A WHOLE WORLD
Letters from James Merrill
LANGDON HAMMER AND STEPHEN YENSER, EDITORS
700pp. Knopf. $45.
Why read a poet's letters? Because if, as Elizabeth Bishop said, for poets writing letters is "like working without really doing it", then for readers letters are like poems with most of the fun left in and the hard parts left out. This is consistently true of James Merrill's gorgeous, gossipy, revealing and welcoming letters; the epistolary Merrill is excellent company. A Whole World: Letters from James Merrill is edited by Langdon Hammer (author of the faultless biography James Merrill: Life and art, 2015) and Stephen Yenser (poet, critic, beloved friend of Merrill's and, with the late J. D. McClatchy, co-executor of Merrill's literary estate). In creating the book, Hammer and Yenser chose letters "on the basis of their interest as letters", making "no attempt to tell the story of Merrill's life or show the full range of his correspondence and relationships". This wise decision lets the reader luxuriate in Merrill's preposterously...