Authors: James Merrill

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American poet

Identity: Gay or bisexual

Biography

James Ingram Merrill was one of the most accessible poets of the twentieth century. A worldly man with something of a “playboy” image–due, in part, to having been born to Charles Edward Merrill, the cofounder of the prestigious brokerage house Merrill, Lynch, Pierce, Fenner, and Smith–he was educated at Lawrenceville School, a private New Jersey institution, where his gift for writing led his father to have a collection of his poems, essays, and stories published under the title Jim’s Book. He served in the Army in 1944-1945 and graduated from Amherst College in 1947. His father wanted him to enter business, but Merrill wanted to be a writer, and after his father consulted several literary authorities, he accepted his son’s ambitions and provided the financial support that few poets have the luck to receive.{$I[AN]9810001675}{$I[A]Merrill, James}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Merrill, James}{$I[geo]GAY OR BISEXUAL;Merrill, James}{$I[tim]1926;Merrill, James}

James Merrill

From early in his career he wrote with technical ease, wit, and comic verve, as well as intense feeling. Many of his poems are about his childhood and his relation to his powerful, handsome, womanizing father. His parents were divorced in 1938, and the separation became a poetic topic. Few writers would discuss their parents’ marriage as Merrill does in “The Broken Home” (from Nights and Days), achieving a sophisticated, witty tone while establishing an elegiac tenderness without lachrymose excess.

He extended his literary skills, with respectable, if lesser results, to work as a playwright, novelist, and literary critic. In 1955 his play The Immortal Husband was produced Off-Broadway, and in 1957 his novel The Seraglio appeared. His best work, however, was as a poet, and in 1966 he received the National Book Award for his poems Nights and Days. He went on to receive the Bollingen Prize in 1973, the Pulitzer Prize in 1976, and another National Book Award in 1978 for Mirabell: Books of Number. The Changing Light at Sandover won the National Book Critics Circle Award. There is a strong autobiographical bent in his poetry, and with that comes a strong sense of place. He lived in New York until 1954, when he moved to Stonington, Connecticut. For many years he alternated this residence with a house in Athens, Greece, and, in his last years, a house in Key West. These three locations figure in much of his poetry, and local characters appear through the poems of the next three decades. Even more central to this poetry is his association with David Jackson, with whom he lived intimately until the later years of his life, and their relationship is candidly recorded. Much of his best poetry was written in the period beginning in the early 1960’s and extending until his death in 1995. The simple telling of his day-to-day life is the subject of much of this work.

He is usually a very straightforward poet, but he can also be teasingly obtuse, and his allusions to other arts and other artists can confuse readers, who are advised to keep an encyclopedia at hand: Merrill went everywhere, saw and did everything worth doing, liked to share his pleasures, and dropped arcane references without affectation. It is perhaps this smartness which accounts for his long connection with the magazine The New Yorker, which published his poems on a regular basis and provided him with an audience closed to most poets.

He was a love poet of some daring, charmingly open about his homosexual relations and about sex in general. However frank the topic, he conveyed a sense of friendliness and decency in his work. He was quite willing to play with his gift, as he did in his odd, extremely long poem, The Changing Light at Sandover, which came out in parts between 1976 and 1982. He had a gift for narrative, and in this work he carried it to the extreme in a shaggy-dog tale of communication with the dead via a Ouija board. Sometimes the work is hardly poetry at all, sometimes it is barely doggerel, often it is silly. But it is also witty, hilarious, and deeply perceptive in its encounters with the famous deceased, fretting to get back into the world. Often barely able to maintain poetic form, it just as often rises in lyric beauty. This work is based in reality, despite its exercise in stretching credibility in its claim that Merrill and David Jackson could reach the spiritual world. They were engaged in plying the Ouija board in their Stonington living room throughout the period; thus the line between art and life is purposely confused. Some critics consider it his best poem and a work of serious consequence in its consideration of the metaphysical mystery.

It is difficult to classify Merrill, since he could do so many things well. He was an entertaining and perceptive essayist. A lyric poet with narrative strength and a penchant for revealing the delicious impropriety of life as a playboy artist, he was in love with life and art. Not a poet for the morally morose, he was very morally serious about how life should be lived lovingly.

BibliographyAdams, Don. James Merrill’s Poetic Quest. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1997. A comprehensive look at Merrill’s often difficult symbolism. Adams sees Merrill’s life as a “quest to save his life through his art” and considers specific works in this light. Provides a close reading of The Changing Light at Sandover.Bloom, Harold, ed. James Merrill. New York: Chelsea House, 1986. Harold Bloom’s introduction to this collection of essays is especially valuable. There is a chronology and an index.Labrie, Ross. James Merrill. Boston: Twayne, 1982. Contains separate chapters on Merrill’s life and art, his plays, his fiction, and his poems of the 1940’s and 1950’s, and a chapter that analyzes the Divine Comedies. Includes an interesting section on Merrill’s view of art.Lurie, Alison. Familiar Spirits: A Memoir of James Merrill and David Jackson. New York: Viking, 2001. Lurie was a longtime friend of Merrill and Jackson, and this memoir provides an intimate view of the two. Lurie especially illuminates the interpersonal dynamics underlying the pair’s interest in the ouija board.Materer, Timothy. James Merrill’s Apocalypse. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2000. Covers Merrill’s entire career, novels as well as poetry, and focuses on the poet’s preoccupation with the violence that threatens us in reality. Places the moral and religious themes found in The Changing Light at Sandover in context with the tradition of apocalyptic literature and with Merrill’s earlier poetry and prose.Polito, Robert. A Reader’s Guide to James Merrill’s “The Changing Light at Sandover.” Foreword by James Merrill. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1994. Polito’s purpose is to make Merrill’s work more accessible by unifying, in an alphabetical reference, characters and events that appear in widely separated passages or under different names in the trilogy. This guide functions as an annotated index with cross-references to related terms, and also includes critical reaction and analysis.Vendler, Helen. “James Merrill.” In Part of Nature, Part of Us: Modern American Poets. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1980. The section on Merrill provides informative commentary on Braving the Elements, Divine Comedies, and Mirabell: Books of Number.
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