A Clean Break

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“Love involves, it seems, helpless submission to pain.” An act of surrender—is that really a part of love?

This sentence appears deep within James Merrill: Life and Art, a massive new biography by Langdon Hammer. That casual observation begins an analysis of Merrill’s poem “A Renewal”—a poem so intense and so brief that its full eight lines gleam on the page. “Now I see no way but a clean break,” the poem’s speaker insists. “I am willing to bear the guilt.” But the closing lines etch the scene into memory: “We sit, watching. When I next speak / Love buries itself in me, up to the hilt.”

The poem rattled me anew as I read it in the pages of the thick biography. And then that assertion: “a helpless submission to pain.” It rang so true because I had experienced that surrender the first time I had read the poem, some eight years earlier as a college student.

When I talk about poetry now, I talk about it the way one talks about a first love: not as something I miss in and of itself, but as something I miss having loved. The sort of love that might be called obsessive, as if nobody else in the world could understand how deeply I cared about it. A passion as Merrill seemed to understand it, a manner of love that opened myself up to pain.

But James Merrill had experienced many varieties of love, not all of which implied helpless submission. As an heir of Charles Merrill, founder of Merrill Lynch, he never had to worry about money. In its stead, other problems filled his life. His parents divorced when he was young, giving rise, much later in his life, to such poems as “The Broken Home.” He watched as his father remarried several times (he joked, many years later, that his father should settle down and name a new estate “Dunweddin”) while his mother meandered through her own life, and her son’s. If there was some distance between parents and child, James Merrill’s loves exacerbated them. He was gay, very openly so in particular milieus, and he was never constrained to monogamy by marriage or social mores. He had a partner for the larger part of his life, David Jackson, who was sometimes but not always a lover; their relationship seems to have been a fairly open one. Among the many men he met and slept with in the States, on his travels across the globe, and during his extended stays in Greece, none seems to have had such a powerful hold on his passions as a handsome Greek air-force mechanic, Strato.

Three of Merrill’s most memorable poems feature Strato prominently—“Days of 1964,” “To My Greek,” and “Strato in Plaster”—and setting them side by side, the gradations of love become striking. “Love makes one generous,” the first poem declares; in the second, the two men’s struggle to communicate becomes achingly clear, and Merrill resigns himself to physicality: “The barest word be what I say in you”; in the final poem, when Merrill sees Strato again many years later, love has become an artifice: “I look hard / At both the god and him . . . / Lies found out and letters left unanswered / Just won’t do.”

James Merrill Life and Art Langon HammerThis arc of a relationship, of love found and then lost, is one I would slowly come to understand as I met and dated men in my own life. But of the many consequences of love, a submission to pain seemed to me at once the most foreign and the most familiar. And so Hammer’s unexpected observation drove me even more deeply into James Merrill’s biography.

It was a book I had wanted to read for years, even as its author was still researching it and working through early drafts. He started it at about the same time I started high school, and so the timespan of the book’s research and writing encompasses the era in which I fell in love with poetry. Occasional printouts of poems by Howard Nemerov or Sylvia Plath added a bit of color to rote high-school English discussions about rhetorical devices—but in my final year, as we read Seamus Heaney’s rendition of Beowulf and Milton’s Paradise Lost, I realized that something was happening with words meted out and lineated on a page that was even more beautiful and stirring than what I normally experienced.

When I started college that fall, I hurtled headlong into classes where every single thing we read or discussed was a poem. In that strange atmosphere, I registered for a lecture class: “Poetry since 1950.” The anodyne name belied a wildly heterogeneous reading list, from the steely reticence of Elizabeth Bishop’s poems to the pyrotechnics of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, from the intensities of Sylvia Plath’s fury to—although I had not noticed his name the first time I read the syllabus—the radiance of James Merrill’s words.

It was Merrill’s face, actually, that first caught my attention . I went to the bookstore, and of the dozen volumes I bought, one stood out for its heft, and for the photograph emblazoned across its spine and spilling across the front and back covers. I read, in large letters: James Merrill, Collected Poems. That face stared at me from my bookshelf for the entire semester. Every time I moved rooms or apartments or houses, people would come over and suddenly ask about the man peering out at them.

