- Collected Poems
By James Merrill '47; edited by J. D. McClatchy and Stephen Yenser
- When the State Kills: Capital Punishment and the American Condition
By Austin Sarat
What They Are Reading
Jyl Gentzler, associate professor of philosophy, recommends books related to the topic of her course, "Philosophy 23s: Health Care Ethics"
Amherst College Books
Quick takes on books by Amherst faculty and alumni
The Victor Dog
Bix to Buxtehude to Boulez,
"The Victor Dog" and "Christmas Tree" are from Collected Poems by James Merrill, copyright © 2001 by the Estate of James Merrill. Used by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc.
By James Merrill '47; edited by J. D. McClatchy and Stephen Yenser.
New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2001. 885 pp. $40 hardbound.
Although 2001 has some months to go, the literary event of the year has occurred with the publication of James Merrill's Collected Poems. Collected rather than complete, since not included is his volume-length epic, The Changing Light at Sandover. But it contains enough to keep a reader busy for months, years: 10 volumes, ranging from First Poems published in 1951, four years after his graduation from Amherst College, to A Scattering of Salts, brought out soon after his death in 1995. In addition there are about 200 pages of material only the Merrill expert will be familiar with—translations, uncollected, and unpublished poems, including a final few written when he was near death. As a physical object the nearly 900-page volume is a beauty: handsomely bound and sewn, with black pages separating the individual collections and with Thomas Victor's photo of Merrill wrapped around the spine of a mostly black dust-jacket on which appears the poet's name in large, lavender letters. The lavender motif—alluding to Merrill's homosexuality—is extended to the opening and closing pages and to a silk bookmark, all in all a state-of-the-art project designed by the resourceful Chip Kidd. In a time when one is invited to plunk down 25 dollars for any old novel, the 40-dollar pricing of Collected
Poems is a bargain.
In fact the book is priceless. For what immersion in Merrill's life work of poems brings us is the conviction that, taken together, the volumes of beautifully wrought verse he gave us make up what we must call—vaguely but unmistakably—a world, one capacious enough to allow endless opportunities for moving around in, for surprise, for continued discovery. About the creation of that world, Merrill was astonishingly prophetic when, in his early 30s, he wrote "A Tenancy," the concluding poem in Water Street (1961), the book in which we hear for the first time the deepened range of a poetic voice. The poem begins with Merrill recalling a March afternoon in 1946 when, having turned 20, he proposes a "bargain with—say with the source of light":
That given a few years more
(Seven or ten or, what seemed vast, fifteen)
To spend in love, in a country not at war,
I would give in return
All I had. All? A little sun
Rose in my throat. The lease was drawn.
"A Tenancy" ends with the now "leaner veteran" of 15 years later being visited by three of his friends and contemplating his identity as a poet:
If I am host at last
It is of little more than my own past.
May others be at home in it.
This pledge of hospitality offered the reader was to be observed for the next 34 years, as the world of Merrill's poetry expanded and complicated itself, but never ceased to imagine a listening reader, someone who cared enough to tune in to the unfailingly regular broadcasts.
The best critic of Merrill's work has been Helen Vendler (her collected reviews of him would make an excellent book), who has more than once spoken to the "Mozartian" spirit of his work. She is referring to its comic nature, comedy of course being a most serious matter; indeed Alexander Pope wanted life to be "a long, exact, and serious comedy," and Vendler names, as Merrill's three great precursors in English verse, Pope, Byron, and W.H. Auden. These poets may well be the greatest technicians of our language (we don't think of Shakespeare or Wordsworth as technicians, even though their employment of words is brilliant). It's also on record that Merrill's contemporary, Richard Wilbur, has called him "the most dazzling technician we have"—this compliment paid by a fellow graduate of Amherst who might himself with equal justice be called the most dazzling technician we have. But the word is dangerous, since it can invite the demeaning adjective "mere" (a "mere" technician, "merely" technique), so to rescue Merrill from the impeachment we should recall T.S. Eliot's observation that "we cannot say at what point ‘technique' begins or where it ends." In other words, it won't do to hive off the dazzling employment of words from anything supposedly more serious.
By way of suggesting how impressive a technician James Merrill was and how fully that technique served to create a compelling human presence, I will adduce a single poem, "The Victor Dog," published in Braving the Elements (1972) [and reproduced on the next page]. It is one of the poems ("Matinées" and "The Ring Cycle" are others) in which his inwardness with music is patent. It is learned and difficult, but not obscure, and it has elicited surprisingly little comment, perhaps because—misleadingly, I think—critics deem it so light-spirited as to be the opposite of profound. "The Victor Dog" is a poem of 40 lines, in 10 stanzas rhyming ABBA.
