Merrill was and more extraordinarily was not the child of this wealth.
Education at the Lawrenceville School, and then Amherst College. Summers on the beaches of Southampton.
Image: The Merrill’s Southampton Home, The Orchard
Far more ostensibly challenging to navigate such flounders if one is not. Being brilliant hardly making the navigation easier. All of which perhaps illuminates Merrill’s turn to a formalist poetic. The delight and reprieve of giving to life’s confusions not only a lapidary vocabulary, but a meter, and a rhyme.
This exquisite imbrication of vivacity and form—astonishment and sapience, restraint and delight—is one way to understand the inimitable achievement of Merrill’s poetry.
A National Book Award for Nights & Days (1966). The Pulitzer Prize for Divine Comedies (1976). A second National Book Award for Mirabell (1978). The National Book Critics Circle Award for the extraordinary epic, The Changing Light at Sandover (1982).
One will find these framed prizes on the wall of Merrill’s kitchen in Stonington. Which is fitting, since Merrill lived in this Stonington home since 1955. Born under the sign of Pisces, and now with Stonington’s gorgeous water views, there is poetic justice in Merrill’s having lived on Water Street, for Water Street to be the title of one of Merrill’s early books.
At the same time it is inarguable that Merrill remains one of our most important poets. One of our wittiest, most generous, and searching.
Merrill and his lifelong partner, the painter David Jackson, spent many months of each year in Key West and Athens. While his travels abroad (some of which vividly conjured in Merrill’s memoir, A Different Person) inform his poems in myriad ways, Merrill’s Stonington residence is that which remains most inseparable from the Merrill myth.
By which I mean both the myth of Merrill’s life, and the mythology Merrill himself authored: the unmatchably strange and scintillating. Perhaps the most fruitful and famous adventure with an oui-ja board, and an adventure engaged in the round, coral-colored dining room of the Stonington apartment.
Elizabeth Bishop, Maya Deren, Rachel Hadas, David Kalstone, Stephen Yenser, J.D. McClatchy—the Merrill circle is wide, and continues to ripple out. One feels Merrill’s gift of friendship (made all the more vibrant in the gleam of Merrill’s many other gifts) in his writing. Sometimes, if one is lucky, one feels it in Merrill’s Water Street home.
I peered into the crater’s heaving red
And quailed. I called upon the Muse. I said,
“The day I cease to serve you, let me die!”
And woke alone to birdsong, in our bed.