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Introduction

  • Piotr K. Gwiazda
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Part of the American Literature Readings in the 21st Century book series (ALTC)

Abstract

Shortly after James Merrill’s death in February 1995, critics and reviewers began to draw comparisons between his poetry and that of W.H. Auden. “He is the obvious immediate heir of W.H. Auden,” said W.S. Merwin in the New York Times Book Review. “He knew more about the language of poetry than anyone since Auden, and used it to make poems that will remain part of anyone’s definition of the art,” noted J.D. McClatchy in the New Yorker. “Merrill, for all the poignancy of his work, was a comic poet in the line of Pope and Byron and Auden,” remarked Helen Vendler in her review of the poet’s final collection A Scattering of Salts. In the memorial issue of Poetry, Stephen Yenser praised Merrill as a verbal artist: “He crafted the consummate lyric, in which he loaded every rift with ore (to borrow Keats’s theft of Spenser), and he wrote the wittily ramshackle narrative, and he sometimes, somehow, impossibly did both at once”; because of his technical skill, he added, for the last two decades of his life Merrill was a proud keeper of Auden’s legendary OED.1

Keywords

Literary History Literary Tradition Individual Talent York Time Book Review Female Writer 
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Notes

  1. 1.
    W.S. Merwin, “The End of More Than Just a Book,” review of A Scattering of Salts, by James Merrill, in Critical Essays on James Merrill, ed. Guy Rotella (New York: G.K. Hall & Co., 1996), 73;Google Scholar
  2. J.D. McClatchy, Twenty Questions (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998), 156;Google Scholar
  3. Helen Vendler, “Chronicles of Love and Loss,” review of A Scattering of Salts, by James Merrill, New York Review of Books, May 11, 1995, 46;Google Scholar
  4. Stephen Yenser, “Metamorphoses,” Poetry 166, no. 6 (1995): 333.Google Scholar
  5. 3.
    Richard R. Bozorth, Auden’s Games of Knowledge: Poetry and the Meanings of Homosexuality (New York: Columbia University Press, 2001), 3.Google Scholar
  6. 4.
    James Merrill, Collected Prose, ed. J.D. McClatchy and Stephen Yenser (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004), 347. All subsequent citations to this volume are indicated as Prose within the text.Google Scholar
  7. 5.
    W.H. Auden, “A Talk with W.H. Auden,” interview by Michael André, Unmuzzled Ox 1, no. 3 (Summer 1972): 9.Google Scholar
  8. 7.
    See discussions of Merrill’s revisionary treatment of other literary figures in Sandover in Robert Polito, “Tradition and an Individual Talent,” in A Reader’s Guide to James Merrill’s The Changing Light at Sandover, ed. Polito, 31–63; and Jeff Westover, “Writing on the Sur(face) of the Past: Convivial Visions and Revisions in the Poetry of James Merrill,” in Critical Essays on James Merrill, ed. Rotella, 215–30. Mark Bauer’s This Composite Voice (New York: Routledge, 2003) is an extended inquiry into the poetic relationship between Merrill and William Butler Yeats.Google Scholar
  9. 8.
    James Merrill, The Changing Light at Sandover (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1982), 8. All other citations of this volume are indicated as CLS within the text.Google Scholar
  10. 9.
    Leo Bersani, Homos (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995), 79.Google Scholar
  11. 10.
    Peter Sacks, “The Divine Translation: Elegiac Aspects of The Changing Light at Sandover” in James Merrill: Essays in Criticism, ed. David Lehman and Charles Berger (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1983), 159.Google Scholar
  12. 11.
    W.H. Auden, “Craft Interview with W.H. Auden,” in The Craft of Poetry: Interviews from the New York Quarterly, ed. William Packard (Garden City: Doubleday, 1974), 8.Google Scholar
  13. 12.
    Lawrence Lipking, The Life of the Poet: Beginning and Ending Poetic Careers (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1981), 139.Google Scholar
  14. 13.
    James Merrill, interview by Helen Vendler, James Merrill: Voices from Sandover (Princeton: Films for the Humanities, 1994), film.Google Scholar
  15. 14.
