Life Was Fiction in Disguise

By Calista McRaeMay 23, 2015

James Merrill: Life and Art by Langdon Hammer

THE POET James Merrill received his first negative review when he was 16. It was written by one of his teachers and published in the high school paper. Although appreciative of Merrill’s verse, the teacher had misgivings about certain elements of “feminine gush”: Merrill, he wrote, “sometimes drags in color by the ears, seems like a finical interior decorator fussing over the right shade of topaz, vermillion, or mauve.” The criticism was one Merrill was to hear repeatedly over his career.

As Langdon Hammer writes in his new biography, James Merrill: Life and Art, Merrill “was determined not to become what he had every reason to be — an effete aesthete, a brittle snob.” This biography, the first for Merrill, bears the assertion out, opening up the poet’s life without pushing an insistent argument for his literary status. At the same time, page after page attests to how this “finical interior decorator” became one of the most accomplished verse technicians of the 20th century.

Merrill’s 850-page Collected Poems can fall open to a poem shaped like an oyster, accreting rhyme around a speck of grit, or to another that brassily rhymes “shimmy” with “chamois,” or others ranging from Sapphics to prose poetry. These poems might depict a Greek bronze or a pornographic postcard, a kimono or a 1990s windbreaker. We see the poet wearing the latter in his mid-60s, at the beginning of “Self-Portrait in Tyvek™ Windbreaker”:

The windbreaker is white with a world map.
DuPont contributed the seeming-frail,
Unrippable stuff first used for Priority Mail.
Weightless as shores reflected in deep water,
The countries are violet, orange, yellow, green;
Names of the principal towns and rivers, black.
A zipper’s hiss, and the Atlantic Ocean closes
Over my blood-red T-shirt from the Gap.

This stanza, with its catch-as-catch-can rhymes and its rhythms that just barely toe the pentameter line, makes clear that Merrill works gleefully with hues much bolder than topaz and mauve. And in addition to the body of work in the Collected Poems, he published a sprawling 500-plus-page “epic-length history in verse” based on sessions held at a Ouija board with his partner, David Jackson. The Changing Light at Sandover lets in new topics, from global warming to science fiction, and also brings in other speakers — dead friends, Modernist predecessors, batlike angels, a unicorn — who communicate in loud, unpunctuated all-caps. “WHERES MY HAT,” Wallace Stevens demands as he departs at the end of one séance. (The Ouija notebooks have recently been digitized by Washington University; they suggest a pretty delightful afterlife, in which Frost and Stevens sit around giving Robert Lowell a hard time.)

Despite Merrill’s willingness to disrupt a finely tempered lyric voice, he is sometimes still dismissed as a poet whose wit and ornamentation paper over a lack of depth and feeling. In Edmund White’s roman à clef The Farewell Symphony, a disguised version of Merrill reads a new poem to some friends, one of whom remarks, “Isn’t it … a bit … cold?” The poet stops, says, “Of course! I forgot to put the feeling in!” and leaves the room with the draft, returning in an hour to reduce the listeners to tears.

James Merrill was born to Charles Merrill — the co-founder of Merrill Lynch — and Hellen Ingram Merrill in 1926. Their divorce, when Merrill was 13, reverberates through his poems (the child puzzles over it in “Lost in Translation,” and Merrill reunited his parents’ names when he set up the Ingram Merrill Foundation in the 1950s). He wrote a thesis on Proust while at Amherst College. Around this time his mother discovered — by reading his mail — that he was gay and threatened to separate him from his first lover, a temporary instructor at the college. His journal for these weeks shows the anger and panic that the poetry approaches less directly: “All of this I feel is wrong … It is wrong when love is broken into; it is wrong for the first fullness, the first joy, the first loving of my life to be paralyzed.” Merrill repeatedly tried to win his mother’s acceptance for the rest of his life — and she outlived him. (One such attempt — and the possibility of a silent understanding between mother and son — can be heard around the edges of his poem entitled “The Emerald,” in which he refrains from telling her that “there will be no wife; / The little feet that patter here are metrical.”)

Over the next four and a half decades, Merrill shifted between houses in Stonington, Connecticut, and Athens, with frequent trips elsewhere. He struggled to find ways to live with — or sometimes avoid — his partner David Jackson, and entered into other relationships with varying degrees of seriousness. Friendships also flourished: Alice B. Toklas taught him how to make hash brownies, Leonard Bernstein joined him for anagram games; he inherited Auden’s copy of the Oxford English Dictionary, and had to move all 20 volumes across the Atlantic. In the middle of the 1980s, Merrill began to lose many of his friends to AIDS, and readers familiar with his late poetry — which pictures the world as a “vast facility the living come / dearest to die in” — will begin the last fifth of his biography with dread.

Hammer traces the happiness and misery of this life with extraordinarily fine attention to drafts, letters, diaries, photographs, and interviews. Hammer also works close readings of the major poems into his narrative, integrating them superbly. Rather than grinding a chapter to a halt, the readings often become moments of crystallization. The poems that Hammer quotes connect an incident that occurred on one day with another from half a lifetime before.

Although Merrill’s poems don’t always require a biography as explication (in the way that John Berryman’s more manifestly cryptic, autobiographical The Dream Songs does), Hammer offers an invaluable way into them. He has absorbed Merrill’s poetry so thoroughly that it returns even in unobtrusive phrases throughout the biography. Early on, Hammer quotes from a letter Merrill wrote while watching kabuki theater in Japan, describing the “blood-red undergarment” worn by an actor when representing a mortal wound; the “blood-red T-shirt” worn underneath the Tyvek windbreaker might be drawing on this memory written down four decades before.