It is spoken by the Poet, the one on whom nothing is lost, who knows and sees and hears all, and to whom it is our privilege and pleasure to listen. If the lines quoted earlier from "A Tenancy"—the poem where Merrill pledged himself to his art—are gravely thoughtful, those in "The Victor Dog" crackle with witty fireworks to describe which the adjective "playful" is woefully inadequate. "Bix to Buxtehude to Boulez" is, for openers, a line no one came close to writing previously, showing an aural quickness of association which, once "Bix" is sounded, moves inevitably to "Bux [tehude]" then (with the sound of "hude") to "Boulez." There is a sheer pleasure in pronouncing the names of these three B's of the composer-performer world.
Merrill's own performance in the first three stanzas seems especially packed with what Frost named as the essential constituents of poetry—"this thing of performance and prowess and feats of association." Merely to note the ABBA rhyme pattern suggests nothing about how delightfully "off" are the first and fourth line-rhymes of these stanzas: Boulez/plays; refrained/friend; same/s'aiment. Auden was expert at slanting his rhymes, but Merrill's rhyming is even more inventive, more fun (especially in the same/s'aiment rhyme where the words look so very different). Then there is the pacing: Frost said he was interested in how he could "lay" sentences into lines of verse; Merrill's three stanzas contain seven sentences—of, respectively, three, one, one, two, two, a half, and two and a half lines—with the effect of keeping us off-balance, surprised at the way a line does or doesn't conclude itself in a full-stop period. These off-beat happenings help generate changes of voice: from the mock-casual "It's all in a day's work, whatever plays" (the play on work/play is so casual as to be scarcely discernible); to the mock-thoughtful "From judgment, it would seem, he has refrained"; to the deadpan coupling of the Christian church's laying its foundation on a rock ("Tu es Petrus") with the 1970s acid rock that the dog refrains from judging, just listens to. My favorite moment is the mock-correction of phrase in "He's man's—no—he's the Leiermann's best friend," reference here being to the final song in Schubert's Winterreise, a strange, ghostly one about a hurdy-gurdy man.
As always with lines from Merrill's poems, there is more to be said, and I refrain from further lunges at explanation. (But what about "the Schumann Concerto's tall willow hit/By lightning"? Do we need to hear the opening theme in the third—or the first—movement?) Yet the poem is more than one devilishly clever stroke after another, since it also has a development, a little narrative that broadens into an exquisitely touching finality of statement:
The last chord fades. The night is cold and fine.
His master's voice rasps through the grooves' bare groves.
That is what it is like to hear the record-player's needle having come to the end of the piece and moving through "grooves' bare groves" as they revolve. Suddenly we are precipitated into the lovely conceit of the little dog's dream, involving discovery of the hitherto undiscovered opera Il Cane Minore (slant-rhymes with story) at which point the poet, caught up in the dream ("life's allegorical subject is his story") is moved to state the ultimate mystery of how going round and round the spindle produces the splendors and sadness of music. Such "harmonies beyond belief" that call forth a mid-line breaking-off (. . .) and a poignant question not to be answered: "Is there in Victor's heart/No honey for the vanquished?" Or rather, answered only by the bare truths that end the poem:
Art is art.
The life it asks of us is a dog's life.
Merrill went to his writing desk every morning, led the dog's life of writing, in order to give us the richness of his music.
Merrill's art is to give rise to harmonies beyond belief without ever raising his voice—as Eliot, Yeats, Robert Lowell raised their voices. He once said on the subject that "If you were taught that it's not polite to raise your voice, it's very hard to write like Whitman," and we may be grateful that he didn't attempt the barbaric yawp. In this restraint he most resembles that other "technician," Wilbur, who has also avoided loud affirmations or negations, believing (in the words of Merrill's "The Thousand and Second Night") that "Form's what affirms." Merrill and Wilbur, along with Anthony Hecht, all roughly the same age, seem to me our great formal poets, each brought up on high modernist predecessors, but also responsive to the quieter voicings and ceaseless wit of a Frost, an Elizabeth Bishop. Like Frost and like Bishop, these successors are committed to narrative, to writing poems with a "plot," a development that, however difficult it is to track (and with Merrill it is often extremely difficult if not impossible), is committed to making something we call, for lack of a better word, sense. (Here the three poets differ from their overrated contemporary John Ashbery, who just goes on in his merry way making nonsense.)
