James Merrill, Postmodern Magus

James Merrill, Postmodern Magus

Myth and Poetics

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276 pages, 6 x 9 inches
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James Merrill, Postmodern Magus will make a substantial contribution to our understanding of this crucial poet. In particular, Smith’s mastery of mythical themes, allusions, and nuances enables him to enrich our understanding of Merrill’s densely mythical and allusive poems.”—Don Adams, author, James Merrill’s Poetic Quest

"This book will help establish Merrill's preeminence among serious readers of poetry. Its numerous close readings provide a reader's guide to the poems."—Timothy Materer, author, James Merrill's Apocalypse

One of the unique voices in our century, James Merrill was known for his mastery of prosody; his ability to write books that were not just collected poems but unified works in which each individual poem contributed to the whole; and his astonishing evolution from the formalist lyric tradition that influenced his early work to the spiritual epics of his later career. Merrill's accomplishments were recognized with a Pulitzer Prize in 1977 for Divine Comedies and a National Book Critics Circle Award in 1983 for The Changing Light at Sandover.

In this meticulously researched, carefully argued work, Evans Lansing Smith argues that the nekyia, the circular Homeric narrative describing the descent into the underworld and reemergence in the same or similar place, confers shape and significance upon the entirety of James Merrill’s poetry. Smith illustrates how pervasive this myth is in Merrill’s work—not just in The Changing Light at Sandover, where it naturally serves as the central premise of the entire trilogy, but in all of the poet’s books, before and after that central text.

By focusing on the details of versification and prosody, Smith demonstrates the ingenious fusion of form and content that distinguishes Merrill as a poet. Moving beyond purely literary interpretations of the poetry, Smith illuminates the numerous allusions to music, art, theology, philosophy, religion, and mythology found throughout Merrill’s work.

Table of contents: 

First Poems
The Country of a Thousand Years of Peace
Water Street
Nights and Days
The Fire Screen
Braving the Elements
Divine Comedies
The Book of Ephraim
The Changing Light at Sandover
The Inner Room
Late Settings and A Scattering of Salts

Notes 243
Bibliography 253
Index 263