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James Merrill: Life and Art.
By Langdon Hammer. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2015.

When Wallace Stevens met James Merrill for the first time in October 1954, the 75-year-old master recognized something of his younger self in the 29-yearold junior poet. The two poets were seated together at the head table of a gala [End Page 102] celebrating Stevens’ birthday and the long-delayed publication of his Collected Poems, and Stevens singled out Merrill in his report of the occasion in a letter to Witter Bynner: “There were a lot of people there whom you would have enjoyed quite as much as I did, including young James Merrill, who is about the age which you and I were when we were in New York” (qtd. on 189). Stevens never saw Merrill again and died ten months later, but that wasn’t the end of Merrill’s conversations with him. A few weeks after his death in August 1955, Stevens would be the guest of honor at a different table—the “milk glass tabletop” in Merrill’s dining room in Stonington, Connecticut—where Merrill and his partner David Jackson had recently begun experimenting with a Ouija board. “How is Wallace Stevens?” Merrill asks Ephraim, the “familiar spirit” who serves as their guide through the otherworldly revelations that would yield, decades later, Merrill’s visionary epic The Changing Light at Sandover. The newly dead Stevens himself answers Merrill’s Ouija query, telling Merrill and Jackson that he is adjusting quite well to the fluent mundo of the hereafter: “I write poems on cloud. [I]t would seem like [a] blackboard—always being erased after each word so I have the charming experience of completely private poetry” (qtd. on 204). Then he offers his star-struck young fans a new, posthumously composed poem, titled “Hartford 1955.”

Langdon Hammer’s exciting new biography, James Merrill: Life and Art, is full of illuminating and memorable details like these that convincingly document Merrill’s intimate and intense engagement with the work and (after)life of Stevens. Readers of this journal will be familiar with critical narratives linking Merrill with Stevens—there has been a special issue of the journal exploring their connections, and Hammer himself contributed an instructive piece on the importance of Stevens to Merrill’s poetic imagination and sense of vocation in the Fall 2004 issue. This astonishingly informed and informative book significantly deepens these narratives, and among its many virtues is its richness as a new resource for Stevens readers and scholars interested in tracing, in both biographical and broader conceptual terms, his vital influence on one of his major poetic successors.

As Hammer makes plain, Merrill was never shy about his debts to other poets, including—and perhaps especially—Stevens. Merrill’s earliest poems are, by his own admission, steeped in Stevensian imagery and style, and Stevens is the first poet summoned in Sandover, Merrill’s own 560-page endlessly elaborating supreme fiction of poetic influence and metaphysics. Although a relatively taciturn presence in the garrulous ghostly salon of Sandover (in contrast to W. H. Auden, who acts as a chatty Virgil in Merrill’s divine comedy), it is Stevens who provides both the poem’s theme and its method, as Merrill explicitly acknowledges early on: “Stevens imagined the imagination / And God as one; the imagination, also, / As that which presses back, in parlous times, / Against ‘the pressure of reality’” (qtd. on 553). And it’s not hard to see both Merrill’s self-consciousness about his own rarefied audience and Sandover’s central trope of a self-chosen gallery of judging yet sympathetic fellow aesthetes, likewise prefigured in the blueprint of “The Noble Rider and the Sound of Words” (which Hammer calls a “touchstone text” for Merrill [108]): “There is not a poet whom we prize living today that does not address himself [End Page 103] to an élite . . . for all poets address themselves to someone and it is of the essence of that instinct, and it seems to amount to an instinct, that it should be to an élite, . . . not to a chamber of commerce but to a gallery of one’s own, if there are enough of one’s own to fill a gallery” (CPP 661).

And, as Hammer shows, it is through Stevens too (along with Elizabeth Bishop, another crucial influence) that Merrill—a poet famed for his densely wrought, glinting lyrics and distrustful of the expansive and brashly oracular mode of ostentatious masterworks like The Cantos—finds his own sideentrance into the epic tradition. Embarking on the career-redefining project of Sandover in 1973, Merrill would “vie” (an important pun throughout the poem, suggesting both life-affirmation and agon) with the visionary greats “while writing like Stevens and Bishop—trusting in the private imagination and the chance revelations of daily living, rather than, like Pound, in encyclopedic learning and vatic inspiration” (544).

If both Stevens and Merrill have been criticized as apolitical and insular metaphysicians in a world of pressing reality (a reading of Stevens that has been persuasively contested in recent decades by many scholars and critics), one of Hammer’s most compelling accomplishments is to reveal Merrill not simply as a poet acutely responsive to his cultural and historical moment, but one that found a singular and powerful way—as Stevens did—of opening the soliloquy (or perhaps in Merrill’s case, a colloquy) of an interior paramour onto the widest possible human questions and concerns. In Hammer’s deft and deep account of Merrill’s life and the art he made in and of it, we discover a writer whose abiding sense of his own difference from others yielded poetry obsessively attentive to the imagination’s power to reveal, or create, connection. Merrill’s own late-career memoir is tellingly titled A Different Person, pointing both to his mature distance from the younger self it depicts, and to his lifelong feeling of fundamental exceptionality. The facts of Merrill’s life, as Hammer engagingly and often movingly narrates them, marked him from the start as the opposite of ordinary: born to immense wealth and privilege but driven to define himself in terms other than his inherited trust fund; relatively free to live as he chose, as other gay men of his generation were not, yet locked in an anguished battle with his mother over his sexuality that extended even beyond the grave (he made his closest friends vow to keep his HIV-related illness a secret after his death, in part to spare his mother the shame); an acclaimed poet of peerless formal mastery and wit reflecting a cultural moment increasingly tuned against those gifts. But for Merrill, the formal discoveries of private poetic art, what he calls the revelation of “the hidden wish of words” (qtd. on 519), spark contact—like joined hands on a Ouija board—with selfknowledge, eternal truths of the imagination, and, perhaps most importantly, shared human experience across difference. If his poetry aspired to build, as he famously put it, “some kind of house / Out of the life lived, out of the love spent” (qtd. on 278), he never intended to live there alone. “May others be at home in it,” he says (qtd. on 284), inviting us in.

“Description is revelation,” says Stevens (CPP 301), in an aphorism that might equally apply to Merrill’s poetry of quotidian epiphany and to Hammer’s own extraordinary biographical achievement. The book’s deceptively [End Page 104] straightforward subtitle is triumphantly earned. It is an archival marvel of biographical detail, but the book’s true subject is the relationship—for this poet in particular, but not only for him—of art to life itself: the alchemy that produces what Stevens calls “The fiction that results from feeling” (CPP 351), and its human costs and consolations. To that end, the book takes as much care with the details of the poet’s art as it does with the fascinating particulars of Merrill’s colorful life and loves. It offers brilliant new readings of all of Merrill’s important poems and their contexts within twentieth-century literary culture, and beyond its obvious value as the definitive historical account of the facts of an essential American poet’s life, Hammer’s book stands as a major work of original interpretive literary criticism in its own right. Hammer is careful not to fall into the role of critical champion, but the scale, intelligence, and sheer interestingness of the book make their own case for Merrill’s unquestionable literary significance, and forcefully reassert his key place in critical narratives of modern American poetry. Finally, it feels important to note that James Merrill: Life and Art is—across its 801 pages—a remarkable page-turning pleasure to read. Hammer’s keen writerly touch—humanely observant, uncommonly elegant, occasionally wry and funny, but never intrusive or indulgent—only further distinguishes and elevates this indispensable and important book. [End Page 105]

Aidan Wasley
University of Georgia