Selected Poems

This volume collects a wide selection of James Merrill’s work over nearly half a century—from First Poems to the Pulitzer Prize–winning Divine Comedies (composed with the help of a Ouija board) to the epic work The Changing Light at Sandover. Volume editors J. D. McClachy and Stephen Yenser provide an insightful introduction to the poet’s life and work. "If there is such a thing as a typical Merrill poem," they ask, "how does it work? At its core is the mercurial and transforming power of metaphor. … His poems are intelligent but not cerebral, allusive but rarely obscure. Their tone is darting and silvery, with long periodic sentences brought up sharply by fragments, and their diction is a vivid blend of the elegant and the colloquial."

Merrill was known as a poet who worked within formalism as well as free verse and produced emotionally charged work alongside highly polished pieces. McClatchy and Yenser observed, "One of the great love poets of the century, able to dramatize what love can grant and withhold, Merrill believed, with Marcel Proust, that the only true paradise is a lost paradise. Love is not fully itself until it is lost, until I becomes memory, then becomes art"—; as evidenced perhaps by these lines from "Summer People":

Time passes softly, scarcely
Felt by me or you.
And then, at an odd moment,
Tenderness passes, too.

This book review originally appeared in American Poets.