I came to understand later that Merrill had, by the time I was in college, fallen into the second or third tier of major American poets. If he was being ranked in my class alongside Bishop and Lowell, Ginsberg and Plath, Ashbery and Heaney, it was because his shadow loomed long at my college. One of our creative-writing professors, J.D. McClatchy, had been Merrill’s confidante in the final years of his life—one of the first people, in fact, who know about Merrill’s diagnosis of AIDS—and subsequently executor of his literary estate and editor of that massive Collected Poems. And the professor at the front of the room during those “Poetry since 1950” lectures was Langdon Hammer, the one writing a biography on Merrill himself.

When Hammer began his two lectures on James Merrill, the tenor of the class changed ever so slightly. Hammer’s observations about language and style, about Merrill’s particular love of puns and the way he allowed wordsThe Changing Light at Sandover to express their “secret wish,” felt rooted in a fascination of his own. As I listened, he took the lines of Merrill’s many autobiographical poems and used them to illustrate the particular quirks of Merrill’s life. At one point, he turned to one of Merrill’s longer poems, “An Urban Convalescence,” and something brightened inside me:

a shrieking to be faced
Full into, eyes astream with cold—

With cold?
All right then. With self-knowledge.

For a long while I had been interested in how words could capture the way a mind moves and darts from sight to thought to insight, and that abrupt self-correction brought me up short. “You can see Merrill editing himself on the page, playing with his words until they work,” Hammer was saying, but I was already lost in how that swerve echoed the famous, haunting final lines of Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art”:

—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

This act of self-revision and self-correction, I realized as the lecture continued in that large impersonal hall, was perhaps the most intimate thing a poet could put down on the page. Emotions were easy enough to manufacture—but to show how words could fail to encompass the reality they were meant to depict seemed a far more humbling and heartrending admission. In that moment, the poet wasn’t revealing a weakness as a friend or human being. It was a confession of failure as a wordsmith, the one thing a poet meant to do well. “The best words in their best order,” Coleridge had called poetry. And with these self-erasures, two different masters were confessing that even they couldn’t always attain that lofty goal.

A few days later, I walked into Langdon Hammer’s office and asked him if he would supervise my senior thesis. “But you’re a sophomore,” he said, a trace of bemusement on his face. Still, once he saw that I was serious, that I did want to focus on the man he was studying and setting down into words, he agreed.

The challenge—and, I suspect, joy—of writing the biography of James Merrill is figuring out how to integrate the story of the poet’s life with the story that Merrill’s own autobiographical poems tell. Most of Merrill’s poems were not written immediately after the events they describe—although in his final years, Hammer notes, poems came to Merrill in a rush at a mere sixty hours. In other words, if “‘60 hours’ for a page-and-a-half lyric poem counted as ‘just coming’[, that] indicates how many hours normally went into one of his poems, and how hard he was still working.” Any attempt to contextualize Merrill’s poems within his life would entail a great deal of delving into Merrill’s actual days.

“I don’t envy [Hammer] the research,” McClatchy had quipped to Newsweek. “Jimmy saved every electric bill.” This was something I would discover as I started my own research into Merrill at the time he interacted with Elizabeth Bishop. It was fully evident that Bishop had influenced Merrill deeply, but I wanted to see if he himself had been one of the catalysts for her unexpectedly personal final collection, Geography III. Over spring break of my senior year, I drove twenty minutes from my parents’ house to see Merrill’s papers at Washington University in St. Louis. People asked me why James Merrill’s papers had ended up in my hometown. The answer, I learned from reading James Merrill: Life and Art, was amusingly straightforward: “They asked.

The Inner RoomSo I went into the Olin Library and told the rare-books librarian that I wanted to look at James Merrill’s papers. They brought out his notebook from the time he had visited Elizabeth Bishop in Brazil. She had been happy to see him even though her lover, the aristocrat Lota de Macedo Soares, had just committed suicide. Did Merrill ever mean for anyone else to read his diaries and journals? He knew by then that these writings would end up at Washington University, but his transcriptions astonished me in their directness:

E. in tears last night: “Don’t be upset, [José Athato], I’m crying in English.”

“I think you love me + will understand. All I want is Lota back. I want to die, what’s the use of living?”

