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For James Merrill On His 91st Birthday

Today, we celebrate James Merill’s birthday. Merrill, one of the pre-eminent American poets of the 20th century, was, per his Poetry Foundation bio, the recipient of “nearly every major literary award in America” and a playwright, novelist, and critic, as well as a poet.

Born in 1926 in New York City, Merrill was the son of Charles E. Merrill, of Merrill Lynch brokerage group fame. Merrill may have been raised with fabulous wealth in a W.A.S.P. household, but his writing always maintained an elegant, sensitive, kind, sophistication. During his life, Merrill earned a reputation as a prejudice-free, righteous, man. Though he was not Jewish himself, he was, as Benjamin Ivry pointed out in The Forward, “More than simply lacking anti-Semitism, [he] was positively drawn to Jews as friends and mentors throughout his life.” He also embodied a number of Jewish values — Ivry continues, “his sense of tzedakah, described in some detail in “James Merrill: Life and Art,” embraced notions of justice and righteousness, beyond mere charity.”

In honor of his birthday, it seems fitting to recommend some of his poetry. His oeuvre is massive, but there is one poem that has always stuck with, for its beauty as well as its emotional and intellectual depth — “A Tenancy” (1961).

The poem, which appears to make reference to Merrill’s stint in the U.S. military during World War Two, reflects on time past (as the Poetry Foundation bio also points out, Merrill wrote his college thesis on Marcel Proust, “and in many ways the great French writer’s themes of memory, nostalgia, and loss became Merrill’s own” — themes clearly reflected in this poem). The piece is too long to reprint here, but I always return to one stanza in particular:

“And indeed, from within, ripples

Of heat had begun visibly bearing up and away

The bouquets and wreathes of a quarter century.

Let them go, what did I want with them?

It was time to change the wallpaper!

Brittle, sallow in the new radiance,

Time to set the last wreath floating out

Above the dead, to sweep up flowers. The dance

Had ended, it was light; the men looked tired

and awkward in their uniforms.

I sat, head thrown back, and with the dried tears

Of light on my own cheeks, proposed

This bargain with – say with the source of light:

That, given a few years more

(Seven or ten or, what seemed vast, fifteen)

To spend in love, in a country not at war,

I would give in return

All I had. All? A little sun

Rose in my throat, the lease was drawn.

The rest of the piece is similarly magnificent. Hopefully this poem brings you a bit of joy, a bit of wistfulness.

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