What follows is excerpted from a lecture I gave at Paine Hall, Harvard University on March 12, 2015. In the process of composing my opera Crossing, I examined what might have led the poet Walt Whitman to make the extraordinary decision to spend years of his life volunteering in Civil War hospitals. I found premonitions of this decision in his poem “The Sleepers.”
In James Merrill’s poetry, words talk back. Eerily apt puns render individual words indelibly double; phrases gleam with multiple meanings like many-faceted gems. Merrill is formally graceful not just on the scale of entire poems but also microscopically: he treats individual letters and words as intricate miniature forms – as language’s atoms and molecules, respectively – and he finds a startling depth of meaning in their very shape. Even in his earliest work, he examines what human constructions’ powers of containment are, and what happens when they break: “The Broken Bowl,” from First Poems, imagines the “spectrums” which, “released, will speak/Of colder flowerings where cold crystal broke” (CP 4). In his later poems, Merrill less evasively and more subtly addresses the nature of his medium, written language, to test the limits of what it can hold and what happens when, as proves inevitable since it is a physical substance, it breaks down. Over the course of Merrill’s poetic career, what begins as a virtuoso poet’s game — what can language do? — deepens, as the poet grows increasingly aware of his own mortality, into a matter of utmost significance: what is language’s power of preservation? Is there meaning in language’s tendency, when properly listened-to, to make sense of its own accord — and, to extend that, is there sense in the way language is physically constructed, in the very shapes of letters and words? Are the visible forms of language themselves the cry of their occasion, a literal embodiment of their meanings? With ever-increasing urgency throughout the second half of his career, Merrill tests the edifice of language by tearing it apart: every so often, he razes a structure he’d just (so skillfully) erected, simply to see what remains, or what rises from the ashes. The desired end of Merrill’s experiments in disintegration is for language to respond to the pressure he puts on it, to seem to make its own sense in spite of the poet’s efforts, and thus to intimate the presence of a life, in his poems, beyond that of the poet’s conscious effort.