James Merrill: Casual Wear
Your average tourist: Fifty. 2.3
Times married. Dressed, this year, in Ferdi Plinthbower
Originals. Odds 1 to 910
Against her strolling past the Embassy
Today at noon. Your average terrorist:
Twenty-five. Celibate. No use for trends,
At least in clothing. Mark, though, where it ends.
People have come forth made of colored mist
Unsmiling on one hundred million screens
To tell of his prompt phone call to the station,
Signed with a flourish, like the dead wife’s jeans
Archive for the 'James Merrill' Category
Here is the conclusion of my odd dusty old manuscript on Merrill. Have a ball.
James Merrill’s work contains many places; we have, in the past pages, mentioned a few of them. I could well have picked other poems, those I picked, however, offered enough diversity, in terms of publishing date, length and content, that the findings cannot be blamed on a cluster of any of those factors. They could indeed be blamed on selective choosing of poems yet I am confident that as the paper progressed my findings became more and more evident and plausible since I would argue that the general approach works for every poem of place in Merrill’s work. We also discussed how these places are portrayed or used in the poetry; from our discussion we developed, step by step, an understanding of the mechanism and developed our own terms to describe that mechanism.
In this conclusion we will take a final look at that mechanism and its range and limits. The first thing to notice is that we multiplied the number of places since we claimed that memories and dreams are treated in the poetry as if they were separate places. This is in no way a proposition about some actual place or something comparable. This proposition is only concerned with the workings of the poetry, where memory is, indeed, a sort of place, as is dream. There is one major difference between these sort of virtual places and actual places: With actual places we discussed the possibility of them being home or a home, we graded them on a scale from very far away from home, such as Japan in the “Prose of Departure”, to very close to home, such as New York. Memories and dreams are left out, since one cannot live in dreams or memories, much as one would like to do it.
Memories are places constructed by the remembering mind, which recollects a few salient objects. The same applies to dreams. This is rather similar to writing, which makes it especially important in a poet such as James Merrill. Merrill is a poet of detail: an abundance of puns, rhymes, meter, as well as countless allusions and numerous details are defining properties of his writing. The mechanism which creates the memory and dream places is thus one that is at the heart of James Merrill’s poetry. This is the first meaning of the title of the thesis. The second, and arguably more important one is concerned with ‘real’ places. We put “real” in inverted commas not because we adhere to a skepticist postmodern idea of reality, but because we found out quickly that real places and the cultural layer through which we perceive them, are virtually indistinguishable.
The speaker of Merrill’s poems casts this cultural layer over his descriptions, it is like tinted glass, without knowledge of the exact colors in the glass. The indistinguishable quality is mostly derived from selection and cannot be checked afterwards. Objects, persons and events that have fallen by the wayside are irretrievable, since our undertaking here is literary criticism and not biography. All we have, to cite that old chestnut, is the text, which presents the preselected, preformed version of reality. The cultural layer, insofar as it can be gleaned from the text, is not only a hindrance. It is also a key to understanding the speaker since it speaks volumes about his background. The important thing here is to step away from calling the cultural layer, as I have admittedly just done, a hindrance. Instead it is a special way of framing places.
Places in James Merrill’s poetry are a conglomerate of different factors. Roughly speaking they consist of real place plus the speaker’s perception of the place. We already noted that this perception is affected by what we called the cultural layer. This is, however, but half the story. In our discussion of poems like “The Thousand and Second Night” as well as “An Urban Convalescence”, we pointed to a second factor: the speaker’s body. Between the body of Merrill’s travelers and the place they visit strange relationships develop. The sickness of a city may translate into a immobilizing sickness of the speaker and the speaker’s convalescence may find a mirror in the city’s parallel process of convalescence. Again, the caveat: this is not about actual causality, but about the inner workings of Merrill’s poems. And there we find that the speakers, while perceiving places cerebrally through the cultural layer, also often perceive them viscerally, via their bodies. This dependence upon bodily travel is remarkable and noteworthy in as literary and abstract, even, a poetical language as Merrill’s. If we recall our chapter on Sandover, we find that the visceral, bodily kind of perception is also the one most directly involved in receiving the spirits at the Ouija board, where the reception takes place in the “RED CELLS”.
