Big Loves: Derrick Austin on James Merrill

Today’s contributor, Derrick Austin, was the winner of a Twitter Challenge to write for our Big Love column. Derrick Austin is a Colby Fellow and MFA candidate in poetry at the University of Michigan. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Knockout, Waccamaw, Crab Orchard Review, storySouth, and other journals.

James Merrill

I’m still in the first throes of love with James Merrill after two years. However, it wasn’t love at first sight. When I started writing and sought queer writers, like myself, Merrill’s name always came up. I couldn’t understand his work initially for many of the same reasons as his detractors: he’s too mannered or he’s too formal or too rarefied. Bullshit. Like others from Dickinson to Crane to Moore, writers with a powerful sense of style, Merrill’s poetry requires a period of adjustment. His lyric “The Mad Scene” provided a Rosetta Stone. This was work “Of a new fiber that never stains or wrinkles, never / Wears thin.” Here is a master whose work serves as a touchstone: the balanced, musical line, lush imagery, and an engagement with emotion in the service of truth. Of all our great poets of the last century, Merrill ranks among the highest in understanding desire, its gradations and degradations. He looks naked need in the mirror and, witnessing his own face, doesn’t shirk his responsibility as a poet.

Merrill’s lyric poems are wondrous, but what changed me was his ability to marry his lyric impulse to longer narrative forms. At first, I savored “Days of 1964,” “The Friend of the Fourth Decade,” “Strato in Plaster,” and “After the Fire” before moving on to “Lost in Translation,” “Yannina,” and “Clearing the Title.” How could I not be dazzled by those crystalline structures—sonnet sequences, villanelles, canzones, ballads, forms of his own invention, and even the epic in The Changing Light at Sandover—and his loose, conversational use of that old staple, the pentameter line? “Form’s what affirms,” he wrote in “The Thousand and Second Night,” yet his poems, besides being technically accomplished, are wonderfully witty. Here’s a poet unafraid of puns and wordplay. Here’s a poet who taught me that a lightness of touch does not denote a lightness of intention.

Yet, what I love Merrill for the most is his graciousness. Despite his varied gifts and deeply personal, sometimes plainly biographical, poems he never lost sight of the reader. In collections like The Inner Room and A Scattering of Salts, he engaged with politics and ecological degradation in work like “The Ring Cycle” and “Self-Portrait in Tyvek TM Windbreaker,” topics most don’t readily associate with Merrill; yet, he was so skilled an artist that large topics never feel less than intimate and pressing. Gracious poetry doesn’t require one to be devoid of complexities or to write in a narrow “plainspoken” way. His graciousness is in never condescending to readers, always challenging as well as delighting. His joyous spirit coupled with an unflinching eye on human failings and longings are always present—and, reading his poems, it always feels as if his eyes are on me. That intimate. That honest.

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