Life of a Poet, Friend, Ventriloquist

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James MerrillJames Merrill: Life and Art
by Langdon Hammer
Knopf. 912 pages, $40.

 

JAMES MERRILL (1926-1995) was that rare breed: a 20th-century poet who had money. His father had founded Merrill Lynch and provided a lifelong income for his son. Merrill had extraordinary talent too, and, if this marvelous, comprehensive critical biography showcases every jewel of social incident, glamour, fame, travel, and sexual adventure, it also brings home the sheer size of Merrill’s poetic achievement—and also, on occasion, comparable ones in prose and drama. Merrill published two ludic but charming novels, The Seraglio (1957) and The (Diblos) Notebook (1965), and, near the end of his life, a memoir titled A Different Person (1993).

But Merrill was a born poet: driven, as he insisted, to “make song” out of the otherwise senseless “empty hive” of the poet’s day-to-day existence; to make sense of stasis; to make good of loss; above all, to make meaning out of chaos.

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