    James Merrill to Peter Salus, postcard, November 11, 1971, Berg Collection of English and American Literature, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox, and Tilden Foundations. Eventually Merrill did contribute a poem called “Table Talk.” For a discussion of the poem, see Aidan Wasley, “Auden and Poetic Inheritance,” Raritan 19, no. 2 (1999): 152–57.Google Scholar
  16. 16.
    Peter Edgerly Firchow, W.H. Auden: Contexts for Poetry (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2002), 69.Google Scholar
  17. 18.
    Elizabeth Bishop, “A Brief Reminiscence and a Tribute,” Harvard Advocate 108, nos. 2/3 (1974): 47–48.Google Scholar
  18. 19.
    Many other young American poets found Auden intimidating. In her diaries Sylvia Plath recalls the “trembling audacity” with which she showed him some of her poems. Bishop herself thought Auden looked “nice” but too “scary” to make her want to approach him. Tennessee Williams once made the mistake of asking the poet to evaluate some of his own attempts at verse: “I forget his precise response, but it was negative and the encounter was rather chilling.” The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath, 1950–1962, ed. Karen V. Kukil (New York: Random House, 2000), 180; Elizabeth Bishop, One Art: Letters Selected and Edited, ed. Robert Giroux (New York: Farrar, Straus Giroux, 1994), 177;Google Scholar
  19. Tennessee Williams, “W.H. Auden: A Few Reminiscences,” Harvard Advocate 108, nos. 2/3 (1974): 59.Google Scholar
  20. 21.
    Thekla Clark, Wystan and Chester: A Personal Memoir of W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996), 56.Google Scholar
  21. 28.
    Edward Said, Beginnings: Intention and Method (New York: Basic Books, 1975), 83.Google Scholar
  22. 30.
    David Bergman, Gaiety Transfigured: Gay Self-Representation in American Literature (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1991), 30.Google Scholar
  23. 31.
    Edmund White, The Burning Library: Essays, ed. David Bergman (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994), 70.Google Scholar
  24. 33.
    T.S. Eliot, Selected Essays (New York: Harcourt, Brace, & World, Inc., 1960), 4–11.Google Scholar
  25. 34.
    T.S. Eliot, “Reflections on Contemporary Poetry [IV],” Egoist 6, no. 3 (July 1919): 39 (Eliot’s emphasis).Google Scholar
  26. 35.
    Plato, Phaedrus, trans. Robin Waterfield (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 27.Google Scholar
  27. 36.
    See Stephen Guy-Bray’s preface to Loving in Verse: Poetic Influence as Erotic (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2006): “There is a long tradition among poets of presenting their predecessors and contemporaries as inspiring love as well as poetry. I see these declarations across time and across texts of love as paradigmatic representations of poetic influence; I am interested in how this sort of writing positions the two poets as a male couple and in seeing these declarations of love across time and across texts as a form of loving in verse” (xii). Guy-Bray also suggests that Eliot’s “Reflections on Contemporary Poetry” can be seen as “one of the first works in what we now call queer theory” (Ibid., 88).Google Scholar
  28. 37.
    Langdon Hammer, Hart Crane and Allen Tate: Janus-Faced Modernism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993), 136.Google Scholar
  29. For a more extensive discussion of Eliot’s review, see Gregory S. Jay, T.S. Eliot and the Poetics of Literary History (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1983), 73–79.Google Scholar
  30. 38.
    T.S. Eliot, After Strange Gods: A Primer of Modern Heresy (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1934), 15.Google Scholar
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    T.S. Eliot, The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism: Studies in the Relation of Criticism to Poetry in England (London: Faber and Faber, 1964), 32–34.Google Scholar
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    Harold Bloom, A Map of Misreading (New York: Oxford University Press, 1975), 70;Google Scholar
  33. Harold Bloom, Poetry and Repression: Revisionism from Blake to Stevens (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1976), 3 (Bloom’s emphasis).Google Scholar
  34. 44.
    Harold Bloom, The Anxiety of Influence, 2nd ed., (1973; New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 11.Google Scholar
