The publication of James Merrill's Collected Poems is a landmark in the history of modern American literature. His First Poems—its sophistication and virtuosity were recognized at once—appeared half a century ago. Over the next five decades, Merrill's range broadened and his voice took on its characteristic richness. In book after book, his urbanity and wit, his intriguing images and paradoxes, shone with a rare brilliance. As he once told an interviewer, he "looked for English in its billiard-table sense—words that have been set spinning against their own gravity." But beneath their surface glamour, his poems were driven by an audacious imagination that continually sought to deepen and refine our perspectives on experience. Among other roles, he was one of the supreme love poets of the twentieth century. In delicate lyric or complex narrative, this book abounds with what he once called his "chronicles of love and loss." Like Wallace Stevens and W. H. Auden before him, Merrill sought to quicken the pulse of a poem in surprising and compelling ways—ways, indeed, that changed how we came to see our own lives. Years ago, the critic Helen Vendler spoke for others when she wrote of Merrill, "The time eventually comes, in a good poet's career, when readers actively wait for his books: to know that someone out there is writing down your century, your generation, your language, your life . . . He has become one of our indispensable poets."
This book brings together a remarkable body of work in an authoritative edition. From Merrill's privately printed book, The Black Swan, published in 1946, to his posthumous collection, A Scattering of Salts, which appeared in 1995, all of the poems he published are included, except for juvenalia and his epic, The Changing Light at Sandover. In addition, twenty-one of his translations (from Apollinaire, Montale, and Cavafy, among others) and forty-four of his previously uncollected poems (including those written in the last year of his life) are gathered here for the first time.
Collected Poems in the first volume in a series that will present all of James Merrill's work—his novels and plays, and his collected prose. Together, these volumes will testify to a monumental career that distinguished American literature in the late twentieth century and will continue to inspire readers and writers for years to come.
b o d y
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.
Excerpted from Collected Poems by James Merrill. Copyright © 2002 by James Merrill. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
About James Merrill
James Merrill was born on March 3, 1926, in New York City and died on February 6, 1995. From the mid-1950s on, he lived in Stonington, Connecticut, and for extended periods he also had houses in Athens and Key West. From The Black Swan (1946) through A Scattering of Salts (1995), he wrote twelve books of poems, ten of them published in trade editions, as well as The Changing Light at Sandover (1982). He also published two plays, The Immortal Husband (1956) and The Bait (1960); two novels, The Seraglio (1957, reissued 1987) and The (Diblos) Notebook (1965, reissued 1994); a book of essays, interviews, and reviews, Recitative (1986); and a memoir, A Different Person (1993). Over the years, he was the winner of numerous awards for his poetry, including two National Book Awards, the Bollingen Prize, the Pulitzer Prize, and the Bobbitt Prize from the Library of Congress. He was a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
J. D. McClatchy and Stephen Yenser are James Merrill’s literary executors. J. D. McClatchy has published six volumes of poetry and two collections of essays. He teaches at Yale and is the editor of The Yale Review. Stephen Yenser has written three books of criticism (one about Merrill) and a volume of poems. He is a professor of English and the director of Creative Writing at UCLA.
James Merrill’s Collected Poems is available in Knopf paperback. The Voice of the Poet: James Merrill is available from Random House Audio.
"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 subjects--to 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
From the Hardcover edition.