James Merrill's "Lost in Translation": Revision as Complication
…Nomad inlanders meanwhile
Begin to cluster where the totem
Of a certain vibrant egg-yolk yellow
Or pelt of what emerging animal
Acts on the straggler like a trumpet call
To form a more sophisticated unit.(Section 3, stanza 1)
The drafts of James Merrill’s “Lost in Translation” offer an opportunity to read the poem as a reflection on the “hazard and craft” of revision. Though Merrill is better known for the “sophisticated unit”—his virtuosity with traditional poetic forms and his witty, urbane voice. One of America’s most accomplished poets, Merrill received every major poetry prize in the United States, among them the Pulitzer Prize, the Bollingen Prize, the National Book Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award. Born in 1926, the son of Charles Merrill—co-founder of the brokerage firm Merrill-Lynch—and Hellen Ingram, Merrill published 23 books throughout his life including works of drama, fiction, and prose; his last book, A Scattering of Salts, appeared in print one month after his death in 1995. Although he composed primarily short lyric poems, Merrill’s 560-page apocalyptic-camp epic, The Changing Light at Sandover, earned him an esteemed place in the canon of epic poets.
The James Merrill Collection held by the Washington University Archives offers additional insights into Merrill’s art and suggests new vectors of inquiry. The 35,000 items include vast collections of correspondence, journals, photographs, and original manuscripts in addition to ephemera ranging from newspaper clippings and affidavits from Merrill's parents’ divorce to Merrill's death mask. A particular highlight of the collection is the material pertaining to The Changing Light at Sandover, which include a Ouija board, extensive transcriptions, and numerous drafts.
James Merrill in Athens, 1970s
Merrill as a child at The Orchard, his family home in Southampton.
Approximately 33 extant drafts display Merrill’s revisions
of “Lost in Translation” on an almost daily basis from
October 8 through November 14, 1972. Although this period represents
the months of most concentrated compositional activity, even after
the poem was sent out to friends in its “finished” form
in early 1973 Merrill continued to make minor revisions. The early
drafts record Merrill erecting a simple artifice for the whole and
subsequently working in fragments—building up individual sections
over the course of one or several days. In many ways the final published
poem indexes the global drafting process. As new images and related
themes emerge Merrill often figures these as discrete formal units,
employing parentheses or a new poetic form to distinguish the addition
from what came before. At the level of line, Merrill’s drafts
show a trend toward condensation and obfuscation of subject matter
through alliteration, punning, rhyme, and elusive metaphor. In order
to appreciate the scale of Merrill’s revision, we must consider
both his line changes (the condensation and translation of language)
and his altering conception of the poem as a whole (the new meanings
manifested in large structural changes).