No one has accused James Merrill of being postmodern. If anything, his accomplished formalism and his reliance on traditional verse forms and conventions have made his poetry seem slightly anachronistic. If we are not to dismiss Merrill as a reactionary but to try to define his place in postmodern American poetry, we need to rethink the models of literary history and change such which we have read American poetry since World War II, for his work challenges the ways we have configured the aftermath of modernism.
Merrill s work calls for a model of literary change that is not based on contests between such binary oppositions as past and present, convention and originality, tradition and experiment. If the possible uses of the past are confined to the reductive models of iconoclasm, nostalgia, and reactionary recuperation, we cannot account for Merrill’s project, which is rhetorically and functionally discontinuous with the canonical tradition his forms invoke. "An Urban Convalescence," which opens Water Street (1962), has been singled out by Merrill’s readers as marking the beginning of his mature work. I propose, however, to cast this poem on a larger, historical stage as an exemplary postmodern ‘beginning" at the end of the modern idea of history as progress. To highlight Merrill’s "lateness" to modernity and progress, we can approach "An Urban Convalescence" by way of a detour and consider Paul de Man’s remarks on the figure of convalescence. "The human figures that epitomize modernity, he writes, are defined by experiences such as childhood or convalescence, a freshness of perception that results from a slate wiped clear, from the absence of a past that has not yet had time to tarnish the immediacy of perception of a past that, in the case of convalescence, is so threatening that it has to be forgotten" (157). If this use of convalescence is "modern," Merrill’s use of the figure is clearly different. He diagnoses "the sickness of our time" not as a Nietzschean "historical sickness," but precisely as forgetfulness, a series of slates wiped clean in response to a threat posed by the mere presence of the past. Of course the "freshness," this modern erasure of history, is the postmodern poet’s very sickness, his particular past, and Merrill’s poem traces his "convalescence" from just such "modernity."
The poem begins with an emblematic modern scene:
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Luxuriating in the "filth of years," jaws dribbling "rubble," the crane is doing the work of demolition. While the scene suggests an unseemly overindulgence in the detritus of the past, the crane is also the agent of urban renewal. Making things "new" by tearing them up, it represents a militant commitment to change, which regards the "simple fact of having lasted" as a threat that calls for the swift retribution of a BLAST. And the mystification and even religious awe that attend the scene ironically hint at the spiritual mission of this breaking of the vessels.
With the allusion to Robert Graves, this devastation that leaves "not one stone upon another" reverberates with more specific historical and literary connotations. The ‘huge crane" brings to mind Graves’s White Goddess, presumably because cranes were sacred to the goddess—a mother-muse figure who authorizes an Orphic model of a poetic language grounded in nature. Graves also links cranes to the invention of writing and cites a legend that Mercury invented the letters after watching a flight of cranes, "which make letters as they fly" (224). In Egypt, Mercury was Thoth, the god who invented writing and whose symbol was the crane-like white ibis (227). Graves further suggests that the association of cranes with writing and literary secrets makes sense because "cranes fly in V-formation and the characters of all early alphabets, nicked with a knife on the rind of boughs or on clay tablets, were naturally angular" (227). At the "close" of his book, he offers a poem imagining the wrathful second coming of the goddess at her "cannibalistic worst," in the form of "a gaunt, red-wattled crane," to punish "man’s irreligious improvidence" that has led to the exhaustion of the "natural resources of the soil and sea" (486).
Merrill’s bringing in Graves effects an odd pun. If the reference to Graves suggests that the crane as goddess is punishing "man’s" improvidence, its incarnation as a mechanical crane—an agent or, at least, an accomplice of "man’s" sins against nature—is problematic. Furthermore, the destruction wrought by the mechanical crane the "old man" operates is purely mechanistic, demystified, and urban, and takes place in the linear time of Time; this crane is indeed an agent of forgetfulness. The crane as a goddess incarnate, however, is an elemental force, whose destructions belong to the cyclical time of nature and myth, and she threatens to avenge herself on those who forget. Merrill’s conflation of historical and mythic forces and conceptions of change in a pun enables him to equate these mastering "ideologies" and thus lightly to sidestep both. His pun exposes the nostalgia underwriting a modernity that seeks to return to and recover a foundation through technical progress. By positioning himself at the margins as a "meek" bystander, he resists both progressive history and a regressive appeal to myths of return.