I took solace in his thought two lines further down: “In E[lizabeth], as in all, the mistakes are one with the achievement.” And then I turned around and saw, at the table behind mine, a craggy face I had already seen many times in his office: Langdon Hammer, sifting through papers from another point in James Merrill’s life. Even now, five years later, my recollection of the shock of that moment is inextricably interwoven with a few lines from Merrill’s poem “Marsyas,” when he reacts to a poem in a café just before seeing that same poet in the flesh:

One day a girl brought in his latest book.
I opened it—stiff rhythms, gorgeous rhyme—
And made a face. Then crash! my cup upset.
Of twenty upward looks mine only met
His, that gold archaic lion’s look

Hammer usually had a table filled with papers, as if encompassing the poet’s life. Everything of Merrill’s seemed to have been tucked away within the Olin Library’s archives. I had been told to look through the full finding aid for the Merrill papers, and quickly realized that some items on that list were decidedly not papers. Box 1 of James Merrill’s realia included his baby shoes and a pair of tortoiseshell glasses he had worn when he was young—glasses that felt unnervingly light in my hands, finely made with hinges that still clicked beautifully open and shut. And then there was box 2: his death mask.

Masks figure in many of Merrill’s poems. I had heard Hammer discuss them in such poems as “Days of 1964,” which commingles memories of Merrill’s times in Greece, ending on these lines: “But you were everywhere beside me, masked, / As who was not, in laughter, pain, and love.” But those masks, behind which he hid or transformed himself, were nothing like this one, which showed every wrinkle on his face at the time he died. It was surprisingly small. One forgets how small a human head is. I looked at it, afraid to touch. I had to go up to the desk and tell the librarians I no longer needed it. It was somehow beyond me.

I have never asked Langdon Hammer if he held that mask himself. But I would not be shocked if he had. To do so would be no more personal than the rest of the investigation he made into the poet’s life. Hammer delved thoroughly into Merrill’s personal papers to draw out his feelings about many of his lovers, including and especially that Greek mechanic, Strato. One chapter ends with Merrill winning the National Book Award for Nights and Days, and then wistfully writing: “I could only think: Let me give it back, let me have Strato instead.” A melancholy note, yes, and intensely personal—but Hammer’s biography delves still deeper.

James Merrill

He was not fluent in Greek when he did his research in Greece. The biography acknowledges, “Maria Warner, my gracious and tactful Greek translator.” Surely that grace and tact must have been overpowered by the rawness and honesty of how the woman Strato married, Vaso, described the effect of Merrill’s love: “As Vaso put it, looking back across the decades, ‘It was the best thing that ever happened to Strato.’” She considered that love between men—between her husband and a man who, in ways, competed with her—not as something to be forgotten or hidden but as “the best thing.” Hammer’s decade and a half of research and writing had stripped away every mask Merrill might have placed over his life or his writing, teased apart the many complications and convolutions Merrill had incorporated into his existence.

Perhaps the most delightful part of James Merrill: Life and Art is the way Hammer deploys Merrill’s poems in order to disentangle his past. “The Broken Home” takes front stage in the book’s very first section—an appropriate choice, given how deeply Merrill’s parents’ divorce affected his life: “Always that same old story / Father Time and Mother Earth, / A marriage on the rocks.” The poem becomes, in Hammer’s hands, a series of graceful mini-biographies of Merrill’s elders, and it contextualizes his upbringing in a world free of financial concerns; other difficulties impose structure upon his unruly world.

“A Broken Home” also becomes a way to illustrate Merrill’s formal mastery of poetic devices. Hammer’s interpretations of “The Broken Home” and many other poems allow readers to see the multiplicity of meanings that Merrill intended, and how he firmly corralled all these prospects into strict meter and rhyme. As I wrote my senior thesis, I struggled with particular passages of what is still my favorite of his poems, “An Urban Convalescence”—that one where he corrected himself: “With cold? / All right then. With self-knowledge.” I was delighted to read Hammer’s patient explanations:

In “An Urban Convalescence,” [Merrill] dedicates himself to a discipline in which life and work are two aspects of a single process, for which revision, his laborious practice of composition, is both the instrument and the symbol. This idea emerges in the poem’s closing lines. The poet gazes again at the city, this time from high above it:

back into my imagination
The city glides, like cities seen from the air,
Mere smoke and sparkle to the passenger
Having in mind another destination

Which now is not that honey-slow descent
Of the Champs-Elysees, her hand in his,
But the dull need to make some kind of house
Out of the life lived, out of the love spent.

