“As if being a gifted composer, pianist and conductor were not enough, the young Matthew Aucoin is also a poet. This gives him an insider’s insight into reading poetry. The most striking aspect of ‘Merrill Songs,’ Mr. Aucoin’s compelling new cycle, which received its premiere sung by the tenor Paul Appleby at Zankel Hall on Wednesday night, is the intriguing way the music probes and grapples with six dense, rich poems by James Merrill.” – The New York Times
For James Merrill, music is the meaning-making force that brought human language into being: music is the lava which cools into the volcanic rock-forms of our alphabet. All poets treat language musically to some degree, of course, but in Merrill this tendency verges on synesthesia. Language, after all, is both sound and signification: it is a labyrinth of assigned “meanings” that we perceive sensually, through the music of speech or the physical forms of written letters. We tend to assume that the signified meaning is what matters: for most of us, the point of the word “body” is that it means what “body” means, not that it looks or sounds the way it does.
But in Merrill’s poetry, words themselves seem to talk back. Eerily apt puns render familiar phrases indelibly double; his lines gleam with multiple meanings like many-faceted gems. This is a poet who saw, in the word “body,” the image of a singing mouth (“o”) standing center stage between the stage-left column of “b” and the stage-right column of “d,” “as y, unanswered, knocks at the stage door…”. The open mouth, the “o” of astonishment or song, stands between the bookends of “b” and “d” (birth and death), and the question of “y” it all happened is irrelevant. The question (“why?”) knocks on the stage door of life, but it has no place on the stage. For Merrill, this kind of innocent, almost childlike attention to the music or the look of language, rather than to its assigned meanings, was a matter of vital import.
"We tend to assume that the signified meaning is what matters: For most of us, the point of the word body is that it means 'body,' not that it looks or sounds the way it does. But in Merrill's poetry, words themselves seem to talk back."
More than once throughout his career, Merrill was compared to Mozart, and (for once!) the comparison is more than empty hyperbole. Merrill is Mozartian not just in his virtuosity but in his capacity to fuse pleasure and pain. The crystalline surfaces of Merrill’s poems refract a sparkling light into otherwise-unknowable depths. In Merrill as in Mozart, the sweetest moments are the ones that hurt the most, and this punning doubleness is irreducible; indeed the doubleness is the essence of the flavor. In, say, the “letter duet” from Figaro, you can’t separate the playfulness from the pain, or the giddy sense of adventure from a lurking sadness that things have gotten so desperate. I find an analogous blend in lines like these:
And look, the stars have wound in filigree
The ancient, ageless woman of the world.
She’s seen us. She is not particular–
Everyone gets her injured, musical
“Why do you no longer come to me?”
To which there’s no reply. For here we are.
In his later years, the doubleness of Merrill’s vision took on deeper significance, both on a personal level and a cosmic one. Merrill became aware of his HIV-positive status in the mid-1980’s; in the ensuing decade, he grew preoccupied with mankind’s toxic impact on the natural world. There is an uncanny sense, in his later poems, that the contamination of the natural environment and the decline of his bodily strength are parallel processes: they seem to be fractals of one another. Yet even when he’s writing about these issues – whose sheer weightiness would push many poets into pomposity – Merrill somehow retains his lightness of touch. In the poem “Grass,” which you’ll hear sung tonight, Merrill quietly equates the act of smoking a joint – “this cheerful inch of green” – with the burning-up of our planet’s plant life, the “cheerful inch” of grass that covers the earth’s surface. The casual hedonism of smoking “grass” for pleasure suddenly seems to be a microcosm of our wanton destruction of the natural world. The grass sustains us, but it’s not an infinitely renewable resource (as it seemed to be for Whitman): we are “Kept by this cheerful / Inch of green / And ten more years – fifteen? – / From disappearing.” (In hindsight, even this poignant little plea in the final couplet sounds prophetic: “Grass” was published exactly ten years before Merrill died.)
Somehow, Merrill remains underrated. It’s easy to see why he wasn’t always taken seriously during his lifetime: he was the fabulously-wealthy heir to the Merrill-Lynch fortune; as a young man he looked (and probably acted) like a dandyish aesthete straight out of Proust; his life as a gay man led him to avoid certain kinds of publicity; he was unabashed in his love for puns, rhymes, pentameter. Now, twenty-one years after his death, I hope we can see Merrill for the artist he was: an alchemist with the atomic materials of language; a pioneering poet of gay life and love; and a prophet of the havoc our species continues to wreak on the natural world.