Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Poetic Icons Brought Down to Earth ; the Reality of These Poets' Work Is More Interesting Than the Myth

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Poetic Icons Brought Down to Earth ; the Reality of These Poets' Work Is More Interesting Than the Myth

Article excerpt

Readers and critics have long been tempted to make gifted poets into literary gods. Perhaps this temptation stems from the fact that poetry has ancient, elevated roots. But whatever the cause, often the face that the literary world creates is not as interesting as the face that emerges from a poet's work.

One of this year's most celebrated releases is James Merrill's Collected Poems. The 800-page tome contains many of his early poems, plus 21 translations, 44 previously uncollected poems, and the complete texts of 10 of his trade volumes.

The face created for Merrill by the literary community was, and still is, that of a golden boy. He was handsome, wealthy (his father was a founder of Merrill Lynch), and even his earliest poems displayed an astonishingly elegant veneer.

Merrill, who died in 1995, won the Pulitzer, the National Book Award (twice), the Bollingen Prize, and many others. He's often hailed as a poet who had an almost instinctive mastery of form and meter. His persona in his poems is described as being much as he was in public: the consummate gentleman. But such observations give just a glimpse of what Merrill the poet was really like. Even critics who call him the ultimate love poet - or praise him for writing movingly about archetypal topics such as art and beauty, time and loss, the pain of relationships - just begin to scratch his complex surface.

What's truly remarkable about Merrill's "Collected Poems" is the fact that it dispels the myths and reveals the man, who is ultimately more compelling. The volume shows that Merrill, like every poet, had to grow into his talent. He started with technique and then had to find a way to breathe life into his work. Merrill moves from writing highly ornate poems that can feel a bit hollow to writing less striking verse that has earned its wisdom. In other words, the poet's mask recedes and the real face comes into focus.

The "Collected Poems" illustrates that Merrill did not progress in a straight line. He reaches new heights in his third and fourth books, for example, and doesn't have another major peak until "Divine Comedies." His ambitious, longer poems are intriguing, but they can require much digging from readers, and too often they become obscure.

But when Merrill is "on," the rewards are ample, as in "The Furnished Room"

Blue boughs, green fruit -

That was our wallpaper.

Two doors, both shut;

Two windows, a mirror.

Against the walls

Table and divan stood,

Odd animals,

One pipe, one cherry wood.

One bore the book, the bowl,

The lamp. Its four

Legs shook. Its soul

Slid out like an empty drawer.

The other: claw-foot, soft

Belly, striped hide.

Glad in its hug we laughed.

Time howled outside....

Here, one sees why Merrill has inspired and satisfied readers for decades. …

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