July 23, 2021KR Reviews

On A Whole World: Letters from James Merrill

Eds. Langdon Hammer and Stephen Yenser. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 2021. 736 pages. $45.00.

“I need to set my thoughts in order for the inevitable Poem,” wrote James Merrill to a friend in November of 1991. He had just returned from a New Age rehab facility near Tucson, and the poem he would shape from the experience, “Family Week at Oracle Ranch,” is one of several whose gestation we glimpse in the newly published A Whole World: Letters from James Merrill.  For Merrill, letters were more than a chance to keep up with friends and colleagues; they were an integral part of the drafting process, a time to select details and scenes and weigh them for poetic effect. The book, co-edited by Stephen Yenser, one of Merrill’s literary executors, and his biographer, Langdon Hammer, contains many of the virtues that animate Merrill’s poetry. It has the same unsparing self-assessment and keen eye for social comedy. But A Whole World also reveals a side of Merrill his work can obscure or record only by implication, one we can now measure in full.

Poets don’t always wish for their letters to be seen. Vitally important when young, letters allow aspiring writers to convince themselves they are writers and sound the heroic tenor. “I want to come to Italy and work with you and forge my way into reality,” an undergraduate Robert Lowell wrote to Ezra Pound in the spring of 1936. As one ages, however, the correspondence is apt to become a burden, a reliquary of secrets and embarrassments. Dickinson and Auden, among others, left instructions, not always followed, that their surviving letters be destroyed.

Not Merrill. The author of eleven collections of poetry as well as the verse epic The Changing Light at Sandover, in addition to two novels, a handful of plays, and a memoir, Merrill opened his archive in 1964, when he was not yet forty years old, and over the years maintained what was in essence an open door policy on his notebooks, drafts, and letters. For Merrill, there was no privacy to hoard: born in 1926, he shared the confessionist tendency of many poets who rose to prominence in the 1950s and ’60s. Reading Merrill’s Collected Poems, published in 2001, one becomes fluent in a kind of shorthand, as the major events and figures from Merrill’s life recur in work after work. The letters gathered in A Whole World display a similar openness. No subject—certainly no erotic subject—is scanted. The notes are vivid and chatty, and sometimes include recipes or cameos by the likes of William Burroughs, a “sallow, nondescript party, who talked of nothing but drugs and sex-crimes, just like my mother’s Atlanta friends.”

Phrases from the letters found their way with only minimal variation into the poems. Writing of his time in Tucson and the rejection of traditional psychoanalysis in favor of pop therapy, Merrill says, “Now that nobody can afford that handmade underwear from Vienna, along comes Benetton to let it all hang out.”  “Family Week at Oracle Ranch” recasts this sentence in verse: “Underwear made in Vienna, / Who needs it! Let the soul hang out / At Benetton—stone-washed, one size fits all.”

Elsewhere we see his gift for transforming the commonplace. Late in 1994, Merrill remarks on the Christmas tree in his New York apartment: “It’s been years since I’ve had one like this: a major tree. Already doomed, of course, kept functioning, looking its best, entirely thanks to an IV system discreetely [sic] out of sight . . .”  At the time Merrill, who had been diagnosed with AIDS in 1986, had about a month to live. In one of the last poems he wrote, Merrill imagines himself as the tree, hooked up to “a primitive IV,” one that helps

To keep the show going. Yes, yes, what lay ahead
Was clear: the stripping, the cold street, my chemicals
Plowed back into the Earth for lives to come—
No doubt a blessing, a harvest, but one that doesn’t bear,
Now or ever, dwelling upon.

Overall, very little in A Whole World challenges the view of Merrill already on record.  A poet who prized formal perfection above all else—“there has never been anything I cared to express more,” he confides in one note, “than I cared for the act of expressing it”—Merrill was born to wealth as the son of the founder of Merrill Lynch, and apolitical from the start, determined to keep his verse free of the contaminant of worldly considerations. Here he is recounting time spent as Visiting Writer at Washington University in St. Louis:

The high point was perhaps an hour spent visiting a class that had been prepared by reading 6 or 8 poems (mine, but who could have told?) asked me questions. Not, Why did you use that word? but What is your Position? or Does the poet have a Role in Society? By the time this last one came I was so rattled that I heard a loud voice from somewhere inside say: Yes he does; it is NOT TO PARTICIPATE

Predictably, then, one finds nothing in the letters about Vietnam or Stonewall or any of the other climacterics of the second half of the twentieth century. Even if one credits Merrill as one of the first to write candidly about male partnership—Thom Gunn called Mirabell: Books of Number, the second volume of The Changing Light at Sandover, “the most convincing description of a gay marriage I know”—he renounces this title in a note to Elizabeth Bishop, in which he quips, “I hope I’m not turning into a Gay culture-hero.”

It is easy, obviously, to condemn such abnegation, but Merrill chose to devote his energy to poetry, and in almost fifty years of writing he suffered no breakdowns or dry spells; even the AIDS diagnosis, though it was accompanied by depression, brought about no serious diminution of his talent. Merrill was that rare poet consistently excellent through the whole of his maturity, and so committed was he to his work that he sometimes gave the impression life was to be valued only for the poems it inspired. At the end of “Days of 1971,” he addresses a lover with whom he has just driven across Europe, from Paris to Greece:

Strato, each year’s poem
Says goodbye to you.
Again, though, we’ve come through
Without losing temper or face.

If care rumpled your face
The other day in Rome,
Tonight just dump my suitcase
Inside the door and make a dash for home

While I unpack what we saw made
At Murano, and what you gave to me—
Two ounces of white heat
Twirled and tweezered into shape,

Ecco! another fanciful
Little horse, still blushing, set to cool.

The poem is like that, too, a relic sculpted or “tweezered into shape,” the affair’s lone claim to permanence. In Merrill’s work, love is given this performative or utilitarian dimension; it is the ordeal to be survived so one can tell the tale. “The point,” as Merrill says in “Matinees,” is “to arrange for one’s / Own chills and fever, passion and betrayals / Chiefly in order to make song of them.”

Yet as A Whole World makes clear, when he wasn’t speaking through the intercession of art, Merrill was less guarded about love and less stoical. “Never in my life will I have another dream but this one: to have you with me, to find a way somehow to make a life together,” he writes to that same Strato who was the subject of “Days of 1971.” In the end, the two would not find a way to make a life together, but Merrill never stopped falling in love, never stopped believing “loving is the indispensable condition,” and the letters in A Whole World show us why.  “Our affective selves don’t age much, do they?” Merrill observed when he was close to sixty, after having met a young actor named Peter Hooten. “A lifelong dial set at 18? 22? much earlier?” The letter goes on:

If I said to you in 1950 that I wanted it “to cost everything,” what would I say today?—except that love costs nothing, that the cost isn’t counted as the corner is turned and the rainbow entered.

However eager Merrill might have been to borrow material from his letters and incorporate it into his poetry, this is a register found only in the correspondence. Alongside so much else, A Whole World documents those times the poet was able to honor love, and love in itself, not just for the songs one could make of it.