'A Whole World' is a new book of poet James Merrill's letters

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Rick Koster, The Day, New London, Conn.
·6 min read
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Apr. 8—The renowned Stonington poet and Pulitzer Prize winner James Merrill was incredibly prolific. Not only was his most famous poem, "The Changing Light at Sandover," 560 pages long — and written with the aid of his trusted Ouija board that still exists in the poet's former house in Stonington Borough — Merrill wrote hundreds of poems and was also a novelist, playwright, and essayist.

He was also an enthusiastic letter writer. His correspondence to dozens of recipients — from a Who's Who of famous folks to lesser-known friends, lovers and more — comprises an astonishing body of work by itself. Even more intriguing, the variety of writing in those letters is impressively vast in terms of tone and style, ranging from the playful and snarky to deeply emotional and revealing.

Though Merrill has been well known amongst academics and literati for the quality and volume of his letters, only now, with the publication this week from Alfred A. Knopf of "A Whole World: Letters from James Merrill," is a comprehensive collection of the correspondence available to the public. Edited by Merrill scholars Langdon Hammer and Stephen Yenser, and featuring their helpful footnotes and background context, "A Whole World" shares hundreds of letters. It's also a fascinating, emotional and frequently hilarious book that provides revelatory personality aspects that help in fashioning a more complete profile of the poet.

In celebration of the book's publication, and in partnership with Washington University in St. Louis, Stonington's James Merrill House Foundation is presenting a three-part virtual series of events. They kick off Saturday with "James Merrill: A Man of Letters." Hammer and Yenser will be joined by Knopf poetry editor Deborah Garrison in a discussion of telling moments and themes in the correspondence. Willard Spiegelman, author, scholar and Merrill House Committee member, will host. (See sidebar for complete list of events.)

The book's origins have another important local angle. Also-famous Stonington poet J.D. McClatchy, a dear friend of Merrill's, was at the time of his own death working on an edition of Merrill's letters. McClatchy was co-executor of Merrill's literary estate along with Yenser — a poet and author of books on Merrill, Robert Lowell, and other contemporary poets — and the pair had accumulated Merrill letters from repositories such as Yale's Beinecke Library and the Special Collections at Washington University in St. Louis.

After organizing the letters both chronologically and by correspondent, Hammer — the Niel Gray Jr. Professor of English at Yale, author of the biography "James Merrill: Life and Art, and a friend of both Merrill and McClatchy — was brought in to help with the enormous task of compiling and organizing the book. When McClatchy died in 2018, Yenser and Hammer persevered and finished the work. "A Whole World" is dedicated to McClatchy.

On Tuesday, Hammer, via email, answered questions about "The Whole World."

Q: It almost seems "the letter" as a form of communcation should be at the top of an endangered species list. Was part of the effort to compile "A Whole World" a sort of late-stage attempt to illuminate the value and even artistic elments of the practice of writing letters?

A. Letters have historically been essential to the lives of poets. Think of Keats, of Dickinson, of Merrill's friend Elizabeth Bishop. Merrill is the master of a kind of letter perhaps no one will write again. But as to the extinction of the genre, I'm not a pessimist. Letters live on in what we take to be debased forms — the text, the email, the post, the chat — but what are really just new modes of correspondence, driven by new technologies, which will be replaced in turn by other forms.

Q: As author of a renowned biography of Merrill, you certainly knew going into the project that there is a wealth of material. But was part of the appeal of the project simply to have access to a treasure trove of material — as much from a fan's perspective as a scholar?

A. In the case of unpublished letters by a writer you love, there is a tingle at the back of the neck, and, once you get past the inhibition you feel you should feel when reading someone else's mail, you are filled with curiosity. But that rubs off pretty quick as you have to get down to the grinding business of selecting among and then editing many thousands of letters.

Q: The variety of tone and style in the letters is fascinating. Some read like, well, poetry. Is it possible that you'd consider any of these in fact a form of poetry? Others come across like (admittedly bright but) fun and snarky notes passed amongst comrades in boarding school. And everything in between. Is that a reasonable observation and, if so, what does the variety tell you about Merrill that maybe you didn't already know or suspect?

A: A poet's letters are an accessory to the poems, information about them, a test-run for them, and an escape from them. But they can also be like poems, and Merrill approached them as a literary form rich in possibilities he could play with.

From Merrill's letters, in Greek, to his lover Strato, which this book translates, to shoptalk with fellow poets, to the deft thank you or reassuring condolence, the love letter that speculates about eternity, or the wicked dish on someone's ex, Merrill played the gamut of the letter-form with endless ingenuity, seeking always to entertain himself as much as his addressee. His variousness is expressed in his many ways of speaking — or simply in the variety of names he signs his letters with.

Q: In the context of the above, to read Merrill's letters is to instantly realize his genius. But it's also amazing how consistently hungry for knowledge Merrill seemed to be. Was there a sense of ongoing intellectual curiosity about him?

A: Merrill (was) always interested in what someone can teach him — if only what that person can bring out in him. This is a key reasons letters mattered so much to him. They were opportunities for enlargement, change, investigation, self-knowledge.

Q: It would maybe be unfair to ask someone as familiar with Merrill as yourself whether you have a favorite of his poems. But, just as unfairly, did you emerge from the work on this book with a favorite letter? Or even a favorite subset of letters based on a particular correspondent who brought out the best in his letter writing?

A: There are letters that Stephen and I have howled in laughter over, and when you're laughing like that, you are close to crying. There are a good number of those, especially when you have working all day together.

As to a favorite letter, I don't know. It would be hard to choose a better first letter than the one he wrote to Santa Claus requesting a flashlight, or a better last letter than the fan letter to (author/Proust scholar) André Aciman in which he describes his long imaginative love affair with Alexandria, Egypt. It includes one of my favorite sentences Merrill wrote: "What do you do with so much blue, once you've seen it?" He died four days later.

Q: You and Stephen are two of the eminent Merrill scholars in the world. Given that background, how much research did the two of you have to do in that context — or by the time you started the project did you simply know most of the people, background, places, or allusions referred to?

A: Google is almost as good as a Ouija Board.