"Taste and Sunlight": The poetry of James Merrill

by Blake Campbell / Arts Columnist • April 9, 2015

The poet James Merrill (1926-1995) is a polarizing figure. During his lifetime, he won virtually every major award and drew the praise of some of America’s most influential poetry critics. Yet early in his career, Merrill was pegged by some as an ornamentalist or a technician, rather than a poet of emotion and insight, a reputation that lingers in recent criticism of his work.

Next week, James Merrill: Life and Art, the first biography of the poet, will be published. Its author, Langdon Hammer, is the chair of Yale University’s English department and an authority on modern American poetry. As a new fan of Merrill’s work, I can only hope that the book will provide us with new contexts for reading his beautiful poems, and that it will help to illuminate the depths of meaning they are often accused of lacking.

The son of one of the founding partners of the Merrill Lynch brokerage firm, Merrill had the financial freedom to dedicate his life to poetry. As I continue to make my way through his large body of work, I feel grateful that he had the time and resources to so thoroughly cultivate his talents. Percy Bysshe Shelley asserted that poetry “transmutes all that it touches” and “strips the veil of familiarity from the world.” Merrill’s best lyrics provide us with new ways of seeing, or make explicit that which we know intuitively.

One early poem, “The Octopus,” describes its subject as “half-swimming half-drifting,” verb choices that strike me as perfect for describing the animal’s peculiar movement. Merrill’s imagery becomes more intricate as the poem progresses, but even lines as lyrical as “the writher / Advances in a godlike wreath / Of its own wrath”  hold authenticity and strangeness at a wonderful balance. 

 For me, poems like “The Octopus” indicate that Shelley’s observations are just as relevant today as it was in 1821. Merrill’s imagination is a space where trees listen to Bach, a creek becomes “a crystal tendon strained,” “childhood’s inexhaustible brain-forest teem[s] / With jewel-bright lives,” and “every paradox means wonder.”

Like the novels of Vladimir Nabokov, wordplay and synesthesia—combinations of senses—abound in Merrill’s work. His poem “The Victor Dog” transforms the dog that appears on the logo for Victor gramophones into a synesthetic music connoisseur, who sniffs out the “lemon-gold arpeggios” in Ravel and “ponders the Schumann Concerto’s tall willow hit / By lightning.” 

Though I still struggle with the poem’s intense allusiveness, I keep returning to “The Victor Dog” for its delight in physical sensation and faith in the transcendent possibilities of art.

Merrill was also well known as a master of traditional poetic forms. His 800-plus-page Collected Poems contains villanelles, sestinas, ballads, and scores of sonnets, along with free verse, concrete poems, and prose poems. Merrill’s intellect, humor, and fluency in multiple languages allowed him to compose fresh and innovative poems within the constraints of rhyme and meter.

This formal erudition—especially remarkable for a poet who died in the 1990s—is the source of both the highest praise and the harshest reception Merrill’s work has received. His dissenters invariably use the same cluster of adjectives to describe his style: elegant, ornate, decorative. For memoirist and poet Mary Karr, one of Merrill’s most vocal critics, his work exemplifies “the emotional vacuity of ornamental verse.” 

Though Karr admires the “mastery of elegant language” in Merrill’s poems, she detects little emotional activity beneath a surface of highbrow references and inter-lingual rhymes.

I am more sympathetic to Timothy Materer, who argues, “The virtuosity of James Merrill’s poetry has unfortunately led critics to question its emotional power.” 

As Merrill aged, his poetry became more explicitly autobiographical, and he became more willing to write about his life as a gay man. His battle with AIDS and growing awareness of his own mortality during the last decade of his life inspired some of his most moving lyrics. In “Oranges,” the poet writes of his own demise with uncompromising dignity:

 

Segment by segment, nonetheless a mind

Made up of taste and sunlight. May the blind

Gods who drink its juice be satisfied,

Disposing gently of the empty rind.

 

In another late poem, the dying poet speaks as a Christmas tree, “wound in jewels” but preparing for “the stripping, the cold street, my chemicals / Plowed back into the Earth for lives to come.”

As with other prominent figures in American literature, Merrill’s prejudices sometimes surfaced in his writing. I struggle to reconcile the exquisite imagery and intimacy of “Days of 1964” with its description of the poet’s poor Athenian cleaning lady, Kyria Kleo, as “a Palmyra matron / Copied in lard and horsehair.” 

At the end of the poem, Merrill erases Kleo’s identity, reducing her to a trope for gay domestic life. The racial caricature of “Ken the Japanese ‘houseboy’”  in the ballad “The Summer People” also leaves me unsettled.

Such downfalls can be particularly hard to stomach in today’s literary climate, which is more attentive to identity politics than ever before. But I believe that we can both critique the unsavory aspects of some of his poems and enjoy the emotional richness and formal dexterity that defines his entire body of work.

Merrill’s poetry will undoubtedly continue to leave readers divided. But taste is relative, and art’s great power is its ability to move or provoke us. As long as critics continue to debate his merits (and today’s poets continue to learn from him), his work will remain a vital part of American literature.