X & O, Yes & No, Yin & Yang. Merrill’s poetry is not only full of dualities, but also full of the gulfs—represented by the mobius strip of the ampersand—between each of these oppositional pairs: love & loss, life & death, this world & the next; or mother & father, femininity & masculinity, space & time; or New York & Connecticut, the north & the south, the eastern seaboard & the desert southwest; or America & Europe, the West & the East, the ordinary & the exotic; or private & public, domestic & political, self & others; or past & present, form & freedom, tradition & innovation. None of these are binaries; they’re all trinities, and it is indeed the space between the pairings, the gulf itself, that fascinates the poet more than the terms that delimit it. The gulf partakes of both antipodes and designates the area we actually inhabit, the poles themselves being both inhospitable and unreachable, perhaps even nonexistent insofar as the public and the private, for instance, are always suffusing each other, complete privacy, in both life and language, being no more possible than complete publicity. The poles are imaginary, ultimately unreal; we live in the crush.
Furthermore, all of these spectrums are endlessly moving around and crisscrossing one another, the love-loss line overlaying the form-freedom line, the mother-father line underlaying the north-south line, and so on. It’s less a case of a single, vast abyss on either side of which are a series of neat, oppositional terms than a network of changeable canyons and moveable markers: the Wandering Rocks, not Scylla and Charybdis. The manifold possible contact points and connections in such an ever-shifting array of features results in a tangled skein the threads of which, along with the strangely shaped, many-sided spaces between them, often make for treacherous, if not impossible, navigation; difficult cases to solve: the poet’s task as much as anyone else’s.
Time and time again over the course of his long career, though by no means without fail, Merrill managed to deftly trace his way along one circuit of strands or another in such a way as to outline a constellation no less illuminating than it was enthralling and suggestive of further possible combinations, means of movement and understanding. If many of his poems do not thus leap into bright shape from the tangle, if often enough his meaning does not emerge freely and brilliantly from a dense network of syntax and semantics, it nevertheless remains the case that when these procedures are successful, the result is some of the most scintillating poetry in the English language. The degree of difficulty being as high as it often is, one cannot help but marvel when Merrill executes a routine flawlessly, which he does across scores of poems from the middle to the end of the 20th Century, frequently making the routine itself an overt subject of its execution, one of his trademark moves being a deft calling of attention to the moves he’s undertaking.
The book in which Merrill’s mature voice first begins to emerge is 1962’s Water Street (his third collection of poems overall), a volume consisting of 25 lyrics that are bookended by the two best and most important of them, “An Urban Convalescence” and “A Tenancy,” set in New York City and Connecticut, respectively. Over the course of the volume Merrill has moved from one state to another, from the urban to the rural, and from the single life to a life lived with another, David Jackson, to whom “A Tenancy” is dedicated. In between the two poems are all the others, some successfully dancing, some quietly gleaming, others not able to emerge from the encumbrances of their form, Merrill still not quite entirely out of his apprenticeship and into his mastery just yet, his phrases still often “clotted, unconnected,” as the poem “Angel” itself acknowledges. Not for nothing is the thirteenth and therefore central poem of the book titled “Getting Through”; difficulties abound, and the poet is like an aspiring pianist not yet able to play the more difficult and intricate compositions flawlessly. One of the volume’s earlier poems, “The Grand Canyon,” makes clear in its title just where we are as we sift and drift between the book’s two covers: along with the poet himself, we are trekking through a sequence of ordeals for which we don’t quite yet have an entirely suitable language, tone, and form.
“It is still early,” begins “The Grand Canyon,” referring not only to the time of day on a visit to the actual place in question, but also to the poet’s own career. This poem is only the sixth poem in a book of 25, and that book the third book in a career that will turn out to include nine more volumes of poetry, not counting compilations and collections of castoffs. “You, too,” says the poem’s speaker, contemplating the vista, “must conquer / Involuntary nausea / Before you look,” where the “you” is indeterminate: himself or anyone else. The Grand Canyon is in fact a vast host of canyons. How to just process all of the bluffs, let alone choose a correct route through them? The expanse of time on display is no less immense than the expanse of space; the past is visible in the strata of rock. And the journey from the rim to the floor and back promises not only to be fearful and vertigo-inducing but, when one gets right down to it, also quite tedious and tiresome, exhausting. “Far under- / Foot are your wept-over / Sunsets, your every year / Deepened perspectives, layer / On monstrous layer.” It is a descent into a temporal underworld, a search both for and through lost time, and it will not always, or even mostly, be graceful and exciting. Nor is the means of movement from top to bottom a wingèd, mythical horse whose motion is elegant and lithe; instead it is a “gargoyle-faced ass” one rides, making a slow, precipitous descent involving the clattering of pebbles and a plodding, dour methodicalness. Sometime before the end of this 33-line poem (and those lines all quite short), I’ve already lost interest in it, finding it difficult to follow from the two-thirds marker onward, the associations too steep and oblique to make me want to do anything but get to the end—or bottom—of it as quickly as possible. “All petrifying” indeed. Merrill is still learning how to swiftly cut through time.
