From Publishers Weekly
Lauded at his death as a major American writer, a great poet of sociability and comedy, an important part of the gay literary tradition and a master of traditional forms, Merrill (1926-1995) is well-served by this monumental gathering off his shorter poems, carefully edited and likely to garner major attention and sales. McClatchy (Twenty Questions, etc.) is Merrill's literary executor, and Yenser the author of a Merrill monograph. They include Merrill's 11 trade volumes; poems from two small-press books, The Black Swan (1946) and The Yellow Pages (1974); 21 verse translations; and 45 poems retrieved from periodicals and manuscripts. Excluded are some juvenilia and light verse, as well as Merrill's book-length poem The Changing Light at Sandover, in print as a separate volume. Merrill's sonnets, sapphics, longer sequences and sinuous sentences encompass lyric pathos, ebullient comedy, rapt romance and acrid satire. Their formal sophistication can belie their depth of feeling, which is exactly what some readers love best about Merrill's work. New readers ought to skip the often-dry earliest books, begin with Merrill's 1960s works and read forward. Confirmed fans will no doubt flip to the end of the book, where they will encounter many poems for the first time--most are short and witty, many of them are fine. The poems from Merrill's last year can be arresting, including a self-elegy in which the dying poet thinks of himself as a Christmas tree. (Mar.) Forecast: Huge, career-summing reviews of this book are already in production at various typewriters and computers along the eastern seaboard. The story of Merrill's personal fortune has always made good copy, and revelations of the poet's death by AIDS in Alison Lurie's Familiar Spirits: A Memoir of James Merrill and David Jackson (Viking), also due in March, should bring less-than-regular readers of poetry to the book via respectful items in glossies. Libraries of all stripes will also certainly acquire the book, which could show up on some bestseller lists.
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Merrill's readers know that he was an exceptional poet in voice, vision, range, and fluency. The winner of many awards, including a Pulitzer Prize, the Bollingen Prize for Poetry, and two National Book Awards, Merrill (1926-95) was gloriously prolific, as the editors of this bountiful collection, J. D. McClatchy and Stephen Yenser, attest. Here are all the poems, including translations, from 11 volumes (except for the epic The Changing Light at Sandover), as well as previously uncollected and unpublished works. There is much to absorb, mull over, and enjoy sensuously and intellectually. And it's profoundly moving to witness Merrill's evolution from the young author of The Black Swan (1946), drenched in yet wary of tradition, to the increasingly confident poet of the later books, who matched intensity with merriment and contrasted scenes from a life of privilege with a somber sense of history and loss. Like Stevens and Auden, Merrill was at once formal and conversational, lyric and narrative, and enlightened by the smallest of objects, a Willowware cup for instance, and the grandest: the sea, death, light. Donna Seaman
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