Thus, to iterate, places in Merrill’s poetry are real places plus the culturally or bodily mediated experience of them. This leads to a few points of interest which, due to length and focus of this thesis, we have not been able to address, yet are sure could and should be addressed at length in later studies of Merrill and his work. The first is the question of performativity. Merrill, as has been pointed out almost ad nauseam in secondary literature creates rooms within his poetry (cf. for instance Lundquist). They are not places in our understanding of the word, not if we want to keep the word meaningful and not a catch-all term. However, I did mention how close the process of mentally creating a place and the process of creating a poem is, especially since all we have is the created poem, which mimicks the mental process. Recollection is a gesture, a function of Merrill’s poetry. Performativity also, however, refers to questions of identity, which, whether it touches upon questions of gender or sexual preference, is highly interesting as a topic in Merrill’s poetry. Secondary literature on Merrill has focused too much on direct intentionality, which we owe to the fact that the leading scholars on Merrill, Kalstone, McClatchy and Yenser, have all been friends with the poet, and their understanding of the poet has developed in key with their communication with him, so that the two elements have become inseparable, which is, as I mentioned in the introduction the reason why I used so few secondary sources to argue my readings of the poems.
This leads us to the next large issue that I have not been able to touch upon yet which
seems to be a fecund issue to explore in more detail: language and communication. First the actual language used in the poems: James Merrill’s poetry is written in American English, sometimes it contains, for example, pieces of French, when expressing aspects of his speaker’s cultural layer, and sometimes it contains pieces of, for example, Greek, when focusing upon the local cultural layer. The second aspect is the way that language is molded in poems like Sandover: the spirits often deviate from common usage. Questions are turned into “?s”, for example, divinely inspired work is called “V work” and for a while, Mirabell prefaces each metaphor with a bracketed ‘m’. Also, the orthography is sloppy. This is so interesting because it raises questions of voice and questions about the boundary between the written and the spoken word. After all, Sandover is a dialogue, only one side never utters an audible word. Instead it makes a cup move upon a wooden board, letter by letter. This is remarkable. What seems like quick, effortless dialogue has been dictated letter by letter. Even if done at the utmost speed, taking such a dictation must take quite a while.
The last large issue is connected to the two already raised: unquestionably Merrill writes from a position of privilege. How is this reflected in his work? Secondary literature tends to either attack him for inhuman arrogance in Sandover or snobbish ignorance in his other work, or it completely exonerates him. I have yet to see either position cogently argued. Both positions are usually written like preachings to the choir. Here, again, much of the focus would rest upon Sandover, where a complex web of discourses about authority, racism, power, identity, has been woven, and people misrepresent it usually.
Merrill is, however, a writer easily misrepresented. The complexity of his work, both on the level of allusions, on the formal level and on the plain level of content assures that even a thorough study will pass some points by. By concentrating on a series of close readings I hope to have found a way to cope with the issue as good as possible. My intent was to demonstrate how places, be it cities or countries, are represented in James Merrill’s poetry and to argue that places are central to that poetry. The mechanics we uncovered/invented are useful instruments to tackle all poems by Merrill, because the tension between self and the environment, which is debated time and again in the poetry, is Merrill’s constant theme. Merrill’s is a poetry of places: it is a poetry about places, where the reader is transported all around the world. And it is a poetry where places play a formative role. Merrill’s speakers all have bodies, they are somewhere, they have had corporeal experience. If this sounds trite, please reconsider: Merrill uses, like few other poems of his caliber, his speaker’s bodies as a constant way of grounding them, while developing one of the most conceptually daring poetries of his time. His ability to reconcile these two extremes rests on his treatment of places.
full poem below the video
James Merrill: A Renewal
Having used every subterfuge
To shake you, lies, fatigue, or even that of passion,
Now I see no way but a clean break.
I add that I am willing to bear the guilt.
