The Barnes & Noble Review
To honor James Merrill, who died in 1995, Knopf has brought together nearly all of his published work, as well as translations and ephemera, in this handsome volume edited by J. D. McClatchy and Stephen Yenser. The book's very first poem, which dates from Merrill's youth, describes "the child upon the bank" watching a swan cross a pond. It's a telling image, for that child grew to be a poet particularly attuned to the quiet art of observation. Over five decades, Merrill produced a body of work that is both formally stunning and keenly, tenderly drawn.
Merrill's poetry is often described as Apollonian: elegant and aesthetically precise. A poem is a "neat pseudonym / For thoughts in disarray," he says in "Morning Exercise," revealing the key to much of his own work: the ordering of disorder, a transmuting of existence, however perplexing, into the classic forms, from sestina to terza rima. This meant careful depiction of things (furniture, a mirror, a tree) and places. Merrill traveled frequently, dividing much of his time between Greece, the Connecticut shore, and Key West, where the gradations of light and water reflected a rich interior life, mirroring "the sea change…within us."
A lifelong opera aficionado, Merrill shares something with Mozart; a wistful sadness increasingly tinges the playful beauty of his work. Poems like "Farewell Performance" mourn dead friends, and the late work from A Scattering of Salts grapples with memory and mortality. But this foreknowledge is never far from a graceful, gentle humor that takes great delight in words, and in the life that they describe. (Jonathan Cook)
Editor's note: Merrill's celebrated epic, The Changing Light at Sandover, has not been included in this volume. Readers interested in learning more about Merrill might also want to read Familiar Spirits: A Memoir of David Jackson and James Merrill, written by the famous couple's friend, novelist Alison Lurie.
Here, one sees why Merrill has inspired and satisfied readers for decades. His use of rich imagery and his devotion to craft raised the poetic bar for his contemporaries. There has never been anyone quite like Merrill, and for this reason, his Collected Poems will long be celebrated by critics as an indispensible volume. But the real value of this book is not that it contains the work of a literary god, but that it follows the journey of a talented man who struggled to master his gifts. The missteps he makes along the way are as valuable and instructive as his triumphs.
Christian Science Monitor
[W]hat the new volume provides, not without a small shock even to those familiar with Merrill, is the size and scope of his accomplishment. . . . His earliest work exhibits the same astonishing technical proficiency that characterizes his final output.
New York Times Book Review
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Lauded at his death as a major American writer, a great poet of sociability and comedy, an important part of the gay literary tradition and a master of traditional forms, Merrill (1926-1995) is well-served by this monumental gathering off his shorter poems, carefully edited and likely to garner major attention and sales. McClatchy (Twenty Questions, etc.) is Merrill's literary executor, and Yenser the author of a Merrill monograph. They include Merrill's 11 trade volumes; poems from two small-press books, The Black Swan (1946) and The Yellow Pages (1974); 21 verse translations; and 45 poems retrieved from periodicals and manuscripts. Excluded are some juvenilia and light verse, as well as Merrill's book-length poem The Changing Light at Sandover, in print as a separate volume. Merrill's sonnets, sapphics, longer sequences and sinuous sentences encompass lyric pathos, ebullient comedy, rapt romance and acrid satire. Their formal sophistication can belie their depth of feeling, which is exactly what some readers love best about Merrill's work. New readers ought to skip the often-dry earliest books, begin with Merrill's 1960s works and read forward. Confirmed fans will no doubt flip to the end of the book, where they will encounter many poems for the first time--most are short and witty, many of them are fine. The poems from Merrill's last year can be arresting, including a self-elegy in which the dying poet thinks of himself as a Christmas tree. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
This fat collection, skinned of notes, variations, or intrusive commentary, shows Merrill to be the most astonishing American poet since Wallace Stevens. Many of the volumes presented here in their entirety have gone out of print, and Merrill's Selected Poems (1982) was only a slim sample of his genius. At the center of Merrill's poetry is his voice, acrobatic and inimitable: To love Merrill is to love a tone, at once aloof and intimate, a kind of colloquial raised to the second power. Although he is often described as a confessional poet, his autobiographies, full of winks and seemingly private detail, are not burdened by catharsis. This is in part because Merrill is a comic and erotic poet, and his revelations do not presume a looming fate but come of chance weavings, of an ability to tease significance and pattern from apparently ordinary events and objects (a prismatic paperweight, Roman graffito, ginger beef). In his best poems Merrill finds ways to surprise himself, to clinch a long metaphoric conceit or twist himself free from the same (in "The Black Mesa" he ventriloquizes the hill, and concludes plaintively, "Grain by grain / Dust of my dust, when will it all be plain?"). He was also a brilliant rhymist and experimental poet, and his typographical adventures (with cross-outs, caps, elisions, and asterisks) make his pages as lively as any Shandian romp. But with all the wit and breezy conversation there is a tight, formidably intelligent logic to all of the verse; the son et lumière is carefully orchestrated, each glint and dazzle in its proper place. Merrill's poems read like so many distillations of life. Placed end to end, as they are here, they form averitablemetropolis of the soul.
From the Publisher
"The lyrics in Merrill's Collected Poems ought to last as long as people still care about poetry . . . poetry as alive as Merrill's is why people care." — David Gates, Newsweek
"Gigantic and ravishing . . . What this new volume provides, not without a small shock even to those familiar with Merrill, is the size and scope of his accomplishment . . . [A] monumental new collection." — Daniel Mendelsohn, New York Times Book Review
"Merrill . . . has been well-served by his executors and editors, McClatchy and Yenser . . . [In this collection] there's more than enough—in humor and sorrow, in tones of voice, in diction, in subjectsto keep one engaged for days, for years, for life. Reading Merrill is like reading Marvell or Keats or Dickinson; having his lines in mind is that unique thing, a voice that says somebody was here before." —Caroline Fraser, L.A. Times
"The Collected Poems . . . sensitively edited by JD McClatchy and Stephen Yenser . . . represents a major literary event." — Edmund White, Out Magazine
"If you like poetry composed (in Hopkin's words) in 'the current language heightened,' Merrill will please you . . . If you have despaired of finding words subtle enough for all that goes on between lovers over time; if you are delighted by poetic invention, Merrill will please you. If you are eager for a window into the pangs and pleasures of gay existence, or if you want to know what a person of ever-attentive receptivity might have seen between 1926 and 1995, Merrill will please you. Above all, if you value lightness of touch, Merrill will please you . . . The weight of the wreath is heavy on all poets, but Merrill rarely allowed the weight to be felt, or the wrinkles to show." — Helen Vendler, The New Yorker
Read an Excerpt
b o d yCopyright© 2002 by James Merrill
Look closely at the letters. Can you see,
entering (stage right), then floating full,
then heading off — so soon —
how like a little kohl-rimmed moon
o plots her course from b to d
—as y, unanswered, knocks at the stage door?
Looked at too long, words fail,
phase out. Ask, now that body shines
no longer, by what light you learn these lines
and what the b and d stood for.
From the Trade Paperback edition.