- James Merrill, Postmodern Magus: Myth and Poetics
In “What is Minor Poetry?” T. S. Eliot says that the distinction between a major and a minor poet has to do with “whether a knowledge of the whole, or at least of a very large part, of a poet’s work, makes one enjoy more, because it makes one understand better, any one of his poems.”1 Applying this standard to James Merrill, scholars for decades have considered him a poet of a unified oeuvre, in the process significantly adding to our appreciation and knowledge of his work. Even during Merrill’s lifetime Stephen Yenser inaugurated this cumulative, wholistic approach with a survey of the patterns of opposition and duality in Merrill’s poetry (The Consuming Myth: The Work of James Merrill, 1987). In later years, scholars such as Don Adams (James Merrill’s Poetic Quest, 1997), Timothy Materer (James Merrill’s Apocalypse, 2000), and Reena Sastri (James Merrill: Knowing Innocence, 2007) offered their own deeply illuminating if narrowly focused readings of his poems, each working with the assumption that Merrill was indeed a major poet whose work ought to be studied in its entirety. (Numerous essays, essay collections, book chapters, and other monographs make Merrill one of the most written about American poets of the second half of the twentieth century.)
Evans Lansing Smith joins this company of sympathetic and determined commentators with James Merrill, Postmodern Magus. Here the unifying theme is the myth of the nekyia, a Homeric term for the descent to the underworld, a myth that for all its classical antecedents is central, as Smith notes, to modern and postmodern literature. As he describes it, the nekyia involves “a hero journey cycle . . . a circular narrative, beginning and ending in the same or a similar place, with the trials, ordeals, and revelations of the descent in between” (1). In the course of eleven chapters he provides well-informed, in-depth analyses of the nekyia myth as it functions in Merrill’s lyrical and narrative poems. He also accounts for the presence of the nekyia in Merrill’s The Changing Light at Sandover, a 560-page epic trilogy composed from transcripts of his and his partner’s communications with the dead over a Ouija board. Smith casts his book as a corrective to previous readings of Merrill, claiming to have identified the myth that most other scholars have treated only superficially or imprecisely. It is the myth of the nekyia, he argues, that confers “shape and significance” (borrowing Eliot’s phrase) upon Merrill’s work as a whole. His study depicts Merrill as a poet of necromantic sensibility with an abiding interest in classical literature and myth. Though he recognizes the vast number of influences that formed Merrill as a poet, he suggests that the greatest influence of all was Joseph Campbell.
Smith’s analysis concentrates on four traditional aspects of the underworld: an inferno, a crypt, a temenos, and a granary; one undeniable contribution of his book is that it makes us realize how many of Merrill’s poems take place in these metaphorical spaces. Throughout, Smith employs the term “necrotype” (a combination of “nekyia” and “archetype”) which designates ideas and images generated by the myth—practically any element in the poem that refers to death, darkness, or descent. These include the night-sea journey, the labyrinth, the mirror, the threshold, the cave, the wraith, the moon, the clothing symbolism (investiture and divestiture), birds, dogs, and insects, ocular and oneiric imagery, references to alchemy, the presence of mythic figures like Orpheus—Merrill’s poetry is rife with such necrotypal iconography. Importantly, the nekyia is not only a central obsession that shapes Merrill’s diction and imagery but the catalyst for the poetic act itself. Time and again Smith shows us how the presence of subterranean motifs, which he compares to Wagner’s leit-motifs, activates the poetic energy; and, in the process, he finds plenty of opportunities to discuss the technical virtuosity of Merrill’s poems. Smith’s analyses of Merrill’s...