Review: A poet’s life in letters

James Merrill was one of the most naturally gifted American poets of the 20th century. While other contemporaries had a skimpier output (e.g., Elizabeth Bishop) or went through “phases” that made for an inconsistent oeuvre (e.g., Robert Lowell), Merrill’s poetry flowed prolifically and with an unwavering shimmer and excellence. Leaf through the 900 pages of his Collected Poems and any given line your eye falls upon will evince his mastery of imagery, language and musicality. And beyond all its virtuosity and shine, his writing style always had a canny, wry and often mensch-like grasp of human nature that is on magisterial display in the recently published collection of his letters, A Whole World.

A Whole Worldby James Merrill (ed. by Langdon Hammer and Stephen Yenser)

Knopf
736p $45

The editors of the collection—Langdon Hammer, author of a fine Merrill biography, and Stephen Yenser, a well-known editor of Merrill’s works who was close enough to the poet to have been referred to by Merrill as “my only disciple”—show a combination of scrupulous scholarship and inner-circle access. This makes for editorial annotations to the letters that are acute, comprehensive and so audience-intuitive that readers never feel lost, as we are congenially guided through the novel-like accumulation of places, incidents and personalities that comprise, as the title aptly describes it, “a whole world.”

And what a world it was.

Long before being extolled as a literary wunderkind by age 21, Merrill seemed blessed by the gods. Not only was he “to the manor born,” as we used to say of folks with his sort of WASP pedigree, the manor was owned by Charles Merrill, magnate of the eponymous financial behemoth Merrill Lynch. So son James grew up awash in the mixed blessing of money and privilege. On the down side of the mix, the job description of “scion to an early- to mid-century American fortune” didn’t include the qualifications “poet” and “gay.” So Merrill’s early days were the predictable crucible he later fleshed out in his bildungsroman-style memoir of growing up, A Different Person. On the plus side, as Merrill himself was the first to admit, at no time in his life did he lack the financial freedom to do whatever he wanted, wherever he wanted to do it.

Long before being extolled as a literary wunderkind by age 21, James Merrill seemed blessed by the gods.

Merrill’s innate talent, genteel personality and elegant good looks, combined with his high aesthetic standards for the meter, form and imagery of his poetry, made him a much-admired alternative to the hippie mange, confessional psychosis and contempt for “form” of his contemporaries. All of this gave Merrill something of a “poet’s poet” reputation and a kind of “golden boy” public persona.

But as Robert Frost cautioned all of us: “Nothing gold can stay.”

By the time he died in 1995 of a heart attack—hastened by a long struggle with AIDS—much of Merrill’s world, including his decades-long partnership with the writer and artist David Jackson, had lost its luster. What never waned or weakened was his God-given writing talent, examples of which fill this book of his letters.

But first, a trigger warning. Merrill’s sexual tastes tended toward the male hookers who hung around street corners in a far dodgier area of Athens, Greece, than the upscale neighborhood where Merrill kept a flat for years. A number of letters recount doomed-from-the-start dalliances with the sort of diamond-in-the-rough-trade types Merrill favored and with whom he swapped his dream of an idealized love object for a Greek call boy’s interest in a rich American writer who could get him a visa. Given that our day and age is one in which even the dead are scrutinized for “cancelable” offences, this trifecta of sex, colonialism and privilege will no doubt cause Merrill’s reputation to take some hits, especially from those neo-virtuous gatekeepers of literary “wokeness” about whom one could apply the humorist Oscar Levant’s crack about Doris Day: “I knew her before she was a virgin.”

But I trust that, in the main, the takeaway from A Whole World will be its many passages of brilliant writing and the exciting entrée it gives us to the way a truly great poet thinks, feels and, above all, sees. To wit—this is Merrill musing on a certain slant of light he saw in Europe:

Wherever I looked, something quite painfully beautiful was to be seen: glass in an ash-heap, a little ring of painted boats outside a sea-wall, a tombstone topped with a stone turban, a pigeon—nothing that is remarkable in itself; until I suddenly realized what it was: the light of Europe, which exists nowhere else, that high, sad, eloquent painter’s light, mightn’t it even be responsible for the materialism of Western culture, for shedding such a magic over things?

Here is the observational sensitivity of one who said, “Vermeer makes you believe in a heaven for things,” coupled with a poet’s gift for capturing heavenly things in vivid images. For example, the Istanbul sultan’s threadbare silks, which Merrill describes as “hung with great pale tenth-rate emeralds like sucked candies.” Merrill was not only a poet, but also a multilingual polymath, vastly well-read, eclectic in his tastes and stiletto-sharp in his critical acumen.