In this maneuver, the pun on "crane" becomes a textual "ground" that stages the conflict and continuity between progressive historical time and cyclical myth. Unlike a metaphor, a pun highlights a nonhierarchical, synchronic duplicity, doubleness, or difference internal to the signifier. The distance between the mythic crane, a symbol or reincarnation of the goddess, and the technological crane committed to an urban destruction and renewal is the distance between mythic-pastoral and technological-urban conceptions of death and rebirth. Merrill’s pun compresses the conceptual and historical distance between two different systems in a synchronic doubleness and figures it as internal to language. Grounding himself in a purely literal and accidental resource, Merrill questions the claims of both the technological and the mythic "crane"—the Janusfaced deus ex machina of the modernist aesthetic. Thus "the close of The White Goddess," with which Merrill opens, is not merely the conclusion of Graves’s book but the end of a poetic era.
[W]hile Merrill’s mock-sublime "crane" makes light at once of an Orphic poetic and of a now senile faith in technical renewals, he also "obeys" both principles, if "inversely," for a pun is a curious hybrid. Its truth is, after all, technical, residing in its letters; at the same time, it gives of an uncanny double of super- or sub-literal vision. For Merrill’s relation to these master myths is not a progressive antagonism: he is not out to destroy them in order to install other, more valid myths in their place. From his postmetaphysical perspective, all truths are rhetorical, and all ideologies, mastering and marginal, are textual options. And he presents this rhetorical position not as a timeless truth but as indicative of the historical state of affairs at "the close of The White Goddess."
Merrill’s narrative of convalescence unfolds the options that the crane levels. The speaker remembers the figure of a garland decorated the lintel of the building being torn down. The iconoclastic destruction of received structures—specifically structures of closure like buildings—is "inscribed" with a garland, "stone fruit, stone leaves, / Which years of grit had etched until it thrust / Roots down, even into the poor soil of my seeing." Again, the garland "sways" into "focus" as an emblem of the cyclical-mythic time that underwrites the modern project of catastrophic progress, of radical breaks with history. Next, Merrill moves to the memory of another representation of natural force—"a particular cheap engraving of garlands." The engraving evokes an equally fuzzy and belated avatar of the White Goddess, whose link to reproductive forces and "deadly" power still manages to register, just as the forlorn pastoral emblem of "garlands" still manages to be remembered—if at the expense of the history of the buildings and the people themselves, whose features "lie toppled underneath that year’s fashions." The engraving was
Bought for a few francs long ago,
All calligraphic tendril and cross-hatched rondure,
Ten years ago, and crumpled up to stanch
Boughs dripping, whose white gestures filled a cab,
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Also, to clasp them, the small, red-nailed hand
Of no one I can place
And this forgetfulness locates Merrill in his "urban" setting, in Graves’s words, "The Goddess is no townswoman: she is the Lady of the Wild Things" (481). By forgetting the goddess, Merrill both implicates himself in the modern "sickness" and turns away from a pastoral recuperation. Following this episode, stanzas of drastic "exposure" underscore the poet’s new clarity about his place on the margins of progressive history and natural force, which are themselves only figurations of centers of power—emblems and chapters in the "massive volume of the world." Such knowledge of pervasive textuality, which is also "self-knowledge," delivers him "indoors at last" to an explicitly and historically textual "house."
