[Many thanks to Lauren Chavez for this guest post!]
Very rarely do I allow myself to be swallowed by the overwhelming emotions that stir within my chest when I read poetry. I’ve never enjoyed strong displays of emotion from myself, especially in front of other people. Merrill, however, does not allow me to hide from such displays. There were a handful of times over the course of my last semester as an undergraduate when I could not fight the power of Merrill’s language and found myself in tears, stumbling to finish reading my designated section of a poem for Ben and Jenna on our Tuesday afternoon meetings for our independent study. Now the semester is over. I’ve graduated. My parents successfully moved me back to Colorado with disregard for what I wanted for myself—my life. I feel torn away from everything that had become familiar to me. While in Bozeman, I created a life for myself, a life that made me strive for more but never left me wanting. I had a clear course of direction; I knew what I wanted and where my life was potentially headed, and that all got taken from me. Now that I’m back in Colorado I’ve found myself to be so incredibly lonely, more so than I have ever felt before. I don’t feel like I belong or fit in with my family anymore, nor do I recognize this place that I am supposed to call home. Sleepless nights have plagued me since moving back. I’ve spent days driving aimlessly around town, trying to feel some recognition, familiarity, or affection for it, but I can’t. I spend my sleepless nights at my desk, under the watchful eye of the moon and stars, clinging to Merrill’s poetry.
My apartment, which sits above the garage of my parents’ house, is warm, quiet, and comfortable, with much more space than I was ever afforded in my living arrangements for college. My favorite part about it is the four very large windows, each one facing a different direction—north, south, east, and west. I can change my perspective if I wish, or stay looking in one direction the entire day. I love the moments when light hits the window just right and I can see my own reflection in the glass while also looking at what is past it. I like looking through myself, yet also seeing myself as part of a larger picture and yet still being sperate from it. My apartment, the windows, contain me—my sadness and my longing.
Merrill was fascinated by rooms (“stanza” being Italian for “room”). He often referred to his poems as “acoustical chambers” that “endow the weariest platitude with resonance and depth” (Prose 7-8). And windows—glass in general, really—are great for bouncing sound back to our ears. Many music venues like the Metropolitan opera (which Merrill frequented regularly), and even my local Boettcher Concert Hall have glass discs hanging like elegant chandeliers from their ceilings in order to contain and focus the sound within the room. At the completion of a piece of music the sound will continue vibrating, spinning, and developing because it continues to bounce off the glass long after that last note has been played. Whether a poem is written in quatrains, octaves, or sestets, Merrill uses each stanza as its own glass disc, creating a resonance that echoes throughout a poem in its entirety.
The poem that immediately comes to mind for me in this regard is “Matinées,” a series of sonnets recalling, among other things, Merrill’s first opera at the Met when he was 11. Opera had a large influence on Merrill’s life and work, though that influence has somehow gone understated in works of literary criticism. In an interview conducted by Donald Sheehan in 1968 Merrill said, “I cared about music long before I cared about literature” (Prose 54). Merrill was fascinated by the sense of “sound” inherent in a feeling, a sense “that could be expressed without any particular attention to words” (54), and yet, Merrill seemed to take it upon himself to put those feelings—with great care and attention—into words, which I think is beautifully accomplished in the long, memory-embedded lines of “Matinées.” Each sonnet represents a different day or moment in the young, opera-enthused Merrill’s life, where he is either at the opera or meditating on the subjects of those operas in his day-to-day life. In the first sonnet, young James is captivated by the first scene of Das Rheingold: “The three sopranos dart hither and yon/ O invisible strings. Cold lights/ Cling to bare arms, fair tresses” (Poems 92). Then, in the third sonnet, Merrill finds himself at the dentist, yet the whole experience plays itself out as if it were a part of Das Rheingold, “Hilariously Dr. Scherer took the guise/ Of a bland smoothshaven Alberich whose age-old/ Plan had been to fill my tooth with gold” (93). Just as Merrill’s poems come from a place of embedded memory, so does the music of opera, and it’s safe to say that in his life the one had a lifelong influence on the other.