You nod assent. Autumn turns windy, huge,
A clear vase of dry leaves vibrating on and on.
We sit, watching. When I next speak
Love buries itself in me, up to the hilt.
James Merrill: Days of 1964
Houses, an embassy, the hospital.
Our neighborhood sun-cured if trembling still
In pools of the night’s rain . . .
Across the street that led to the center of town
A steep hill kept one company part way
Or could be climbed in twenty minutes
For some literally breathtaking views,
Framed by umbrella pines, of city and sea.
Underfoot, cyclamen, autumn crocus grew
Spangled as with fine sweat among the relics
Of good times had by all. If not Olympus,
An out-of-earshot, year-round hillside revel.
I brought home flowers from my climbs.
Kyria Kleo who cleans for us
Put them in water, sighing Virgin, Virgin.
Her legs hurt. She wore brown, was fat, past fifty,
And looked like a Palmyra matron
Copied in lard and horsehair. How she loved
You, me, loved us all, the bird, the cat!
I think now she was love. She sighed and glistened
All day with it, or pain, or both.
(We did not notably communicate.)
She lived nearby with her pious mother
And wastrel son. She called me her real son.
I paid her generously, I dare say.
Love makes one generous. Look at us. We’d known
Each other so briefly that instead of sleeping
We lay whole nights, open, in the lamplight,
And gazed, or traded stories.
One hour comes back—you gasping in my arms
With love, or laughter, or both,
I having just remembered and told you
What I’d looked up to see on my way downtown at noon:
poor old Kleo, her aching legs,
Trudging into the pines. I called.
Called three times before she turned.
Above a tight, skyblue sweater, her face
Was painted. Yes. Her face was painted
Clown-white, white of the moon by daylight,
Lidded with pearl, mouth a poinsettia leaf.
Eat me, pay me—the erotic mask
Worn the world over by illusion
To weddings of itself and simple need.
Startled mute, we had stared—was love illusion?—
And gone our ways. Next, I was crossing a square
In which a moveable outdoor market’s
Vegetables, chickens, pottery kept materializing
Through a dream-press of hagglers each at heart
Leery lest he be taken, plucked,
The bird, the flower of that November mildness,
Self lost up soft clay paths, or found, foothold,
Where the bud throbs awake
The better to be nipped, self on its knees in mud—
Here I stopped cold, for both our sakes;
And calmer on my way home bought us fruit.
Forgive me if you read this. (And may Kyria Kleo,
Should someone ever put it into Greek
And read it aloud to her, forgive me, too.)
I had gone so long without loving,
I hardly knew what I was thinking.
Where I hid my face, your touch, quick, merciful,
Blindfolded me. A god breathed from my lips.
If that was illusion I wanted it to last long;
To dwell, for its daily pittance, with us there,
Cleaning and watering, sighing with love or pain.
I hoped it would climb when it needed to the heights
Even of degradation as I for one
Seemed, those days, to be always climbing
Into a world of wild
Flowers, feasting, tears— or was I falling, legs
Buckling, heights, depths,
Into a pool of each night’s rain?
But you were everywhere beside me, masked,
As who was not, in laughter, pain, and love.
James Merrill: The Mad Scene
Again last night I dreamed the dream called Laundry.
In it, the sheets and towels of a life we were going to share,
The milk-stiff bibs, the shroud, each rag to be ever
Trampled or soiled, bled on or groped for blindly,
Came swooning out of an enormous willow hamper
Onto moon-marbly boards. We had just met. I watched
From outer darkness. I had dressed myself in clothes
Of a new fiber that never stains or wrinkles, never
Wears thin. The opera house sparkled with tiers
And tiers of eyes, like mine enlarged by belladonna,
Trained inward. There I saw the cloud-clot, gust by gust,
Form, and the lightning bite, and the roan mane unloosen.
Fingers were running in panic over the flute’s nine gates.
Why did I flinch? I loved you. And in the downpour laughed
To have us wrung white, gnarled together, one
Topmost mordent of wisteria,
As the lean tree burst into grief.