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    Harold Bloom, The Breaking of the Vessels (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982), 119.Google Scholar
  36. 49.
    Thomas E. Yingling, Hart Crane and the Homosexual Text: New Thresholds, New Anatomies (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990), 22.Google Scholar
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    In Christopher Hennessy, Outside the Lines: Talking with Contemporary Gay Poets (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2005), 87.Google Scholar
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    Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979), 48.Google Scholar
  39. 54.
    Jeredith Merrin, An Enabling Humility: Marianne Moore, Elizabeth Bishop, and the Uses of Tradition (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1990), 2. The careers of Marianne Moore and Elizabeth Bishop lend themselves particularly well to these more nuanced understandings of poetic influence. As Merrin remarks, “both Moore and Bishop … find ways to debunk the potentially debilitating Romantic myth of imaginatively feminized nature, while Moore’s relation to [Sir Thomas] Browne and Bishop’s relation to [George] Herbert obviously show us a different, less intensely agonistic, portrait of male influence” (Ibid., 123–24). Betsy Erkkila also seeks to “reclaim women’s literature and women’s literary history as a site of dissension, contingency, and ongoing struggle rather than a separate space of some untroubled and essentially cooperative accord between women.” The Wicked Sisters: Women Poets, Literary History, and Discord (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), 4. Erkkila’s chapter on Moore and Bishop is particularly illuminating. See also Cristanne Miller’s discussion, in her book on Moore, of “an alternative kind of authority that depends precisely on lack of self-assertion, the foregrounding of a questioning attitude, and an equalizing, constantly shifting access to the positions of expert and judge. While appearing to belittle herself, she instead shifts the terms of value by which one judges what is worth hearing, what empowers readers and previous speakers as well as what empowers herself.” Marianne Moore: Questions of Authority (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995), 5.Google Scholar
  40. 55.
    Robert K. Martin, The Homosexual Tradition in American Poetry, 2nd expanded ed. (1979; Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1998), 236 n.Google Scholar
  41. 57.
    Gregory Woods, Articulate Flesh: Male Homoeroticism and Modern Poetry (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1978), 196.Google Scholar
  42. 60.
    John Emil Vincent, Queer Lyrics: Difficulty and Closure in American Poetry (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002), 88.Google Scholar
  43. 61.
    Claude J. Summers, “W.H. Auden,” in The Gay and Lesbian Literary Heritage: A Reader’s Companion to the Writers and their Works, from Antiquity to the Present, ed. Claude J. Summers (New York: Henry Holt, 1995), 65.Google Scholar
  44. 62.
    Kathryn R. Kent, Making Girls into Women: American Women’s Writing and the Rise of Lesbian Identity (Durham: Duke University Press, 2003). In her two chapters on Moore and Bishop, Kent describes Bishop’s disagreements with Moore concerning how language shapes gender and sexual identities, as well as Moore’s own transformations through her encounters with Bishop. Kent’s reading of the two poets provides, as she claims, “a queer, identificatory theory of influence [that] enables us to appreciate the historically specific nature of Moore and Bishop’s subjectivities and their intimacy, while illuminating the differences between their poetic projects” (Ibid., 234).Google Scholar
  45. 63.
