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  • James Merrill's Late Poetry:AIDS and the "Stripping Process"
  • Timothy Materer (bio)

Shouldn't readers know the emotional circumstances in which [Merrill's] later poems were written? Wouldn't that knowledge affect, even enrich, their understanding of Merrill's work?

J. D. McClatchy, "Two Deaths, Two Lives"

like Henry James "damned by the public for decorum"; not decorum, but restraint . . . .

Marianne Moore, "An Octopus"

The virtuosity of James Merrill's poetry has unfortunately led critics to question its emotional power. Even readers who admire the technical mastery and finish that characterize the lyrics in Merrill's Collected Poems may complain, as Eric Ormsby does, of a "curious absence at the heart" of poems that may seem "too neat, too disciplined" (19, 16). Although Adam Kirsch observes that Merrill's technical skills made him strong where his contemporaries were weak, Kirsch is also sympathetic to the view that Merrill is a "merely decorative poet, an aesthete playing with form" (40). Paul Breslin comments that Merrill's poems "for all their astounding brilliance and subtlety, don't sink taproots into my psyche" (352). Such negative judgments about Merrill began with early reviews of his work by Louise Bogan and James Dickey, who considered him too controlled and impersonal to write moving poetry.1

Edmund White's novel The Farewell Symphony dramatizes this conception of Merrill when a character modeled on the poet is told that a draft of a poem he is working on is too unemotional. In the novel, the character "slapped his forehead and said, 'Of course! I forgot to put [End Page 123] the feeling in!'" (239). Although he returns to his cupola and inserts a passage that later is said to make his friends weep, the incident suggests that expressing deep feeling is not the central motivation of his poetry. Merrill's love of wordplay, comic narratives and affirmative poetic closure may seem to contribute to this supposed lack of emotional and tragic depth.2 He himself admired Elizabeth Bishop's "preference for the happy ending, or the ruefully cheerful one" as well as Marianne Moore's "'impulse to bring glad tidings'" (Collected Prose 254). Speaking of a draft of "An Urban Convalescence" that ended at its "lowest point," Merrill said that "something affirmative had to be made out of it," explaining that "you don't end pieces with a dissonance" (118). From the time he was writing his First Poems (1951), Merrill himself realized that he might seem "superficial" in an age when contemporary psychology assumed that "the nastier the insight, the truer it was" (Different Person 69).

Like readers of Henry James, some of Merrill's readers may fail to appreciate his emotional power and mistake (in Moore's terms) restraint for mere decorum.3 Although one could address the issue throughout Merrill's oeuvre, I would like to counter this superficial view of Merrill by examining some of the deeply emotional and nearly despairing poems that Merrill wrote in the 1980s and until his death in 1995. The darker tone of poems such as "Investiture at Ceconni's," "Farewell Performance," "Tony: Ending the Life," and "Key West Aquarium: The Sawfish" marks an important development in Merrill's work. His mastery of form is at its height in these poems, and so is his emotional power. Elegies predominate in the late poems, but their tone, to use the title of Melissa Zeiger's study of the modern elegy, is "beyond consolation." Merrill wrote in "The Thousand and Second Night," "Form's what affirms" (185). As David Gordon observes, aesthetic qualities in themselves "may provide a kind of consolation because they imply a measure of moral confidence" (14).4 In terms of theme or statement, however, these poems insist on the finality of death and leave the poet with the feeling that his life too is over. They address the ravages of AIDS on Merrill's friends and the poet himself, and question the pursuit of love when it involves the risk of death.

Merrill writes of the AIDS crisis of the Eighties in The Inner Room (1988). The volume's narrative "Prose of Departure," a travel journal interspersed with hokku, still demonstrates Merrill's wish...


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pp. 123-145
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