cover image Selected Poems

Selected Poems

James Merrill, . . Knopf, $14 (298pp) ISBN 978-0-375-71166-4

A virtuoso of rhyming form, a master of puns and a subtle verse autobiographer, Merrill (1926–1995) got attacked during his lifetime as too fancy or artful. He is now generally considered one of his generation’s greats. Readers prize his gemlike early lyrics; his autobiographical poems of friendship, illness, privilege (his father cofounded Merrill Lynch), travel (Greece, New England, Florida) and same-sex love; his science-fictional epic The Changing Light at Sandover (written with help from a Ouija board); and the rueful, reflective, sometimes very funny poems of his last years, from “Rhapsody on Czech Themes” to “b o d y” (“Looked at too long, words fail,/ phase out”). Some readers thought his final poems his best, though they were necessarily omitted from his previous Selected , compiled before they were written. Also here are slices of Sandover , and the classics from the 1960s and 1970s. These include “An Urban Convalescence,” in which Merrill muses on his New York City block and on the renovation—or is it destruction—of modern language; fine sonnets such as “Marsyas”; and trick-ending stories in verse, such as “Chimes for Yahya.” This rigorous cull seems designed for new readers (or students). Those who don’t want to spring for the heavy Collected Poems will also want to see what this book holds. (Oct.)