Resonance— something I feel like my life is lacking right now. During the semester, I looked forward to every Tuesday afternoon when I would pick up my friend and classmate Jenna and drive us to our independent study with Ben. I lived for our weekly “seances” where we talked about Merrill and Bishop. I think that’s what I miss the most, people to have meaningful conversations with. When I first arrived home, I spent most of my days searching for jobs, but tired of that easily and instead would go outside and sit under one of the big pine trees behind the house and read or write. Now I spend my days helping out at my dad’s office, doing mind-numbing paperwork and feeling utterly desolate. I feel as if my life’s stage lays bare, the curtain hangs over it heavily—no music plays (a bit melodramatic, I know, but no less valid). For Merrill, though, his household opera never palled or failed (Baird 16). In the sixth sonnet of “Matinées” Merrill writes, “The point thereafter was to arrange for one’s / Own chills and fever, passions and betrayals, / Chiefly in order to make song of them” (Poems 96). Opera for Merrill was a symbol for life, specifically life as a “pageant subsumed in music” (Baird 16), something that becomes very apparent in his Sandover trilogy. But just as a composer of an opera lifts and intensifies the emotions in musical expressions, Merrill does so with his sound of feeling, by way of which he is able to reflect both fantasy and reality in forms larger than life, forms that appear both on and off of a stage.
Merrill admired the work of poets like Bishop, Ashbery, and Lowell, but Bishop’s work stood out to him more than the rest. He liked how her poetry took on a “human scale” (Prose 155) and addressed the day to day realities of human existence. In his memoir A Different Person he wrote that Bishop was “someone my spirit could aspire to resemble” (141). And Merrill would, in fact, mirror Bishop’s spirit throughout his career, as many of his poems were inspired or crafted in response to Bishop’s own. The two poets explored their childhoods, sexuality, and romantic loves and losses through their poems. They contained and shaped their experiences and emotions through various poetic forms and their own poetic calling cards. For Bishop, it was maps and places—geography. For Merrill, it was internal spaces, sound, texture, color—rooms.
A person does not have to be an expert in poetry to notice a sort of enclosure, or containment in Merrill’s poems. His poems are often puzzling and assume that the reader has more context than what is actually given within the poem. Despite Merrill’s autobiographical assumptions, he gives the reader a room and then promptly says, “alright piece together my life by looking at this painting on the wall, or the texture of this couch, and don’t forget the wallpaper in the bedroom. Now, look out the window. What is it that you see?” Merrill proves that much can be done in the limits of narrow rooms. There is an intense interiority that creates both solace and liberty in small spaces. Maybe that’s why at the end of a long day I retreat into my little apartment, not wishing to see or speak to anyone after I lock the front door behind me. Within its four walls I feel free to do anything. I can fantasize about a different life, the one that I had hoped to be living at this very moment, but that now only exists in my mind. My unspoken words and longings fall onto the page as poems, ones that I dream would manifest themselves while I sleep. I think it was Seamus Heaney who said that “in one sense the efficacy of poetry is nil – no lyric ever stopped a tank. In another sense it is unlimited.” But how is poetry unlimited if it cannot change my current situation, nor the situations of others, in the world? Maybe it goes back to manifestation, or to a conscious contradiction of the forces that wish to exterminate the good that remains around us, within us.
