Ο Στράτος Μουφλουζέλης και ο Τζέημς Μέριλ (δεξιά) με φίλους στα Χανιά
Ο Τζέημς Μέριλ και ο Ντέϊβιντ Τζάκσον στο σπίτι τους στην Αθήνα
‘James Merrill: Life and Art,’ by Langdon Hammer
By JAY PARINI (nytimes.com, 2015)
Some people are born with a silver spoon, but the poet James Merrill — son of a founder of Merrill Lynch — had whole place settings jammed down his throat. His family was exceedingly rich, with houses in Greenwich Village and Southampton, where an estate named the Orchard became a showplace for weekends and summers. “Broad lawns unrolled on either side of the drive, with huge squat boxwood hedges for sentinels and wistful, champagne-glass-shaped elms shading the gravel circle at the front door,” Langdon Hammer (chairman of the English department at Yale) writes in his eloquent and sympathetic new biography, “James Merrill: Life and Art.” That such great wealth never sapped Merrill’s ambition as a poet seems remarkable in itself. “Jimmy was no less of a competitor than his father,” Hammer notes, “and no less hungry for public recognition.”
Merrill’s reputation as one of the major postwar poets has faded a little in the years since his death from complications of AIDS in 1995, but Hammer’s book should help to restore his presence. He has summoned the ghosts of Merrill’s life in a way that would, I suspect, have pleased a poet famous for his own summoning of ghosts, as in his masterwork “The Changing Light at Sandover,” in which the often talkative spirits include Homer, Plato, Yeats, Jesus and Auden.
As one might guess, Merrill struggled to define himself in his father’s shadow. Gay at a time when that wasn’t an easy identity, he attended prep school at Lawrenceville, then enrolled at Amherst, his father’s college, where he encountered the novels of Proust in his freshman year. They would become a formative and lifelong obsession. In 1968, for instance, Merrill told one interviewer: “The real triumph of manners in Proust is the extreme courtesy toward the reader, the voice explaining at once formally and intimately.”
I knew Merrill slightly (we met a few times, and once had lunch at my house in Vermont), and I can hear his mandarin voice as I read his poems: a note of intimacy against a backdrop of reflexive formality. But Wallace Stevens and W. H. Auden probably mattered more, as poetic forebears, and one hears those influences coursing through the earliest poems. By the late 1950s and early 1960s, however, Merrill had found his distinctive manner: the assured voice, the love of intricate forms, the craft of poetry so perfectly mastered that meter and rhyme were fully present but rarely obtrusive.
Shorter lyrics like “After Greece,” “Syrinx,” “The Mad Scene” or “The Kimono” were so perfect, one wished to frame them and hang them on the wall. His longer poems, like “The Broken Home,” “18 West 11th Street” or “Lost in Translation,” showed a gift for narrative, for sensuous evocation of the past, for the transformation of personal anecdote into poetry. In these and other poems, Merrill offered sublime meditations on the sense of loss that seems invariably to accompany all feelings of love.
His adult life got underway when he abandoned his mother’s Manhattan orbit in 1950 for Rome, where he began to forge his sexual and poetic identities. After 1953, the central person in his life was certainly David Jackson, an aspiring (and unsuccessful) novelist. “Merrill was determined not to become what he had every reason to be — an effete aesthete, a brittle snob,” Hammer writes. “He must have sensed that Jackson would help him avoid that fate by drawing him out of himself.” Over many decades they divided their time between a modest house in Connecticut and an equally unflashy house in Athens. Later, they added a place in Key West. As Hammer notes, they were “ready for high jinks and fun wherever they went.”
Unfortunately, there was a distance in class and talent between Merrill and Jackson that domesticity could never quite bridge, and conflicts arose. In the gay world inhabited by this couple, coupledom itself came into question. “Each had many partners in the course of their relationship,” Hammer writes. In 1964, for instance, Merrill began a relationship with a young and handsome Greek, Strato Mouflouzelis, “the bittersweet muse of his middle years.” The poet was 38 at the time, and “beginning to feel old.” Strato revived him.
As Merrill’s fame grew, awards piled up, including, in 1973, the prestigious Bollingen Prize from the Yale University Library. Not all were pleased by the accolade: In an unsigned editorial, The New York Times took a backhanded swipe at the prizewinner. “Mr. Merrill,” it read, “is a poet of solid accomplishment and sure craftsmanship. The quarrel is not with him, but with the Library’s insistence down the years that poetry is a hermetic cultivation of one’s sensibility and a fastidious manipulation of received forms.” Versions of this complaint against Merrill had already become familiar, and would plague him to the end.
Yet Merrill’s reputation swelled, and by the late 1970s he was “something of a cult figure.” Many younger poets, including J. D. McClatchy, Alfred Corn and Richard Kenney, looked to him as a friend and mentor. Indeed, McClatchy (known as “Sandy”) would increasingly figure in Merrill’s life, as confidant and eventually co-executor of his estate. Another person who, beginning in the early 1980s, took a star turn through Merrill’s life was the actor Peter Hooten, who became a lover.
Beginning in the mid-1950s, Merrill and David Jackson were drawn toward the Ouija board. In their candlelit dining room in Connecticut, they eventually made contact (as Merrill had it) with Ephraim, a spirit from beyond. In 1974, Merrill began writing “The Book of Ephraim,” the first movement of what would become a trilogy that included “Mirabell: Books of Number” (1978) and “Scripts for the Pageant” (1980). A coda was added when he merged all three volumes into “The Changing Light at Sandover.”
In a biography that is probably too long for casual readers, Hammer traces the evolution of this epic sequence with care, drawing on notebooks and drafts, making clear the huge intellectual and emotional effort that went into the “mythographic scriptural text, a transaction with primal powers.” In many ways, the project belonged almost as much to Jackson (called “DJ” in the poem) as to Merrill (“JM”). Merrill admits as much in “Clearing the Title,” a haunting late work in which he writes about “Our poem.” He admits: “It’s signed JM, but grew / From life together, grain by coral grain.”
In his last decade, Merrill lost many close friends to AIDS, including David Kalstone, a critic who had written about his poetry. Hammer’s narrative darkens considerably once it reaches the point where Merrill himself fell ill, as the poet suspected what had befallen him. Near the end, he told Sandy McClatchy that “he’d turned a corner in the disease — headed in the wrong direction.” His relatively premature death at 68 was unexpected, at least by most readers, and the true cause of his death was kept a secret for some time.
It’s a complex life, but Hammer proves equal to the task, drawing a superbly granular portrait of a man who throughout his life showed “a fundamental fascination with and joy in language” as well as “a faith in words as a supreme medium of individual expression and a source of collective wisdom.”
Ο Τζέημς Μέριλ στην Ελλάδα στη δεκαετία του 1950
Το σπίτι του Τζέημς Μέριλ στην οδό Αθηναίων Εφήβων 44