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Remembering James Merrill at Amherst

By Daria D'Arienzo

The April 24 symposium “Remembering James Merrill at Amherst” took its impetus from the Merrill-Burford correspondence that was chosen as the symbolic gift to mark the growth of the Library’s collection to more than one million volumes. Acquisition of these letters, which provide rich detail of Merrill’s life during the summer of 1946, was made possible by a gift in memory of James I. Merrill, Class of 1947. The symposium expanded on the snapshot of Merrill’s young life and creative development chronicled in these early letters to his Medusa co-editor, William Burford ’49. It offered the perspective of those who knew him or who have come through scholarly investigation to know the poet and his work. The symposium offered the opportunity to reflect on Merrill’s early poetic life and growth, and to explore the role the College played for him, as a student and teacher here. The presentations and discussion honored the Amherst memory of James Merrill.

The symposium panel included friends of Merrill, fellow poets and writers, scholars who are studying his life and work, a family member, and those who have lived, studied, and worked at Amherst College. These distinguished individuals spoke to an audience of more than 100 people on Saturday afternoon for more than two hours.

panel
by Juliet Matilla

Chatting before Daniel Hall arrived, the panelists are (l. to r.): Robin Magowan, Langdon Hammer, Richard Wilbur, Jack Hagstrom, & Stephen Yenser.

Daniel Hall, poet and director of the Creative Writing Center at Amherst, welcomed the diverse audience to the symposium, introduced each speaker, and moderated the lively discussion. Hall was the first fellow chosen to live and work in Merrill’s apartment in Stonington, Connecticut. Merrill had encouraged Hall’s work and chose his first volume of poetry, Hermit with Landscape, to appear in the Yale Series of Younger Poets, with a foreword by Merrill. Though he did not make a formal presentation, Hall knew and was inspired by Merrill and shared some of his experience during the discussion that followed.

Jack W. C. Hagstrom ’55 spoke first. Hagstrom was Merrill’s friend and is an assiduous collector of the poet’s work. He is currently at work on a comprehensive bibliography of Merrill’s published work. Hagstrom briefly recalled how he came to be the poet’s bibliographer. He had known Merrill for many years, with an enduring interest in his writings. Hagstrom’s bibliographic work evolved over time. It started out as a friendly gesture to Mary Johnson&emdash;offering to help her with the legwork for her Merrill bibliography in progress. After she gave it up, Holly Hall at Washington University took it on; when she had to give up the project, Hagstrom became the sole Merrill bibliographer. Hagstrom has been meticulously searching out everything James Merrill ever published, from his earlier journalistic efforts to the recent, complete editions of poems, plays, and prose compiled and edited by J. D. McClatchy and Stephen Yenser, Merrill’s literary executors. He described it as a circuitous and rewarding journey.

Jack W. C. Hagstrom ’55 spoke first. Hagstrom was Merrill’s friend and is an assiduous collector of the poet’s work. He is currently at work on a comprehensive bibliography of Merrill’s published work. Hagstrom briefly recalled how he came to be the poet’s bibliographer. He had known Merrill for many years, with an enduring interest in his writings. Hagstrom’s bibliographic work evolved over time. It started out as a friendly gesture to Mary Johnson&emdash;offering to help her with the legwork for her Merrill bibliography in progress. After she gave it up, Holly Hall at Washington University took it on; when she had to give up the project, Hagstrom became the sole Merrill bibliographer. Hagstrom has been meticulously searching out everything James Merrill ever published, from his earlier journalistic efforts to the recent, complete editions of poems, plays, and prose compiled and edited by J. D. McClatchy and Stephen Yenser, Merrill’s literary executors. He described it as a circuitous and rewarding journey.

Critic, scholar, and editor Langdon Hammer spoke next. Hammer is at work on the authorized biography of the poet. As part of his study of Merrill’s life, Hammer has written on James Merrill and Kimon Friar and included the results of that work in his remarks.

