James Merrill

James Merrill Poems

I peered into the crater’s heaving red
And quailed. I called upon the Muse. I said,
“The day I cease to serve you, let me die!”
And woke alone to birdsong, in our bed.


Then when the flame forked like a sudden path
I gasped and stumbled, and was less.
Density pulsing upward, gauze of ash,
Dear light along the way to nothingness,

Presently at our touch the teacup stirred,
Then circled lazily about
From A to Z. The first voice heard
(If they are voices, these mute spellers-out)

These days which, like yourself,
Seem empty and effaced
Have avid roots that delve
To work deep in the waste.

Out for a walk, after a week in bed,
I find them tearing up part of my block
And, chilled through, dazed and lonely, join the dozen
In meek attitudes, watching a huge crane

Crossing the street,
I saw the parents and the child
At their window, gleaming like fruit
With evening’s mild gold leaf.

The panes flash, tremble with your ghostly passage
Through them, an x-ray sheerness billowing, and I have risen
But cannot speak, remembering only that one was meant
To rise and not to speak. Young storm, this house is yours

A card table in the library stands ready
To receive the puzzle which keeps never coming.
Daylight shines in or lamplight down
Upon the tense oasis of green felt.

Death took my father.
The same year (I was twelve)
Thanási's mother taught me
Heaven and hell.

I thought I would do over
All of it. I was tired
Of scars and stains, of bleared
Panes, tinge of the liver.

Somnambulists along the promenade
Have set up booths, their dreams:
Carpets, jewelry, kitchenware, halvah, shoes.
From a loudspeaker passionate lament

James Merrill Biography

James Ingram Merrill was an American poet whose awards include the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry (1977) for Divine Comedies. His poetry falls into two distinct bodies of work: the polished and formalist (if deeply emotional) lyric poetry of his early career, and the epic narrative of occult communication with spirits and angels, titled The Changing Light at Sandover, which dominated his later career. Although most of his published work was poetry, he also wrote essays, fiction, and plays. Life James Ingram Merrill was born in New York City to Hellen Ingram Merrill and Charles E. Merrill, founding partner of the Merrill Lynch investment firm. He had two older half siblings (a brother and a sister) from his father's first marriage. As a boy, Merrill enjoyed a highly privileged upbringing in economic and educational terms. Merrill's childhood governess taught him French and German, an experience Merrill wrote about in his 1974 poem "Lost in Translation." His parents separated when he was eleven, then divorced when he was thirteen years old. As a teenager, Merrill attended the Lawrenceville School, where he befriended future novelist Frederick Buechner. When Merrill was 16 years old, his father collected his short stories and poems and published them as a surprise under the name Jim's Book. Initially pleased, Merrill would later regard the precocious book as an embarrassment. Merrill was drafted in 1944 into the United States Army and served for eight months. His studies interrupted by war and military service, Merrill returned to Amherst College in 1945 and graduated in 1947. The Black Swan, a collection of poems Merrill's Amherst professor (and lover) Kimon Friar published privately in Athens, Greece in 1946, was printed in just one hundred copies when Merrill was 20 years old. Merrill's first mature work, The Black Swan is Merrill's scarcest title and considered one of the 20th century's most collectible literary rarities. Merrill's first commercially published volume was First Poems, issued in 990 numbered copies by Alfred A. Knopf in 1951. Merrill's partner of more than four decades was David Jackson, also a writer. Merrill and Jackson met in New York City after a performance of Merrill's "The Bait" in 1953. Together, they moved to Stonington, Connecticut in 1955. For two decades, the couple spent part of each year in Athens, Greece. Greek themes, locales, and characters occupy a prominent position in Merrill's writing. In 1979 Merrill and Jackson began spending part of each year at Jackson's home in Key West, Florida. In his 1993 memoir A Different Person, Merrill revealed that he suffered writer's block early in his career and sought psychiatric help to overcome its effects. Merrill painted a candid portrait of gay life in the early 1950s, describing relationships with several men including writer Claude Fredericks, art dealer Robert Isaacson, David Jackson, and his last partner, actor Peter Hooten. Despite great personal wealth derived from unbreakable trusts made early in his childhood, Merrill lived modestly. A philanthropist, he created the Ingram Merrill Foundation, the name of which united his divorced parents. The private foundation operated during the poet's lifetime and subsidized literature, the arts, and public television. Merrill was close to poet Elizabeth Bishop and filmmaker Maya Deren, giving critical financial assistance to both (while providing money to many other writers, often anonymously). Merrill served as a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets from 1979 until his death. While vacationing in Arizona, he died on February 6, 1995 from a heart attack related to AIDS. Awards Beginning with the prestigious Glascock Prize, awarded for "The Black Swan" when he was an undergraduate, Merrill would go on to receive every major poetry award in the United States, including the 1977 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for Divine Comedies. Merrill was honored in mid-career with the Bollingen Prize in 1973. He would receive the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1983 for his epic poem The Changing Light at Sandover (composed partly of supposedly supernatural messages received via the use of a Ouija board). In 1990, he received the first Bobbitt National Prize for Poetry awarded by the Library of Congress for The Inner Room. He garnered the National Book Award for Poetry twice, in 1967 for Nights and Days and in 1979 for Mirabell: Books of Number. He was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1978. Style A writer of elegance and wit, highly adept at wordplay and puns, Merrill was a master of traditional poetic meter and form who also wrote a good deal of free and blank verse. Though not generally considered a Confessionalist poet, James Merrill made frequent use of personal relationships to fuel his "chronicles of love & loss" (as the speaker in Mirabell called his work). The divorce of Merrill's parents — the sense of disruption, followed by a sense of seeing the world "doubled" or in two ways at once — figures prominently in the poet's verse. Merrill did not hesitate to alter small autobiographical details to improve a poem's logic, or to serve an environmental, aesthetic, or spiritual theme. As Merrill matured, the polished and taut brilliance of his early work yielded to a more informal, relaxed voice. Already established in the 1970s among the finest poets of his generation, Merrill made a surprising detour when he began incorporating occult messages into his work. The result, a 560-page apocalyptic epic published as The Changing Light at Sandover (1982), documents two decades of messages dictated from otherworldly spirits during Ouija séances hosted by Merrill and his partner David Noyes Jackson. The Changing Light at Sandover is one of the longest epics in any language, and features the voices of recently deceased poet W. H. Auden, Merrill's late friends Maya Deren and Greek socialite Maria Mitsotáki, as well has heavenly beings including the Archangel Michael. Channeling voices through a Ouija board "made me think twice about the imagination," Merrill later explained. "If the spirits aren't external, how astonishing the mediums become! Victor Hugo said of his voices that they were like his own mental powers multiplied by five." Following the publication of The Changing Light at Sandover, Merrill returned to writing shorter poetry which could be both whimsical and nostalgic: "Self-Portrait in TYVEK Windbreaker" (for example) is a conceit inspired by a windbreaker jacket Merrill purchased from "one of those vaguely imbecile / Emporia catering to the collective unconscious / Of our time and place." The Tyvek windbreaker — "DuPont contributed the seeming-frail, / Unrippable stuff first used for Priority Mail" — is "white with a world map." "A zipper's hiss, and the Atlantic Ocean closes / Over my blood-red T-shirt from the Gap.")

