James Merrill


The Making of a Writer; Condemned to Write About Real Things

Interior spaces, the shape and correlation of rooms in a house, have always appealed to me. Trying for a blank mind, I catch myself instead revisiting a childhood bedroom on Long Island. Recently, on giving up the house in Greece where I'd lived for much of the previous 15 years, it wasn't so much the fine view it commanded or the human comedies it had witnessed that I felt deprived of; rather, I missed the hairpin turn of the staircase underfoot, the height of our kitchen ceiling, the low door ducked through in order to enter a rooftop laundry room that had become my study. This fondness for given arrangements might explain how instinctively I took to quatrains, to octaves and sestets, when I began to write poems. ''Stanza'' is after all the Italian word for ''room.'' Foreign languages entered my life early in the person of my governess. Although we called her Mademoiselle she was not a spinster but a widow. Neither was she French, or even, as she led us to believe, Belgian, but part English and part, to her undying shame, Prussian. She had lived in Brussels at least, and her sister, who now taught music in Pennsylvania, had been decorated for playing duets with the old Queen Mother of Belgium. Mademoiselle's maiden name was Fanning. This meant some distant kinship with the explorer who discovered - I can see her finger poised above the open atlas - those tiny Pacific islands, and whose house a block away from mine in Stonington, Conn., I would be able to point out to her when she spent a day with me 30 years later. I worshiped this kind, sad woman: her sensible clothes, her carrot hair and watery eyes, the sunburnt triangle at her throat, the lavender wen on her wrist. She taught me to say the Ave Maria and to sing Carmen's habanera. I got by heart the brother heroically dead, the sister in Johnstown, the other sister in Copenhagen. I resolved as soon as I grew up to marry her daughter, Stella, at that age plain and rather disagreeable, who was boarded out to a refined Catholic family in East Hampton - the light of love suffused even them. I heard all there was to hear about Mademoiselle's previous charges and prayed every night to grieve her less than spoilt Constance M. or devilish Peter T. had done. While she talked a needle flashed -costumes for my marionettes. Stories that 10 years later would have convulsed me I drank in solemnly. For instance: Having to relieve herself at a border checkpoint during the war, Mademoiselle had overlaid the ''infecte'' toilet seat with some family letters she happened to be carrying in her purse. In the course of the ''formalities'' her innocent buttocks were bared by a uniformed matron and found to be stenciled with suspicious mirror writing, which triggered a long and humiliating interrogation. ''Figure-toi!'' she exclaimed, gravely fixing me through her goldrimmed spectacles. I could indeed imagine. I too was being imprinted, there and then.

By the time I was 8 I had learned from her enough French and German to understand that English was merely one of many ways to express things. A single everyday object could be called assiette or Teller as well as plate - or were plates themselves subtly different in France and Germany? Mademoiselle's French and Latin prayers seemed to invoke absolutes beyond the ken of our Sunday school pageants. At the same time, I was discovering how the everyday sounds of English could mislead you by having more than one meaning. One afternoon at home I opened a random book and read: ''Where is your husband, Alice?'' ''In the library, sampling the port.'' If samples were little squares of wallpaper or chintz, and ports were where ships dropped anchor, this hardly clarified the behavior of Alice's husband. Long after Mademoiselle's exegesis the phrase haunted me. Words weren't what they seemed. The mother tongue could inspire both fascination and distrust.

But back to those octaves and sestets. Words might frustrate me, forms never did; neither did meter. Children in my day were exposed to a good deal of competent verse. Each first grader at St. Bernard's memorized his hundred lines of Walter Scott and received an apple for so doing. Before graduation he would speak deathless poetry in the annual Shakespeare play. The masters somehow let meaning take care of itself, a chip borne along by the rhetorical surge. Accordingly frustration was reserved for the content, or lack of it, in what I'd begun to write at boarding school. Gerrish Thurber, the mild and merciful librarian who ''advised'' the young editors of the Lawrenceville Lit, read through my first submission and nodded, saying only, ''We can always use a well-made sonnet.'' It took me a while to fathom what he hadn't said.

My classmate Frederick Buechner wrote his poem first. In a flash I thought: I can do that too! And away we went. Luckily perhaps, since it allowed us to polish without much thought for what (if anything) we were communicating, our callowness led us to second-rate, fin de siecle stuff - Wilde, Heredia, Alice Meynell. These writers didn't figure in the Lawrenceville curriculum, although they met its chief requirement by having died. The living poets (unlike Milton or Keats, on whom white-haired Mr. Raymond had given us the last sonorous word) were still scandalously eluding definition in the pages of anthologies never seen in the classroom. Would our style ever mature? Or rather, dripping and sugary, would it ever unripen? Long after Freddy had gone on to Blake and Whitman, I dawdled behind with Elinor Wylie and the gaudier bits in Baudelaire.

