March 3, 1926|
New York City, New York, United States
|Died||February 6, 1995
|Alma mater||Amherst College|
|Notable work(s)||The Changing Light at Sandover, Divine Comedies, Nights and Days|
|Notable award(s)||Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, National Book Award, Bollingen Prize|
|Partner(s)||David Jackson, Peter Hooten|
|Relative(s)||Charles E. Merrill (father), Peter Magowan (nephew)|
James Ingram Merrill (March 3, 1926 – February 6, 1995) 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.
James Ingram Merrill was born in New York City to Charles E. Merrill (1885-1956), the founding partner of the Merrill Lynch investment firm, and Hellen Ingram Merrill (1898-2000), a society reporter and publisher from Jacksonville, Florida. Merrill's parents married in 1925, the year before he was born; he would grow up with two older half siblings from his father's first marriage, Doris Merrill Magowan and Charles E. Merrill, Jr. As a boy, Merrill enjoyed a highly privileged upbringing in educational and economic terms. His father's 30-acre estate in Southampton, New York, for example, known as "The Orchard," had been designed by Stanford White with landscaping by Frederick Law Olmstead. (It would be divided in 1980 into 29 luxury condominiums while leaving intact its ballroom and first-floor reception areas.) Merrill's childhood governess taught him French and German, an experience Merrill wrote about in his 1974 poem "Lost in Translation." From 1936-1938, Merrill attended St. Bernard's, a prestigious New York grammar school.
"I found it difficult to believe in the way my parents lived. They seemed so utterly taken up with engagements, obligations, ceremonies," Merrill would tell an interviewer in 1982. "The excitement, the emotional quickening I felt in those years came usually through animals or nature, or through the servants in the house . . . whose lives seemed by contrast to make such perfect sense. The gardeners had their hands in the earth. The cook was dredging things with flour, making pies. My father was merely making money, while my mother wrote names on place-cards, planned menus, and did her needlepoint." Merrill's parents separated when he was eleven, then divorced when he was thirteen years old. As a teenager, Merrill boarded at the Lawrenceville School, where he befriended future novelist Frederick Buechner, began writing poetry, and undertook early literary collaborations. 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. Today, it is considered a bibliographical treasure worth thousands of dollars.
"The Black Swan"
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, "summa cum laude," 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 among Merrill's scarcest titles is and considered one of 20th century poetry'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.
A Different Person
Merrill's partner of more than four decades was David Jackson, a writer and artist. Merrill and Jackson met in New York City after a performance of Merrill's play "The Bait" at the Comedy Club in 1953. (Poet Dylan Thomas and playwright Arthur Miller walked out of the performance.) Together, Jackson and Merrill moved to Stonington, Connecticut in 1955, purchasing a property at 107 Water Street (now the site of writer-in-residency program, the James Merrill House, sponsored by the Stonington Village Improvement Association in Stonington Borough). For most of two decades, the couple spent winters in Athens at their home at 44 Athinaion Efivon. Greek themes, locales, and characters occupy a prominent position in Merrill's writing. In 1979, Merrill and Jackson largely abandoned Greece and 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 (undergoing analysis with Dr. Thomas Detre in Rome). Merrill painted a candid portrait in his memoir of gay life in the early 1950s, describing friendships and relationships with several men including Dutch poet Hans Lodeizen, Italian journalist Umberto Morra, U.S. writer Claude Fredericks, art dealer Robert Isaacson, David Jackson, and his partner from 1983 onward, actor Peter Hooten.
The Ingram Merrill Foundation
A prodigious correspondent and the keeper of many confidences, Merrill's "chief pleasure was friendship". Answering to "Jim" in his youth and to "James" in published adulthood (and to "JM" in letters from readers), he was called "Jimmy", a childhood nickname, by friends and family until the end of his life. Despite great personal wealth derived from an unbreakable trust made early in his childhood, Merrill lived modestly. (Before his father's death, Merrill and his two siblings renounced any further inheritance from their father's estate in exchange for $100 "as full quittance"; as a result, most of Charles Merrill's estate was donated to charity, including "The Orchard.")
A philanthropist in his own right, Merrill created the Ingram Merrill Foundation in the 1950s, the name of which united his divorced parents. The private foundation operated throughout the poet's lifetime and subsidized literature, the arts, and public television, with grants directed particularly to writers and artists showing early promise. Merrill met poet Elizabeth Bishop and filmmaker Maya Deren in the late 1940s, giving critical financial assistance to both and providing funds to hundreds of other writers, often anonymously.
