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Wednesday
Mar092011

1967

Nights and Days

By James Merrill

Original Publisher: Atheneum
Current Publisher: Out of Print

James Merrill also won the National Book Award in Poetry in 1979 for Mirabell: Books of Number.

Megan Snyder-Camp writes:

Over the course of his career, Merrill won just about every literary award available, including two National Book Awards—the first for 1966’s Nights and Days, and the second for Mirabell: Books of Number, which was first published in 1978 as the second in a trilogy of long poems which together would comprise his 560-page epic work, The Changing Light at Sandover (1982).

Nights and Days shows early Merrill at his best—formally brilliant, wryly observant, and loyal to beauty. Merrill’s speakers are often set apart from their subjects even while peering deeply into them. Here are my favorite lines in the book, in which the poet speaks of his father in “The Broken Home”:

Each 13th year he married. When he died
There were already several chilled wives
in sable orbit—rings, cars, permanent waves

These brutal, unforgettable lines are balanced by the tenderness in “Little Fanfare for Felix Magowan,” where the poet celebrates the birth of a friend’s child:

Welcome to earth, time, others; to
These cool darks, of sense, of language,
Each at once thread and maze.

Merrill’s early formal mastery drew critical praise, but it was his later work, starting with The Book of Ephraim, riskier and more personal in subject matter while still retaining the same strict attention to form, that earned him widespread acclaim.

Merrill, the son of investment banker Charles E. Merrill, was wealthy enough to dedicate most of his life to poetry. Rather than fitting his poetry into the corners of his days, after the needs of work and family have been met, as most poets do, Merrill could make of his days what his poems wanted. Mirabell: Books of Number finds Merrill at home in Connecticut with his longtime partner, the painter David Jackson, engaged in sessions at their Ouija board that quickly turn from playful to urgent. Merrill’s and Jackson’s voices at the table are interspersed with transcriptions of their lengthy sessions, in which voices from the beyond address a wide range of historical and scientific questions as well as the nature and purpose of literary endeavor. As they descend farther into this otherworld, Merrill’s doubts anticipate the reader’s own, one of many gestures toward the postmodern concern with parsing what it is poetry is made from. Here Merrill quite literally receives his words through a cup, writing down the dictations and shaping them into lines of varying length and structure according to each session’s many unseen speakers.

Mirabell relays a wild, prophetic folding of poetry into the evolution of man, matter, and the soul. Here there are symbolic numbers, pyramids, twins, the work of “God B” (B is short for Biology), and threats of atomic destruction in pursuit of a disturbing-sounding purity, all told through the jostling of a large and varied recurring cast of otherworldly voices, which include recently deceased personal friends of the poet, W.H. Auden, Plato, and the archangel Michael. The voices of this other world—funny, gossipy, aloof, barking mad—are set apart in the text by all caps, and differentiated by unique tonal and metrical signatures.

The gulf between the poem’s source and the poet’s lifelong act of sitting down to receive and shape, is sharply manifest here, and Merrill’s attempts to bridge that gulf is Mirabell’s main work. In harnessing these voices Merrill is able to approach from several perspectives the role of metaphor in poetry, the poet’s struggle to compose a work that “HAS NOT BEEN OVERSPICED WITH SELF,” as well as the connection between the world’s structure and a poem’s structure. Formal poets often speak of the freedom they find within the confines of their chosen poetic constraint, and here Merrill’s self-silencing each time he records these other voices rather than his own is a convincing extension of the argument that poetry is made of a ready, rapt heart rather than a clear, articulate mind. As he notes towards the end of Mirabell:

[…] Art—
The tale that all but shapes itself—survives
By feeding on its personages’ lives.
The stripping process, sort of. What to say?
Our lives led to this. It’s the price we pay.

Or, as one of Merrill’s spirits offers earlier:

[…] OR MAKE OF ME THE PROCESS SOMEWHERE
OPERATING BETWEEN TREE & PULP & PAGE & POEM.

A caveat: the messages Merrill transcribes in this book do contain odd, startling moments of anti-Semitism, racism, and sexism, as they build a bizarre sort of universe-structure weighted in favor of homosexuals and poets. But if you read these Ouija transcriptions as casting insight into the creative process via one man’s ambition, his fear and wonder as he struggles with what-it-is that puts words on the page, with the daily and otherworldly beast of creative inspiration, then the odd prophecies find their tether in Merrill’s mind, a la John Malkovich. Where else will you find yourself talking numerology with a hornless unicorn and a peacock?

Megan Snyder-Camp's first book of poems, The Forest of Sure Things, is a deconstructed domestic narrative set in a small, historically preserved village on the Pacific Northwest coast. Her poems have appeared in Field, the Antioch Review, Smartish Pace, Hayden's Ferry Review, and elsewhere. She recently received an Individual Artist grant from Washington's 4Culture Foundation to support her current work. (Photo credit: Laura M. Hoffmann)

Poetry Finalists that Year:

  • John Ashbery for Rivers and Mountains
  • Barbara Howes for Looking Up at Leaves
  • Marianne Moore for Tell Me, Tell Me
  • Adrienne Rich for Necessities of Life
  • William Jay Smith for The Tin Can and Other Poems 

Poetry Judges that Year: W.H. Auden, James Dickey, Howard Nemerov

The Year in Literature: Live or Die by Anne Sexton won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry.

Other Information:

  • James Merrill (1926-1995) was born in New York, NY.
  • Merrill published his first collection of poetry, The Black Swan, when he was just twenty years old.

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