    In this respect, Merrill reminds us of Richard Howard, another “pupil” of Auden, who in his work, as David Bergman argues, “construct[s] a cultural and historical matrix in which his own depersonalized work may be located and against which it can resonate” (Bergman, Gaiety Transfigured, 59). There is something akin between Merrill’s metacommentary on literary tradition in The Changing Light at Sandover and Howard’s meditation on poetic possession in a 2004 interview: “When you really read something, you can allow it to enter you and become you, and it’s thrilling. There’s a realm, not the unconscious exactly, because it’s verbal. … Those things that you read that touch you, that shape you, you then can give back. Sometimes there are figures that are very powerful like Auden or Stevens, and you feel you have to write their poems until you can get free of them. It happened with Yeats and Roethke. Those late Roethke poems are all in the meters and voice of W.B. Yeats. That’s a sort of terrible thing for us and it was terrible for him. In a sense, one really hopes to be taken over by the material you read; it gives you everything. It also is something that has to be transcended. But it’s just wonderful when you know it’s happening and you feel you’re in the hands of something else. Influence, though, is deeper than imitation, and unmoderated. You can’t control it in the same way.” “A Conversation with Richard Howard,” interview by Priscilla Becker, Crossroads, April 21, 2004, http://www.poetrysociety.org/journal/articles/howard.htm (accessed August 26, 2005).Google Scholar
  46. 65.
    Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Epistemology of the Closet (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1990), 85.Google Scholar
  47. 66.
    Alan Sinfield, On Sexuality and Power (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004), 189.Google Scholar
  48. 68.
    Harold Bloom, introduction to Modern Critical Views: James Merrill, ed. Harold Bloom (New York: Chelsea House, 1985), 2. Critics have been reluctant to apply Bloom’s model of poetic influence to Merrill’s ironic “take” on literary tradition. Philip Kuberski writes: “Merrill’s poem dramatizes poetic influence, verging on possession, and yet it does not follow the tragic logic of Bloom’s violent battle of souls over the integrity of a single ‘proper name’ and its canon. Where Bloom’s theory is governed by the classically Western and oedipal version of creation through conflict, Merrill’s poem becomes a masque that stages the education of earthly souls in the ways of heaven through a succession of costumes that leads finally to the disappearance of the ‘self.’” “The Metaphysics of Postmodern Death: Mailer’s Ancient Evenings and Merrill’s The Changing Light at Sandover,” ELH 56, no. 1 (Spring 1989): 244. Jeff Westover briefly considers Merrill’s picture of poetic influence as an example of Bloom’s revisionary ratio apophrades, “the dismal or unlucky days upon which the dead return to inhabit their former house,” but concludes that “despite the fact that he occasionally measures the success of his poetry against what he considers to be the failures of his influential forerunners, Merrill insists on maintaining a place for those poets at the inviting table that his own poem embodies” (In Critical Essays on James Merrill, ed. Rotella, 220). Mark Bauer chronicles Merrill’s revisionary struggles with W.B. Yeats, whom he calls his “most demanding precursor” (Bauer, This Composite Voice, 109). Bauer’s study is perhaps the most thorough application of Bloom’s theory of influence to Merrill’s poem, though even he admits that Merrill both makes use of and calls into question Bloom’s model in his “consistent campaign of belittlement” of Yeats throughout The Changing Light at Sandover (Ibid., 138).Google Scholar
  49. 69.
    Scholars in the position to make canonical statements have been rather generous to Merrill’s trilogy. The second volume of David Perkins’s A History of Modern Poetry (1987) devotes a whole chapter to Merrill’s achievement, bestowing liberal praise on The Changing Light at Sandover and making prudent attempts at canonical placement alongside Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass and Hart Crane’s The Bridge.Google Scholar
  50. Merrill also enjoys a prominent status in Jay Parini and Brett C. Miller’s The Columbia History of American Poetry (1993), where he and John Ashbery are the subject of a separate chapter by John Shoptaw. In The Western Canon, Harold Bloom declares Merrill one of the “three American presences of our moment,” the other two being John Ashbery and Thomas Pynchon. The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages (New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1994), 527.Google Scholar
  51. 70.
    Stephen Yenser, The Consuming Myth: The Work of James Merrill (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1987), 217.Google Scholar

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