Poetic icons brought down to earth

The reality of these poets' work is more interesting than the myth

Readers and critics have long been tempted to make gifted poets into literary gods. Perhaps this temptation stems from the fact that poetry has ancient, elevated roots. But whatever the cause, often the face that the literary world creates is not as interesting as the face that emerges from a poet's work.

One of this year's most celebrated releases is James Merrill's Collected Poems. The 800-page tome contains many of his early poems, plus 21 translations, 44 previously uncollected poems, and the complete texts of 10 of his trade volumes.

The face created for Merrill by the literary community was, and still is, that of a golden boy. He was handsome, wealthy (his father was a founder of Merrill Lynch), and even his earliest poems displayed an astonishingly elegant veneer.

Merrill, who died in 1995, won the Pulitzer, the National Book Award (twice), the Bollingen Prize, and many others. He's often hailed as a poet who had an almost instinctive mastery of form and meter. His persona in his poems is described as being much as he was in public: the consummate gentleman. But such observations give just a glimpse of what Merrill the poet was really like. Even critics who call him the ultimate love poet - or praise him for writing movingly about archetypal topics such as art and beauty, time and loss, the pain of relationships - just begin to scratch his complex surface.

What's truly remarkable about Merrill's "Collected Poems" is the fact that it dispels the myths and reveals the man, who is ultimately more compelling. The volume shows that Merrill, like every poet, had to grow into his talent. He started with technique and then had to find a way to breathe life into his work. Merrill moves from writing highly ornate poems that can feel a bit hollow to writing less striking verse that has earned its wisdom. In other words, the poet's mask recedes and the real face comes into focus.

The "Collected Poems" illustrates that Merrill did not progress in a straight line. He reaches new heights in his third and fourth books, for example, and doesn't have another major peak until "Divine Comedies." His ambitious, longer poems are intriguing, but they can require much digging from readers, and too often they become obscure.

But when Merrill is "on," the rewards are ample, as in "The Furnished Room"

Blue boughs, green fruit -

That was our wallpaper.

Two doors, both shut;

Two windows, a mirror.

Against the walls

Table and divan stood,

Odd animals,

One pipe, one cherry wood.

One bore the book, the bowl,

The lamp. Its four

Legs shook. Its soul

Slid out like an empty drawer.

The other: claw-foot, soft

Belly, striped hide.

Glad in its hug we laughed.

Time howled outside....

Here, one sees why Merrill has inspired and satisfied readers for decades. His use of rich imagery and his devotion to craft raised the poetic bar for his contemporaries. There has never been anyone quite like Merrill, and for this reason, his "Collected Poems" will long be celebrated by critics as an indispensible volume. But the real value of this book is not that it contains the work of a literary god, but that it follows the journey of a talented man who struggled to master his gifts. The missteps he makes along the way are as valuable and instructive as his triumphs.

Louise Gluck is not on the same level as Merrill, but she, too, has been anointed by the literary world. Gluck, who has just published her ninth book of poems, won the Pulitzer in 1993 for "The Wild Iris." She has also won the Bollingen Prize, the National Book Critics Circle, and a Guggenheim. But where Merrill created a smooth surface, Gluck has made her reputation with sharp, very tight writing (as in "The Triumph of Achilles") and for speaking in the voices of various mythological characters. In fact, Gluck often seems to be most herself when she is wearing a mythic mask.

In her new collection, The Seven Ages, the poet continues to use the looser language that distinguishes her more recent work. But it also shows her finding more of a balance between the very tight and the very loose. Take, for example, the opening lines from the book's title poem, "The Seven Ages":

In my first dream the world appeared

the salt, the bitter, the forbidden, the sweet

In my second I descended

I was human, I couldn't just see a thing

beast that I am

I had to touch it, to contain it

I hid in the groves,

I worked in the fields until the fields were bare....

Her subject, the awareness of aging and the ways that humans are betrayed by the physical world, is one she has explored before. But here she is more successful when she writes about her own experience. In the first stanza of "Grace," for example, there is energy in her lines:

We were taught, in those years,

never to speak of good fortune.

To not speak, to not feel -

it was the smallest step for a child

of any imagination.

Gluck, like Merrill, is finding ways to step into a more mature persona, to speak more directly and with more wisdom. But as with his book, the journey is not always smooth, and there are several poems in "The Seven Ages" that fall flat.

Readers who are expecting a flawless golden girl will be a bit disappointed, but there is some consolation in her efforts to consistently overcome her limitations. It reminds one how difficult it can be to be human, and how valuable and rare truly great poems are.

Elizabeth Lund is the Monitor's poetry editor.

James Merrill Louise Gluck

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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