For this month’s look at a poem about a famous person, James Merrill’s “The Broken Home

I love this sonnet sequence, James Merrill’s elegant, rueful, beautiful take on his childhood and his parents. This is a different angle on a famous person poem than the others I’ve pointed to so far this year, since Merrill is talking about himself and his family rather than a far-off celebrity, but since his father was the Merrill of Merrill Lynch and since the poet himself is one of the 20th century biggies, it counts.

I first heard “The Broken Home”, rather than read it, on a Knopf National Poetry Month CD (now out of print but around in used form, and maybe at your local library), and I think I love the poem much more in his voice than my own reading-poetry-to-myself inside-my-head voice. The extra layer of bemusement and restrained feeling, the patrician vowels, the way he says the a sounds in “avocado in a glass of water”, four separate shades of a. That particular recording doesn’t seem to be available online but for a taste of his voice here’s Merrill reading “Another August” — in the Knopf recording of “The Broken Home” his voice is a touch crisper.

David Young says in The Longman Anthology of Contemporary American Poetry, “The example of Proust, mining his own life, not so much for revelations and agonies as for retrieved and investigated beauty, is relevant here.” I have to take his word for the Proust part but “retrieved and investigated beauty” is absolutely true of this poem. The Poetry Foundation website’s bio of Merrill says Merrill is “Praised for his stylish elegance, moral sensibilities, and transformation of autobiographical moments into deep and complex meditations” — of all those things, this poem is an exemplar.

I love the wordplay, which is always a doubling of both surface (the joke) and depth (the metaphor, the idea), such as

Always that same old story—
Father Time and Mother Earth,
A marriage on the rocks.

I love the turns, such as at the end of the first section:

Crossing the street, I saw the parents and the child
At their window, gleaming like fruit
With evening’s mild gold leaf.

In a room on the floor below,
Sunless, cooler—a brimming
Saucer of wax, marbly and dim—
I have lit what’s left of my life.

I have thrown out yesterday’s milk
And opened a book of maxims.
The flame quickens. The word stirs.

Tell me, tongue of fire,
That you and I are as real
At least as the people upstairs.

I love the exclamations (“How intensely people used to feel!”) and I enjoy particularly the humor of this description of his father and his father’s wives (James Merrill’s mother was the second of four)

Each thirteenth year he married. When he died
There were already several chilled wives
In sable orbit—rings, cars, permanent waves.
We’d felt him warming up for a green bride.

He could afford it. He was “in his prime”
At three score ten. But money was not time.

I haven’t (yet) read Merrill exhaustively, but other Merrill poems I think are fine—fine in the refined, exquisite, well done, complimentary sense—include “An Urban Convalescence”, “The Peacock” (I much prefer this version, which is also in From The First Nine: Poems 1946-1976, to this other version from Poetry), and “The Victor Dog“. And his coming-of-age memoir, A Different Person, is a witty, literate, self-aware enjoyable read.