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Sex, Poetry, and the Great Beyond

Review: Langdon Hammer’s ‘James Merrill: Life and Art’

James Merrill and David Jackson in Athens / Wikimedia Commons (Judith Moffett)
• May 2, 2015 5:00 am

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Two years before he died, James Merrill (1926-1995) published his memoir, A Different Person, in which he tells how the son of Charles E. Merrill (co-founder of Merrill Lynch) and an increasingly religious mother became a cosmopolitan gay poet. It’s not a score-settling work, and Merrill is his usual light, witty self, but he is also unashamedly direct about the "polymorphous abundance" of the backstreets of Italy and Greece. "It was a truth universally acknowledged in those innocent decades from 1950 to 1980," Merrill wrote, "that a stable homosexual couple would safely welcome the occasional extramarital fling." And flings there were. While Merrill was in a long-term relationship with David Jackson, the two regularly slept with other men.

When Frederick Buechner read it, he was "appalled" by "the loneliness and sadness and seediness of it all." Buechner was Merrill’s closest friend at the Lawrenceville School in New Jersey and would go on to become a Presbyterian minister and an accomplished novelist. The two did not see each other much after Lawrenceville, but they remained on good terms. Still, Buechner was "unprepared" for "the sexual adventures" of Merrill’s life—"the one-night stands, the furtive assignations in Roman latrines, the affairs within affairs, the sheer abundance of lovers."

I wonder what Buechner will think of Langdon Hammer’s 912-page biography of the American poet, which, once we get to Merrill’s adult years, alternates between Merrill’s sex life and close readings of his poems. Hammer is a careful reader of Merrill’s work, and he makes the most of Merrill’s few interests outside of sex and poetry—his love of travel, the search for a home, his experiments with the Ouija board. But male companionship was often on Merrill’s mind, and his constant, sometimes frantic search for it can also make James Merrill: Life and Art an occasional slog.

This is a little unfortunate because it might give readers unfamiliar with Merrill’s work the impression that his poetry is a also slog, which it isn’t (except for The Changing Light at Sandover). Quick, concrete lines, punctuated by end rhymes, surprising turns of phrase, humor and wit—Merrill’s work eschewed politics and disregarded the emphasis on spontaneity found in the work of his contemporaries. His models were Wallace Stevens, Frost, Auden, and Elizabeth Bishop. He disliked what he called in reference to Tennessee Williams’s The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore the "mess" of "the vaguely resonant," and avoided it assiduously, at least in his early work. (In "In the Hall of Mirrors," for example, he writes: "The parquet barely gleams, a lake. / The windows weaken the dark trees. / The mirrors to their bosoms take / Far glints of water, which they freeze / And wear like necklaces.")

Sound was always important to Merrill. Hammer suggests that his mother’s literary tastes (she wrote doggerel and played rhyming games with Merrill when he was a boy), the importance of memorization at St. Bernard’s School in the Upper East Side, and Merrill’s interest in music all contributed to his appreciation of prosody. His decision to attend Amherst College instead of Princeton was also important. At Amherst, he studied under Theodore Baird and Reuben Brower, disciples of Frost and New Critics such as F. R. Leavis and I. A. Richards, who stressed the "sound of sense," in Frost’s words, and the importance of unity and ambiguity. The result was work of understated virtuosity in collections such as Nights and Days (1966) and Braving the Elements (1972).

Because of his father’s wealth, Merrill never had to work, though he chose to teach on occasion (never more than a semester), and he wasn’t lazy. He would often begin writing or editing early in the morning and work every day until noon, sometimes returning to his study in the afternoon until drinks were served.

He was also generous, regularly giving money to friends, supporting several artists at once, and unlike his father, he lived a relatively simple life given his wealth. He owned places in Connecticut and Greece, but bought these at a fraction of what his father had spent on homes. He loved to travel, which he found both invigorating and inspiring, and would often begin a poem when he arrived at a new place or returned to an old one.

His other great passion was the Ouija board. Buechner had given him one as a joke in 1953, and Merrill and Jackson would use the board off and on over the years, sometimes for days at a time, particularly after friends or family members died. They claimed to have contacted Wallace Stevens ("‘Are you acclimatized?’ Merrill asked, as if the afterlife were merely a matter of altitude. Stevens answered, "Oh, yes. Well.’"), Auden, Merrill’s father, Jackson’s parents, and many others.

In the 1970s and ’80s, Merrill and Jackson used the board to compose three long poems—The Book of Ephraim, Mirabell, and Scripts for the Pageant. Merrill composed Ephraim from the notes he had taken during his and Jackson’s séances of over twenty years. For Mirabell, Merrill and Jackson took part in daily sessions for three months, with Merrill filling his notebook with page after page of "rambling, repetitive" and "incoherent" notes, as Hammer puts it. When he was composing Scripts, Merrill wrote that "something or somebody" had "power" over him.

Many critics were impressed with Ephraim, but less so with the other two. Denis Donoghue thought that Mirabell sounded like "a rejected script for Star Trek" and that Scripts devolved into "camp silliness and giggling." While Hammer admits that Mirabell can be "boring and discontinuous," he remarks (unconvincingly in my view) that it is "sublime in its challenge to the reader."

It’s hard to know what to make of Merrill’s use of the Ouija board. Did he think he had contacted the spirits of his friends? Did he believe that Ephraim was real? Hammer notes that when asked such questions Merrill typically responded "‘yes’ and ‘no,’" adding that it didn’t really matter anyway. Whether or not these séances were real, they felt real, and he wanted them to "last long."

Hammer treats Merrill’s Ouija board sessions with a light touch, suggesting simply that the spirits he encountered were alter egos. Hammer’s account of Merrill throughout is sympathetic but honest, and he shows how Merrill could be alternatively generous, affectionate, cold, and condescending. His tendency to speak of foreign lovers as things he had "acquired" is particularly ugly.

Hammer is at his best when he pauses to consider the connections between Merrill’s life and work. He is often both judicious and provocative—a gifted critic at the top of his game, who has given us the definitive account of Merrill’s life in all its exhaustive (and exhausting) detail.

Published under: Book reviews