Hammer provided the context for Merrill’s life at Amherst. Though most of the recently acquired Merrill-Burford letters date from the summer of 1946 when Merrill and Burford were editing The Medusa, Hammer started the story earlier. He noted the influence of Kimon Friar, Merrill’s teacher and first lover, in the letters. Merrill had met Friar after he returned to Amherst following service in the Army in 1944-45. The Greek-born Friar was a temporary instructor in the veteran’s programs at the College. Friar tutored Merrill in poetry and in life and, most significantly for these letters, introduced Merrill to the poet Keats. Hammer pointed out the underlying Keatsian influence in the letters—Merrill’s absorption in writing—his own and that of others like Proust and James. Hammer described the letters as

Different from the letters you and I write, JM’s early letters to Burford are events, in which we see the poet thinking—specifically making connections between what he reads or writes and how he feels, what he is doing, how he thinks of himself.

In December 1945, Merrill’s mother discovered his relationship with Friar (by opening a letter) and forbade them to see each other at Amherst. In his letters to Burford, Merrill talks about seeing a psychiatrist for his “abnormality” but for the most part they reflect on the potential for life as a writer and poet. Hammer argues that although a more independent Merrill ended his relationship with Friar in late 1946, Friar’s “influence would go on unfolding for the rest of Merrill’s poetic career.”

Hammer quoted Merrill’s own August 5, 1946, letter to Burford in which the young poet eloquently reflects on how he could create his own “commonplace ... that ... will be the achievement of all others, that is most perfect, personal, and liberating.” Hammer concluded

Poetry sets him apart—makes him a different person, but also holds the possibility of connecting him to others—“accessible to the entire world”: open to everyone, but also—something that will give him access to the world—a program for living—for writing.

Robin Magowan, poet, writer and Merrill’s nephew, provided a family perspective, that of someone who knew, admired and loved Merrill for his entire life. Magowan was encouraged and greatly influenced by his uncle, and his remarks reflected that special relationship.

two guys
by Frank Ward

Jack Hagstrom (left) and Richard Wilbur.

The uncle Magowan knew was “a very different person” from “the invented young collegian” in the Merrill-Burford letters. “Jimmy” was the man Magowan knew; “Jim” is the “ neutered man” and “aspiring poet-writer-critic” who is self-consciously creating a persona in writing to his friend. When looking at the letters, Magowan found a literary young man, a helpful friend, willing to read anything Burford sent him. It was the “Jimmy” of this period who was “not a pronouncer of mots so much as a conversationalist.” The influence of his uncle remains intensely personal:

His phrasing and intonation were so memorable that his remarks have stayed with me, resonating throughout my life. I can still quote him on virtually any subject at the drop of a hat. His effect on me at nineteen was that powerful, and his deliberate initiation and mentoring made me the writer and man I am today.

While the letters are full, for Magowan the omissions are significant. He looked “in vain for the mention of any sexual preference”; the letters imply unhappiness, but don’t state it outright. They are direct about Merrill’s fear of his mother and about the apprehension he has about the analyst he is seeing.

Magowan noted that only the letters from his father’s home in Palm Beach show Merrill as “his own radiant self.” To illustrate, he quoted a long passage that concludes with

The dolphin which we caught this afternoon in the Gulf Stream came violently towards the boat, an incredible opal creature all dappled and shining, fading in the air almost instantly to a dirty olive.

For Magowan, “This is Jimmy at his most sensationally aware, relaxed, open and absorbent.”

After reflecting on the youthful correspondence, Magowan moved to 1955-56, when Merrill was teaching at Amherst and writing The Seraglio, the novel he described as “about us all.” At this time Magowan was at Harvard where Merrill’s Amherst thesis advisor, Reuben Brower, was teaching the New Criticism—and discovered that “words could grow on a page” and with this revelation could think of himself as becoming a poet.

At the end of his remarks, Magowan recounted the story of the slashing of his mother’s portrait in the family home in Southampton, the “real life starting point” for Merrill’s Seraglio. Magowan confessed his 16-year- old naiveté with the revelation that life in Southampton was not about money, “it was about sex”—a realization that freed Magowan from his “father’s thrall.”

