Thinking about Merrill

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.

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