Monday, February 16, 2009

On "Christmas Tree" by James Merrill

James Merrill, the son of the Merrill who founded Merrill Lynch, never worked a day in his life, but he wrote poetry. He wrote "Christmas Tree" near the end of his life. Not only is the title "Christmas Tree" and the sustaining metaphor compares a man on his deathbed in the hospital to a christmas tree, but the poem is shaped like a christmas tree as well. Merrill does this with a few short lines with choice spaces (to make the top of the tree in the beginning and the trunk near the end). And then by alternating the length of the lines subtly. The lines get longer as the poem goes on and we near the fuller, base of the tree, but it isn't a perfect progression. We have a line, then a shorter line, a line that stretches longer, a line the same length as the one above it, a line that stretches a bit longer, and then a shorter line again. In this way Merrill constructs the piny edges of the tree out of words. 

(The irony is that it is actually, really, really hard to explain what Merrill does in words, but it isn't a difficult concept. If you look at the poem in the post below you will get it immediately.) 

I think this is really, really nice and subtle. It isn't kitchy. There are poems written in the shape of swans, and poems written entirely in spirals. In my opinion less successful. But "Christmas Tree" reminds us that part of what we love about every poem is the text of it. Poems aren't one dimensional--they have sound, and content, and then they have text. The form the poem takes on the page is what the poem "looks" like. 

Where the line breaks are placed is often related to the content of the lines, and just as often related to the sound of the poem--or the meter--but I think it is rare that a poet thinks quite so deeply about the text as a body, as a casing for the insides of the poem--and then makes that body reflect the insides of the poem as Merrill has here.

1 comment:

  1. i had a strange sort of experience with this poem. the first and the second read through, i hadn't taken payed attention to the title (maybe too much Dickinson, it was only after puzzling through the second time, that i looked up at the title and had a eureka moment.

    in those first two readings, i kept wondering about this outsider from the mountains and his/her proximity to these things and experiences and yet the distance and the brevity of of those things in relation to him/her. when i read it out loud the second time, the brief listing of things, the way things are broken up and the pauses after concepts further strengthened this feeling for me.

    the title changed this feeling, adding a little warmth. before i had only seen the external around the thing. but once named (christmas tree) it became the thread that tied all those elements around that central identity.

    the title certainly adds a merry and perhaps cute aspect to the poem, but i think i may have liked it better without the title.