Magowan concluded by restating the contrast of the two Merrills he saw

The “Jim” of the Burford correspondence sets forth opinions with the judiciousness of a world-weary-seventy-year old. But the Jimmy I visited eight years later in Amherst was a radiant being, dispensing light and his own lightness with his every word.

Poet, critic, and editor Stephen Yenser spoke next. Yenser and J. D. McClatchy serve as Merrill’s literary executors. Together they have edited Merrill’s Collected Poems and Collected Novels and Plays, and are at work on an edition of Merrill’s letters. Yenser thoughtfully considered Merrill’s literary output, and used the poet’s letters to Burford as the starting point for his remarks.

In these early letters, the Merrill Yenser saw was witty, observant, prone to “sagacious generalizations,” self-consciousness, painstaking in his attention to detail and as the calculated shifts in tone show, acutely aware of his audience “both immediate and future”. Yenser observed that Merrill had “the crucial conviction that the life and the writing are warp and woof.” The letters charted Merrill’s course as a writer. Yenser said: “To be more specific, his early remarks on fundamental aesthetic matters foreshadow his later pronouncements and practice.”

In the time allocated, Yenser could only briefly look at the literary and other influences on Merrill’s writing and touch on the complex interrelationship of all that Merrill read and experienced and the ideas and symbols that manifested themselves in the poet’s work. He provided one specific example, discussing Ernest Fenollosa’s poetic principle as explored in Hugh Kenner’s book The Pound Era. He said that in this volume, Merrill

read with a thrill … the principle that “The forces which produce the branch-angles of an oak lay potent in the acorn.” Merrill could see that principle embodied in his own works individually and in his career as a whole.

Proust, Henry James, and—a revelation to Yenser—Kafka, all find their way into the 1946 letters. It is Kafka’s “ambiguity” that Merrill admires; he likens that quality to The Birthday, the play he is writing. Merrill also has another side, as Yenser noted.

At the same time that he lauds this species of “ambiguity,” however, it is clear that Merrill admires a rich clarity and economy, of the sort that used to be known as “symbolist.”

Yenser discussed Merrill’s “meticulous critique” of the novel Burford was writing as an example of this tendency. Merrill in particular praised the way the first sentence “commits the whole book to a kind of symbolism.” Yenser sees the very thing Merrill praised Burford for in Merrill’s novels:

What I find especially interesting about Merrill’s note is that it could describe the beginnings of both of his own novels, years in the future, The Seraglio (1957), a polished neo-Jamesian narrative, and The (Diblos) Notebook (1965), a kind of experimental deconstructionist tale avant la lettre.

Word choice and precision are critical. The Seraglio begins “Exactly a year later Francis learned the truth about the slashed portrait—by then, of course, restored with expert care.” The (Diblos) Notebook starts with a single word, “Orestes,” with a line drawn through it. Yenser says of Merrill that

in his beginning, he was deeply concerned with beginnings and ramifications, and further that his later works are often, strikingly, if you will, prefigured in his earliest work.

Yenser continued his analysis of Merrill’s early work, briefly discussing the 1949 short story “Rose”, a story with “artful metamorphoses,” influenced by Kafka and predicting in some way the “shape shifting” protagonist in Merrill’s later work, The Book of Ephraim, in the Sandover trilogy.

At the end, Yenser returned to Merrill’s Amherst play, The Birthday, and proposed that some of the characters, especially Mr. Knight and Mrs. Crane, appear, in some degree of separation, as characters in Merrill’s future works.

Yenser concluded with a final observation about Merrill’s pattern of “recirculation”:

It often seems to me that James Merrill was telling and retelling his version of that one story—a family drama, too complicated or simple to go any further into just now—from the outset.

The Merrill-Burford letters chronicle a stage in that “outset.”

Merrill’s fellow Amherst graduate Richard Wilbur ’42, a former Poet Laureate of the United States, twice recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for poetry, critic, and translator was the final speaker. Merrill and Wilbur are Amherst’s most well known poets and sometimes appeared at the College together. For many years, they were winter neighbors in Key West, Florida.

