James Merrill’s collected poems? The earlier the better, and the earlier isn’t as magical as his devotees say it is. Merrill never developed his voice past his dazzling early mimicries of Elizabeth Bishop and Hart Crane. I can see his love for bishop in the longer story poems, with their lush quasi surrealist imagery, and most of them are worth reading if only to see an individual picture of someone deal with his sexuality, moneyed heritage and time. However, where Bishop never intrudes in a narrative and the images she structures around it, Merrill almost always cuts in on a poem with his own voice. like a magician telling an audience the trick beforehand, he snatches the sense of the unexpected away.
And I have to speak my bias: I love Crane, just not the one Merrill and 96 percent of Crane fans love. I have a gladly worm copy of White Buildings in my library as we speak, but The Bridge, his long poem about America, is often bloated, ridiculous, and overwritten. When he lapses into a warmed over version of that Crane, Merrill has an ear of extravagant tin; and the more he became enamored with the big poem, the more he buried his genuine poetic gifts,
And If he buried his genuine poetic gifts early, he rocket tunneled them with his racial/sexual/eugenic polemic poems later in his life. When the reader gets to his dreams of an ideal society and who he wants/doesn’t want in it, Merrill becomes many things: a right wing sprite, a national review militant, yet another violent drone in the culture wars we have fought in the twentieth century and beyond . The thing he stops being, however, is a poet, an artist, someone who has the potential make the reader see an aspect of humanity that hasn’t been seen before; and (intrinsic in the subject matter) the assortment of myths his later poems create and play upon never rise above some level of political boilerplate.
I would surmise that Merrill’s devotee’s would be aghast to be compared with Amiri Baraka’s( And vice versa), but a close study shows both camps are whistling past rhetorical graveyards . Both men are not critiqued as much as they are worshiped: one would have a better outcome spitting at the pope in the Vatican than to remind a slam/ political poet about Baraka’s works during his “genocide stage”; and from the number of people eager to step around Merrill’s outbursts to crown him a saint shows that anyone who mutters a mumbling negative word toward him would suffer a similar backlash. Like millions of other human beings: both men found solace from their early internal agonies in fascist slogans, and the only major difference between the two is that Merrill’s scan better. Which is part of human nature, an internal morality plays old as the histories that both men tried to reform into their own glory sagas. The only thing I can say about that they don’t have a damm thing to do with what you need to know if you want to write a decent poem (or genuinely contribute to poetry in any way).