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James Merrill Portrait

Born and raised in New York City, James Merrill was the child of a founder of America's most famous brokerage firm. He was educated at Amherst College, a stay interrupted by a year's service in the U.S. infantry at the end of World War II. Thereafter he divided his time between Connecticut, Florida, and Greece and devoted himself to a highly successful literary career. His poetry is poised, self-conscious, elegant, and witty; its manner owes perhaps as much to the stylistic polish of Proust's and James's fiction as to other poets. Thus it combines exacting attention to daily life with intricate literary allusiveness. At times, his irony almost masks the philosophical ambitions of texts like "Lost in Translation," but the poem nonetheless mounts a powerful reflection on the relations between history, memory, subjectivity, and experience. Merrill's earliest poems were so elegantly crafted and so preoccupied with transcendence, that he acquired the reputation of a narrow aesthete, but he began to develop a more relaxed, conversational style in the early 1960s, eventually proving himself capable of taking up subjects like shopping malls and alcoholic's recovery programs that few aesthetes would risk. His book-length poetic epic, The Changing Light at Sandover (1977-1982), is widely considered his masterpiece, though he produced supremely confident poetry in a wide variety of forms and meters. He also wrote novels and plays and an especially beautiful memoir, A Different Person (1993).