And what a treat all of this is for readers of these letters!

James Merrill was not only a poet, but also a multilingual polymath, vastly well-read, eclectic in his tastes and stiletto-sharp in his critical acumen.

One minute he is discussing the nuances of Anna Karenina, which he is reading in French instead of Constance Garnett’s redoubtable English translation. The next minute he is weighing in, brilliantly, on the work of a contemporary, like this observation about the work of Norman Mailer: “It’s how Henry James would write if he lived in this decade—long flexible floats of rhetoric decked out with all that is in the parade.” Only a mind as deft as Merrill’s could spot the inner Henry James of Norman Mailer (and vice versa).

“Boris Gudonov is dying to the saddest sounds, made keener and sadder I suspect by the fourth drink at my side.” So begins one letter, many of which start with a similar opera-lover’s and booze-sipper’s tableau. For all his talent and learning, Merrill is never an intimidating companion for readers of these letters. And his unremitting brilliance is not so much impressive as it is deeply moving—allowing us to fathom, firsthand, the daily devotion of an individual about whom one can truly say: He lived for art.

Best of all, as the letters carry us through all the requisite high points of his life and career, we are treated along the way to sweet surprises of humanity, grace and warmth. He includes in his letter about the hubbub surrounding his winning the Pulitzer Prize the mention of a local youngster whose congratulatory note to Merrill said, “I write poetry too, but the scouts take a lot of my time.”

Such sweetly common touches abound in A Whole World. And there’s a reason for them. For all of Merrill’s world travels and international notoriety, he seemed always in search of a simple home: a refuge, a place where he could learn the art of belonging, a neighborhood in which he could stroll as one of the happy locals.

And he found it.

“Stonington, I must say, is bliss,” he writes of the southeastern Connecticut waterfront town, first settled in 1649, where Merrill purchased 107 Water Street, a ramshackle commercial building on the corner of the town’s most bustling pedestrian area. Above the storefronts that he rented out (for a song) to merchants and pals, Merrill refurbished an eccentric warren of upper apartments, the top floor of which became his beloved garret apartment.

“The Merrill House,” as it became known, is now a thriving writers’ retreat where young poets come to stay and work in the place where Merrill lived happiest, entertained generously and wrote at his best. Because it was the backdrop for so many of the letters in A Whole World, and since Stonington is only a two-hour drive from where I live in Kent, Conn., I arranged a visit with a few of the devotees who run the place—and do so with none of the museum preciousness or “Please don’t sit there” finger-wagging that has given me a lifelong fear of docents.

For all of James Merrill’s world travels and international notoriety, he seemed always in search of a simple home.

Writers who come to work at the Merrill House stay in an adjacent apartment but are given a key and the full run of Merrill’s book-crammed, knickknack-bestrewn apartment. There are still shopping receipts of Merrill’s stuffed in the drawers (that guests are encouraged to open), and a to-do list of his from the ’90s, written in fading Magic Marker, on a memo board in the kitchen. All of it gives one the feel that Merrill has just stepped out to buy more wine and will be back any minute.

Being in this place, of course, brought the letters to life, but it also made me marvel at how Merrill was able to bring this place to life through the sheer alchemy of his letter writing and his singular gift for capturing life in words. And it was moving to stand in the very place where he passed so many hours of writing and honing his craft.

Tucked up against a window that faces the water is the chaise-style couch where Merrill always worked. Now young poets craft their poems on the same chaise, at the same window, where—as his illness and intimations of mortality progressed—James Merrill gazed out at the Stonington rooftops toward the water beyond, and into the abyss of his diminishing days. Still writing letters to friends, still sipping cocktails as his turntable played…what? Puccini? “Tosca”? The aria “Vissi d’arte”? “I gave my singing to the stars in heaven, / Which then smiled more beautifully in my hour of sorrow.”

Above all, it was here that James Merrill kept writing poetry, to the last. As guests lingered at his circular dining-room table, he’d adjourn to lounge on this window-side chaise and, in longhand on unlined paper, pen final gems like his poem “Days of 1994,” with its softly elegiac closing lines:

The fading trumpet of a car,
The knowing glance from star to star,
The laughter of old friends.

His end was sad, but his life was not. Perhaps because James Merrill always knew the lovely secret this monumental new collection of his letters amply proves: that something gold can stay. Golden writing.