Wilbur’s recollections of his long friendship with Merrill were more informal. He told stories of Merrill and Amherst over time. He was struck by Merrill’s loneliness, without a trace of self-pity, in the letters. Wilbur also felt “lonely and literary”; both dealt with the solitude that entailed.

The Medusa

A page from the first issue of The Medusa.

Wilbur also knew Merrill’s father, Charles Merrill ’08. They were both members of the Chi Psi fraternity, to which Merrill senior had a life-long devotion. Wilbur recounted an exchange between Charles Merrill and Richmond Mayo Smith ’09 in the library of the Chi Psi house—“I’ll flip you for the mortgage”—tossing for the privilege of paying off the sum due on the house. Wilbur recalled that Merrill’s refusal to join his father’s fraternity must have been a major emotional event of Merrill’s student period. In Merrill’s dark humor, he thought telling his father might give the senior Merrill a heart attack.

Wilbur spoke of hearing Merrill recite his poetry, specifically when they were doing a reading at the College in the 1950s. Wilbur recalled that Merrill described his own reading in a “world-weary voice you can only have if you know nothing of the world.”

As long-time neighbors in Key West, Merrill and Wilbur often celebrated their adjoining March birthdays (March 3 and 1, respectively) together. As Wilbur dryly put it, on these occasions, we “shook down all our friends for little gifts.”

Recalling Merrill, his friend, Wilbur said that Merrill was utterly devoted to many people, as he said Merrill’s poems tell us. Wilbur ended by noting that he and Merrill were both aware of their Amherst bonds, often telling jokes about Amherst, and grateful for what Amherst had been for them.

Daniel Hall opened the lively discussion with the audience. Many people asked the panelists questions, others shared their own recollections of Merrill. Discussion ranged from a request for help finding Merrill’s earliest poem published in The St. Nicholas Magazine in the 1930s; to comments about Kafka’s influence on Merrill; to the challenges of being the biographer of this poet in particular; to the revelation that it was Charles Merrill’s lawyer, Larry Condon, who spoke up after Charles Merrill considered hiring a hit man to remove Kimon Friar (the lawyer told Merrill senior that his son had talent and would be more famous than his father); to the fact that Merrill hung his diplomas in the kitchen; to a question about the parallels between Edith Wharton and Merrill (no one has looked at this, according to Yenser and Hammer); to the fact that Merrill avoided reading Moby Dick for a long time as a point of pride.

On a more personal note, Lanny Hammer told the story of the one time he met Merrill. As an undergraduate at the University of Connecticut, Hammer drove Merrill to the campus where he was the guest of honor at the Wallace Stevens Centennial. “Uncanny and somewhat disturbing” was the feeling Hammer had when he found his own name in Merrill’s date book for that year while doing research for his biography.

Stephen Yenser, Merrill’s friend for twenty-five years and now one of his literary executors, recalled that he met Merrill as a graduate student, as part of a group in a writing workshop Merrill taught. Merrill was “utterly intimidating” to the students in the workshop, quoting “yards of Edith Sitwell” and, as Yenser said, “we were terrified.”

The symposium reception in the Archives and Special Collections in the Library was well attended. The reception offered the opportunity to view the extensive exhibition of Merrill material on display, which featured the Library’s Merrill material, including selections from the Merrill-Burford correspondence, particularly the manuscript sonnet and sketches reproduced in the facsimile keepsake; student writings, including his prize-winning poems and The Birthday; the manuscript of The Seraglio; Jack W.C. Hagstrom’s gift copy of Jim’s Book; and Merrill’s ouija board and willowware cup, a smattering of manuscript poetry, photographs and Merrill’s typewriter, lent for this occasion by J. D. McClatchy. The exhibition also featured the works of the symposium participants.

Amherst remembers James Merrill as an extraordinary poet who encouraged and inspired creative work in others. This symposium was a fitting conclusion to the Library’s Millionth Volume celebration.