To the Reader by James Merrill
Each day, hot off the press from Moon & Son,
“Knowing of your continued interest,”
Here’s a new book — well, actually the updated
Edition of their one all-time best-seller —
To find last night’s place in, and forge ahead.
If certain scenes and situations (“work,”
As the jacket has it, “of a blazingly
Original voice”) make you look up from your page
— But this is life, is truth, is me! — too many
Smack of self-plagiarism. Terror and tryst,
Vow and verbena, done before, to death,
In earlier chapters, under different names …
And what about those characters? No true
Creator would just let them fade from view
Or be snuffed out, like people. Yet is there room
(In the pinch of pages under your right thumb)
To bring them back so late into their own? —
Granted their own can tell itself from yours.
You’d like to think a structure will emerge,
If only a kind of Joycean squirrel run
Returning us all neatly to page 1,
But the inconsistencies of plot and style
Lead you to fear that, for this author, fiction
Aims at the cheap effect, “stranger than fiction,”
As people once thought life — no, truth, was. Strange …
Anyhow, your final thought tonight,
Before you kiss my picture and turn the light out,
Is of a more exemplary life begun
Tomorrow, truer, harder to get right.
© 1990 James Merrill. “To the Reader” was originally published in the November 1990 – Spring 1990 issue of The Yale Review. James Merrill (1926-1995) was one of the most celebrated poets of his generation. During his lifetime, he published eleven collections of poetry as well as plays, novels, a memoir, and the trilogy The Changing Light at Sandover.
One of the things I love most about James Merrill, other than the fact that he was a wholly original and inimitable poet, was that he was openly gay in most of his circles. For someone born in 1926 to live so openly and so unashamedly despite the stigma and prejudice he no doubt dealt with on a daily basis is incredible to me. It’s truly a shame that he is not discussed more outside of the queer literati because he changed the landscape of American poetry for everyone that came after him, queer or not.
Do you have a favorite poem of James Merrill’s or even a favorite collection? Before reading today’s post, had you heard of him? Let me know in the comments.
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