From a New York Times article on the rebuilt house at 18 West 11th Street, NYC
Houses have personal histories. As they pass between owners, they become carriers of family chronicles. The house at 18 West 11th Street and those surrounding it, beautifully matched four-story town houses of Federal design, were built in the 1840′s by Henry Brevoort Jr. and were known as the Brevoort Row. Early in the 20th century, No. 18 was owned by Charles Merrill, a founder of Merrill Lynch & Company. His son, the poet James Merrill, was born there. (…) Every March 6, people place flowers around the tree in front of the building. One day in the early 1990′s, Francis Mason invited James Merrill and his mother, Hellen Plummer, to see the house that had replaced their former home. After her son’s death in 1995, Mrs. Plummer, then 95, reminisced about the original house at No. 18. (…) ”We were happy there,” she said. About returning to the site, she added: ”It didn’t feel like our old house. It was totally different architecture. But it was soothing to us that someone cared enough to put something else on the property.”
Oh, well done, folks, well done. The James Merrill Writer-in-Residence Program apparently offered the job to a Mr. Pjotr Gwiazda, whose book I called “exasperatingly bad” (we will not even mention his poetry). Good thing then, that the man who, according to McClatchy, insisted on his biography being written not by a homosexual, is now commemorated by a fool who wrote a whole damn book about Merrill’s homosexuality, basing his whole flimsy argument on that fact, practically wiping his arse with the man’s poems in the process. Whatever he’s going to do in that quaint house, he’s not going to “complete a project of literary or academic merit”, going by his past ‘accomplishments’. Oh, James.
[This is a summary of my M.A. Thesis which is not finished, but I had to hand in a summary, so I wrote this. If anyone has any ideas or criticism or wants to point me in a direction he or she might think I didn't think about, he or she is more than welcome. I have forgotten to include Jaynes in the voices part at the end and chronotope in the middle somewhere but that's not important]
James Merrill’s is, quite explicitly, a poetry concerned with places. An early volume is called The Country of a Thousand Years of Peace, which refers to Switzerland, and his last volumes include as transparently named poems as “Overdue Pilgrimage to Nova Scotia” and “Walks in Rome”. The speaker(s) of Merrill’s poetry travel(s) to Greece, Italy, Turkey and other countries, coming from the United States. Additionally, he meets fellow travelers. Hans Lodeizen, the Netherlands poet, “The Summer People” and, finally, souls of the dead who travel from the afterworld to spend leisurely nights at the Ouija board with JM and his partner DJ.
At first we will be looking at actual travel and its reflection in the poetry, starting off with a look at the different places the speaker(s) in Merrill’s poetry end up in. The first of these places and arguably one of the most important, is Greece, where hellenism’s historic sites provide a colorful background to tales of loss (Tony: Ending the Life) and love (Days of 1964). Greece is mostly a place to visit: the speaker and his friends are guests, and are never shown to be anything other than that, which makes for a curious inbetween state in poems that seem to be about fixed places and which even develop their own sort of family imagery. Not so with the second group, which is New England, especially Boston and Stonington, Connecticut. Merrill’s childhood poems (The Broken Home) are for the most part set against a refined Bostonian backdrop and it’s chiefly in Stonington where he will receive the visiting souls in his Ouija board sessions. New England is both: a place where others visit Merrill and his friends and the place where Merrill’s at home, born and raised.
Both Greece and New England are such an essential part of his poetry that they are rarely introduced. Names and references are enough to put the reader on the right track. Other places such as Rome and Istanbul/Byzantium have to be introduced by name: “Istanbul. 21 march. I woke today / With an absurd complaint.” (The Thousand and Second Night). However, poems such as “Days of 1964″ also contain a considerable amount of description that might well enable a local to situate the poem into a specific time and place. Places have left their traces all over James Merrill’s poetry. That said, it should be added that descriptions and explicit reference is not the only or even the most important way in which these places have left their traces. The most important -and most relevant for the purpose of this paper- way is via their cultural context.
