these three words form irreducible language acts, namely assertion, qualification, and denial. Taken all together, they form the essence of equivocation, which can be seen as either the fullest sort of language act or the very subversion of language." By characterizing his acceptance of the spirits' wisdom in terms of "Yes No," Merrill "transforms the poem into a hymn celebrating, among other things, 'resistance' as 'Nature's gift to man,'" Mary Jo Salter wrote in the Atlantic. 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."
By the time Scripts for the Pageant ends, Merrill has made clear his vision of the self as a story that unfolds over time. During one lesson, the angels discuss two previous races of creatures who were destroyed. Afterwards, Merrill, to use Molesworth's words, "advances a set of parallels between the account of the two earlier races and his own childhood, as he was preceded by two siblings and his parents divorced while he was still a child. Autobiography and creation myth: by hinting they're the same Merrill deals with a key modernist, and a key American theme."
Merrill was one of the rare artists who, by virtue of his Merrill Lynch fortune, never needed to concern himself with making a living. His gratitude for that is reflected in his creation of the Ingram Merrill Foundation, a permanent endowment created for writers and painters. Merrill died of a heart attack in February of 1995 while vacationing in Tucson. He continued to write poetry and prose until his death and even published a memoir, A Different Person, in 1993. Merrill's final volume of poetry, A Scattering of Salts, "provides an elegant closure for his life's work, the kind of bittersweet ending he treasured," remarked Phoebe Pettingell in The New Leader. Writing in the New York Review of Books, Helen Vendler stated, "In the new volume, Merrill gives on almost every page the impression of looking back over the past, both as he lived it and as he wrote about it. A Scattering of Salts is an elegiac book, but one written in an ultimately comic spirit."
Many critics who eulogized Merrill after his death accented the complexity of his style and world-view, but New York Times Book Review correspondent Carolyn Kizer commended the poet for another gift entirely. "Mr. Merrill is a great love poet," the critic concluded. "There have been so many breathtaking feats of prestidigitation before our busy eyes that this may have escaped our notice. But it's true. Most of his poems breathe with love. And that is another and even greater gift he has given us."
Collected Poems, edited by J.D. McClatchy and Stephen Yenser, is the first volume in a series compiling all of Merrill's work, including his novels, plays, and collected prose. The 885-page book, which was published on the sixth anniversary of Merrill's death, includes his entire body of poetry from his privately printed Black Swan to his posthumous collection A Scattering of Salts, the only exceptions being juvenalia and The Changing Light at Sandover. In addition, Collected Poems brings together for the first time twenty-one of his translations from Apollinaire, Montale, Cavafy, and others and forty-four previously uncollected poems, including elegies to Philip Larkin, Elizabeth Bishop, and others. David Rosen wrote in the Lambda Book Report that "this astonishingly beautiful (and blessedly bulky) collection appears at a particularly significant moment in time," as "the necessary angel that enlarges our appreciation of Merrill's poetic achievement and illumines (with a newfound fullness) the creative interplay between his life and oeuvre."
McClatchy told Mel Gussow of the New York Times, "Having read him book by book, I was surprised by the sheer bulk of his achievement when it's all put together, and struck too by the sustained brilliance and inventiveness of it, the restless search for new experiences within which to explore old obsessions." Daniel Mendelsohn wrote in the New York Times Book Review that "as ravishing as the early work is, you often can't help feeling that in these poems the insights about art and life and death have been learned—book-learned, that is—rather than earned. One of the pleasures of having nearly all of Merrill in one volume is to see how the poet grew into his poetry—how he became willing to grapple with things themselves, rather than the intellectualized or aestheticized symbols of things (black swans, say)." Advocate reviewer David Bahr praised Merrill's later poems, which he called "among his best, most inviting and deeply resonant works…. His final poems prove that Merrill was not merely a master of measured verse but a profound chronicler of the human condition." New Republic contributor Adam Kirsch added: "Reading Collected Poems leaves no doubt that Merrill was one of the finest American poets of the last half-century. His achievement was all the more valuable because he was strong in areas where most of his contemporaries were weak. Yet the book also leaves the suspicion that Merrill's major work was left unwritten."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Bauer, Mark, This Composite Voice: The Role of W.B. Yeats in James Merrill's Poetry,: Routledge (New York, NY), 2003.
Blasing, Mutlu Konuk, Politics and Form in Postmodern Poetry: O'Hara, Bishop, Ashbery, and Merrill, Cambridge University Press (New York, NY), 1995.
Bloom, Harold, editor, James Merrill, Chelsea House (New York, NY), 1985.
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Thomson 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, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1980.
Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook 1985, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1986.
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.
Materer, Timothy, James Merrill's Apocalypse, Cornell University Press, (Ithaca, NY), 2000.
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 (Boston, MA), 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.
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, 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.
Kirkus Reviews, July 15, 2004, p. 676, review of Collected Prose.
Lambda Book Report, April, 2001, David Rosen, "Necessary Angel," p. 16.
Library Journal, April 15, 2002, p. 90, Barbara Hoffert, review of Collected Poems; Oct 1, 2002, p. 94, William Gargan, review of Collected Novels and Plays.
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; winter, 2003, p. 236, Richard Holinger, review of Collected Poems.
New Criterion, March 2002, p. 24 Daniel Mark Epstein, "Merrill's Progress."
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," 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; March, 2002, p. 343, Paul Breslin, "Closet Necessities: James Merrill's Poetics of Reticence."
Publishers Weekly, February 27, 1995, p. 98.
San Francisco Chronicle, March 11, 2001, David Wie-gand, "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.
Academy of American Poets Web site, http://www.poets.org/ (September 26, 2001), "James Merrill."
Modern American Poetry Web site, 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 ," and "Merrill in Correspondence."
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.