By no means, then, is this a great poem, or even necessarily a good one. Selected Poems 1946-1985 contains eighteen of Water Street’s 25 poems, and “The Grand Canyon” isn’t one of them. It would be entirely forgettable if it wasn’t written by someone whose best poems are much, much better than it. At its heart, though, is something that crops up again and again throughout Merrill’s work: the daunting spectacle of those layers upon layers of past time, layers to be stared at, amazed by, and descended through, most likely either bored or terrified as a result of the difficult position in which such activity places one, though also from time to time thrilled and exalted precisely because of the prospect of ultimately reemerging. These layers, these strata “of mouse,/Marigold, madder,” petrified plants and animals caught in the crush of compressed rock, things paradoxically frozen in time, are not only part of a theme that Merrill will sound over the course of his career, but also part of a motif that runs from “An Urban Convalescence” through “A Tenancy” in Water Street, a motif made out of the language of excavation and uncovering, extraction and demolition, compression and obliteration. How to find the agile line from one point to another when all is constantly shifting, being smashed together and forced apart, when the movement of one node, because of its connection to multiple pliant but sturdy invisible wires at the ends of which are other nodes, means their movement too?
Water Street begins with the poet out for a walk for the first time in a while after an illness, “watching a huge crane/Fumble luxuriously in the filth of years,” the crane not only simultaneously both a divine machine and some kind of mythic mechanical bird, but also an image of the young poet himself, fumbling luxuriously through the filth of his own years, layer after layer of everything he’s wept over, trying to make room for something new but in the early going doing little more than making a mess in which nerves and fibers, “wires and pipes, snapped off at the roots, quiver,” clotted and unconnected. The crane’s “jaws dribble rubble”; the poet is still struggling to figure out how to get his own mouth to make music instead of mayhem—or music out of mayhem. The “wept-over/Sunsets” of orange and yellow and red in the rock walls of the Grand Canyon are here replaced by the “Pocked rose, streaked greens, brown whites” of a Manhattan residence, the inner hues of a domestic abode bared by violent digs behind which are motivations as questionable as they are forward thinking.
In “A Tenancy,” meanwhile, such rude uncoverings and exposures are replaced by total obliteration as the poet, newly ensconced in Connecticut, remembers a country scene from a decade ago: “A fresh snowfall muffled the road, unplowed/To leave blanker and brighter/The bright, blank page turned overnight.” The white emptiness of a freshly snow-draped landscape is likened to the empty page, free of writing, staring the poet in the face as he looks out the window onto the winter scene. On that page, for the time being, he can do nothing save idly, aimlessly sketch “unfamiliar numerals,” complex curlicues the gaps and lines of which might, in time, “be plumbed / For signs I should not know until I saw them” (there’s an anticipation of the Ouija transcripts here, to be sure). It is a series of looped and interlocking sixes and nines perhaps, mimicked in the chiasmus of “blanker and brighter,” “bright, blank.” Such strange formal patterns do indeed often have the beginnings of poems in them, but only the very beginnings, as the poet here, young and puzzled and remembered from a distance of ten years, contemplates the strange relationship between the lives we live and the art we make out of them, wondering if any key to it all will ever be presented to him, a key that ten years later seems to have only just been proffered.
