Academic journal article English Studies in Canada

An Aesthetics of Enclosure: James Merrill's Inner Rooms

Academic journal article English Studies in Canada

An Aesthetics of Enclosure: James Merrill's Inner Rooms

Article excerpt

Everything beyond a certain distance is dark, and yet everything is full of being around us.

Teilhard de Chardin

THROUGHOUT HIS CAREER, AMERICAN POET James Merrill's resources against disintegrative forces of all kinds were two--love and art. These co-exist for him most intensely in "inner room" poems capable of surrounding and obviating the consequences of fear and death. Many critics have documented Merrill's predilection for interiors, both as settings and as tropes for poetic form (e.g., Baird; Hollander, "Mirror"; Kalstone). In his own essay, titled "Acoustical Chambers;' Merrill explains his liking for "given arrangements":

   Interior spaces, the shape and correlation of rooms in a house,
   have always appealed to me. Trying for a blank mind, I catch myself
   instead revisiting a childhood bedroom on Long Island.... fondness
   for given arrangements might explain how instinctively I took to
   quatrains, to octaves, and sestets, when I began to write poems.
   "Stanza" is after all the Italian word for room. (R 3) (1)

Merrill also wrote about the poet Daniel Hall, admiring his "compact arenas," his "Escher-like spatial dynamics," and commenting that "enclosure beckons to him like an open road" (DH ix-x). Merrill's own poetry attests to a similar attraction to the aesthetics of enclosure. Instead of perceiving language as a prison house from which to escape, he seems to yearn for more intense interiority, for the solace and liberty of narrow rooms.

The Inner Room (1988) signaled by its very title Merrill's sense of the possibilities of interior images and settings. Indeed, this late approach to the inner room constitutes an arrival of some significance. "Sooner or later one touches upon matters that are all the realer for not being easily talked about," Merrill said in an interview, concerning the "darkest secrets of technique" (R 36). When Merrill takes on these "realer" matters, these "darkest secrets," he expands for us the meaning and vocabulary of interiority, and he defends his deep sense of aestheticism in a critical climate disinclined to appreciate it.

What kind of "sanctum" does the collection represent? How does it present its own interiority? What does it mean for a poet of interiors to move further inside? What is excluded, what invited in, and what are the conditions of entry for the reader? What kinds of language are appropriate? What happens or doesn't happen there? Is this collection a renewal of Merrill's conviction about the value of poetic closure and the composed self or an inspired questioning of these notions? What are the aesthetics and the poetics (in Gaston Bachelard's sense) of inmost space?

Inner room poems are likely to be self-consciously concerned with their own refinements and their own spatial formalities. This is certainly true about a sonnet from The Inner Room, "The Parnassians" which figures poetic refinement as an enclosed inner space, a loge at the opera. To describe "Parnassian" poetry, Merrill uses the voice of a footman in attendance at the sophisticated ritual of a night at the opera; yet he claims other linguistic allegiances, namely to "common" language and meanings:

   Theirs was a language within ours, a loge
   Hidden by bee-stitched hangings from the herd.
   The mere exchanged glance between word and word
   Took easily the place, the privilege

   Of utterance. Here therefore all was tact.
   Pairs at first blush ill-matched, like turd and monstrance,
   Tracing their cousinage through consonants,
   Communed, ecstatic, through the long entr'acte.

   Without our common meanings, though, that world
   Would have slid headlong to apocalypse.
   We'd built the Opera, changed the scenery, trod
   Grapes for the bubbling flutes mild fingers twirled;
   As footmen, by no eyelid's twitch betrayed
   Our scorn and sound investment of their tips. (IR 39)

Since the poem is so beautifully realized, with elegant and sophisticated rhymes, modulated rhythms, and varied caesura] pauses, there is never any doubt that the poet behind the speaker is himself avowedly a Parnassian, one who delights in the complicated and ecstatic familial interactions of language. …

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