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."

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Criticism Overview
Title Vernon Shetley: On "The Willowware Cup" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Vernon Shetley Criticism Target James Merrill
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 01 Jun 2020
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication After the Death of Poetry: Poet and Audience in Contemporary America
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