Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Charles on Fire

I have always liked this James Merrill  poem (in truth, the only one I ever remember he wrote). I remember it for the name, and for the story, but upon rereading always find I like the lines as well.

Charles on Fire 

Another evening we sprawled about discussing
Appearances. And it was the consensus
That while uncommon physical good looks
Continued to launch one, as before, in life
(Among its vaporous eddies and false claims),
Still, as one of us said into his beard,
"Without your intellectual and spiritual
Values, man, you are sunk." No one but squared
The shoulders of their own unloveliness.
Long-suffering Charles, having cooked and served the meal,
Now brought out little tumblers finely etched
He filled with amber liquor and then passed.
"Say," said the same young man, "in Paris, France,
They do it this way"--bounding to his feet
And touching a lit match to our host's full glass.
A blue flame, gentle, beautiful, came, went
Above the surface. In a hush that fell
We heard the vessel crack. The contents drained
As who should step down from a crystal coach.
Steward of spirits, Charles's glistening hand
All at once gloved itself in eeriness.
The moment passed. He made two quick sweeps and
Was flesh again. "It couldn't matter less,"
He said, but with a shocked, unconscious glance
Into the mirror. Finding nothing changed,
He filled a fresh glass and sank down among us.


  1. It's vaguely nice I guess. (Not a fan of Merrill in general.) "Eeriness" is a strange word, unlike eerie it doesn't look quite right, it makes me think more of eels than of witches.

  2. Or the property of being Lake Erie.

    John based a character in his novel on James Merrill. We have his collected prose and poetry, which means his face is always staring at us from the bookshelves. (I find it surprising that the poetry takes up more space.)

  3. I was once obliged, while hungover, to try to operate Merrill's ouija board in Stonington. I remember this because it was the only time I could get a ouija board to do anything, I had the shakes.

  4. You were obliged to operate his ouija board? Are you secretly moneyed? (And is that a euphemism?)

  5. I wish it were/I were! No, this was some sort of college excursion; beyond this the details are hazy, I forget why they got me to use the thing, a good time must have been had by some...

  6. Lovely to see a shoutout to JM. Although I don't adore his work, I do like the idea of him; and I love his elegy for E Bishop. Is it just me or has he been badly served--reputation-wise--by being really rich.

    What do you think of his prose? I read a memoir of his and found it fine but not exceptional in terms of its writing--tho the stuff on Montale and meeting who he imagines was Clizia is, I think, interesting. I also liked the bit where he has issues with his mom and then he learns from her that she was a major barrier between him being quite ostracized from his father.

    The poem posted looks good.

  7. Ha! Maybe if he wasn't really rich, he wouldn't have a reputation at all?

    I have not read his prose, I'm sorry to say.

  8. "Ha! Maybe if he wasn't really rich, he wouldn't have a reputation at all?"

    Interesting but not clear to me: it's not like his poems aren't good and at times really really good; he has range; he has a kind of wonderfully homely and absurd ambition.

    I think I may be reacting to Reginald Shepherd once having written to me that he felt JM may have been too wealthy to be in a spot to really get at the crux of anything, and this position strikes me as ridiculously romantic: lack of wealth equalling authenticity etc. I don't think enough attention has been put on the positive dynamics between art and money---which is absolutely not meant to suggest art should have class barriers!

  9. I just mean being rich probably helped him get published and read widely, which is not to say that he is not talented, not at all. But many talented people die in obscurity.

  10. I'd argue coming of age in the late fourties and fifties wld be a bigger factor. Tho yesyes being a part of the eastern seaboard establishment wld help! Plath had a very early publication in Harpers--"Go Get The Goodly Squab" I believe--and I think this wld be a very, very rare--maybe impossible--event to occur now.

  11. For me this poem is in the "not as well written as prose" category. That is, I can imagine John Cheever (or a writer like that) writing it better in prose than Merrill has done in verse. The anecdote would be clearer and the telling less mannered.

  12. I enjoy the mannered-ness for the most part, as it adds to the Gilded Past feel, but it's certainly awkward in spots, such as "Now brought out little tumblers finely etched /
    He filled with amber liquor and then passed."

  13. That's the thing. It would have to be elegantly mannered, not awkwardly so. I find it aesthetically incoherent for that reason. What does "No one but squared the shoulders / of their own unlovilieness" even mean? I have no idea, and the phrasing is infelicitous. I think JM should have had a native speaker of English look over the poem before publishing it.

  14. While I see your point about this poem in particular, I can't apply that logic to poetry in general. A lot of poetry I like doesn't pass the "native speaker of English" test, in that it breaks standard syntax and doesn't "mean" in the same way that prose means.

  15. Right. There is a difference between something that's unidiomatic when it should be idiomatic, and a kind of poetry that doesn't care about that in the first place. Merrill is no surrealist, so I can criticize him for a failure to communicate.

  16. Maybe I just give him the benefit of the doubt because he's James Merrill. If a student tried to write this way I'd probably find it clunky. But because he's dead I find it charming. Nothing is as flattering as death.

  17. I love this:

    "Maybe I just give him the benefit of the doubt because he's James Merrill. If a student tried to write this way I'd probably find it clunky. But because he's dead I find it charming. Nothing is as flattering as death."

    "No one but squared
    The shoulders of their own unloveliness."

    The above, I'd argue, is not that hard to parse, but there is com pression happening or, to use Christanne Miller's wonderful term, recoverable synatx (or is it grammar that she writes?) which she explains in her terrific book On Dickinson; after the but I'd wager one is meant to put in a one who.

  18. I read it as "No one [could help but square] the shoulders of their own unoloveliness," as in, upon agreeing that being attractive matters, everyone felt a bit defiant about their lack of attractiveness. But it's clear now that a) this meaning isn't obvious to every reader and b) it might not be the intended meaning.

  19. We both seem to read there being a missing phrase though, which I find interesting and to fit with Miller. I wonder if Merrill ultimately works best when employing end-rhyme.

    The notion of clarity is interesting because I'm sure--tho yesyesyes no examples at-hand--that there are some poems which may appear plain, clear, and yet if one zeroed in on spots difficulties wld arise. And then there's E D's awesome "I took the smallest in the house" poem which is just signifying the skull off a reader: anyone who puts floods in drawers or who feels the stars when they walk I do not think shld be read as playing straight when addressing scale; and for me Dickinson is a genius of refiguring scale. And yet I have heard numerous people praise this poem because they feel it is clear and (so snide of me) of a heartsome reasonance.