Collected Poems  
  Reveiw of Collected Poems  
  Standings of poets and their poems are susceptible to the same caprices and reweighings that threaten (or grace) all historical subjects, but theirs is a very delicate pedestal, tethered to earth for balance by three cords of various constriction or slackness: critical estimation, publisher loyalty, and public readership. Of course these three are often tangled, and if one goes taut, the others are taken up. John Donne remained a largely obscure poet until the modernists&151;notably T.S. Eliot in his essays The Varieties of Metaphysical Poetry and New Critic Cleanth Brooks in The Well Wrought Urn&151;resuscitated his poetry, canonized it, if you like, in both possible senses of the word. The rugged English poet of the Second World War, Keith Douglas, who died at age 24 on the beaches of Normandy, had his first book published only in 1951, and it wasn't until the 1970s, when Ted Hughes, who sensed an affinity with Douglas's partly lyrical, partly cynical, and all but Spartan view of life, took it upon himself to popularize his work again. Since, Douglas has enjoyed the publication of his Collected Poems, a biography, his memoir (Alamein to Zem Zem), and, as of last month, his letters. Quite the opposite is more often the case, the abrupt or sometimes excruciatingly gradual slip from fame and recognition. For instance, Edgar Arlington Robinson was once the favorite of Teddy Roosevelt and a best-seller, but for eight decades his allotted pages in anthologies have shriveled with age and may eventually include only standards such as 'Miniver Cheevy' and 'Mr. Flood's Party', before disappearing altogether. In the easy (somewhat glib) manner of critics who adopt financial nomenclature when relaying judgment on poets, William H. Pritchard once declared that Robinson's "stock does not stand very high at present and is not likely to rise."

Then there is the case of James Merrill, a colossus of modern American poetry who, just when his readership seemed about to wane in the slightest degree, was suddenly propped not just back onto his pedestal but raised atop a column by the triple forces of critic, publisher, and reader. Knopf's very impressive Collected Poems coincides with Viking's publication of Alison Lurie's Familiar Spirits, her memoir of Merrill and David Jackson (with whom Merrill transcribed nine years of attempts to summon the dead with a Ouija Board, resulting in much of the massive postmodern epic, The Changing Light at Sandover). Everywhere one looks, Merrill's tanned, always boyish countenance beams back with a patrician grin. Helen Vendler devoted several pages of the New Yorker to Merrill the same week that Daniel Mendelsohn devoted equal attention in The New York Times Book Review. The Collected is an absolutely essential volume for any library of American poetry, containing, as it does, all of the poems outside of (or around, one might say) the Sandover project. It has been eagerly awaited since Merrill's death from AIDS in 1995, during which time the bulk of critics' attention had been given over to Sandover, as its massive postmodernist construction provides a sprawling ruin that rewards literary archeology, much as do James Joyce's Finnegans Wake and Ezra Pound's Cantos. In England, the only Merrill available was Carcanet Selected. In America, it was difficult to find any poetry by Merrill, an acknowledged master, the man Harold Bloom, in a very Bloomian endorsement, described as the Mozart of American poetry (Stephen Spender continues to suffer the same fate, and one hopes that a new Collected will emerge soon).

Merrill embodied much to many. A whole bookshelf and Olympus worth of quiet myth grew up around him, and he came to represent certain expectations of what poetry is or what it should or should not (or no longer could) be. With boundless financial resources derived from his father's success with Merrill-Lynch, he was free to pursue his poetic instincts at leisure, only accepting occasional and very leisurely teaching jobs later in life. His famous good looks recall those of Rupert Brooke, who was described before his death in the First World War as "preternaturally" good-looking. Merrill possessed a rarefied grace and style both on and off the page (as well as in the recording studio), exemplifying an aristocratic ideal of the poet removed from society, the eremite Rainer Maria Rilke of Duino Castle rather than the football-playing ex-pilot James Dickey. Such rococo poems as Merrill composed are likely only possible for a man discharged from political concerns, cut free from the financial worries that badger most poets (who, if they don't teach, are compelled to review or work in publishing to pay their endless dues to the muse). Most accounts of him border on the hagiographic, and one suspects that to have been admitted to the chambers of his affection was enough to sway any would-be adversary. There is something to be said for his stately detachment (in direct opposition to Allen Ginsberg's egalitarian love-ins and bellowing denunciations). His work is not tarnished by passing political or cultural concerns. His poetry should never be misinterpreted as a barometer of the age in which it was written, as with Robert Lowell, whose poetry is read by some as the evolving historical conscience of the nation. The publication of the Collected does not guarantee Merrill a place in American literary history. He already had that. Rather, it makes an event, a memorial observance, of his life and work, not so long overdue considering the daunting volume of material left to his literary executors, J.D. McClatchy and Stephen Yenser. Already by its first month of publication it is running into another printing, and, if a stock index were revealed for Merrill's Horatian poetry of time and death, love and loss, beauty and age, one would be energetically encouraged to purchase it now.

--Ernie Hilbert
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