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.
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. (Asked once if he would prefer a more popular readership, Merrill replied "Think what one has to do to get a mass audience. I'd rather have one perfect reader. Why dynamite the pond in order to catch that single silver carp?") 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, and conversational tone. Already established in the 1970s among the finest poets of his generation, Merrill made a surprising detour when he began incorporating extensive occult messages into his work (although a poem from the 1950s, "Voices from the Other World," foreshadows the practice). 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, and features 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 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."
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 upon 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)
- The Yellow Pages (1974)
- Divine Comedies (1976), with "Lost in Translation" and The Book of Ephraim
- Mirabell: Books of Number (1978)
- Scripts for the Pageant (1980)
- The Changing Light at Sandover (1982)
- composed of The Book of Ephraim (1976), Mirabell: Books of Number (1978), and Scripts for the Pageant (1980), with an added coda, "The Higher Keys"
- Selected Poems (London: Chatto & Windus, 1961)
- Two Poems: "From the Cupola" and "The Summer People" (London: Chatto & Windus, 1972)
- From the First Nine: Poems 1946–1976 (1982)
- Selected Poems 1946–1985 (1992)
- Recitative (1986) - essays
- A Different Person (1993) - memoir
- The Seraglio (1957)
- The (Diblos) Notebook (1965)
- The Birthday (1947)
- The Bait (1953; revised 1988)
- The Immortal Husband (1955)
- The Image Maker (1988)
- Voices from Sandover (1989; videotaped for commercial release in 1990)
- Collected Poems (2001)
- Collected Novels and Plays (2002)
- Collected Prose (2004)
- The Changing Light at Sandover (with the stage adaptation "Voices from Sandover") (2006)
- Selected Poems (2008)
- Notes on Corot (1960) - Essay in an exhibition catalog from the Art Institute of Chicago: COROT 1796-1875, An Exhibition of His Paintings and Graphic Works, October 6 through November 13, 1960
- Reflected Houses (cassette audio recording, 1986)
- The Voice of the Poet: James Merrill (cassette audio book, 1999)
Works about Merrill
- Mark Bauer, The Composite Voice: The Role of W. B. Yeats in James Merrill's Poetry (2003)
- Harold Bloom, ed. James Merrill (1985)
- Piotr Gwiazda, James Merrill and W.H. Auden: Homosexuality and Poetic Influence (2007)
- Nick Halpern, Everyday and Prophetic: The Poetry of Lowell, Ammons, Merrill and Rich (2003)
- David Kalstone, Five Temperaments (1977)
- Ross Labrie, James Merrill (1982)
- David Lehman and Charles Berger, James Merrill: Essays in Criticism (1983)
- Alison Lurie, Familiar Spirits: A Memoir of James Merrill and David Jackson (2000)
- Tim Materer, James Merrill's Apocalypse (2000)
- Brian McHale, The Obligation Toward the Difficult Whole: Postmodern Long Poems (2004)
- Judith Moffett, James Merrill: An Introduction to the Poetry (1984)
- Robert Polito, A Reader's Guide to James Merrill's "The Changing Light at Sandover" (1984)
- Guy Rotella, ed. Critical Essays on James Merrill (1996)
- Peter Nickowitz, Rhetoric and Sexuality: The Poetry of Hart Crane, Elizabeth Bishop, and James Merrill (2006)
- Reena Sastri, James Merrill: Knowing Innocence (2007)
- Helen Vendler, Last Looks, Last Books: Stevens, Plath, Lowell, Bishop, Merrill (2010)
- Helen Vendler, The Music of What Happens: Poems, Critics, Writers (1988)
- Helen Vendler, Part of Nature, Part of Us: Modern American Poets (1980)
- Helen Vendler, Soul Says: Recent Poetry (1995)
- Stephen Yenser, The Consuming Myth: The Work of James Merrill (1987)
- Christopher Lu, Nothing to Admire: The Politics of Poetic Satire from Dryden to Merrill (2003)
- James Merrill: Selected Poems, J. D. McClatchy and Stephen Yenser, editors. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2008. "Short Chronology," pp. 289-294.
- Philanthropist Doris Magowan dies at 87, San Francisco Examiner, 6 April 2001. Retrieved 16 June 2013.
- White, Samuel G. The Houses of McKim, Mead & White. London: Thames & Hudson, 1998, pp. 238-249.
- J. D. McClatchy. Braving the Elements, The New Yorker, 27 March 1995.
