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James Merrill is far more conservative than most of his cohort, writing in rhyme and standard meter. In a period whose poetry is marked by self-revelation, emotional intensity and extremity, he is decidedly cool, discreet and even remote. This chapter explains Merill's two poems: Jim's Book and Water Street. His first volume, Jim's Book, financed by his father, was published when he was only sixteen. Another limited edition followed four years later and it was not until his third commercially published volume, Water Street, that his work became widely noticed. One of the ways Merrill developed to deflect his meanings is through riddles, refusing to utter key words. A similar but far more elaborate riddling passage occurs in Strato in Plaster. Merrill is an inveterate punster and puns can be said to be the accidental mismatch between sounds and ideas.
This essay examines a contemporary poetics that implicitly challenges prevailing critiques of lyric as asocial, monologic, and naively self-expressive. Louise Glück practices a lyric mode whose plainspoken surface and emotional immediacy belie its metalinguistic and metafictional complexity. Her poems' illocutionary structures and their attunement to everyday grammatical nuance convey an understanding of language as situational, context-dependent shared action, an understanding that chimes with the insights of ordinary-language philosophy. The perspectives offered by Glück's work can fruitfully complicate dominant models of lyric and binary narratives of American poetic history that set lyric voice against philosophical ambition and linguistic innovation.
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