restricted access James Merrill: Life and Art by Langdon Hammer (review)
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Reviewed by
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...