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James Merrill, Postmodern Magus

Myth and Poetics

Evans Lansing Smith

Publication Year: 2008

One of the unique voices in our century, James Merrill was known for his mastery of prosody; his ability to write books that were not just collected poems but unified works in which each individual poem contributed to the whole; and his astonishing evolution from the formalist lyric tradition that influenced his early work to the spiritual epics of his later career. Merrill's accomplishments were recognized with a Pulitzer Prize in 1977 for Divine Comedies and a National Book Critics Circle Award in 1983 for The Changing Light at Sandover.
     In this meticulously researched, carefully argued work, Evans Lansing Smith argues that the nekyia, the circular Homeric narrative describing the descent into the underworld and reemergence in the same or similar place, confers shape and significance upon the entirety of James Merrill’s poetry.   Smith illustrates how pervasive this myth is in Merrill’s work – not just in The Changing Light at Sandover, where it naturally serves as the central premise of the entire trilogy, but in all of the poet’s books, before and after that central text.
     By focusing on the details of versification and prosody, Smith demonstrates the ingenious fusion of form and content that distinguishes Merrill as a poet. Moving beyond purely literary interpretations of the poetry, Smith illuminates the numerous allusions to music, art, theology, philosophy, religion, and mythology found throughout Merrill’s work.

Published by: University of Iowa Press

Contents

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pp. v-vi

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Overture

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pp. 1-18

The publication of James Merrill’s Collected Poems in 2001 calls upon us to see his work as a whole. What Hugh Kenner once said of Yeats is equally applicable to Merrill: “He didn’t accumulate poems, he wrote books. It was the oeuvre, not the fragment, that held his attention” (13). Recurrent patterns of imagery and narrative permeate...

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1. First Poems

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pp. 19-37

The poems in this first book tend to be organized by form and by reiterations of the nekyia, variously figured throughout. Merrill’s first engagement with a classical myth explicitly related to the nekyia and to the realm of “The Mothers” (as Goethe called the queens of the underworld) is the richly suggestive poem called “Medusa,” oddly...

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2. The Country of a Thousand Years of Peace

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pp. 38-54

The Country of a Thousand Years of Peace comes nearly ten years after First Poems. A new power of emotion in Merrill’s voice suggests the savage muses of Plath and Berryman, Lowell and Sexton, albeit in a less directly confessional manner.1 Perhaps all the poets of the fifties fell under the spell of the plays of Williams and O’Neill, which...

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3. Water Street

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pp. 55-60

Images of the nekyia and the labyrinth, of mirrors and reflections, reoccur in several of the poems in Merrill’s third book. The volume is framed by two poems on houses, “An Urban Convalescence” and “A Tenancy,” placed like entrance and exit doors at the beginning and the end of the collection. In between are the many chambers of the domicile, reminding us that the word “stanza” also means room. There...

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4. Nights and Days

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pp. 61-78

In the ambitious second poem of Nights and Days, “The Thousand and Second Night,” the poet is once again a voyager, traveling on, and by the craft of, poetry to the yonder shore. The ghost of Yeats commingles with the ghost of Scheherazade to produce a marvelous refiguration of the “Byzantium” poems and the Arabian Nights. The five...

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5. The Fire Screen

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pp. 79-87

Merrill’s fifth book reveals his natural gifts of characterization and narrative, skills sufficiently strong to justify his forays into fiction and drama elsewhere. Several of the poems in The Fire Screen are vivid portraits of friends and lovers, whose life stories are marvelously captured in mini-narratives of great appeal. Other poems in the book...

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6. Braving the Elements

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pp. 88-113

The title of Merrill’s sixth volume is a colloquialism for taking a walk, for going outside to encounter the raw forces of the natural world. Hence, the metaphor of the journey permeates the book, bringing many of the poems into relationship with each other. Various sacred spaces serve as destinations for the journeys, and several of...

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7. Divine Comedies

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pp. 114-139

This Pulitzer Prize–winning seventh book begins with the symbolism of divestiture and investiture, as if in preparation for the grand procession into the world of the dead, which it initiates — since its concluding long poem, The Book of Ephraim, would become the first book of the great trilogy to follow, about communicating...

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8. The Book of Ephraim

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pp. 140-164

The Book of Ephraim, the last poem of Divine Comedies, would eventually come to play two roles in Merrill’s work: the first, as a concluding poem to this, his seventh book; and the second, as the first poem of the grand trilogy, The Changing Light at Sandover. The situation reminds one of the difficulties Joyce faced in writing “The...

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9. The Changing Light at Sandover

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pp. 165-187

The myths of the descent to the underworld, the penetration of the labyrinth, and the alchemical nekyia are combined in Merrill’s great trilogy, The Changing Light at Sandover, published in its final form with a coda in 1992. A traditional iconography of the nekyia is to be found throughout the poem.1...

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10. The Inner Room

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pp. 188-225

What then will follow the baroque complexities toward which Postmodernism seems inclined, exemplified by The Changing Light? May we perhaps expect a return to simpler forms, a development analogous to the emergence of Neoclassicism from its Rococo predecessors? If so, Merrill’s marvelous book, The Inner Room, published in...

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11. Late Settings and A Scattering of Salts

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pp. 226-239

Merrill saw two more books through the press, one before and one after The Inner Room — which, like nearly all of Merrill’s books, is consistently structured by the myth of the nekyia, which confers shape and significance upon individual poems and upon the book as a whole. By contrast, the myth surfaces only incidentally in...

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Coda

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pp. 241-242

The persistence with which the myth of the nekyia appears in Merrill’s poetry, conferring shape and significance upon individual books and upon the entire oeuvre, is consistent with the major works of his great Modernist precursors from the first half of the century, for all of whom the nekyia was a central myth — as indeed it has...

Notes

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pp. 243-251

Bibliography

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pp. 253-261

Index

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pp. 263-268


E-ISBN-13: 9781587297649
E-ISBN-10: 1587297647
Print-ISBN-13: 9781587296963
Print-ISBN-10: 1587296969

Page Count: 276
Publication Year: 2008

Edition: cloth