One of the most important American poets of the twentieth century, James Merrill, is the subject of this summer’s online feature by Herman Asarnow. He elaborates on his admiration for Merrill’s lyrical poem “Pearl,” which appeared in 1995′s A Scattering of Salts. Asarnow’s unpacking of Merrill’s poem also ushers in Poetry Northwest’s newest issue, “Enthusiasms.” Look for it on newsstands and in bookstores this summer.
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Well, I admit
A small boy’s eyes grew rounder and lips moister
To find it invisibly chained, at home in the hollow
Of his mother’s throat: the real, deepwater thing.
Far from the mind at six to plumb
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James Merrill’s “Pearl,” a poem published just before his death in 1995, ripples with the poet’s power to manipulate language and form to set forth the tenderest, most primal feeling, love of one’s mother, and to show us through its imagery and form that it takes a lifetime even to approach an understanding of how the raw rub of the grit of our experience might, someday, grow in us the nacre of wisdom, a jewel for which we must pay deeply.
First, look at this poem, survey its territory on the page. Notice that the short line at the center, “Of grit,” hinges two equal halves, and that the last line, also short, “Shuts on it,” rhymes with it—as does, you notice, the first line, “Well, I admit.” We haven’t even started reading, but now we see this poem might be about circling back to beginnings. Being curious about these rhymes, we check further and discover that the second line of the poem and the second-to-last, and so forth, also rhyme, which confirms that we should watch for patterns signaled at the start and returned to later.
Next, read the poem’s sentences, ignoring the line breaks.
Immediately, notice the first sentence stretching the bounds of everyday language by switching subjects—from the poet-“I” to a six-year-old boy moved as he sees a beautiful pearl “at home in the hollow/Of his mother’s throat.” We notice, too, that the boy is emotionally moved without being able at his age to know or wonder how the “mite” of a grain of sand can, in this life, this world, result in something beautiful. (In a later reading, we will suddenly understand that Merrill here puns ironically because that “mite” is also mighty in birthing a pearl, in giving rise to understanding.) The switch in the first sentence’s subject tells us we’re reading a poem of reflection—and, if we remember how the rhymes suggest a circular pattern to the poem’s thought, we may also now expect that the poem will be about how the unknowing boy of six comes to know how life’s grit itself perishes (is “self-immolating”) even though it is the origin of the pearl of wisdom.
Now, see how the poem’s next three sentences confirm our supposition that the boy, as a man of age, “Mottled with survival,” will be he who will have “one day grasped” how the pearl he once viewed round-eyed and moist-lipped would suggest to him “wisdom’s trophy” and how “Time” “mediate[s]” “cunningly” the accretion of layers of experience, “the input” that can turn grit to a pearl. But there’s pain in this, too. His growing awareness happens over the speaker’s life in contrast to his unawareness that his mother, the bearer of the pearl (ironically, what serves as the grit for his eventual pearl of wisdom), has “slipped (how? when?) past reach.“ Wisdom may be attainable, but sometimes at the expense of our attention to those we love, the loss of whom we can acknowledge, and dare bare painfully, only in a parenthetical aside, because we realize—too late and painfully—that we have taken too little care,...