When the calendar turned from 1961 to 1962, the year of Water Street’s publication, Merrill was still 35, midway on his life’s journey, seeking the right road forward amid desert descents, urban mazes, and broad folds of snow as blank, for now, as the pages on which he hoped to compose the poems that would make his name. If he was to be successful, then desultory, luxurious, petrified wanderings would have to give way to commitment and promise and discipline, where both “An Urban Convalescence” and “A Tenancy” conclude with promises made by the poet to himself to get serious indeed about the navigation of ever-shifting organic forms, starting right now. He will dedicate his life to rendering in sharp relief “the dull need to make some kind of house / Out of the life lived, out of the love spent,” and then, when visitors start to arrive at that house, he will resolve not to ask “why they come,” but simply to invite them in to sit and relax: “If I am host at last / It is of little more than my own past. / May others be at home in it.” The poet’s task is to convert the tangled skein into the straight lines of floors and walls and ceilings, of stanzas, and to disperse and arrange throughout those rooms the furniture that had perhaps been cluttered in the attic, cobwebbed and under wraps, that he might receive his guests, whether they come from down the street or across the ocean or from the other side of the grave.
A mansion in long island takes the place of the house in Combray; the ballroom at Sandover makes for an otherworldly, late-century version of the Verdurin salon; Merrill’s chronicles of love and loss replace Proust’s search for lost time. Merrill is to English poetry what Proust is to the French novel. This is not hyperbole. From Water Street to A Scattering of Salts, Merrill is constantly moving through the halls of lost time, descending into and plumbing their depths, excavating their material, reconstructing and rearranging it and always finding it both mutable (even if sometimes recalcitrantly so) and susceptible to conversion into lasting art. His stanzas proliferate from poem to poem, volume to volume, themselves eventually constituting the greatest mansion of all, and the one least susceptible to ruin. The themes of his lyrics are Proust’s themes: the beguiling relationships between art and life, child and parents, the older self and the younger self; the fascination with and participation in a dazzling social milieu from which one nevertheless partially separates oneself as a result of having adopted the vocation of the artist; intimate relationships between men; illness and recovery; generosity of spirit in matters of love; and the continuous work of memory, both voluntary and involuntary.
A list of select poem titles from Water Street has a Proustian sheen to it: “A Vision of the Garden,” “Poem of Summer’s End,” “Scenes of Childhood,” “The World and the Child,” “Childlessness.” “The World and the Child” is an ornate villanelle that might just as well be about young Marcel as about young Jim: “People have filled the room he lies above. / Their talk, mild variation, chilling theme, / Falls on the child.” A boy is both enthralled by and afraid of the seemingly fascinating lives led by the fashionable adults downstairs, adults with whom he regularly comes into contact. Before too long, however, he will be disillusioned with respect to their admirability, for they will turn out to be mainly children themselves, and he one among them. The veneer, that is, will rub off on him in more ways than one, and as an artist he will seek to accord both these lives and this lifestyle the depth they ought to have but so rarely do.
In the midst of those Proustian titles from Water Street are the quatrains of “For Proust” itself. It is one of the volume’s best poems, depicting the French novelist in the midst of his alchemical procedures, converting life’s depth into art’s surface, and life’s surface into art’s depth. It is a portrait not only of Proust as an older man, but of the artist at work in general, where the work is as maddening and difficult as it is endless: “Over and over something would remain / Unbalanced in the painful sum of things.” The experiment never comes out quite right, the mixtures are never quite sufficient; the equations never balance, and the columns never add up as evenly as one would like. The poem’s form deliberately captures these slight, inevitable asymmetries: the quatrains rhyme ABBA, hinting at the shape of both an equation and a palindrome, but the A rhymes are not always perfect, and while the B rhymes are actually always the same word, it’s more often than not either a word used differently (stir, palms, low, leaves) or not quite the same word after all (apart and a part, draw and withdraw). Thus Merrill hints at imbalance even through an excess of balance: the poem’s eleven quatrains are all elegantly poised and formally identical, but the rhymes, along with other formal features such as enjambment and metrical variation, call attention to the persistent presence of difference and variety, which in turn generate imbalance: things in excess or things missing, things left over and things used up. In “For Proust,” as in several other poems in Water Street, we see Merrill just beginning to realize and admit to himself that form is less a means of achieving perfection than of highlighting imperfection, less a means of eliminating flaws than of calling attention to their inevitability, whether they be beautiful or appalling. He is on the way to his mature voice, one that will be as casual as it is sophisticated, simultaneously chatty and challenging. For Merrill, the fact that something always remains unbalanced in the painful sum of thingswill in the end turn out to be less a cause for lament than the spur to art itself, the nagging itch that sends the artist out into the world once more to confirm a detail, seek an answer to a question, hear a musical phrase once more.