My mind jumps to section “P” of Ephraim, “Powers of lightness, darkness, powers that be…” (80). More and more lately I’ve felt some sort of power, or powers working in my life. There has been a shift in energy that makes my skin tingle and gives me an unexpected alertness during the day. I find myself holding my breath as if I’m waiting for something to happen. Many things have been swirling through my mind as of late—grad school, jobs, travel, friendships. Love especially has been on my mind in all its mysterious forms, how it can appear unexpectedly when you’re not looking, the ache for it, and how it can disappear just as fast; the overwhelming joy it can bring, the ache of longing for it, and the pain of losing it. Merrill’s love poems are unlike anything else I have read before. “The Broken Bowl,” from Merrill’s first, privately published collection, The Black Swan (1946), introduces what Merrill said himself to be “the earliest inklings of certain lifelong motifs” (Yenser 33). “The Broken Bowl” is a reflection on lost love and artistic gain, two things that Merrill would try to balance throughout his life and eventually master the art of. In his later work, Merrill explores a more or less vexed interiority of love poetry in what he would call “A Room at the Heart of Things,” from his 1988 collection The Inner Room. Merrill, word-enchanted as usual, plays with the various meanings of words and their parts in this poem. A quick look at the form of the poem reveals rhyming couplets—pairs, twos, you, me. The speaker of the poem observes their lover and notes their habits and mannerisms as they write. There is a feeling of warmth in the beginning of the poem, “Deeper in fleecy quilts, dusk atmospheres, / Then high-up quivering Hesperus appears” (18). But soon after a cold breeze begins to drift into the warmth, flushing it out: “Choreograph the passage from complex / Clairvoyance to some ultimate blind x, / Raw luster, rendering its human guise. / The lover shuts, the actor lifts his eyes” (20). There is both tenderness and frustration in the poem, a threat to wall out the beloved as the poem is composed, but also a solace in the creation of “art’s inner room.” Perhaps the poem isn’t so much about being vexed by a lover, instead having more to do with the repair and expansion of one’s own self, as a being of one instead of two. It is as much a love poem as it is perhaps an elegy.
We’re back to rooms again…
As Merrill prepared to publish The Inner Room, he was corresponding with a young painter, Barbara Kassel, whom he had met at Yale in the 1970s. He was fascinated by the way her paintings portrayed mysterious interiors and landscapes glimpsed through windows or doors. Naturally, then, he enlisted Kassel to create the book jacket for The Inner Room. He “sent Kassel exact instructions, down to gradients of color… an interior with a foreground wall depicting the night sky, but painted to look ‘not like a real sky so much as a star-map,’ beyond which a further, inner room would be partially revealed” (Hammer 722). Much like the contrast between the warmth and coolness in “A Room at the Heart of Things,” the cover of the volume oscillates between colors of darkness and light. In a letter to Kassel, Merrill conveyed that he wanted it to be “a picture of a safe zone, with darkness all around—like the ‘dusk within the night.’” The cover prepares the reader to enter Merrill’s inner rooms, “the Water Street study hidden behind a door; the laundry room on top of the house in Athens; the niche created by a tall bookcase in his bedroom in Key West” (Hammer 722). During the creation of The Inner Room, the reality of his HIV diagnosis had become more and more prominent for Merrill. The “inner room” created a space he could retreat to and where he could conceive his poems while looking for strength and shelter from his illness.
I like to think of the cover as a metaphor for where Merrill was at in his life. The looming night sky outside of the half-obscured room looks like it will swallow the small, warm space at any moment, but the last moments of a setting sun reflected in the door’s mirror lingers impenetrable amidst the starry darkness. I think the cover also serves as a physical representation of a lot of Merrill’s poetry. He creates an inner room for the reader that is warm and comfortable, but there is also a looming darkness that threatens to come in, and sometimes Merrill lets it. This kind of experience reading Merrill’s poems can be an emotional or intellectual one, or both at the same time, which is why I love his poetry. It’s intimidating at times; the piecing together of his meaning can be a daunting task, but it is incredibly rewarding once done. Though the past couple of months of my life have been rather turbulent, Merrill’s poetry has been a constant through it all, and I’ve often stumbled onto the right poem that I didn’t know I needed. Every once in a while, I let myself be consumed by the darkness because I know when it passes, I’ll find myself back in the warmth of the room, but with a new perspective and a new understanding of not only whatever poem I’ve read, but my own life as well. Other times, I’m swept up into a poem that my mind can’t necessarily comprehend, but the tears running down my cheeks let me know that my heart did, and sometimes that is all I need in order to feel like I’m not alone.
Baird, James. “James Merrill’s Sound of Feeling: Language and Music.” Southwest Review, vol. 74, no. 3, 1989, pp. 361–377.
Hammer, Langdon. James Merrill: Life and Art. Knopf, 2015.
Merrill, James. A Different Person: A Memoir. 1st HarperCollins paperback ed., 1994.
Merrill, James, et al. Collected Prose. Alfred A. Knopf: Distributed by Random House, 2004.
Merrill, James, and Langdon Hammer. Merrill: Poems. Everyman, 2017.
Yenser, Stephen. The Consuming Myth: The Work of James Merrill. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1987.