James Ingram Merrill (March 3, 1926 – February 6, 1995) was a Pulitzer Prize winning American poet, one of the most acclaimed of his generation. Writing in the decades after World War II, when literary Modernism had all but collapsed, Merrill's poetry—elegant, witty, and formally masterful—helped to chart the directions American poetry would take in the second half of the twentieth century. Like Auden or Yeats, Merrill was a master of traditional rhyme-and-meter who was also adept at writing in free verse, and his poems often phase in and out of strict and loose forms, creating poetry that is simultaneously modern and traditional. A major figure in the resurgence of poetic forms in the latter twentieth century, as well as an influential philanthropist who founded the Ingram Merrill Foundation, Merrill is one of the most important American poets of the late 1900s.
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. His childhood governess taught him French and German, an essential factor in the development of Merrill's urbane, worldly style.
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 into the United States Army in 1944, serving for eight months. His studies interrupted by war and military service, Merrill returned to Amherst College in 1945, graduating in 1947. The Black Swan, a collection of poems Merrill's professor, Kimon Friar, published privately in Athens, Greece in 1946, was printed in just one hundred copies when Merrill was 20 years old. Considered to be Merrill's first mature work, The Black Swan is Merrill's scarcest title and is one of the twentieth 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.
In 1955, Merill moved to Stonington, Connecticut. A year later, Merill purchased a home in Athens, Greece—Greek themes would become a frequent landmark in Merill's literary landscape—and for the next twenty years he would shuttle back and forth between the two residences. In spite of his immense inherited wealth, Merrill lived modestly, giving most of his money away (often anonymously) to support poets and writers in need of financial assistance. 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. The novelist Alison Laurie, a close friend of Merill, would write that during these years he was a "kind of Martian: Supernaturally brilliant, detached, quizzical, apart."
With his great personal wealth derived from unbreakable trusts made early in his childhood, Merrill became a philanthropist, creating the Ingram Merrill Foundation, the name of which united his two 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.
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.
A writer of elegance and wit, highly adept at wordplay and puns, Merrill was a master of traditional poetic meter and form who nevertheless produced significant quantities of free and blank verse. Though not generally considered a Confessionalist poet, James Merrill made frequent use of personal experiences to fuel his "chronicles of love & loss" (as the speaker in Mirabell called his work). The divorce of Merrill's parents created a sense of disruption, followed by a sense of seeing the world "doubled," or in two ways at once, which 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. "Lost in Translation," easily Merrill's most famous work and the finest example of his urbane style, is one of the most widely-anthologized poems in the English language. An incredibly elegant and incredibly complex meditation on memory, language, and family, written in the form of a story about putting a jigsaw puzzle together, the poem is too lengthy to quote, but an excerpt from some of its opening lines will suffice to convey a glimmer of Merill's genius:
- 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.
- Full of unfulfillment, life goes on…
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 Jackson. The Changing Light at Sandover is one of the longest epics in any language, featuring the voices of recently deceased poet W. H. Auden, Merrill's late friends Maya Deren and Greek socialite, Maria Mitsotáki, as well as 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 that 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."
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. In 1990, he received the first Bobbitt National Prize for Poetry awarded by the Library of Congress, for The Inner Room. He was awarded the National Book Award for Nights and Days in 1967, and again in 1979, for Mirabell: Books of Number.
Works by Merrill
Since his death, Merrill's work has been anthologized in three divisions: Collected Poems, Collected Prose, and Collected Novels and Plays. Accordingly, his work below is divided along those same lines.
- The Black Swan (1946)
- First Poems (1951)
- The Country of a Thousand Years of Peace (1959)
- Water Street (1962)
- Nights and Days (1966)
- The Fire Screen (1969)
- Braving the Elements (1972)
- Divine Comedies (1976), including "Lost in Translation" and "The Book of Ephraim"
- Mirabell: Books of Number (1978)
- Scripts for the Pageant (1980)
- The Changing Light at Sandover (1982)
- From the First Nine: Poems 1946-1976 (1982)
- Late Settings (1985)
- The Inner Room (1988)
- Selected Poems 1946-1985 (1992)
- A Scattering of Salts (1995)
- Collected Poems (2001) ISBN 0-375-41139-9
- Recitative (1986)—essays
- A Different Person (1993)—memoir
- Collected Prose (2004) ISBN 0-375-41136-4
Novels and Plays
- The Seraglio (1957)
- The (Diblos) Notebook (1965)
- The Birthday (1947)
- The Immortal Husband (1955)
- The Bait (1960)
- Collected Novels and Plays (2002) ISBN 0-375-41137-2
- Adams, Don. James Merrill's Poetic Quest. Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press, 1997. ISBN 0313302502
- Laurie, Alison. Familiar Spirits: A Memoir of James Merrill and David Jackson. New York: Viking, 2001. ISBN 0670894591
- Lehman, David and Charles Berger. James Merrill: Essays in Criticism Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1983. ISBN 0801414040
- Yenser, Stephen. The Consuming Myth: The Work of James Merrill. 1987. ISBN 0674166159
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