Music is no less prevalent in the poetry of Merrill than it is in the Recherche; what Berma and Vinteuil are to Marcel, for instance, Flagstad and Wagner are to JM. From the first poem of First Poems, “The Black Swan,” with its evocation of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, to “The Ring Cycle,” a sequence of six 15-line lyrics from A Scattering of Salts, Merrill underscores his poetry with opera, ballet, and classical compositions, ensuring that a current of music always runs beneath his language and frequently becomes the subject of it, too, as in poems such as “Matinees,” “The Victor Dog,” and “Farewell Performance,” the first and third of which are dedicated to David Kalstone, who often accompanied Merrill to the Met, while the second is dedicated to Elizabeth Bishop, who loved music enough to always keep a clavichord among her possessions even as she moved from place to place to place. And the moment in Proust’s life that Merrill chooses to dwell on in “For Proust” is a moment in which the writer, engaged in the process of composing his masterpiece, feels he cannot go on with it without first hearing a phrase of music he once knew long ago but now cannot quite remember, where having it note for note in his mind is the only way he’ll be able to continue with his own composition. It’s not as simple, either, as finding and putting on the appropriate record. He must go outside and track down an old acquaintance who might be able to hum it for him once more, where such an enterprise is made literally life-threatening by the frailness of his condition; exposure to the elements might tip the scales from life to death. But the sought after musical phrase—which of course evokes the famous phrase from Vinteuil’s sonata that first appears in Swann’s Way and then recurs throughout the subsequent volumes of the Recherche—is too important; Proust must seek it out even if it threatens his life and, by extension, his work. If he dies as a result of exposure to the elements he will not finish his novel, but if he does not hear the phrase once more the novel might not be finishable, or it will be finished but lack the charm with which knowledge of the phrase will invest it. Merrill himself was known to seek solutions to problems in poetic composition by having recourse to music, the baby Steinway in the Stonington house’s sunroom having dispelled at least as many cases of writer’s block as anything else in his life, including alcohol and cigarettes.
“For Proust” is as much an homage to another writer as it is an anticipation of Merrill’s own destiny. Having found the sought-for friend and heard the phrase once more, the writer returns to his room. The phrase’s notes, writes Merrill, addressing his subject directly, “like leaves / In the strong tea you have contrived to drain, // Strangely intensity what you must do.” Later, while the writer sleeps, “An old, old woman shuffling in to draw / Curtains, will read a line or two, withdraw.” Like the sleeping writer himself, she will have just been exposed to a fragment of a work, where the word “line” would seem to indicate that that work might just as well be a poem as a novel.
Proust is always there, no less than music itself, beneath the surface of Merrill’s work, in both the lyrics and the epic, occasionally surfacing to once again become the direct subject of one or the other. Ten years after Water Street, for instance, in 1972’s Braving the Elements, Merrill returns to Proust in “Days of 1971,” and the figure of Proust, not surprisingly, looms large throughout The Book of Ephraim.
The “Days of x” model is one that Merrill borrows from the Greek poet C. P. Cavafy. It’s a content genre that Merrill returned to over and over again throughout his life, varying the form from one poem to the next but always zeroing in on the lived experiences of a particular time and place, creating, in the process, and whether inadvertently or by design, something of a sequence that runs throughout his work, from “Days of 1964” in Nights and Days to “Days of 1994,” one of the last poems that Merrill wrote—or was writing—before his death, where both of these poems are free in their structure. In between them come the ballad “Days of 1935” and the sonnet sequence “Days of 1971,” both in Braving the Elements, and “Days of 1941 and ’44,” also a sonnet sequence, in Late Settings. Arranged not by date of composition but by the year in which they take place, the poems take us from Merrill’s boyhood and the period of his parents’ divorce to his time at boarding school and his brief stint in the military at the end of World War Two, and from there to his late 30s and mid-40s in Greece in particular and Europe in general, and from there to the final year of Merrill’s life, his death in February 1995 imminent if not foreseeable.