Hammer moves with seeming effortlessness between the pages of Merrill’s notebooks and wider contexts for his work. He describes how anagrams, puns, and spoonerisms begin to fill the margins of these notebooks; “MARCEL PROUST” becomes “PEARL SCROTUM.” But then he presses at this wordplay: such games “show [Merrill’s] drive, even as he seemed to be wasting his time, to make something of it. They show his hunger for meaning, for motivated rather than arbitrary signs. They show him keeping in shape — for poems and for Ouija dictées.”

Hammer’s incisive readings help to ground a poet who has often appeared to float free of history or politics: he sketches Merrill’s reactions to the wistfully racist South of his parents, to the McCarthy era, and to the first years of the AIDS epidemic and the rise of environmentalism. In one notebook, after the USSR detonated a hydrogen bomb in 1961, Merrill scribbles dreamlike variations on “blaze of glory” and “glaze of bory.” The resultant lines resemble nothing in the Collected; they extend our sense of Merrill’s range even as they display his characteristic tendency to pun:

                      … You sat in a glaze of boredom.

Hands interlocked, making the church, the steeple, — thunderclap!
Your thumbs flew open, the people lay,
A ten-legged insect of flesh,
A pink, loathed, wriggling insect in your lap.

Of these strange lines Hammer writes,

Merrill’s “glaze of boredom” turns “blaze of glory” on its head, and, with it, the overheated rhetoric of Cold War headlines. The bomb and the hovering threat it released reminded him of days of vague anxiety in childhood when he was left to amuse himself, and he played with his hands. Rather than a reassuring community in a church, he turned his splayed fingers into a scene of people lying wounded and “wriggling.”

Hammer portrays an uneasy Merrill who mixes 20th-century politics with a startlingly private childhood memory.

Hammer is a terrific reader of Merrill — not only of the major poems, but of unpublished drafts, and of childhood drawings and writings as well. He notices in one drawing, for example, that “Jimmy concentrates on the puppets’ costumes and the strings that control them, which fill the picture. Another child might have been annoyed by the visible artifice, or failed to notice it, whereas this one focuses on it.”

This drawing is a serendipitous find, since Merrill was fascinated by puppets his whole life, and the strings are a perfect emblem for his love of formal constraints. Hammer’s biography is full of such novelistic trouvailles and motifs — so much so that occasionally they invite a reader’s resistance. Faced with some of the book’s more amazing coincidences, readers may wonder whether beauty is jostling against strict accuracy. But insofar as Hammer’s book is an intensely, uncannily well-wrought construction, it embodies Merrill’s “need to make some kind of house / Out of the life lived, out of the love spent” — to transform an unruly heap of experiences into a unified, expressive structure.

Houses too appear so often as to serve a nearly architectural purpose in the biography. Hammer describes place after place, from an early boyfriend’s bare clapboard house in upstate New York, to the apartment in Stonington where Merrill fitted the outer side of his study door with shelves, so that “when it swung shut, the room vanished behind a wall of books.” Here Merrill and Jackson would commission a wallpaper covered with moons and bats, and paint their dining room a shade of red somewhere between “watermelon” and “sunburn.” (So much for that early reviewer’s dim view of interior decoration.)

Hammer invites the readers to put themselves in Merrill’s head, to walk around in these houses. The Stonington apartment becomes a place “where red-eyed bats peered back at them night and day from the carpet and the walls, and the great mirror in the sitting room, like a closed-circuit camera, showed them to the dead whenever they passed it.” As the Ouija trilogy (composed of The Book of Ephraim, Mirabell: Books of Number, and Scripts for the Pageant; published together as The Changing Light at Sandover) reveals, Merrill and Jackson find that their floor-to-ceiling mirror provides a way for an invisible speaker to see them. Later they learn that the angels to whom they are talking resemble — or literally are — bats. The vividness of Hammer’s description comes off as a little speculative. However, if Merrill’s Ouija poems are any indication, the elements he notes did indeed charge the atmosphere with a sense of unnerving, unspecified surveillance. Merrill himself eluded interviewers on the topic of the Ouija board, but Hammer handles it with restraint, glints of humor, and no thudding judgments. He even conveys pathos: late in the trilogy, when the Ouija spirits fail Merrill as he tries to contact a reincarnated friend, Hammer shows how the poet’s loss is compounded after being misled by the parlor game.

The book’s serendipitous arrangements of a poet’s life and work remain extremely light of touch. Hammer’s style is entertaining and fun. But this lightness does not simply aerate pages into which years of research have been poured: it enhances them. The prose is natural, cordial, relaxed, flexible — Hammer trusts that his readers will understand each allusion, and he assists them in understanding without forcing the issue. He has a preternatural instinct for how close to get to his subject, even down to the level of the name: he knows when to tilt toward the more intimate “Jimmy” or “James,” and when to use the more formal “Merrill.” These slight changes in angle never sound awkward; the biographical style more fits a poet whose work finesses the boundaries between raw feeling and formal perfection.

And although the care evident in each of these 800 pages conveys his devotion to Merrill’s work, Hammer lets Merrill’s work speak most often for itself. His commentary on the life or the poetry is almost never intrusive; it takes place in juxtapositions, and restrains itself to moments of expansion. Hammer’s prose seems influenced by his subject in all the right ways. It demonstrates Merrill’s ability to encompass domestic comedy, pain, and bewilderment, all of which marked this colorful poet’s life. Perhaps most rewardingly of all, the biography constantly invites readers to return to Merrill’s poems. We lay down one beautiful, massive book and reach for several others.


Calista McRae is a PhD student at Harvard University, writing about humor of language and form in recent American poetry.

LARB Contributor

Calista McRae is a PhD student at Harvard University, writing about humor of language and form in recent American poetry.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!