Places such as Athens or Boston imply clear-cut cultural contexts. Thus, it should come as no surprise that Merrill’s poetry is filled with references to specific cultural contexts. However, they are almost always blended with other contexts, other travels past and present which have left their mark on his poetry. Greece especially is a treasure trove, informing both Merrill’s ecphrastic poems like “Bronze” and leaving traces of philosophy (“We love the good, said Plato? He was wrong. / We love as well the wicked and the weak.” (Matinées)), myth (“I call up / Graces, Furies, Fates,” (An Urban Convalescence)) and language (“Goods, bads, kaló-kakó, cockatoo-raucous” (To my Greek)) everywhere. Greek cultural references are special in that they mostly appear in poems which are set in places outside of Greece. In this, naturally, Merrill reflects the enormous influence Hellenism has had on western culture and literature. Interestingly, Greece as a culture reverses the guest/visitor relation that we saw when looking at (fixed) places. One could see Hellenism as a visitor, appearing in all kinds of settings, in different guises, clad in Rilke, for example.
The opposite, of course, is true for the New England context, which is evoked almost only in the New England poems. These poems refer to a well documented cultural context which has probably found its best decription in Robert Lowell’s Life Studies, depicting New England as a place of meetings, where ships and trade arrive and leave, where a certain jet set levity cannot hide a darker, menacing undercurrent (especially in “Skunk Hour”). A consideration of the New England context is helpful in figuring out deceptively simple poems like the sonnet sequence “A Broken Home” and goes a long way towards explaining the dark note in poems such as “18 West 11th Street”, where genealogy is decribed as ‘hatching’ “another generation / Of strong-jawed, light-besotted saboteurs”. Echoes of the skunk mother who “will not scare” reverberate in poems such as “18 West 11th Street”, promting the speaker, for example, to remark upon “The girl’s / Appearance now among us [...] / Naked, frail but fox-eyed.” The religiousness of New England culture has also left its traces in Merrill’s poetry, especially in The Changing Light at Sandover, where he evinces a strong spirituality, if in a mocking spirit and definitely not in a Christian vein.
The third group of places, with cities as Istanbul (The Thousand and Second Night), Rome (Walks in Rome), Venice (Investiture at Cecconi’s) or Alexandria (Tony: Ending the Life), is, interestingly, often portrayed in the past and the present within the same poem. It is obvious that these places are as important for their cultural context, which is inscribed into their very names, as for their reality in a narrative that may take place in modern times. The way that, for instance, Istanbul is sometimes referred to as Istanbul and sometimes as Byzantium, is a giveaway. These places, similar to the New England poems, contain ample reference to Hellenism, for instance, but keep their own cultural contexts to themselves. An exception of sorts is Italy. Neither Rome nor Venice, taken by themselves, do that, but Italy as a whole does provide an important cultural context that the travelling speaker carries with him back to the United States or to Greece. To be more precise, when I write ‘Italy’ I should probably write ‘Tuscany’ because between Dante and Macciavelli and others, these references do not stray outside of that enchanting swathe of Italy. However, as Tuscany is not named, to my knowledge, I have to assume that it is not a category of the poem and the italian refernces refer to the cultural context of ‘Italy’ as a whole.
Now that we have examined places and the other aspect of places, that is to say, cultural contexts, or, as we will refer to them from now on: cultures, we can turn to the, by now, famous theory of “Traveling Cultures” of the eminent anthropologist James Clifford. He claims that for the anthropologist of recent decades, a different sort of travel has arisen as an issue to be dealt with: cultural travel. There are two kinds of cultural travel to be considered. The first one is actual, bodily travel, in the common sense of the word. In this way Merrill’s speaker(s) travel to Rome, Greece, Boston etc. This received idea of travel has informed the commonly used concept of culture quite a lot, the idea being that cultures can be relatively stable concepts, even if they are no longer anchored to a well-defined place or to the local as the person who lives there. Exceeding the scope of a phenomenon such as Hellenism, in the modern age travel has been radically facilitated, so that adherents of a certain culture can travel the world, without, ultimately, being connected by ethnicity nor by nationality to the traditional place associated with that culture. Diaspora and connected concepts are important here. The cultures travel piggyback on a traveler’s figurative shoulders, he or she brings his own cultural contexts. In the case of Merrill it will be a point of interest whether claims made in previous sections (New England culture only in New England poems) can be upheld: doesn’t he carry his contexts with him as well?