Two of the poems in this sequence are part of another sequence of poems that runs throughout Merrill’s work, a sequence that consists of poems that are themselves sequences of sonnets. “Days of 1971” and “Days of 1941 and ’44,” that is, form (again, however loosely) part of a great sequence that includes “The Broken Home” and “Matinees,” among others, along with multiple sections of the Sandover trilogy, including section “R” in The Book of Ephraim. In “Days of 1971” we find the poet waiting at the airport in Paris for the arrival of his lover, Strato Mouflouzelis, who has agreed to fly from Athens to the City of Light that he and Merrill might then drive back to Greece together, taking a circuitous route that will enable them to see everything from the Pyrenees to Venice. Early on in the trip, and in the poem’s third sonnet out of ten, they’ve just left Paris and the poet, being chauffeured by his young lover and recalling the relationship between Proust and his chauffeur, Alfred Agostinelli, points out at the appropriate moment, “That last turnoff went to Illiers,” Proust’s childhood home. At this point Merrill outlines what he calls “Proust’s Law” for the benefit of his young lover, to whom the poem is addressed and who doesn’t seem to be listening all that well or perhaps even to be interested as his older, more literary lover goes on about the dynamics of desire as they’re unfolded in the work of the great French modernist. The law “is twofold,” Merrill says, and works as follows:
(a) What least thing our self-love longs for most
Others instinctively withhold;
(b) Only when time has slain desire
Is his wish granted to a smiling ghost
Neither harmed nor warmed, now, by the fire.
(a) is another way of saying what “For Proust” says at its outset: imbalance is built into the very heart of things, and of desire in particular, so that to desire someone more is almost inevitably to be desired less, and to desire someone less a natural consequence of being desired more. (b) then stipulates that while it is possible for these imbalances to be redressed, this only ever happens when it no longer matters to us all that much, if at all: at that point the fire of passion will have dwindled to a dull flame no longer capable of either warming or burning us. We get what we want when we no longer want it, which is just another way of not getting what you want. This is that with which we must somehow learn to live, where art provides us with the means of doing so (alcohol and cigarettes also help). If we can convert the inevitability of loss and disappointment into a poetic law, we might exercise at least some understanding of, if not control over, it.
In The Book of Ephraim Proust is named once more, in section “V,” which, like the section that follows it, is suggestively set in Venice, a city that figures prominently in Proust’s Recherche first as a dreamt of fantasy, then as a disappointing reality, and finally as a lost paradise. “Venise, pavane, nirvana, vice, wrote Proust,” begins section “V,” only Proust never wrote any such thing; this is Merrill’s own rendition, it would seem, of Proust’s thoughts on Venice, condensed into three words that all feature the letter “v” and that present the Floating City as a slow, stately dance; a transcendent state free of desire and selfhood; and a breeding ground for sin. For Merrill himself, meanwhile, it is both a cultural treasure trove and a tourist trap. The city’s beautiful palaces, viewed from a certain angle, seem little more than “empty-lit display / Rooms for glass companies,” and even that rich cultural heritage is only so much “Historical garbage, in the Marxist phrase.” Merrill toggles back and forth between adoration and disillusionment; in section “W” he will try to counter his unimpressed nephew’s own cynicism with a litany of praise that invokes Wagner and Stravinsky and that is written in the terza rima of Dante, and that seems intended to convince himself as much as anyone else. Proust may indeed be “A GREAT PROPHET THRONED ON HIGH,” as Ephraim says, but JM has read him “for the last time.” Still, to have read Proust “for the last time” implies that one has read him more than once, which in itself is quite an accomplishment. The statement indicates, perhaps, less that Merrill no longer has any use for Proust than that he has by this point in time so thoroughly absorbed him that further readings are unnecessary; the lens has been internalized. And from yet another angle the pronouncement might be not so much a flat declaration as a lament laden with pathos, like the announcement, perhaps, that one has smoked one’s last cigarette. Overindulgence can be harmful to one’s health. Whatever tone we might ascribe to the words, the fact remains that Proust is the occupant of one of the fewer than 30 seats taken up by a who’s who of great writers at the end of Sandover’s Coda, in anticipation of JM’s reading the completed poem.
Merrill may have never picked up Proust again in the last twenty years of his life save for perhaps having to check a reference or two, but the impress nevertheless remains in the later work. From the time he was an undergraduate at Amherst, where he wrote his senior thesis on the French novelist, to the poems of Water Street and then Braving the Elements and then the Sandover trilogy and beyond, Merrill was engaged in the laborious task of trying, in his own way, “Through superhuman counterpoint to work / The body’s resurrection, sense by sense.”