A rare recording of the poet James Merrill (1926-1995) is now part of our audio archives. This development preserves and makes available to the public the bewitching reading that Merrill gave in tribute to Elizabeth Bishop at the 1993 Key West Literary Seminar, which was dedicated to Bishop’s life and work. To attendees of that seminar, Merrill’s performance was a distinct highlight. To the small handful of us who’ve had the chance to listen to the recording of it in the years since, it is a singular document that reveals Merrill’s significant gifts as a reader and interpreter of Bishop’s work, and suggests the depths of the influence he felt from the poet who he said “set standards for me as no other contemporary did.”
Bishop and Merrill had been close friends during her lifetime (1911-1979), and both poets had lived in Key West—Bishop on White Street in the 1930s and 1940s, Merrill on Elizabeth Street, at the top of Solares Hill, in the 1980s and 1990s. The influence of Key West upon their work is particularly felt in Bishop’s debut collection North & South, in such poems as “Seascape” and “Little Exercise”; and in Merrill’s 1985 Late Settings, in poems like “Clearing the Title” and “Island in the Works.” Merrill was an important part of the community that nurtured KWLS in its first decade, and he had a strong influence on the 1993 seminar, organized by John Malcolm Brinnin, which was the first in what would become a wave of public tributes and recognition for Bishop’s work.
We are especially pleased to release this recording as we prepare for our forthcoming 31st annual seminar—“Writers on Writers,” to be held in January 2013. Our inspiration for “Writers on Writers” draws from the admiration, influence, and fascination engendered by great writers and their lives. In this context, Merrill on Bishop may be as good as it gets.