James Merrill was born in New York City on March 3, 1926. He was the son of Hellen Ingram Merrill and Charles Merrill, co-founder of
Merrill Lynch.

Born in New York, into a family whose wealth might seem nearly stupefying. Merrill was and more extraordinarily was not the child of this wealth. Being the son of Charles Merrill made predictable certain elements of early years—education at the Lawrenceville School, and then Amherst College. Summers on the beaches of Southampton.

Less predictable, the precocity of Merrill’s talents; the early burgeon of his capacities as a poet (and, more generally, his idiosyncratic and adventurous predilections toward the aesthetic). Writing poems before his tenth birthday. Poems that didn’t imitate so much as forge their own impeccable formal integrity.



Difficult enough to navigate the flounderings of adolescence if one, more or less, is an average, imminently heterosexual person. Far more ostensibly challenging to navigate such flounders if one is not. Being brilliant hardly making the navigation easier. All of which perhaps illuminates Merrill’s turn to a formalist poetic.

The delight and reprieve of giving to life’s confusions not only a lapidary vocabulary, but a meter, and a rhyme. This exquisite imbrication of vivacity and form—astonishment and sapience, restraint and delight—is one way to understand the inimitable achievement of Merrill’s poetry.

A National Book Award for Nights & Days (1966). The Pulitzer Prize for Divine Comedies (1976). A second National Book Award for Mirabell (1978). The National Book Critics Circle Award for the extraordinary epic, The Changing Light at Sandover (1982).



One will find these framed prizes on the wall of Merrill’s kitchen in Stonington. Which is fitting, since Merrill lived in this Stonington home since 1955. Born under the sign of Pisces, and now with Stonington’s gorgeous water views, there is poetic justice in Merrill’s having lived on Water Street. For Water Street to be the title of one of Merrill’s early books.

Numbers of books (there are many more) and numbers of prestigious prizes (there are many more) seem one of the less interesting ways to mark a poet’s greatness. At the same time it is inarguable that Merrill remains one of our most important poets. One of our wittiest, most generous, and searching.

Merrill and his lifelong partner, the painter David Jackson, spent many months of each year in Key West and Athens. While his travels abroad (some of which vividly conjured in Merrill’s memoir, A Different Person) inform his poems in myriad ways, Merrill’s Stonington residence is that which remains most inseparable from the Merrill myth.

By which I mean both the myth of Merrill’s life, and the mythology Merrill himself authored: the unmatchably strange and scintillating . Perhaps the most fruitful and famous adventure with an oui-ja board, and an adventure engaged in the round, coral-colored dining room of the Stonington apartment.

Merrill died on February 6, 1995. He is remembered not only as great ambassador and friend of poetry, but more simply, as a great friend. Elizabeth Bishop, Maya Deren, Rachel Hadas, David Kalstone, Stephen Yenser, J.D. McClatchy—the Merrill circle is wide, and continues to ripple out. One feels Merrill’s gift of friendship (made all the more vibrant in the gleam of Merrill’s many other gifts) in his writing. Sometimes, if one is lucky, one feels it in Merrill’s Water Street home.