Rachel Hadas, whose 12 books of poetry are deeply rooted in her classics background and her years as a young woman in Greece, took the podium at the Frost Place last week to offer a close reading of several James Merrill poems, weaving into her talk both personal insight and biographical detail.
Hadas met Merrill in 1969 and knew him well until his death in 1995; they were separated by a gap of 22 years. In illustrating Merrill's enduring connection for readers, she mentioned Helen Vendler's comment when Allen Ginsberg died: “Time will edit him.” With this in mind, she offered to explicate Merrill's narrative and lyrical work, “joining the dots.”
“What do I mean by lyrical narrative? … I can’t do plot. Of course poems with plot have been written, starting with the Iliad. .. I’m kind of basing my thoughts here on E. M. Forster’s wonderful book Aspects of the Novel.”
She pointed to the way lyric poetry allows leaps of narrative, flashes of feeling, disjunction, leaving things out – “an emphasis on the how rather than the what, so lyric may cover some of the same territory as narrative but it does it very differently.”
"The Broken Home" is Merrill's sonnet sequence that refers to the divorce of his parents when he was ten -- a collapse that created a wounded child in the midst of great financial wealth. “There’s always a lot of autobiography in all of Merrill’s poems,” Hadas asserted. She went into the poem with energy and delight, pointing out the “maxim” nature cropping up in it, and the puns around banking language.
from "The Broken Home," sonnet ii:
My father, who had flown in World War I,
Might have continued to invest his life
In cloud backs well above Wall Street and wife.
But the race was run below, and the point was to win.
He could afford it. He was "in his prime."
At three score ten. But money was not time.
“One of the many things that poetry can do that prose can’t is this wonderful elliptical leaping” – from the clock of Merrill's father’s life, to the clock of history – then combining suffragette history with the marriage on the rocks. “Within the broken home, which is of course an image by itself, there are pieces that are broken,” Hadas noted. She updated the younger listeners by reminding them that in Merrill's youth gay people couldn’t have children, by either adoption or insemination, so that Merrill had a period of grief around the issue – and his work also includes much punning from “son and heir” to “sun and air” within the metaphor of a garden.
“Merrill clearly was a formalist technician,” Hadas continued. She noted that among the New Formalists (among whom she is usually numbered), formalism has gotten a bad rap for its “Fabergé egg” precision, but she demonstrated that Merrill was clearly relaxed about form, and "the bad rap isn’t correct."
“Days of 1964” was her next offering, a love poem; when Merrill writes love poetry he does so in the second person, something that fiction doesn’t do very well, Hadas remarked; but it's a long tradition in love poetry, including that of Sappho. For Hadas, a narrative of lovers telling each other stories gives it "a Scheherazade feeling." Sliding again toward biography, she pointed out "a feeling of Plato’s symposium" as Merrill was living in Greece and had grown up and was having a good time in the period he's addressing ("I had gone so long without loving, / I hardly knew what I was thinking. // Where I hid my face, your touch, quick, merciful, / Blindfolded me. A god breathed from my lips. / If that was illusion, I wanted it to last long"). Hadas is also the perfect expert to address the way that the title of this poem echoes Cavafy’s poems that all began with “Days of” and were love poems in an urban setting -- her critical work includes a volume on Merrill and Cavafy.
Adding to the range of Hadas' lecture was the presence in Robert Frost's barn of this year's resident poet at The Frost Place, James Hoch. Here are my notes of their interaction in exploring Merrill's work:
Hoch: Merrill shifts among modes (meditative, lyric, narrative) with such dexterity that “I don’t even know it’s happening” – pointed to lines that get blown up and extended beyond natural speech, and the use of variation in line length, as indicating the novelist’s sense of sentence as opposed to fragmentary line. “I think part of his grace is to take all those techniques, hold the sentence together, and still recognize that you’re holding this in form.”
Hadas: the word for mask in Latin is “persona.”
Hadas: “I suggest that any time we read a poem that’s any good, it’s going to present itself to us differently”
Hadas: the dogs [in this poem] can be a topic easily sentimentalized, and M skirts it.
Hoch: pointed to the conflation of masks with alienation, and points to Merrill being a tourist in his own life, a watcher with his parents; that M is allowing many factors to play, without trying to negate or deny them; RH praised the phrase “tourist in his own life” as avoiding the extra baggage that comes with the term “alienation.”
Hadas: I think I would say to poets, pay a lot of attention and do a lot of eavesdropping, which is very easy in this age of cell phones.
An hour and a half of this exploration made for quite a morning up on the mountain; I heard one listener say afterward, "I'd never really read Merrill's poems before, and now I'm so excited about them!"