Mutlu Konuk Blasing: On "An Urban Convalescence"

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 "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:

[Blasing cites lines that begin "There are certain phrases" and end "debases, what I feel"]

The "revision" calls into question his "conservative" rejection of novelty, for his rejection itself joins "progress," or "the great coarsening drift of things." His second thoughts occur, however, in a conventional form that would conserve the past. In this disjunction, his conventional forms divest themselves of authority, for 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 beyond the fact of its being there – a shared, public past. …

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 foundation, 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.


Title Mutlu Konuk Blasing: On "An Urban Convalescence" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Mutlu Konuk Blasing Criticism Target James Merrill
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 30 May 2020
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication "James Merrill: ‘Sour Windfalls on the Orchard Back of Us’"
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