The Best Poem Of James Merrill

Home Fires

I peered into the crater’s heaving red
And quailed. I called upon the Muse. I said,
“The day I cease to serve you, let me die!”
And woke alone to birdsong, in our bed.

The flame was sinewed like those angels Blake
Drew faithfully. One old log, flake by flake,
Gasped out its being. Had it hoped to rise
Intact from such a wrestler’s give-and-take?

My house is made of wood so old, so dry
From years beneath this pilot-light blue sky,
A stranger’s idle glance could be the match
That sends us all to blazes.—Where was I?

Ah yes. The man from Aetna showed concern.
No alarm system—when would people learn?
No outside stair. The work begins next week.
Must I now marry that I may not burn?

Never again, oracular, wild-eyed,
To breathe on a live ember deep inside?
The contract signed in blood forbids that, too,
Damping my spirit as it saves my hide.

Take risks! the crowd chants in a kind of rage
To where his roaring garret frames the sage
Held back by logic, by the very thought
Of leaping to conclusions, at his age.

Besides, the cramped flue of each stanza draws
Feeling away. To spare us? Or because
Heaven is cold and needs the mortal stuff
Flung nightly around its barenesses, like gauze.

Last weekend in a bar in Pawcatuck
A boy’s face raw and lean as lightning struck.
Before I knew what hit me, there you were,
Sweetheart, with your wet blanket. Just my luck.

I touched the grate with my small hand, and got
Corrected. Sister ran to kiss the spot.
Today a blister full of speechless woe
Wells up for the burnt children I am not.

Magda was molten at sixteen. The old
Foundryman took his time, prepared the mold,
Then poured. Lost wax, the last of many tears,
Slid down her face. Adieu, rosebuds and gold!

That slim bronze figure of Free Speech among
Repressive glooms woke ardor in the young,
Only to ring with mirth—a trope in Czech
Twisting implacably the fire’s tongue.

One grace: this dull asbestos halo meant
For the bulb’s burning brow. Two drops of scent
Upon it, and our booklined rooms, come dusk,
Of a far-shining lamp grew redolent.

The riot had been “foretold” to Mrs. Platt,
The landlady, by a glass ruby at
The medium’s throat. “Next she’ll be throwing fits,”
Gerald said coldly. “I shall move. That’s that.”

Torchlit, the student demonstrators came.
Faint blues and violets within the flame
Appeared to plead that fire at heart was shy
And only incidentally to blame.

Consuming fear, that winter, swept the mind.
Then silence, country sounds—and look! Behind
Me stands the blackened chimney of our school,
Crowned with a stork’s nest, rambler-rose-entwined.

A sunset to end all. Life’s brave disguise—
Rages and fevers, worn to tantalize—
Flickers to ash. What’s left may warm itself
At the hearth glowing in its lover’s eyes.


Dear Fulmia, I thought of you for these
Obsidian trinkets purchased, if you please,
In a boutique at the volcano’s core.
(Extinct? I wonder.) Love, Empedocles.

James Merrill Comments

Chris sarles 13 April 2021

Written by, well, ME. Christophersarlesgmail.com

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Linda Hepner 18 May 2015

I'm wandering round the internet and find James Merrill. What a wonderful day! Welcome to my life!

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Lamont Palmer 01 December 2008

It doesn't get much better in terms of midcentury poets than James Merrill. A virtuoso with words. -LP

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