Langdon Hammer has given us the first biography of the poet James Merrill (1926–95), whose life is surely one of the most fascinating in American literature. Merrill was born to high privilege and high expectations as the son of Charles Merrill, the charismatic cofounder of the brokerage firm Merrill Lynch, and Hellen Ingram, a muse, ally, and antagonist throughout her son’s life. Wounded by his parents’ bitter divorce, he was the child of a broken home, looking for repair in poetry and love. This is the story of a young man escaping, yet also reenacting, the energies and obsessions of those powerful parents. It is the story of a gay man inventing his identity against the grain of American society during the eras of the closet, gay liberation, and AIDS. Above all, it is the story of a brilliantly gifted, fiercely dedicated poet working every day to turn his life into art.
After college at Amherst and a period of adventure in Europe, Merrill returned to the New York art world of the 1950s (he was friendly with W. H. Auden, Maya Deren, Truman Capote, Larry Rivers, Elizabeth Bishop, and other midcentury luminaries) and began publishing poems, plays, and novels. In 1953, he fell in love with an aspiring writer, David Jackson. They explored “boys and bars” as they made their life together in Connecticut and later in Greece and Key West. At the same time, improbably, they carried on a forty-year conversation with spirits of the Other World by means of a Ouija board. The board became a source of poetic inspiration for Merrill, culminating in his prizewinning, uncanny, one-of-a-kind work The Changing Light at Sandover. In his virtuosic poetry and in the candid letters and diaries that enrich every page of this deliciously readable life, Merrill created a prismatic art of multiple perspectives and comic self-knowledge, expressing hope for a world threatened by nuclear war and environmental catastrophe. Holding this life and art together in a complex, evolving whole, Hammer illuminates Merrill's “chronicles of love & loss” and the poignant personal journey they record.
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LANGDON HAMMER is professor of English and American Studies and chair of the English Department at Yale University. His books include Hart Crane & Allen Tate: Janus-Faced Modernism and, as editor for the Library of America, Hart Crane: Complete Poetry and Selected Letters and May Swenson: Collected Poems. A former Guggenheim fellow and fellow at the Leon Levy Center for Biography at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, he has written about poetry for the Los Angeles Times, New York Times Book Review, and The American Scholar, where he is poetry editor. His lectures on modern poetry are available free online at Yale Open Courses.
In Stonington, David’s household role was to look after the property. He was no handyman, but the names of plumbers and carpenters show up in his address book. He knew the neighbors and shopkeepers; he drank at the bar of the Portuguese Holy Ghost Society on Main Street; and he came home with the town’s gossip. “David is my newspaper,” Jimmy liked to say. Jimmy’s role was in the kitchen. He was an assiduous chef, but an eccentric one, not a gourmet. He traded recipes with female friends like Toklas, who used his recipe for shrimp à l’orange in The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook; in turn, she taught him how to bake hash brownies. He reprised leftovers with the stinginess of a rich Yankee-improvised concoctions that sometimes seemed like pranks. In the kitchen, as at his desk, he was averse to throwing things away. More than once, when a casserole crashed on its way to the table, he picked out the shards of glass or crockery, and served it to his guests with a smile.
Hilda was their “small, baritone-voiced, more than a little mad cleaning woman," as Jackson described her. She called Jackson “Dave" and Jimmy “Merrill.” When neighbors said that they had peered into the apartment from a nearby building "and you was running aroun up here nakid," she defended the boys: “I says, 'so what! its theah propity!’” Hilda told them about her mother in the state asylum and her father forced to work the “night ship." An elderly and entirely “stone-deaf” Englishman fell in love with her (“there’s something in her nature, primitive don’t you know, that appeals to me”); and, when Hilda welcomed his advances, and word of it got around, her husband beat her up. She took refuge in the guest apartment at 107 Water Street. The police called on her, David called a lawyer, and Jimmy called the Englishman “in pure self-defense,” so as "to give her another ear (even deaf) to pour her sad tale into.” None of this was lost on the neighbors. “The beauty of life in a small town,” Merrill reflected, “is that everyone has a little part to play, and can be watched playing it by the others.”
That spring — it was 1960 — Merrill composed a poem about his Water Street home, called “A Tenancy,” which he dedicated to Jackson. The poem “An Urban Convalescence,” a lonely poem of self-questioning in which Merrill determines to create "some kind of house/ Out of the life lived, the love spent," would come first in Merrill’s collection Water Street and “A Tenancy” last. In effect Merrill gives up New York in the book’s first poem and makes his home in Stonington in the last poem. “A Tenancy” begins by looking back even further. The snowy, March afternoon light that he savors in his present home prompts Merrill to recall his elation when he took his first apartment in Amherst in 1946. It is dawn at the end of the war:
Had ended, it was light; the men look tired
And awkward in their uniforms.
I sat, head thrown back, and with the dried stains
Of light on my own cheeks, proposed
This bargain with — say with the source of light:
That given a few years more
(Seven or ten or, what seemed vast, fifteen)
To spend in love, in a country not at war,
I would give in return
All I had. All? A little sun
Rose in my throat. The lease was drawn.
Almost fifteen years later, the duration of Merrill's first “lease” on life has turned out not to be “vast” at all. “I did not even feel the time expire,” he marvels. But that has changed:
I feel it though, today, in this new room,
Mine, with my things and thoughts, a view
Of housetops, treetops, the walls bare.
A changing light is deepening, is changing
To a gilt ballroom chair a chair
Bound to break under someone before long.
I let the light change also me.
The “changing light”: this is the first appearance of that phrase which Merrill would return to for the title of his long poem, The Changing Light at Sandover, more than twenty years later. Here it is a trope for time and the way time changes the self, which Merrill is no longer determined to resist: “I let the light change also me.”
“A Tenancy”: the title is curious, since Merrill is talking about a home he owns. It implies that we are merely tenants even in our own house. The principle holds for our bodies: “The body that lived through that day,” Merrill says about the long-ago day he is remembering, “[. . .] is now not mine.” His body, no longer the youthful one he had, will become stranger still with age. But, he reasons, perhaps the body is transformed by time before it is lost to it-like that ordinary chair which, although “Bound to break under someone before long," becomes “a gilt ballroom chair” in the late-afternoon light. “Would it be called a soul?” Merrill asks, wondering what time is making of him. He doesn't go so far as to claim for himself a metaphysical, Keatsian “soul,” but simply a developed attitude, a point of view that is worldly, practical, and witty. He knows that “when the light dies and the bell rings,” guests will appear. He ends by welcoming them:
One foot asleep, I hop
To let my three friends in. They stamp
Themselves free of the spring's
Last snow — or so we hope.
One has brought violets in a pot;
The second, wine; the best,
His open, empty hand. Now in the room
The sun is shining like a lamp.
I put the flowers where I need them most
And then, not asking why they come,
Invite the visitors to sit.
If I am host at last
It is of little more than my own past.
May others be at home in it.
The metaphorical house envisioned at the end of “An Urban Convalescence” takes shape in Merrill's Stonington home. As in that poem, the switch from free verse into metered stanzas matters. At a moment when American poets were arguing over “closed” and “open” form, Merrill recognized that, to get beyond the self-enclosure of his early poems, he didn’t have to reject rhyme and meter; he could change how he used them. In “A Tenancy," he puts them in the service not of lyric idealization and abstraction, but of sociability and comic self-dramatization, and gives us a look into his house and his writing process. “One foot asleep, I hop / To let my three friends in,” he says, getting his metrical feet in working order, ready to host his guests and readers both. “Closed” form would be his means to openness.
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