Merrill's poems have denouement; they twist and turn in the motions of an imagination working something out. His practice and subjects as a poet have been remarkably continuous: one does not talk of "development" in the 23 years of work that followed "The Victor Dog." We may recall Oscar Wilde, declaring that only mediocrities develop, but note as well that, unlike, most impressively, Robert Lowell's, Merrill's art is not made out of the dramatic presentation of self-struggle, action and reaction, the taking on of successive Yeatsian masks. He claims furthermore never to have thought of his homosexuality as an "issue," either in the poems or outside it. As the social stigma lessened or disappeared altogether in the 1970s, Merrill was not on the battlements: "I stood still and the closet disintegrated," he remarked: "I don't believe in being the least militant about it." His final three volumes, published after the closet disintegrated (Late Settings, The Inner Room, and A Scattering of Salts) are books this reader has scarcely begun to assimilate, and they contain some of his very best poems.
Perhaps, in the manner Randall Jarrell liked to employ when dealing with a poet's life work, it is permissible to name about 25 poems for which in my judgment Merrill should be most remembered. In more or less chronological order then: "The Black Swan," "The Country of a Thousand Years of Peace," "Mirror," "An Urban Convalescence," "For Proust," "Getting Through," "Annie Hill's Grave," "A Tenancy," "The Thousand and Second Night," "Time," "The Broken Home," "Matinées," "Up and Down," "The Victor Dog," "Lost in Translation," "Clearing the Title," "Days of 1941 and '44," "The House Fly," "Santorini: Stopping the Leak," "Investiture at Cecconi's," "Farewell Performance," "Nine Lives," "The Ring Cycle," "Family Week at Oracle Ranch," "164 East 72nd Street," "Overdue Pilgrimage to Nova Scotia," "Self-Portrait in Tyvek (TM) Windbreaker." Add to these two of the last poems he wrote that conclude this volume, "Christmas Tree" and "Days of 1994."
To call these last poems rehearsals for death puts it too bluntly only if the moving affirmations in which they end are ignored. "Days of 1994," the last of many "Days of" poems he wrote, concludes with the notion of waking in a tomb "Below the world" and enumerates some of "the thousand things/Here risen to if not above/Before day ends:"
The spectacles, the book,
Forgetful lover and forgotten love,
Cobweb hung with trophy wings,
The fading trumpet of a car,
The knowing glance from star to star,
The laughter of old friends.
And—if possible—even more movingly because more wittily, there is "Christmas Tree," an account by the tree of being "brought down from the cold mountain," "warmly" taken in and dressed by the world, put under the spell of love and human hospitality. But the tree knows how different is what lies ahead, and seamlessly the speaking voice becomes the poet's from his hospital bed ("a primitive IV/To keep the show going"). He imagines "the stripping, the cold street, my chemicals/Plowed back into the Earth for lives to come." But it is too much to be dwelt on and the voice ends instead with "No dread. No bitterness," naming its surroundings even as they vanish:
Dusk room aglow
For the last time
Faces love lit,
Still to be so poised, so
Receptive. Still to recall, to praise.
The tenancy, drawn up in 1946, was about to expire; the tenant remained in his lines, ever poised, receptive, recalling and giving praise.
—William H. Pritchard
Henry Clay Folger Professor of English
When the State Kills: Capital Punishment and the American Condition.
By Austin Sarat, William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Jurisprudence and Political Science.
Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2001. 324 pp.
By the time this review appears, Timothy McVeigh will probably be dead. For many Americans, his execution can't come soon enough. Austin Sarat remarks that McVeigh has become "a poster boy for capital punishment, the cold-blooded mass murderer." This is not a book about the McVeigh case, however: it is a penetrating, analytical, yet passionate examination of the proposition that justice sometimes requires the state to take human life deliberately. Sarat's conclusion is that state killing, however ritualized and solemnized, is never a matter of justice.
Revenge is back, Professor Sarat says, but he doesn't think it has ever really gone away. Vengeance has always been an element of criminal law, he says, but only in various disguises, the latest of which is the victims' rights movement. The death penalty is now understood to involve three parties: a convicted felon, a victim, and the State. The penalty phase of a capital trial includes victim-impact statements. Sarat argues that these and other features of contemporary legal culture are part of a trend to legitimate juror decision-making on the basis of emotions. They represent a move away from the traditional conception of law as a source of impersonal and reasoned judgment.
Modern legal systems are founded on the belief that revenge must and can be repressed. Legal punishment for violent acts requires a distinction between retribution and revenge. Sarat considers the grounds for this distinction—for example, that retribution
is rational and impersonal, whereas revenge is motivated by strong emotions; that retribution is proportional, whereas revenge may have no limit; and that lawful retribution is bound by requirements of generality, whereas revenge is individualized. Despite their cogency, Sarat finds these philosophical points insufficient and incapable of purging the criminal justice system of vengeful motives. Revenge, he says, "can be repressed but neither denied nor forgotten."
