Elegant musings, jottings, appreciations, memoirs, and reviews by the late renowned poet.
Merrill (1926–95) gained recognition for many things: as a poet with a flair for intellectually charged wordplay, à la Wallace Stevens; as a critic with an appreciation for the hard work of creation as much as for “the whole level of entertainment in art”; as a gay aesthete whose frankness was a source of embarrassment for some members of his well-heeled family (of Merrill Lynch fame). The present volume—edited by poets McClatchy and Yenser, who teamed up for Merrill’s Collected Poems (2001)—highlights all those facets. In the last matter, it reprints Merrill’s memoir A Different Person (1993), which charts his growth from somewhat frivolous youth to somewhat more tempered analysand, all against a Roman backdrop. As for the first two, the volume gathers a few dozen interviews, articles, essays, and forewords that speak to Merrill’s interests and methods. One, for instance, is the use of an unlikely tool for composition: “Drugs have worked for some, meditation for others; in my own case it was something as apparently flimsy as the Ouija board.” (Elsewhere, Merrill recalls having contacted the soul of an engineer “dead of cholera in Cairo” who had recently bumped into Goethe.) Merrill defends his somewhat formal approach to poetry as seemly deference to tradition. He remarks, “With fewer and fewer people, even bright ones, who know what traditions are, my old-fashioned kind of poem may soon be mistaken for something much newer than it is, and read with appropriate cries of delight.” At another point, he professes a suspicion for poetic grandiosity, noting, “I’m on the side of careful consideration.” Even so, he gets off some nicely wild lines, particularly in his travel journals, as when he writes of a South American trip, “The river steamer blisters and moans. The banks suck their gums endlessly as it shudders upstream.”
A fine introduction to the prose of a modern master.