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The story of my 28-year friendship with James Merrill begins in April 1967 at the University of Wisconsin. Merrill was in Madison to teach a creative writing course in poetry. I had entered Wisconsin’s Ph.D. program the previous fall as a Teaching Assistant, bringing with me a bachelor’s degree (majors in English and philosophy, minor in biology) from Hanover College in Indiana, and an MA in English from Colorado State University. These were the nether regions of academe; Wisconsin was a decisive step up for me. I had just turned 24.

In those days the English Department was quartered in Bascom Hall, a picturesque old building crowning a hill above the city of Madison. The underclass of first- and second-year teaching assistants, who were paying for graduate school by teaching freshman composition, shared a big office on the third floor. My desk formed one corner of the block of desks pushed together in the middle of the room; a tall, slender second-year man called Steve Yenser occupied a desk facing the far wall. Merrill had admitted several TAs to his poetry course, including the two of us. Until the notice went out inviting students to apply for the course, I had never heard of James Merrill or read any of his work, though he had just won the National Book Award (whatever that was) for a poetry collection, Nights and Days.

We at Wisconsin were lucky and knew it; creative writing courses given for credit were not common on the campuses of that time. And I had experienced something in college that may have intensified my eagerness to get into this one. For five weeks during the spring of my senior year, a poet called Lionel Wiggam1 had been in residence on the Hanover campus. The arrangement was informal; his job had been simply to give a reading and make himself available to student writers. From this availability an odd relationship, platonic but intense, had formed between the two of us, eventuating in a scholarship for me to the 1964 Indiana University Writers Conference, where he was on the faculty. Three years later we were still corresponding. At 50 or so Lionel had published a slim volume, The Land of Unloving, in which some poems from a precocious, decades-earlier collection had also been included. His lyric verse was deft but dated. His startling handsomeness, somewhat marred by bad teeth (slightly protruding, with gaps), had qualified him at one time to model aftershave and menswear; for years I owned a little black-and-white stand-up poster, purloined from a barber shop, on which Lionel pondered the dilemma: “Which Stephan’s dandruff remover is right for your hair?” The mysterious mutual attraction continued to fascinate and perplex me, and the mask of sophisticated posturing to frustrate me. I didn’t know how to make Lionel feel safe enough to show me what was behind the mask, yet faith in his essential goodness made me want to confirm it, reassure him, convince him to stop hiding, from me and from everyone.
More… “Strange Attractor”

Judith Moffett is the author of James Merrill: An Introduction to the Poetry. Her third collection of poems, Tarzan in Kentucky, will be published in September.

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When James Merrill served as Guest Editor of the December 1979 issue of Poetry Pilot, the newsletter of the American Academy of Poets, his task was a pleasant one: to present a selection of several of his favorite poems, introduced by a brief commentary. Such selections by prominent poets had been a regular feature of Poetry Pilot for more than twenty years. Still, Merrill’s selection was in one sense unusual: all eight poems were by a single poet, his recently deceased mentor and friend Elizabeth Bishop. As Merrill noted in his commentary, Bishop had “died suddenly on October 6th, of a cerebral aneurism at her apartment facing north across Boston Harbor.” Merrill’s feeling for Bishop’s poetry was sufficiently profound that he might have made a similar selection had she been living — except for fear of embarrassing her with such a public display of his admiration.
More… “What Tribute She Could Bear”

Thomas Travisano is the author of Elizabeth Bishop: Her Artistic Development and Midcentury Quartet: Bishop, Lowell, Jarrell, Berryman, as well as the principal editor of Words in Air: The Complete Correspondence Between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell. He is currently writing a biography of Bishop for Viking and can be reached at travisanot@hartwick.edu.

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Part of Chicago froze in the 1930s. I’ve been thinking of my old home city of Chicago a lot lately, and of my new home in Berlin. The thread that ties them together seems to be that they’re both stuck in time. In the same time. They have one foot in this chaotic contemporary period, but the other is still in the 1920s and early ’30s, each summed up as a Bob Fosse experience (Chicago and Cabaret).

The Girls of Murder City: Fame, Lust, and the Beautiful Killers Who Inspired Chicago by Douglas Perry. 320 pages. Viking Adult. $25.95.

And why not? It was a glamorous age for both. Berlin had its cabarets, Otto Dix, sex, and liquor. Chicago had its speakeasies, gangsters, and gunner girls. With what followed — rubble for one, crime and poverty for the other… More…

 

Suppose the horse-and-carriage industry not only survived the introduction of the automobile but actually flourished as cars grew commonplace? What if 8-track tapes were a billion-dollar business today, more popular than iPods and Zunes? Would that be any stranger than the fact that consumers have purchased millions and millions of calendars in the last few weeks?

According to Publishers Weekly, there were fewer than 200 calendars for sale in 1976. Today, there are more than 6,500 from which to choose. Part of this proliferation is due to the fact that we once got the bulk of our calendars for free, from banks, insurance companies, and other businesses eager to keep their phone numbers in front of their customers’ eyes throughout the year. But it’s not as if those businesses were giving away more than one copy to each… More…

It’s a shame the 20th century was such an unrelenting nightmare. Especially if you were anywhere near Central or Eastern Europe (though by no means exclusively so). Those who perished more often than not perished in suffering and fear. Those who lived had to make do.

“Making do” could mean a lot of things. Keeping your mouth shut while the Nazis rounded up everyone else on the block. Mentioning something you overheard your neighbor say to the local Stasi agent to deflect suspicion from yourself. Perhaps outright collaboration with the secret police. It was a dirty business, and it reached down deep. We like to pretend of ourselves and our heroes that there was a way to remain untainted. But that was the cruel genius of the police states of the 20th century. Whether out of Soviet or National Socialist motivations the point of the total state was to reach… More…