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”