The second sort of cultural travel could be called figurative travel. Cultures can travel without the members of the culture moving corporally, for instance through receiving visitors or through being subjected to medial influences, such as television or literature. This time there is a double travelling. Culture travels to the readers/watchers and those on the receiving end are travelling in a sense, too. Reading a book about Greece and visiting Greece might have roughly the same impact in ternms of cultural influence. This is especially relevant for James Merrill’s poetry, as it is swamped in book lore: Byzantium, Dante’s Tuscany, these have, of course, never been visited by Merrill in a literal sense. Yet, as we will see, the impact on his poetry is similar to the impact left by his ‘real’ travels. To not regard these two as two specifictations of the same basic phenomenon is to not understand the importance of travel in the broader sense, as Clifford uses it, to Merrill’s poetry.
These two kinds of cultural influence, which can be viewed as a complex system of visiting and hosting cultures, especially in a writer who travels as extensively and often as Merrill did. The first group of exchanges are the most obvious, between New England and Greece. The wealth of Hellenistic references that populate the New England poems are indisputable and have been remarked upon. A point of interest would be to what extent the New England culture informs the Greece poems. This formulation is crucial. Of course, the New England culture doesn’t influence the Greek culture, as it would in Clifford’s model (Well, it might but we are not interested in anthropology.). The impact of travel will, ultimately, be shown to be something that is part of the poetry, not necessarily of ‘the real world’. As we will see, travel and poetry are intimately connected in Merrill’s oeuvre. A final remark: we will dispense with other cross-references, such as New England/Tuscany, New England/Rome etc., as the most interesting question, whether Merrill could be said to form a sort of tiny New England diaspora would have been answered already and neither Rome nor Tuscany or Istanbul could provide illuminating angles.
The second group of exchanges are between childhood and adulthood poems. Almost all of the childhood poems are situated in New England, whereas, even though a large portion of the adulthood poems are provided with a Greek backdrop, there are many locations in them. Thus it is not possible to juxtapose two distinct locations in comparing these two kinds of poems. I maintain, however, that it still makes sense to talk about child- and adulthood as locations in a figurative sense and to talk about a variant of cultural/fugurative travel taking place between the two. Merrill’s adulthood poetry is so replete with echoes from his past as chronicled in the childhood poems that it’s no wonder so many critics felt justified in scooping with both hands material from the psychoanalytic slop pail. I maintain that to discuss the traces of childhood in the adulthood poems in terms of travel (or, as we will see later: intertextuality) is a cleaner method, and on top of that I will attempt to show that it’s a method that does more justice to the specific requirements of poetry as poetry. To return to the adulthood/childhood travels, we will find that, of course, the travel concept works both ways. The childhood is consistently seen through the lens of the adult speaker, which might seem trivial, but actually contributes to the overall picture in which adulthood emerges as the figurative ‘home’ and childhood as the foreign country visited by the grown-up speaker.
The concept of travel and the importance of this concept for Merrill’s poetry and poetics becomes even clearer once another kind of travel is added. This is the traveling undertaken by the souls of the dead in the Ouija board poems, most notably in The Changing Light at Sandover. This doesn’t fit in the narrow literal/figurative dichotomy established heretofore. Of course, it takes a giant leap of faith to assume the ‘reality’ of the spirits. I would argue that it is a strange idea to take that leap in the context of a poetry where, for instance, the speaker of “The Broken Home” needs assurance of as ‘simple’ a fact as the one “[t]hat you and I are as real / At least as the people upstairs” but this is not an important point anyway. Looking at the poetry the question whether these are real voices or whether these are passages invented by David Jackson or whether this is all just a conceit, is not of interest because the fact of the matter is, within the poem, the visitors from the afterworld are clearly just that: visitors. And this time, too, there is a reciprocal element in all this. As will be shown, contact with JM/DJ does not leave the afterworld unchanged.