On the threshold of our senior year the Lit's graduating editor summoned his two least trustworthy successors. Sucking at a pipe, this man of 18 urged us to recant. ''Write about real things for God's sake: blondes and pistons!'' - fetishes no less conventional than the moonlit foliage, masquerades, mad crones and pet monkeys that clotted our own poems and stories. We left his room with scornful smiles.

The airs I was giving myself ran in the family. My father had offered his Aunt Grace the sum, unheard-of in those Depression years, of $5 a page for memoirs of her Mississippi girlhood. She couldn't do it; the truth froze her pen. Not that she stopped writing. One summer a flier came in the mail from a vanity press in New York, announcing Aunt Grace's novel, ''Femme Fatale.'' ''Set against the turbulent background of the French court, this tale of searing passion....'' My mother and I, alone that year and needing diversion, at once ordered our copy - several copies: Christmas was coming. Before it did, German troops overran a real France Aunt Grace wouldn't have crossed the street to see, and ''Femme Fatale'' was never published or our money refunded.

Like Aunt Grace, and like many adolescents, I needed to feel that I was fulfilling myself in the face of heartless indifference. In fact my mother was both proud and critical of my early writing. She had taken a summer course in the short story at Columbia, worked on the Jacksonville newspaper and edited until her marriage a weekly gazette of her own. Some satirical doggerel she dashed off about the preparations for my sister's wedding dazzled me, at 9, with its zany, endstopped rhyming. My father, who could compose long lucid letters in his beautifully rounded hand and read with X-ray eyes the to me impenetrable editorials in The Herald Tribune, looked to literature for a good cry. His favorite author was J.M. Barrie - indeed, Alice and her port-sampling husband may be found in Barrie's play ''Dear Brutus.'' My father had a way of his own with rhyme. Here is how he acknowledged one of my letters when I first went abroad: Though we're apart, You're in my heart - I too love Chartres.

He was also a powerful and unpredictable man, never more so, in my young eyes, than when, pretending to want for his scrapbook the poems and stories I'd written up to then, he had a small edition of them handsomely produced during my senior year at Lawrenceville. ''Jim's Book,'' as he titled it, thrilled me for days, then mortified me for a quarter-century. I wouldn't put it past my father to have foreseen the furthest consequences of his brilliant, unsettling gesture, which, like the pat on a sleepwalker's back, looked like approbation but was aimed at waking me up.

It partly succeeded. I opened my eyes enough at least to see how much remained to be learned about writing. Presently I was at Amherst, reading Proust, Dante and ''Faust'' in their various originals, Jane Austen and Pope with Reuben Brower, Shakespeare and Darwin with Theodore Baird. Here also Kimon Friar put before me the living poets and gave the nine-day wonders that shot up like beanstalks from this richest of mulches their first and only detailed criticism. Many hands made light work. Four years after graduation my ''First Poems'' had appeared, I was living alone and unhappy in Rome and going to a psychiatrist for writer's block.

The doctor wanted to hear about my life. It had been flowing along unnoticed in my absorption with the images that came and went on its surface. Now its very droplets were being studied on a slide. ''Real things'' - was I condemned to write about them, after all?

Of course I had been doing nothing else. Symbolist pastiche or makeshift jotting, our words reveal more than we think. The diary kept during my first year away at school reports a Christmas-break visit to Silver Springs, Fla. I'd like to go back there one day and ride again in the glass-bottomed boat, peering down at the cold pastoral of swaying grasses and glinting schools. There would be much to say about ''unconscious depths,'' about my zodiacal creature the Fish, above all about the heavy pane of glass that, like a kind of intelligence, protected me and my mother from that sunken world while revealing its secrets in magical detail. But in 1940 the artless diarist records only this: ''Silver Springs - heavenly colors and swell fish.''

Two banalities, each by itself bad enough, and hopelessly so in conjunction. Yet in their simple awfulness they broach the issue most crucial to this boy not quite 14. Two years earlier my parents have been divorced and Mademoiselle amicably sent packing: I am thought to need ''a man's influence.'' We hear how children suffer under these circumstances. I am no exception; my grades plummet, I grow fat gorging on sweets. ''Heavenly colors and swell fish.'' What is that phrase but an attempt to bring my parents together, to remarry on the page their characteristic inflections - the ladylike gush and the regular-guy terseness? In reality my parents have tones more personal and complex than these, but the time is still far off when I can dream of echoing them. To do so, I see in retrospect, will involve a search for magical places real or invented, like Silver Springs or Sandover, acoustical chambers so designed as to endow the weariest platitude with resonance and depth. By then, too, surrogate parents will enter the scene, figures more articulate than Mademoiselle but not unlike her, either, in the safe ease and mystery of their influence: Proust and Elizabeth Bishop; Maria and Auden in the Sandover books. The unities of home and world, and world and page, will be observed through the very act of transition from one to the other.