Wednesday, March 3, 2010
JAMES MERRILL b. MARCH 3 1926
no one, NO ONE in the 20th century, wrote more elegant poetry than james merrill. yes, that declaration includes the lordly mr auden. he might well have been a minor though accomplished poet but for the magisterial & remarkable the changing light at sandover. i read the entire work several times way back when & what astonished me was the final sections of the poem were as strong, as alive, as beautiful as the earlier ones written 20 years before. the endurance & power of the poetic vision that possessed merrill was remarkable. the poem is simply a masterwork of the 20th century, as great as any other great work by any other great poet you can name.
"The Changing Light at Sandover is a 560-page epic poem by James Merrill (1926–1995). Sometimes described as a postmodern apocalyptic epic, the poem was published in three separate installments between 1976 and 1980, and in its entirety in 1982. Already established in the 1970s among the finest poets of his generation, Merrill made a surprising detour when he began incorporating occult messages into his work. The result, a 560-page apocalyptic epic published as The Changing Light at Sandover (1982), documents two decades of messages dictated from otherworldly spirits during Ouija séances hosted by Merrill and his partner David Noyes Jackson. The Changing Light at Sandover is one of the longest epics in any language, and features the voices of recently deceased poet W. H. Auden, Merrill's late friends Maya Deren and Greek socialite Maria Mitsotáki, as well has heavenly beings including the Archangel Michael. Channeling voices through a Ouija board "made me think twice about the imagination," Merrill later explained. "If the spirits aren't external, how astonishing the mediums become! Victor Hugo said of his voices that they were like his own mental powers multiplied by five."(wiki)
An Urban Convalescence
by James Merrill
Out for a walk, after a week in bed,
I find them tearing up part of my block
And, chilled through, dazed and lonely, join the dozen
In meek attitudes, watching a huge crane
Fumble luxuriously in the filth of years.
Her jaws dribble rubble. An old man
Laughs and curses in her brain,
Bringing to mind the close of The White Goddess.
As usual in New York, everything is torn down
Before you have had time to care for it.
Head bowed, at the shrine of noise, let me try to recall
What building stood here. Was there a building at all?
I have lived on this same street for a decade.
Wait. Yes. Vaguely a presence rises
Some five floors high, of shabby stone
—Or am I confusing it with another one
In another part of town, or of the world?—
And over its lintel into focus vaguely
Misted with blood (my eyes are shut)
A single garland sways, stone fruit, stone leaves,
Which years of grit had etched until it thrust
Roots down, even into the poor soil of my seeing.
When did the garland become part of me?
I ask myself, amused almost,
Then shiver once from head to toe,
Transfixed by a particular cheap engraving of garlands
Bought for a few francs long ago,
All calligraphic tendril and cross-hatched rondure,
Ten years ago, and crumpled up to stanch
Boughs dripping, whose white gestures filled a cab,
And thought of neither then nor since.
Also, to clasp them, the small, red-nailed hand
Of no one I can place. Wait. No. Her name, her features
Lie toppled underneath that year’s fashions.
The words she must have spoken, setting her face
To fluttering like a veil, I cannot hear now,
Let alone understand. (the rest of the poem, here.)