After the term ‘travel’ and its connection to Merrill’s poetry has been examined, it is now time to look at the implications of all this for Merrill’s poetics. Clifford’s theory of Traveling Cultures is, at the root, a theory about communication and that term fits Merrill’s poetry like a glove. I’ll show is how that which we leaned about travel can be translated to common literary terms such as intertextuality. First, however, I will expound on the centrality of dialogue to the previous discussions of travel. Encounters with other countries in Merrill’s poetry almost always involves dialogue, foreign languages, etc. This culminates in The Changing Light at Sandover, where dialogue is not only central but basically the only means of travel, as the spirits never appear, their presence is solely signalled by the letters DJ dictates to JM.
The voices speaking, whispering, beseeching, commanding, in The Changing Light at Sandover, are not the only voices. In fact, I will suggest that dialogicity, that well-worn concept of Mikhail Bakhtin’s, is an excellent tool to decribe the poetical implications of travel as we have come to understand that term. There are several elements to this, the first and most obviously being plain intertextuality, which roughly corresponds to what we have called figurative travel early on. The influence of cultures transmitted via books or other media. Another element is translation, which develops from intertextuality, because on the one hand it is a form of intertextuality but it’s a special enough variant of it. Merrill translated poems, used translated phrases (literally translated Greek idioms for instance) and at the same time, translation was always part of the poetics of travel. It is shown to be a facilitator of ‘real’, that is, literal travel, as it is the precondition for communication. Similarly, intertextuality would, without translations, not work as well: Merrill’s poems would teem with German, Greek, Tuscan, French phrases and as such be understandable only to a choice coterie of readers. The best explication of the workings of translation can be found in Lost in Translation. The third element, again, is basically a sort of intertextuality, but, again, it’s special enough to be discussed as a special issue. This is Merrill’s attitude to form and to tradition in general. This wraps up tzhe dialogicity chapter because, of course, using a certain form or genre evokes old and buried voices, Petrarca, Dante, Rilke and many many others. Thus, maybe, The Changing Light at Sandover is a brilliant concretion of this concept, with all these poets, first and foremost of course our dear Wystan, literally speaking to Merrill through David Jackson. I am naturally brief in this part of the summary as this part of the paper relies a lot, and will reference a lot, conclusions drawn in the previous parts.
Travel mediates between contexts: the merging of places -figurative and literal- creates a sort of shared cultural space. Merrill’s poetry can be seen as pursuing just this. I will show that this works on almost every level of his poetry, including form and formulation. His use of metre, pun and metaphor, his descriptions of places and travels, the way he handles autobiographical material, all of this is part of the project of mediation.
Just a very short note, while digging through some strange litcrit on James Merrill. One particularly annoying writer’s Richard Sáez, who digs deep into the psychoanalytic garbage pail in his analysis. I am ignoring these parts, but with Merrill this shit keeps coming up. I’ll keep it out of my thesis, if I can avoid it. But how to justify it? Of course, there’s the scientificity of Literary Criticism, which is never far from my mind while thinking about methods. Yet Sáez is remarkably precise, remarkably on point.
The things he writes for instance in his essay “JM’s Oedipal Fire”, written before the magisterial Sandover was published “gets” it unlike so many critics which have read it. He’s very, very effective. His methods, however, are bad. Text, writer, symbols, biography, it’s all jumbled up. Bad, bad writing. But it works. So why not use it? I tend to liken my resistance to the resistance that sane people should develop to “effective” but racist police profiling. Which does indeed work in many cases.
It’s about the cases where it doesn’t work, but is still applied. So much of psychological method is based on banal truisms of how ‘people’ work. It’s bound to work sometimes. Plus, I think that Sáez has a knack for his line of work. His instincts work, that’s why the method works in his case. That does not redeem the ugly method.
I know you don’t care. I just needed to explain to myself why I am not using something that provided Sáez with such prodigious results. This is what I came up with.