Writing Lessons

To Feel and Keep the Eyes Open

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By Rachel Hadas


 

In the early 1970s, I was living on the Greek island of Samos. On visits to Athens I’d see the poet James Merrill; in between, we corresponded, both typing our letters on tissue-thin paper. Jimmy had an electric typewriter; my Olympia portable, which eventually succumbed to rust and the difficulty of replacing its ribbon, was still serviceable. Jimmy kindly looked at the poems I sometimes sent him. I’d studied with Robert Fitzgerald at Harvard; Merrill had a similarly delicate critical touch, but unlike Fitzgerald he didn’t limit his comments to matters of prosody. There was also the issue of tone. Once, in a response to some particularly fraught lines I’d sent about some local melodrama, Jimmy advised me (not in a typed letter but on a postcard I’d give a lot to be able to put my hand on now) not to automatically describe the world as “partisan or hostile.” In other words, cut back on modifiers; let the scene speak for itself.

Merrill expressed the same idea in a 1972 interview with David Kalstone: “You hardly ever need to state your feelings. The point is to feel and keep the eyes open. Then what you feel is expressed, is mimed back at you by the scene. A room, a landscape. … We don’t know what we feel until we see it distanced by this kind of translation.”

Attention, precision, economy: goals toward which I still strive in all my writing. Thank you, Jimmy.

Rachel Hadas , professor of English at Rutgers University, is the author of several books of poetry most recently, The Golden Road.

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