Pilgrimages: James Merrill and the Poetics of Travel

[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.

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