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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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Charles E. Merrill, founder (with his friend Edmund C. Lynch) of the famous brokerage firm, probably never read this comment by President John Adams: “I must study Politicks and War that my sons may have liberty to study Mathematicks and Philosophy. My sons ought to study Mathematicks and Philosophy, Geography, natural History, Naval Architecture, navigation, Commerce and Agriculture, in order to give their Children a right to study Painting, Poetry, Musick, Architecture, Statuary, Tapestry and Porcelaine.” Engaged in “Commerce,” Charles Merrill might have expected his son to follow suit, but, when young Jamie said he wanted to be a poet, his father, according to sound investment practice, sent a sheaf of poems to literary experts for an opinion. Assured that this aspirant had talent, the senior Merrill, in good John Adams fashion, abandoned any opposition and supported his son’s artistic ambitions. With that talent and a very large fortune in hand, James Merrill went on to become one of the most famous poets of his time. He briefly held a desk job in the Army, and several times accepted to teach college poetry-writing courses, but otherwise never took any salaried work. His bank account gave him unlimited access to things that can feed literary composition: education, travel, theatre, books, music, art, porcelain, and the company of other established artists. Someone could write a Ph.D. thesis on the role that inherited wealth has played in the history of American poetry. James Russell Lowell, Amy Lowell, Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, James Laughlin, Isabella Gardner, Frederick Seidel, and Harry Matthews all, with varying artistic results, benefited from it. As did James Merrill. Not only does money talk, it also sometimes writes poetry.
More… “Make Song of Them”

Alfred Corn’s most recent volume of poems is Unions. Last year his second novel, titled Miranda’s Book appeared with Eyewear in the U.K.

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