While agreeing with Oliver Wendell Holmes that "retribution is vengeance in disguise," Sarat does not accept Holmes's view that law should "correspond with the actual feelings and demands of the community," at least with respect to the death penalty. Instead of allowing law to gratify citizens' passion for revenge, he would like to see a shift in attention from the monstrosity of criminal deeds to the social conditions that give rise to the crime. It is Sarat's belief that we know too much about the complexity of human life and society to be able to justify focusing on evil individuals as the causes of criminal violence.
The state doesn't deal well with either revenge or retribution, he believes. When the law tries to submerge the passion for revenge, Sarat argues, it runs into serious contradictions. For state killing to be legitimate, it must be made to appear different from the violence to which it is a response. The historical shift of state execution from display of monarchical power to expression of popular sovereignty has meant a bureaucratization and depersonalization of the procedures of state killing, merely obscuring the role of the state as killer. Prisoners are put to death in accordance with the popular will, but no one is supposed to be responsible for killing them.
Another contradiction Sarat calls attention to is in the state's attempt to "humanize" executions. One way the state seeks to distinguish state killing from illegal acts of violence is by avoiding unnecessary pain. But as Sarat notes, killing without imposition of pain is not likely to satisfy citizens' anger. There is something puzzling about a law that requires the state to kill without imposing pain at all. The state, for all its acquiescence to those who seek vengeance, seeks to occupy the high moral ground by using its power to give those it kills a kinder, gentler death than they deserve.
Sarat discusses some of the flaws in the procedures of deciding and carrying out a death penalty, flaws that seem to be irremediable. Law is general: it depends on standards uniformly applied. Cases are individual, however, and no appeals court has come up with principles that will lead to the execution of all and only those who deserve to die. Juries, furthermore, are typically misinformed as to what decisions will mean with respect to what will follow conviction and imprisonment. Following one of the death penalty trials he observed, Sarat learned from juror interviews that many believe that death doesn't mean death and that life imprisonment doesn't mean life imprisonment. Jurors are often more concerned about incapacitation than they are with whether the defendant shall live or die. The disturbing point that emerges is that there is no justice when jurors have no clear idea of the consequences of their decisions.
Sarat's opposition to the death penalty is based on conservative assumptions regarding the nature and purposes of government. Capital punishment destabilizes the legal system, he believes, and undermines democratic society. It expresses a lack of trust in the criminal justice system, and its use leads to an abandonment of central values of democratic republicanism. (An example is the victims' rights movement, which he sees as "a symptom of frustration and cynicism with our public institutions.") Sarat worries that a killing state may end up a lawless state. Following Justice Blackmun, who late in his career became an opponent of capital punishment, he writes, "Those who love the law must hate the death penalty for the damage it does to the object of that love." In addition to its discussions of the jurisprudence of capital punishment, the book provides important discussions of the cultural life of capital punishment. Sarat analyzes a number of contemporary films dealing with the death penalty. These films, he argues, by focusing on the narrow question of whether a particular person deserves to die, fail to confront the broader questions of state killing and its impact on the American condition. He also offers a probing analysis of issues having to do with the defense of televising executions. Whether televised or not, capital punishment is a public act, and it is futile to pretend it is somehow private. Opening up the event to public viewing, he points out, "has the potential to disrupt the effort of modern law to make us forget that we are killing."
Political conditions being what they are, Sarat sees little prospect for effective argument on an abstract level for the abolitionist position. Nor does he find that traditional legal arguments work in individual cases, because they cannot bridge the gap between knowing the facts and performing the act of deciding in any particular case. Death penalty lawyers have therefore developed the art of constructing narratives, stories that may induce a judge or jury to view the case in terms of the humanity of somebody who is about to be put to death. These lawyers try to save lives, or at least forestall death, one life at a time.
Despite its thoroughness in exploring the rationale and practice of capital punishment, the book may leave the reader with a sense that something important that has not been adequately addressed: the felt sense of justice that motivates any sort of punishment whatever. People want moral accountability, and they want wrongdoers to be punished. It is not likely that the human desire for justice, including retributive justice, will be satisfied by attempts to reconfigure violent acts as consequences of social conditions.
If Professor Sarat is right in suggesting that the world no longer has a place for retribution because it cannot be adequately distinguished from revenge, then we may ultimately have to countenance the collapse of criminal responsibility altogether, however unlikely that would appear. But he does not need to mount an attack on retributive punishment in order to argue against the death penalty. He need only stress, as he does to an admirable extent, that no matter how much criminal defendants deserve to be punished, nothing in the procedures of deciding upon and administering the death penalty can exorcise the evil of state killing. The point, which he indeed recognizes, is not that murderers have a moral right to be allowed to live out their lives, but that no state can justify ordering or permitting its citizens to kill them.
This is a fine and provocative book, one that deserves to be read by anyone seeking a deep and critical understanding of our country's current fascination with capital punishment.
—Michael A. Simon '58
Professor of Philosophy, SUNY/Stony Brook