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James Merrill: a reading for Elizabeth Bishop

04/23/2012  by Arlo Haskell  Comment on this Post
 
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James Merrill

James Merrill, Key West, 1987. Photo by Lawson Little.

James Merrill (1926-1995) was among the most celebrated poets of the second half of the 20th century. He was awarded virtually every major honor given to poets, including the Pulitzer and Bollingen Prizes, the National Book Award (twice), and the National Book Critics Circle Award. His 12 collections are distinguished by language that is extraordinarily rich, even in the rarefied context of poetry, and by the use of metaphor to coax precise and elegant structures from the spontaneity and apparent unruliness of modern life. “Life’s advantage over art is its genius for the unexpected,” Merrill once said. “If art has any advantage over daily life it’s that it allows us to get things right for a change.”

Merrill lived in Key West for many years, and his was an important influence on the Key West Literary Seminar during its first decade. He was particularly involved in the 1993 seminar, which was devoted to the work and life of his fellow poet and longtime friend Elizabeth Bishop. In this recording from the 1993 seminar, Merrill delivers a reading in tribute to Bishop, presenting a careful selection of Bishop’s work and his own and, in between the readings, discussing the lines of friendship and poetic influence that connect the poems. There are three poems by Bishop, including “Exchanging Hats,” “The Shampoo,” and “One Art”; and four poems by Merrill, including “The Kimono” (inspired by Bishop’s “The Shampoo”), “Investiture at Cecconi’s” (dedicated to Bishop’s and Merrill’s mutual friend David Kalstone), and “Victor Dog” and “Overdue Pilgrimage to Nova Scotia” (both dedicated to Bishop). Merrill’s perfectly modulated performance and commentary reveals not only his significant gifts as a reader and interpreter of Bishop’s work, but also suggests the depths of the influence he felt from the poet who he said “set standards for me as no other contemporary did.”

From KWLS 1993: The Poetry of Elizabeth Bishop
This recording is available for noncommercial and educational use only. Copyright © 1993 by the Literary Estate of James Merrill at Washington University, used with permission of The Wylie Agency LLC.

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