After the last post about Merrill, I set about to read Merrill’s Collected Poems more systematically, or at least as systematically as I can get when talking about an 850 page volume, by a notoriously involute poet. I’d previously only read here and there, as I have with most Collecteds, though I am now beginning to sit down and fight the feeling of being overwhelmed by choosing individual books to get through.
With Merrill, I’m reading the books from the sixties, before the supernatural begins to intrude, in the 70s (publicly, that is; he began using the ouija board in the 50s), and when his mature style of playing with form more freely begins to develop. Rather than the strict rhyme or blank verse of his earlier books, you have his well-known modulation in and out of strict form within the same poem: “An Urban Convalescence,” for example, one of Merrill’s most famous, has eight stanzas of differing lengths, with occasional slant rhymes, and then eight quatrains of rhymed iambic pentameter. The two poems that I have been spending a lot of time with, to tease out the imagery and its interplay throughout each, are “After Greece” and “Prism,” from his 1962 collection, Water Street, and they are also, interestingly, two where Merrill drops formalism entirely and lets the complexity of imagery, instead of the felicities and coincidences of rhyme, carry the poem. It’s interesting also because you see Merrill begin to learn how his own chains of logic and imagery work; his early poems typically pick apart a single image very methodically until it becomes either the apotheosis of an idea, or its antithesis, narrowing its focus so tightly because rhyme seems to restrict his ability to move laterally to another idea. When he drops the rhyme, he is allowed to develop some complex relationships, even if they are left slightly muddy through their lack of the scalpel-like precision that form usually forces—for better or worse—on his poems.
The first instances of the deep anxiety I mentioned in that last post on Merrill are beginning to creep in, with the escalation of the Cold War (Feel free to correct my dating. I have no mind for the subtlety of history, sadly, but Water Street was published a few months before the Cuban Missile Crisis.). In “After Greece,” some Greek minor deities “seem anxious to know/ What holds up heaven nowadays” and the poet halfheartedly responds, “well, Art, Public Spirit,/ Ignorance, Economics, Love of Self,/ Hatred of Self, a hundred more,/… each dedicated/ To sparing us the worst; how I distrust them…” But here, it is interesting to see how the cause of that anxiety oscillates between impending doom and that ever present dis-ease I brought up last time. Here he begins to explore how the common Modernist theme of dissatisfaction and loss can be yolked to the more personal and emotional reactions one has to one’s era, as well as the ultimate (and ultimately dominating) fear that the annihilation we face is physical, and spiritual, and intellectual. Read the rest of this entry »