The life of a poet rich, gay and talented


September 16, 1993|By Richard Eder | Richard Eder,Los Angeles Times

Perhaps no one born with a silver spoon in his mouth has made such specifically appropriate use of it as the poet James Merrill. As silver, it gives a fine luster to his voice; as a spoon, it comes close to gagging him. His work, which has won just about every American prize there is, draws its essence from two qualities: a shining beauty and a sense of impediment. It is precious in both full senses of the word. As to the generally pejorative sense, though, it acknowledges such a quality so completely and nakedly that it goes beyond it.

In "Byzantium," Yeats imagined a poetry perfect, impersonal and to be sung not by a real nightingale but by one made of jeweled clockwork. Yeats was vehement flesh himself; Mr. Merrill, on the other hand, can only function -- sometimes to his dispassionate regret -- as a jeweled artifice.

His book-length "The Changing Light at Sandover," seeking the greatest possible distance from a personal message, is guided by messages that he and his lover, David Jackson, draw out of a Ouija board. Only with the "I" obstructed -- think of the spoon -- could the voice emerge. It is an illusion, of course; it is always Mr. Merrill who is doing the obstructing and deflecting, and his refined and playful voice could belong to no one else.

Seeking a way out

The silver and the deflections are perfectly embodied in "A Different Person," an autobiographical reflection that stands with Merrill's finest work. Centering on the 2 1/2 years he spent in Europe in his mid-20s, it is an exploration of how he tried to find a way out of the privileged dead end he had reached in his life and his poetry.

In 1950, a few years out of college, he had just seen his first collection of poems accepted by the first publisher he submitted it to. He was rich and brilliantly connected. His tycoon father, co-founder of Merrill Lynch, had settled a large trust fund on him when he was 5. He moved in a gay -- also in both senses -- social circle. He had been in love any number of times, though not very successfully. Elfin, effusive and "clingy," as he describes himself, he played the role of Cherubino to his homosexual friends. They flirted with him, but didn't take him seriously.

When he sailed for Europe, he was after seriousness. He had met Claude, also rich, but so artistically disciplined that he would stay at a concert only until he had enough aesthetic raw material for his note book, and then leave. Mr. Merrill expected Claude to be the love of his life (they lasted a year or so). They would settle down in Italy, where James hoped to become a real person, a real lover and a real artist. At that point, he saw himself as a novelist more than a poet.

"A Different Person" portrays Cherubino on his way to becoming, not Figaro exactly, but something like the equivalent in self-knowledge. Mr. Merrill uses two voices: that of the 24-year-old with his discoveries and misapprehensions; and that the 67-year-old fleshing the story out here and there, and adding a comment or two.

Two ages of discovery

One of the splendid things about the book is that although the older voice is in italics, it is in no way privileged. Old Merrill and young Merrill are fellow-explorers. One voice is more mannered and vehement, the other is quieter and more restrained, but the wind of time dishevels both the dark forelock and the gray one.

It is a rich, subtle exploration. It is sheerly entertaining, for one thing, but the frothy anecdotes have a way of transforming themselves imperceptibly into arresting ones. A witty perception turns darkly original. The 24-year-old begins to come to terms with many things: homosexuality as an identity -- what it gives him and what it deprives him of -- and as a practice: shadings of love and lust, of cruising and constancy. He explores his cocoon of wealth, his formidably overshadowing parents, his evolving notion of poetry, the death of friends, and a scary start at the choosing and relinquishing that mark the adult artist.

There are glimpses of the flamboyant Charles Merrill, who traveled with a retinue. On ocean liners, he would book his black valet as an Egyptian banker so he could enjoy his conversation in the first-class dining-room. In Capri, to propitiate a third wife whom he would soon divorce -- James' mother was his second -- he ordered 20 copies made of her favorite pair of shoes. When they did not fit, she refused to give them to the Salvation Army: "What a thought: 20 indigents in the Hamptons all wearing my shoes."

It was that kind of world. Though James and his set were in the closet back then, it was a most lavish closet; more of a villa. His mother insisted that he keep his homosexuality secret, particularly from his father. There was great pain, as well as love, between mother and son; she developed an ulcer, and when she came to see him in Italy his own gastric juices temporarily stopped flowing.

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