JAMES MERRILL (1926–1995) was one of the most honored and admired American poets of the second half of the 20th century. As Stephen Yenser puts it in the introduction to A Whole World: Letters from James Merrill, Merrill was “different from both his debonair contemporaries in the New York School and the more theatrical and publicized ‘confessional’ poets.” In other words, Merrill was neither a Frank O’Hara nor an Allen Ginsberg, two other important gay poets of his generation. His poetry, with its fluent balance of refinement and casualness—full of “taut alertness,” as literary critic David Kalstone once observed—can at first seem to be little more than highly refined surface effects. In fact, while Merrill was “shy of ideas in poetry,” as his poet friend J. D. McClatchy once noted, “the urgency of the heart’s desires [was]his constant subject.” He is without doubt one of the great poets of the homosexual experience, one who struck an impeccable, polished balance between the colloquial and the refined.
Born into a family in which he “never had to fret about money”—his father cofounded the investment firm Merrill Lynch—James Merrill received a first-rate education. His character and sensibilities—genial, urbane, courteous and courtly—took root early. By the time he was twelve, he could report to his father that he was about to attend his eighteenth opera. During his college years, he began to fashion himself into “a superb dilettante.”