The speaker’s move indoors coincides with a formal switch to quatrains. Merrill himself calls this poem "a turning point" for him and associates this turn with a return, with his staged formal switch: "I remember writing half of it and thinking it was going to be impossible to finish. Then I had the idea of letting it go back to a more formal pattern at the end" (Recitative 45). Elsewhere, he tells us that "’Stanza’ is the Italian word for ‘room,’" and relates his fondness for regular stanzas to his attachment to "interior spaces, the shape and correlation of rooms in a house," rather than the vistas it commands or the "human comedies" it stages (Recitative 3). Here, the enveloping abba rhyme reinforces the enclosure of the quatrains. And the poem’s resolution suggests that convalescence will involve remembering closures and interior spaces, answering a "dull need to make some kind of house / Out of the life lived, out of the love spent." Given the in-and-out movement that constitutes the poem’s adventure, from "out for a walk" to "indoors at last," the repeated "out of’ in the final line has an added resonance. "Out of" may mean not only "constituted of" but "outside the lived life, the spent love. If we register both senses, the house-poem made out of the lived life moves out of the life lived. Merrill here dedicates himself to his special brand of transpersonal autobiographical writing. For his move "inside," to the at least temporarily protected space of his own life, is modified by the fact that he also moves into quatrains. Subscribing to such marked conventions without any effort to naturalize his forms effects an impersonal, intertextual erosion of the personal, and Merrill’s formalism, always sharply aware of this, does not offer protection but leaves him open to a different kind of history and loss
Merrill often makes the textual dangers and "losses"—of signature and singularity, of authorship and authority—that are internal to writing his explicit subjects, but his conventional forms also work implicitly to efface the speaking subject, dispersing it in the drift of impersonal time and history. Poetic conventions such as meter, rhyme schemes, and stanza forms, are timing devices that are also always more than mere schemes, because they remember a past and carry with them the burden of a public history. Thus Merrill’s urban convalescence inside quatrains represents more than an urbanity of manners that remediates the natural or the oracular. A convalescence that identifies the "indoors" with formal stanzas dissociates the "inside" from the subjective or the intuitive. As the architectural metaphor of house also signals, Merrill is interested in public building, in transmitting a public history. His conventions make for this historical dimension, while his artificial staging of his forms registers their anachronism and thus divests them of historical authority. Urban as well as urbane, Merrill can maintain a critical distance from progress and historical authority, from Orphic, oracular, or intuitive speech and conventions.
For Merrill, change and continuity are not polar opposites: continuity is infected with change and change with continuity. For example, situating himself inside quatrains in "An Urban Convalescence" allows him to revise himself and question what are presumably his authorizing values. He begins with a diagnosis of planned obsolescence as "the sickness of our time" that requires things be "blasted in their prime." Yet he immediately overturns this judgment:
There are certain phrases which to use in a poem
Is like rubbing silver with quicksilver. Bright
But facile, the glamour deadens overnight
For instance, how "the sickness of our time"
Enhances, then debases, what I feel
This "revision" implies that his "conservative" rejection of novelty has itself joined the "great coarsening drift of things" (Recitative 60) or "progress." His second thoughts occur, however, in a conventional form that would conserve the past. In this disjunction, his conventional forms divest themselves of authority: they are dissociated from a conservative ideology that would judge the present by taking refuge in the canonical authority of the past. If originality and novelty are outmoded concepts for Merrill, so is the expectation of a correlation between convention and authority. He employs conventions not because they carry a prescriptive authority but as if they did, at once remembering and transmitting a past and denying it any absolute vitality or validity beyond its being there, a shared, public past. For the anachronism of his forms in the time of Time and in one’s own "life lived" and "love spent" are evident enough. Moreover, to claim any inherent validity or recuperative efficacy for his forms would reinscribe him in the logic of modernity. Indeed, when he stages his more elaborate forms within larger pieces—as when he breaks into quatrains in the middle of a poem containing blank verse or even prose—he presents such forms as quotations cut off from their original contexts, functions, and "grounds." In his hybridizing use, the "quoted" forms both carry historical associations and assume new functions in their new contexts. Such functional discontinuity again subverts any claim to canonical authority, and traditional forms are at the same time technically closed and rhetorically open.
Merrill’s distinction is his ability to register at once the textuality and the historical nature of writing. His polyvalent literalism and his fondness for "accidents" and puns in general foreground the play of the signifier and approach an internalization of history within poetic language. His conventional formalism, however, holds this tendency in check by placing poetic language within a public literary history. Thus he can be grounded in textuality, doing without historical or metaphysical foundations, yet stop this side of an ahistorical, self-reflexive subjectivity, for the textual inside is governed by publicly recognizable, historically coded rules, which transmit a past even if they do not carry any inherent validity.