- J. D. McClatchy, interviewer. The Art of Poetry No. 31: An Interview with James Merrill. Paris Review, Summer 1982.
- Gussow, Mel. "James Merrill Is Dead at 68; Elegant Poet of Love and Loss", The New York Times, February 7, 1995. Accessed October 31, 2007. "He went to Lawrenceville School, where one of his close friends and classmates was the novelist Frederick Buechner."
- Jaffe, James. "James Jaffe Rarebooks: Winter 2007 Catalog". Retrieved 18 March 2013.
- Merrill, James. A Different Person: A Memoir, New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1993, Chapter XX. "Arthur Miller and Dylan Thomas, whom Kimon [Friar] had brought to see the play, stumbled out, making remarks I'd have preferred not to hear and dragging after them the audience's attention, along with poor Kimon himself. ('What could I do?' he said next day on the phone. 'Dylan wanted a drink.' Years later I learned what Mr. Miller, with uncanny insight, had whispered in Dylan's ear shortly after the curtain rose: 'You know, this guy's got a secret, and he's gonna keep it.')" Reprinted in Collected Prose, Knopf, 2004, p. 670.
- Stonington Village Improvement Association in Stonington Borough. "James Merrill House". Retrieved 18 March 2013.
- Swansburg, John. The View From/Stonington; If the Walls Could Talk, It Would Be Poetry, The New York Times, 28 January 2001. "[I]n the 1950's he established the Ingram Merrill Foundation, which until it ceased to exist in 1996, gave grants to writers, artists and other foundations. By the mid-90's, Merrill was donating around $300,000 a year through the foundation." Retrieved 24 April 2013.
- Moffett, Judith. Days of 1973: A Week in Athens, Notre Dame Review, Summer/Fall 2012. Retrieved 23 April 2013.
- Merrill, James. A Different Person: A Memoir, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1993, Chapter I. "As it happened, my father had taken a much earlier step to ensure his children's independence, by creating an unbreakable trust in each of our names. Thus at five years old I was rich, and would hold my own pursestrings when I came of age, whether I liked it or not. I wasn't sure I did like it. The best-intentioned people, knowing whose son I was and powerless against their own snobbery, could set me writhing under attentions I had done nothing to merit." Reprinted in Collected Prose, Knopf, 2004, p. 461.
- Merrill, James. A Different Person: A Memoir. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1993, Chapter XVI; reprinted in Collected Prose, Knopf, 2004, pp. 619-620.
- An (incomplete) list of writers and artists known to have received Ingram Merrill Foundation support can be found on its separate Wikipedia entry.
- "National Book Awards – 1967". National Book Foundation. Retrieved 2012-03-03.
(With acceptance speech by Merrill and essay by Megan Snyder-Camp from the Awards 60-year anniversary blog.)
- "National Book Awards – 1979". National Book Foundation. Retrieved 2012-03-03.
- "Book of Members, 1780-2010: Chapter M". American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Retrieved 15 April 2011.
- Merrill, James. "On 'Yánnina': An Interview with David Kalstone", Saturday Review, December 1972; reprinted in Collected Prose, New York: Knopf, 2004, p. 83.
- Merrill's 1993 memoir A Different Person charts this long evolution: "[T]he mere act of reading [my poems] aloud—something I was doing for virtually the first time [in March 1950]—quickly disabused me ... [M]y poems remained verbal artifacts, metered and rhymed to be sure, shaped and polished and begemmed, but set on the page with never a thought of their being uttered by a living voice." Quoted in Collected Prose, 2004, pp. 461-462.
- Fraser, Caroline. The Magician: Collected Poems by James Merrill, Los Angeles Times, 4 March 2001. Retrieved 14 June 2013.
- Bornhauser, Fred. Interview with James Merrill in Contemporary Authors, New Revision Series, vol. 10 (Detroit: Gale Research Company, 1983). Quoted in Collected Prose, Knopf, 2004, pp. 135-136.
- Quoted in The Voice of the Poet (audio cassette), J. D. McClatchy, editor.
- Marshall, Kathe Bonann. James Merrill in Iowa City, October 1992. Retrieved 19 March 2013.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to: James Merrill|
- The James Merrill Papers at Washington University in St. Louis
- J.D. McClatchy (Summer 1982). "James Merrill, The Art of Poetry No. 31". The Paris Review.
- James Ingram Merrill Papers. Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.
- James Merrill House Museum & Writer-in-Residence Program