The Diblos NotebookAll through college, I had wondered if I might spend the rest of my life writing or studying poems. Maybe not with the same intensity and freedom that Merrill enjoyed, but with some modicum of the passion he clearly evinced. Some semesters, all but one of my courses were English classes. I was writing poems at the rate of two or three a day—most of them not worth keeping, but a few worth editing and including in the collection I would finally submit as my creative thesis. This was a contrast to the research- and analysis-heavy work of my academic senior thesis for English. The two theses were due a few days apart; I remember the experience as like driving through a hurricane: an intense frenzy as I prepared to hand in the creative-writing thesis; the odd, frightening calm of the eyewall as I waited for Hammer’s final comments on my academic thesis; and then the ferocity of the hurricane’s other side as I revamped my thesis and had two copies bound for the English department.

What does one do after a hurricane? One recovers, one tries to repair the damage. I went out for drinks with two friends. We talked; the conversation drifted to our futures. There was a warm breeze that evening—the first hint of summer. The worst was behind us.

But damage had been done. I came back home late that night, tried to read a few lines of a new poet, and saw the words swim around the page. I slept, I woke, I slept again. I had put as much of my passion, of myself, as I could into two different theses and now they had disappeared into the ether. I tried to focus on enjoying my time with my college friends. I graduated a few weeks later. I packed up all my books in order to move, and I told myself I would keep reading and thinking about poems. But it was too late. I no longer felt a spark of recognition and excitement at seeing a poem.

I moved to other cities. I worked with books, but I couldn’t look at lineated text with the same curiosity and excitement. I tried writing a few more poems, but they felt lifeless on the page. Whatever fervor had once animated that part of my mind was now gone.

A couple of years later, at a friend’s wedding, I met somebody who was at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. He announced that his concentration was in poetry. “That’s all right,” I said unthinkingly. “You’ll grow out of it.” The disappointment on his face was so evident that I stuttered an apology. I wished I hadn’t said it, but the truth, if I must admit it, was that I really had come to feel that incurious. Whatever love I once harbored for words had now turned into that sentiment expressed in “Strato in Plaster”: “The god in him is a remembered one.” I had fallen out of love with poetry.

Somehow I had made the clean break Merrill had hoped for in that eponymous poem. But like him, every time I think of that relationship, that love drives itself into me with astonishing pain.

I am not in love anymore, but I am still in helpless submission to this pain. I was wrong. Merrill was wrong. There was no clean break.

James Merrill never lost his passion for verse. In Langdon Hammer’s lecture class, I thought about how odd it was that Merrill actually wrote poems in anticipation of his death. “Days of 1994” calls to mind the imagery of graves and death without their gloom:

These days in my friend’s house
Light seeks me underground. To wake
Below the level of the lawn
—Half-basement cool through the worst heat—
is strange and sweet.

Merrill worked on this poem with such foresight because he had been diagnosed with AIDS and knew he did not have long to live. Even in the days before his death, he was working on scattered verses, calling on his friends and companionsCollected Poems to support him much as he had supported them emotionally and financially for so many years. He had loved so many of them, in so many different ways. He had two memorable loves in his life: other men, and poetry.

I thought I had both, but it turns out I only have one. A few weeks ago, as a date sat in my room, we looked at my bookshelves. He noticed a book with a black-and-white portrait along the spine. “Who’s that?” he asked. I pulled down the thick volume of James Merrill’s Collected Poems and tried to find the poems I’d spent so long thinking about years before. I couldn’t even remember where in the book I might look for “An Urban Convalescence” or “Marsyas”—poems whose page numbers I had once known cold. I flipped through the two indices—one for titles, one for first lines—astonished that the once-familiar book had now gone strange. The lacunae Merrill had always skirted around in his poems, by testing out different words, had become my own reality. I finally tracked down a few shorter poems to read. He left later, as polite as Merrill himself likely was, with a quiet “thank you for the poems.”

Before I went to sleep that night, I paged through the volume again. I landed on a poem I’d read over and over, almost to the point of memorization, because of its dedication to Elizabeth Bishop. It drew on an ad Hammer had displayed in his office—the image of a dog listening patiently to a phonograph horn. “From judgment, it would seem, he has refrained.” Indeed, “The Victor Dog” ends with these flat, insistent lines: “Art is art. / The life it asks of us is a dog’s life.”

I could not be that dog anymore. I needed not to love poetry anymore, needed not to miss having loved poetry. I had to believe that the record would keep spinning as I turned toward other loves.


Jeffrey Zuckerman is Digital Editor of Music & Literature. His writing and translations have appeared in The White Review, the Los Angeles Review of Books, 3:AM Magazine, and The Quarterly Conversation. In his free time, he does not listen to music. More from this author →