In Edmund White's 1997 roman a clef, "The Farewell Symphony"--the final volume of an autobiographical trilogy about the recent history of gay America--James Merrill makes a few cameo appearances as a character named Eddie, the wealthy, renowned, preternaturally gifted poet whose favor White's narrator both courts and disdains. In one scene, the narrator and his friend Joshua (a portrait of the late critic David Kalstone) visit Eddie at his home in a New England village and are invited to have a look at a poem in progress:
"Joshua and I read the new poem . . . worked our way through its elaborate astrological conceits and consulted with each other. Finally Joshua, despite an admiration that bordered on awe, dared to say to Eddie, 'Isn't it . . . a bit . . . cold?' Eddie slapped his forehead and said, 'Of course! I forgot to put the feeling in!' He rushed upstairs to the cupola that served as a study and fiddled with the verses for an hour before he descended with lines that made us weep, so tender were they, so melting and exalted. That night, when we were alone, Joshua whispered, 'A rather chilling vision of the creative process, I'd say. We must never tell anyone about this, since how many people would understand and forgive the heartless, manipulative craftsmanship of great art?' "
Whether such a scene took place in real life or not, it captures--in the light, comic vein Merrill himself prized--the perception that he was a veritable magician, a master of special poetic effects, who had simply to pass his hands over a poem to imbue it with "feeling." And that, in the manner of such masters, he was also capable of a certain concomitant detachment, in the manner of the famous Joycean artist: "the God of the creation . . . within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails." White's homage to Merrill suggests just how "exalted"--and intimidating--he seemed to his peers and readers.
As early as 1972, in a review of Merrill's "Braving the Elements," critic Helen Vendler defined the expectations his work had summoned up in what has become one of the most oft-quoted characterizations of it:
"The time eventually comes, in a good poet's career, when readers actively long for his books: to know that someone out there is writing down your century, your generation, your language, your life--under whatever terms of difference--makes you wish for news of yourself, for those authentic tidings of invisible things . . . that only come in the interpretation of life voiced by poetry."
Now, with the publication of Merrill's "Collected Poems," we can finally see, at 888 pages (and not including the vast epic poem, "The Changing Light at Sandover," available in a separate volume), how strange and momentous that news of ourselves was and is. And yet, aren't the "terms of difference" Vendler spoke of particularly daunting in Merrill's work? This aristocratic poet's experience was, as one critic put it, "cultivated, leisured, privileged"; Merrill claimed, in a poem published during the mid-1960s, that "I rarely buy a newspaper, or vote" and once expressed a desire not for a mass audience but for "one perfect reader." His work was criticized for being decorative, precious, elitist, apolitical. So what makes him, in the estimation of Harold Bloom and virtually every other eminent poetry critic in the country, "one of the central American poets of the twentieth century"?
Even in the grand tradition of America's eccentric poets--the Recluse (Emily Dickinson), the Ecstatic Homosexual (Walt Whitman), the Aesthete-Expatriate (T.S. Eliot), the Poet-Doctor (William Carlos Williams) and the Insurance Man (Wallace Stevens)--James Merrill stood out. Reclusive and intensely social, fabulously wealthy and notably frugal, a homosexual aesthete, opera buff, part-time expatriate and workaholic, as well as a devotee of the Ouija board, Merrill was--as his friend and fellow poet Richard Howard once said--"the most glamour-clogged and mandarin figure America has produced in 35 years."