Vernon Shetley

Vernon Shetley: On "The Willowware Cup"

Symbolism turns on an ambiguity between literal and metaphoric, or if ambiguity is too strong a word, on an extension and elaboration of metaphor to the point where it threatens to gain priority over the objects it modifies. … Merrill does not often push to the boundaries of metaphor … but often enough a simple construct of likeness exfoliates into a richly imagined (or described) scene of its own, moving far from its metaphorical function. …

[Shetley cites the lines that begin "Soon, of these May mornings" and end "into a crazing texture."]

This extraordinarily condensed passage seems to encapsulate an entire narrative through a rapid series of substitutions. The fading of the cup’s colors is likened to the spread of tattooer’s ink through skin, but the metaphorical function of the image quickly moves to the background as it is elaborated into a richly detailed vignette: a drunken sailor receiving a tattoo in the shape of a blue anchor, meanwhile missing the sailing of the warship to whose crew he belongs. Richard Saez, in his brilliant unpacking of this passage, suggests that the tattoo that comes to the poet’s mind here belongs to a former lover. … {T]he critic’s temptation to provide an autobiographical referent is an index of the powerful "reality effect" generated by this passage; indeed, this narrative moment seems vastly more real than what it ostensibly modifies, which after all is only a tattooed representation. Ordinarily, the modified object in a metaphor holds a kind of ontological priority over the modifying vehicle; when a poet describes his lover as like a flower, the lover is concrete and specific, the flower generic and, in a fashion, abstract. Merrill’s metaphors frequently reverse this priority, a reversal that corresponds to the elevation, in his poetry, of aesthetic constructs over observed facts, his sense that "life [is] fiction in disguise."

Vernon Shetley: On "The Broken Home"

"The Broken Home," certainly among the richest of Merrill’s autobiographical reflections, exemplifies this strategy of ironic distancing from both mythic analogue and the language of cliché. The broken home of the title, of course, is the first of many common idioms the poem holds up for scrutiny. That that idiom might have been spoken sincerely, if euphemistically, by his parents’ generation but would hardly be used "straight" in his own social world serves to indicate both the distance from which the poet views the events he recounts, and the gulf between the social mores, and thus the public language, of the 1930s and the 1960s, for Merrill was well aware that a new vocabulary for describing social acts implies a new set of attitudes toward those facts. At the same time, the definite article again assumes the reader’s familiarity, and when this image makes its one appearance, in the last of the poem’s seven sonnets, it has clearly expanded beyond its specific reference to Merrill’s childhood to take on an emblematic quality. …

[Shetley goes on to note the idioms throughout the sonnets as well as the various puns – in the second sonnet, he points out that "Merrill’s punning etherealizes the language of his father’s profession; from the poet’s perspective the world of investments and finance seems as insubstantial as the clouds" (77) – and pauses over the concluding six lines in the fourth sonnet.] … The tonal nuances of the first line of the sestet would take a great deal of space to exhaustively unpack; what one can say briefly is that its evident mockery might be taken either way: as a ventriloquism of complacent male triumphalism or as sardonic irony; the nonchalance of the poet’s "Oh" implies both that making history is simply the natural thing for men to do, and that it’s no great accomplishment. The poet speaks from a moment in which the whole idea that history is made by great men seems increasingly questionable, and his rhyming of "history" with "story’ encourages the reader to perform the feminist dissection of "history’ into "his-story." In the final lines of the sestet Merrill obliquely returns to the subject of his own parents, seeing their "marriage on the rocks" as an instance of an archetypal situation. This archetype is handled, however, with a broad irony. "Father Time and Mother Earth" have fallen by the poet’s time to the level of advertising images, while "on the rocks," like "broken home," is a euphemism employed by a society unable to bring itself to say "divorce." It’s exactly this disinclination to confront matters directly, this way of seeing the conflict between the sexes as immemorial and irresolvable, the poet implies, that leads to scarred lives like his own. Bad language is a symptom of bad faith, a bad faith the poet’s ironic reworking of cliché is meant to expose.

Vernon Shetley: On "In the Waiting Room"

How had I come to be here,

like them, and overhear

a cry of pain that could have

got loud and worse but hadn’t?

"How had I come to be … like them?" we may read this sentence as asking, and the child seems to expend an almost petulant energy in the various repetitions of this question. A number of critics have interpreted the burden of the poem as the child’s sense of "connectedness," to use Bonnie Costello’s term (see Elizabeth Bishop: Questions of Mastery [Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1991], p. 119). Critics like Lois Cucullu and Lee Edelman imply a transformation of this sense into a feeling of solidarity along gender lines. The poem’s persistent refusal to interpret itself, however, makes available another attitude toward the feelings of aversion and distress it so powerfully generates. In a draft of "the Country Mouse," the child remarked to herself, "I was in for it now … I would get old and fat like that woman opposite me" (Elizabeth Bishop papers, Vassar College Library). When the poet asks, "What similarities … /made us all just one?" this "just" indicates that the thought entails a sense of diminishment, one that makes the child resist this levelling equivalence of self and other. The young Elizabeth might be seen as rejecting with all her energies the horrifying knowledge that she is like the people with whom she shares the waiting room. This knowledge is presented in imagery that resembles that of "At the Fishhouses," where knowledge is presented as a burning, uninhabitable liquid: "The waiting room was bright / and too hot. It was sliding / beneath a big black wave, / another, and another." Indeed. The entire world seems to become insufficiently distinct and separate, as the "night and slush" outside echo the "big black wave" breaking inside.


From Vernon Shetley, "Elizabeth Bishop’s Silences," in After the Death of Poetry: Poet and Audience in Contemporary America (Durham: Duke University Press, 1993), 55-56