Larry Rivers (1923–2002)
Oil on canvas, c. 1953–56
James Merrill was one of postwar America’s most technically gifted formal poets. His writing took a surprising turn in midcareer when he started composing poems with the supernatural assistance of a Ouija board. Born to wealth and privilege, Merrill didn’t let genealogy handicap him as he both transcended his inheritance and dissected it. In “The Broken Home” he wrote of his father: “Too late now, I make out in his blue gaze / (Through the smoked glass of being thirty-six) / The soul eclipsed by twin black pupils, sex / And business. . . .”
From cool observations of lived history he moved to alternate history: in 1976 Merrill started producing a long, three-part poem that was eventually published as The Changing Light at Sandower. At more than 500 pages, it is one of the longest epic poems ever produced.
My father, who had flown in World War I, Might have continued to invest his life In cloud banks well above Wall Street and wife. But the race was run below, and the point was to win. James Merrill From “The Broken Home,” 1966