What is The New Yorker? I know it’s a great magazine and that it’s a tremendous source of pleasure in my life. But what exactly is it? This blog’s premise is that The New Yorker is a work of art, as worthy of comment and analysis as, say, Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Each week I review one or more aspects of the magazine’s latest issue. I suppose it’s possible to describe and analyze an entire issue, but I prefer to keep my reviews brief, and so I usually focus on just one or two pieces, to explore in each the signature style of its author. A piece by Nick Paumgarten is not like a piece by Dana Goodyear, and neither is like a piece by Ian Frazier. One could not mistake Finnegan for Friend, or Bilger for Lepore, or Collins for Khatchadourian. Each has found a style, and it is that style that I respond to as I read, and want to understand and describe.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Interesting Emendations: James Merrill's "Palm Beach with Portuguese Man-Of-War"

Loving a poem only for its opening lines is a bit like loving a woman only for her gorgeous eyes. The focus is narrow but very intense. This describes my relationship with James Merrill’s extraordinary “Palm Beach with Portuguese Man-Of-War,” which I first encountered in the January 17, 1977 issue of The New Yorker. Its opening stanza is, for me, narcotic:

A mile-long vertebrate picked clean
To the palms’ tall seableached incurving ribs

No more vivid word picture of a beach has ever been written, at least not in such concentrated, evocative form. The image of the beach as a “vertebrate picked clean” is inspired, and the description of the palms’ “tall seableached incurving ribs” is ravishing.

Interestingly, when Merrill included this poem in his 1985 collection Late Settings, he changed it. The opening lines read:

A mile-long vertebrate picked clean
To lofty-plumed seableached incurving ribs

The second line has been revised - “lofty-plumed” replaces “the palms’ tall.” Is the change an improvement? I’m not certain. “Lofty-plumed” strikes me as a shade decorative. What comes to mind when I read it are hats, not palms. I like the simpler “the palms’ tall seableached incurving ribs” – its plainness is consistent with the “picked clean” beach of the first line. And the rhythm of “ To the palms’ tall seableached incurving ribs” is smoother than “To lofty-plumed seableached incurving ribs.” The hyphenated “lofty-plumed” introduces a couple of extra beats that jars the line’s music – to my ear, anyway.

I’m not sure what “Palm Beach with Portuguese Man-of-War” is about. Helen Vendler, in her review of Late Settings, calls it “an elegy of sorts for Merrill’s wealthy thrice-married father” (“James Merrill,” The Music of What Happens, 1988). She refers to its “anatomy of tycoons, their female hangers-on, their sexual forays, their eventual toombs.” This interpretation seems reasonable. It certainly helps make sense of words such as “razor labia of hangers-on” and “tiny hideous tycoon.” It’s not a joyful poem. Vendler says, “Hatred and pity coexist in this impersonal elegy.” But its description – particularly those concise, consummate opening lines in the New Yorker version - is exquisite.

Credit: The above photograph of James Merrill is by Rollie McKenna.

1 comment:

  1. You make a good case for your textual preference and create a fine commemoration. I can't help but believe this poet has a brighter future than we have appreciated yet.