A Whole World: Letters from James Merrill, ed Langdon Hammer and Stephen Yenser, Alfred A Knopf, 700 pp, $45, ISBN: 978-1101875506
If you look at Joel Conarroe’s anthology Eight American Poets (1994) and compare it with his previous volume, Six American Poets (1993) there are quite startling contrasts. Indeed, a tale of two books which reveals much about the changing social and cultural contexts and expectations of American poets experienced in modern times. The style and substance of the historical Six American Poets – Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams, Robert Frost and Langston Hughes – stretches from the late nineteenth to the twentieth century. But the lives of the poets from that earlier period seem to have a striking longevity: Whitman, Stevens and Carlos Williams all lived into their seventies, Frost into his late eighties while Langston Hughes lived into his mid-sixties, Dickinson, until her mid-fifties. Several of the poets also worked outside their art-form: Carlos Williams was a doctor, for instance, Stevens a corporate manager, Frost a farmer.
The contrast could not be starker with the later volume as the relatively younger cohort of poets Conarroe selected tells a quite different story. Of the eight he chose – Elizabeth Bishop, James Merrill, Sylvia Plath, Allen Ginsberg, Theodore Roethke, John Berryman, Anne Sexton, Robert Lowell ‑ three committed suicide and had tragically shortened lives, three died in early middle age after suffering both physical and mental health problems and of the eight a staggering six had serious addiction problems with drugs, booze or both. Unlike their elders, all of them taught at university for significant periods and inhabited for most of their adult lives the intensely hierarchical eco-system (prizes, fellowships, leading publication outlets etc) and power structures of the US literary and academic world.
Now this might have been a subtext in the anthologist’s mind: to point out the complex fate of American poets in an often hostile social environment. But it would also have been possible to substitute for his choice of eight writers other poets such as Donald Justice, Stanley Kunitz, Maxine Kumin, Mark Strand, Karl Shapiro, among many other leading figures of the period – name your own ‑ all of whom lived to goodly ages in their eighties and beyond. So, what’s this saying? That in the heart of twentieth century American literature there was an explosion of poetic talent but one which was fatally flawed or wounded by the culture in which they grew up, belonged, struggled against, and (essentially) praised in poems of unmistakeable fervour and anger and delicacy as well?
It is a viewpoint Adam Kirsch’s fascinating book The Wounded Surgeon: Confession and Transformation in Six American Poets, The Poetry of Lowell, Bishop, Berryman, Jarrell, Schwartz, and Plath (2005) considers with the following critical caveat: “To treat their poems mainly as documents of personal experience is not just to diminish their achievement, but to ignore their unanimous disdain for the idea of confessional poetry”’ The poets Kirsch discusses “always approached their writing as artists, and their primary motive was aesthetic”.
One of the most aesthetically driven of twentieth century American poets is James Merrill (1926-1995) and every page of A Whole World, this chunky selection of his letters, beautifully produced by Alfred A Knopf, provides the kind of substantive corroboration of the “world-view” which produced such a remarkable poetic legacy, if somewhat overshadowed on this side of the Atlantic by his more celebrated contemporaries. Indeed, Merrill’s poetry (and prose) has perhaps not received the attention it deserves. Hopefully this magnificent volume of his letters will change things a little. Certainly, Merrill’s own life-story marks him out from the often struggling lifestyles of his contemporaries. Born to wealth – his father established the mega-banking conglomerate Merrill Lynch – and the lifestyle that accompanied it, Merrill effectively detached himself and miraculously survived with his imagination intact to produce many (prize-winning) volumes of poetry. He would also play a central part in the lives of many poets and writers less fortunate than himself with support – often financial – while using a bounteous legacy which would, for instance, underwrite many volumes of the superb Library of America as well as artist-residencies. His AIDS-related death was widely mourned, not least because of his wish not to burden friends with the diagnosis having lost to the emerging pandemic of the time several of those very close to him.
As the early years of his life reveal, Merrill led a charmed if conflicted existence. On the one hand in his twenties and early thirties there is a strong family resistance to recognising that their son is gay and he undergoes various psychiatric consultations before he is free and no longer has to pretend with either mother or father, as many of these letters dramatise. On the other, the wealth and comfort of his various homes in United States (Stonington, Connecticut and Key West, Florida), Barbados (where his father, who had divorced his mother, lived), Greece and France, with servants and family retainers, makes for fascinating reading as Merrill charts his journeys across the American and European continent and further afield.
In a letter of 1950, Merrill, bound for Europe, writes the wonderful lines: “I sail at six PM Wednesday. There will be lots of people to see me off, with champagne in the cabin.” The same year, promoting his first book, he comments in a letter to the publisher: “I imagine most of the people you would send proofs to are those I would suggest – Stevens, Ransom, Eliot, Marianne Moore, Blackmur, Tate, Elizabeth Bishop, Louise Bogan; and less forcefully, Lowell, Eberhart, Berryman, etc. Perhaps William Empson.” Some list of contacts.
In Japan a few years later (1956) he writes about “floundering” without a guide, “trying to regain the depths, constantly cast back upon simple looking, like a beach – but what a beach! With balloons trailing neon characters, with the Nara sculptures, 2 dozen of them, in the museum, with 2 young people all rouged and powdered, pirouetting in the street to their own music, drum, bell, flute – the opening of yet another arcade where a kind of vertical pinball game is played … Before we left the tiny bar two lady musicians, a singer and samisen player, regaled us; one song was light in spirit, a dialogue of which a few mild phrases from the instrumentalist (contralto) were answered by a vivacious chattering tune from her companion.”
And this is the way it would be for James Merrill – between travel, opera, theatre, art exhibitions ‑ the pleasure principle was front and central to his writing life and the production of his substantial books of poetry, novels, memoirs and plays. A Whole World opens doors and windows on this fascinating life. And fascinating too that at its core, for a significant part of his life, there is a Yeatsian obsession with the afterlife and the mini-theatre of Ouija. Writing to his mother in 1955, twenty-nine-year-old Merrill explains the (bizarre) beliefs attached to Ouija which would lead many years later to one of his best known and most lauded poetry collections, The Changing Light at Sandower: “the soul is reborn over and over again until it is judged worthy of admittance to a Stage, its Patron also moves up one Stage; the Patron acquires then a new representative on earth, many times to be reborn; and his former representative, now at stage 1, becomes a Patron on his own.”
And so on. Merrill eventually detached himself from this elusive world of spirits and guides and lived an at times hectic itinerary of visits, lunches, concerts, exhibitions, museum visits, explorations and social gatherings but always at the centre was a close and busy network of friendship; again, like Yeats, a poet with whom Merrill shares an abiding fascination with what is difficult about art of the first order.
A City Imagined: Belfast Soulscapes, the third and final part in Gerald Dawe’s trilogy Northern Chronicles, was published earlier this year by Merrion Press. The Last Peacock, his ninth poetry collection, was published in 2019 by The Gallery Press.