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 Matthew Trammell is not like a piece by James Wood, and neither is like a piece by Peter Schjeldahl. One could not mistake Finnegan for Frazier, or Lepore for Paumgarten, or Goodyear 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.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

James Merrill: Sublime Poet of the Everyday

James Merrill (Photo by Rollie McKenna)

Edward Mendelson, in his “The Genius and Generosity of Jimmy Merrill” (The New York Review of Books, December 22, 2016), says of Merrill, “Poetic artifice was his natural voice.” I’m not sure he’s right. He makes Merrill sound as if he’s anti-realist. What I cherish in Merrill’s poems is his deep engagement with quotidian reality. For example, the description of the New Age shop where he bought his world-map-imprinted white Tyvek windbreaker, in “Self-Portrait in Tyvek™ Windbreaker” (The New Yorker, February 24, 1992):

I found it in one of those vaguely imbecile 

Emporia catering to the collective unconscious 

Of our time and place. This one featured crystals, 

Cassettes of whalesong and rain-forest whistles, 

Barometers, herbal cosmetics, pillows like puffins, 

Recycled notebooks, mechanized lucite coffins 
For sapphire waves that crest, break, and recede, 
As they presumably do in nature still.

Dan Chiasson, in his brilliant “Out of this World” (The New Yorker, April 13, 2015), a review of Langdon Hammer’s James Merrill: Life and Art, says of Merrill:

His work is replete with the transfigured commonplace, bits of the world reclaimed in his daily imaginative raids: an “Atari dragonfly” on the Connecticut River, a joint smoked on a courthouse lawn, a trip to the gym, a Tyvek windbreaker.

This, for me, is a more accurate description of Merrill’s work than Mendelson’s “poetic artifice.”  

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