James Merrill

James Merrill visited Pearl London's class on May 23, 1979. He'd been awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Divine Comedy two years before, and had just won his second National Book Award for Mirabell: Book of Number, the middle part of an epic poem later published in full as The Changing Light at Sandover.  His poetry had lately begun to incorporate mystical, occult themes, veering away from the formal verse that had characterized his earlier work. Several early drafts of pages from Mirabell are included in my book, along with a transcript of the interview.

One of the discussions that took place in the seminar concerned Merrill's use of pronouns. London observes that, despite the fact that "the center of gravity in your work is autobiography," in his early poems he rarely uses "I." This tendency, Merrill says, was shaped by Rilke, who doesn't use the first person pronoun in his shorter poems and who, in the elegies, "seems to invite his readers into a community of shared suffering, or shared sensitivity." Here is the audio clip:


Indeed, the elegies begin with this encompassing move from "I" to "we."

Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the angels' hierarchies?
and even if one of them pressed me suddenly against his heart:
I would be consumed in that overwhelming existence.
For beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror, which we are still just able to endure,
and we are so awed because it serenely disdains to annihilate us.
Every angel is terrifying.

And so I hold myself back and swallow the call-note of my dark sobbing.
Ah, whom can we ever turn to in our need?

Translated by Stephen Mitchell

Following Elizabeth Bishop, however, Merrill says he learned that the "I" can be used "with the greatest self-deprecation, humor." In the poem that he read later in that class, we see a veiled, deflected "I" that has been seen as characteristic of Merrill's poetry--an "I" that is not sure of the facts of his own journey, and that is untethered enough from a self to be able to "change into / The pattern of a stream."

Merrill reading "The Kimono":


The Kimono

When I returned from lovers' lane
My hair was white as snow.
Joy, incomprehension, pain
I'd seen like seasons come and go.
How I got home again
Frozen half dead, perhaps you know.

You hide a smile and quote a text:
Desires ungratified
Persist from one life to the next.
Hearths we strip ourselves beside
Long, long ago were x'd
On blueprints of "consuming pride."

Times out of mind, the bubble-gleam
To our charred level drew
April back. A sudden beam . . .
--Keep talking while I change into
The pattern of a stream
Bordered with rushes white on blue.