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Contemporary Literature 47.2 (2006) 207-235

James Merrill's Polyphonic Muse
Timothy Materer
University of Missouri-Columbia

Early in his career, James Merrill considered the influence of the modernist poets "something to react against" (Collected Prose 51). Merrill thought that T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Wallace Stevens, and William Carlos Williams revealed a "drift toward the more or less monumental" that obscured the human scale of their work. In Merrill's view, they began their careers writing "small, controllable" poems, but then each produced—in The Waste Land, The Cantos, Notes toward a Supreme Fiction, and Paterson—a "huge, unruly text that grapples ravenously with everything under the sun" (351). When he read Elizabeth Bishop, the intimate tone of her poetry seemed the "antidote to those ambitious and daunting 'giants' of modernism" (155, 163). When finishing his long poem The Changing Light at Sandover (1982), however, Merrill realized that his poetic development had come to resemble that of the modernists. He admitted in 1980 that, following the modernist tendency toward the monumental, he "felt a similar pressure at work in my own case" (351).

The pressure that led Merrill to write the "huge, unruly text" of The Changing Light at Sandover included the desire to grapple with a variety of subjects. But more significant, as we will see in Merrill's own description of his development, was his desire to get beyond the limited sense of self and the constrained voice of his early [End Page 207] poetry. Like Eliot's Prufrock or Pound's Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, whom Pound described as "consciousness disjunct" (201), Merrill's poetic personae were limited by their alienated self-consciousness. Merrill's A Different Person (1993), a memoir that centers on the years 1950–52, describes his early career in the familiar terms of a young poet finding his own voice. 1 Dissatisfied with the voice of his early poems, he experimented by dramatizing aspects of the self as separate voices before he conceived of the poem as a medium for voices independent of the conscious self. In his one-act poetic play The Bait (1953) and long lyric poems such as "The Thousand and Second Night" and "From the Cupola" (Nights and Days, 1966), he experimented with a variety of speakers. In The Changing Light, he created a long poem that can be characterized in Mikhail Bakhtin's terms as a "polyphonic" work of layered voices. Merrill's ambition to speak in his own voice developed into the need to express the multiple selves or voices within him.

Merrill's conception of himself as an "author" became more complex as he explored his poetic and sexual nature. A Different Person allows us to see why Merrill remarked on "how little choice I had in the matter" of his poetic development because of the complex psychological factors that went into it (Collected Prose 351). A Different Person links his growth as a poet to his growing understanding of his sexual nature. Finding his voice, his poetic muse, and a sense of his inner femininity were all linked. Merrill recalls making progress on The Bait only after he had made its narrator a woman, because "words came more easily to me in a woman's voice than in a man's" (Different Person 251). This statement seems surprising because, especially in the fifties, Merrill's poetry did not appear to speak in a feminine voice or create a feminine persona. Even though Merrill's love poems were written to other men, a reader of that time would be likely to assume that they were written by a man to a woman. As Merrill wrote in A Different Person, the [End Page 208] obscurity of his early poems had the effect of "masking . . . the gender of my loves" (183).

Such masking and obscurity in his early poetry were limitations Merrill wanted to escape by finding a more authentic self and poetic voice. By leaving New York for Europe and eventually settling in Rome, he hoped to remake his poetry by remaking himself and becoming...


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