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Book Review: James Merrill – Life and Art

By (April 12, 2015) One Comment

James Merrill: Life and Artjames merrill cover

by Langdon Hammer

Knopf, 2015

The gentle and brilliant 20th century poet James Merrill was as much an anomaly as he was a success. He was born in New York in 1926, won the National Book Award (for his volume Nights and Days) in 1967, won a Pulitzer Prize in 1977, and floated above the customary problems of scrambling poets because he was born into enormous family wealth and never had a material want in his life. He lived for most of his comparatively long career in the heart of the world’s literary elite, and his posthumous 2001 Collected Poems pulled the elegant coup of impressing the reading public six years after he was alive to make poses of abashed faux humility about all the fuss.

There’ve been a number of first-rate critical appraisals of Merrill’s work (and a number of other-rate appraisals) and a smattering of very good biographical studies, including a good book by Alison Lurie and some very, very good writings by Helen Vendler. But Langdon Hammer’s new book James Merrill: Life and Art is by a wide margin the largest, most detailed, and most convincingly atmospheric biography ever written about Merrill – it has all the rhetorical and bibliographical flavor of a durable landmark.

It’s considerably helped along toward that goal by Hammer’s lively storytelling style, which crops up right at the start of his book when he’s describing Merrill’s father Charlie:

A southern gentleman and a Yankee entrepreneur, he stepped on toes and took pride in his handsome apologies. Bent on making money, he gave it away freely to friends, family, and institutions; though he never graduated from college, he became one of Amherst’s leading donors. He traversed the nation restlessly, looking in on his several homes and multiplying interests, kindling old flames and sparking new ones, a ladies’ man and a devoted family member. He was a defender of the underdog and an outspoken anti-Semite. He believed in the American Dream, and he filled his house with a staff of black servants. He was a charmer at work who was feared for his rages at home. A loyal friend, he divorced three wives.

That’s infectious writing, and Hammer lavishes it all over his 900-page book. The lavishing is a bit uneven; he’s at his most florid and least convincing when discussing Merrill’s poetry (the analysis of especially the poet’s notoriously skimpy final bits and pieces sometimes sounds regrettably close to the enthusings of ’70s teenagers over Blue Oyster Cult liner notes), and that’s a shortcoming in a volume dealing with a poet Frank Bidart once described as “infinitely accomplished, preternaturally gifted – the greatest rhymer since Pope – capable of doing anything on the page, with a divine assemblage of sound and movement.”

But there’s more than enough of Merrill’s poetry itself in these pages to make its own case; in fact, this book will have the side-effect Hammer would certainly applaud, that of sending its readers straight to the library for that big Collected Poems volume. There they’ll find just the kinds of lovely, playful, finely-tuned things like this excerpt from “The Emerald,” which dramatizes the moment when Merrill’s mother, in queasy half-awareness of his homosexuality, gives him a ring for his wedding day:


I do not tell her, it would sound theatrical.

Indeed this green room’s mine, my very life.

We are each other’s; there will be no wife;

The little feet that patter here are metrical.


But onto her worn knuckle slip the ring.

Wear it for me, I silently entreat,

Until – until the time comes. Our eyes meet,

The world beneath the world is brightening.


Merrill was almost ethereally beautiful (the cover photo of Hammer’s US edition is aptly chosen), and he had a fairly predictable string of lovers throughout his life, although the bulk of the romantic heading in Hammer’s book is of course dominated by David Jackson, Merrill’s “longtime companion” and great love for most of his life. Hammer is clear-eyed but very affectionate in his depiction of their relationship, following them, for instance, to their getaway home in Stonington, Connecticut in 1954:

Stonington felt to Merrill, pleasingly, like a miniature Manhattan … From their new address at 107 Water Street, in the center of town, Jimmy and David had the necessaries close at hand: a post office, a used bookstore, a liquor store, a drugstore, and, on the first floor of their building, an A&P market. There was no movie theater, and they never joined the yacht club. A walk to the point and back took about twenty minutes.

We see see Merrill’s lifelong dealings with other writers and fellow poets like Anthony Hecht and his close friend Elizabeth Bishop, and Hammer does a skillful job of finding pithy quotes from Merrill’s lesser-known contemporaries like John Hollander who, reflecting on the formal elegance of Merrill’s verse, believed that the point of writing in traditional forms was to discover “secret doorways and hidden surprising staircases in formal rooms that had been lived in for centuries.”

That steady onward stream of formal elegance took a sharp turn in 1982 when Merrill published his vaguely demented masterpiece, The Changing Light at Sandover, a long, rambling, and utterly luminous collection of poems inspired by Merrill’s fascination with his Ouija board. Hammer spends a long and protractedly awkward chapter on The Changing Light at Sandover that will, again, have the happy effect of making its readers compulsively curious to read the work itself. Good luck to those readers in penetrating the murk of table-knocking and throat-clutching gasps; better by far if they decide to sit back and allow the glittering beauty of the thing to move them around, just as the spirits move around the needle on a Ouija board.

From the age of 15 on, Merrill chain-smoked whenever he wasn’t sleeping or … well, otherwise engaged, so it’s no surprise that by the time he was in his early 60s he looked something like a smiling Egyptian mummy: paper-thin, weathered, weak as a flickering candle-flame, effectively in his mid-90s. The 1980s were coming to a close, and Hammer is very readable on Merrill’s slippery mind frame during those years:

Merrill turned sixty-five in March. His Medicare card arrived in the mail. His habit of pursing his lips had left faint seams, like stitches, above his mouth; when he narrowed his gaze in concentration or concern, deep creases rippled across his forehead; his face sagged as he smiled, hanging from his cheekbones as if his chine were too heavy. The end of the century was looming up ahead, and he began to feel his time had passed.

Actually, it took hardly any prompting to get Merrill to feel like his time had passed – he always had a soft-padded and relatively toothless self-pity ready to hand when any project didn’t work out the way he’d hoped it would. Those misfires were surprisingly numerous; Merrill was forever tinkering and experimenting with different art forms, usually to entertaining effects that fell far short of the brilliance of his poetry. Those experiments – in novels, memoirs, criticisms, and even drama – get their turns in Hammer’s spotlight, as does Merrill’s late-in-life relationship with the handsome actor Peter Hooten. All of it is examined with careful and wonderful diligence and clarity, to immensely pleasing end result. James Merrill: Life and Art is a brilliantly marshaled biography of a surprisingly elusive subject.