Mutlu Konuk Blasing’s important study Lyric Poetry: The Pain and Pleasure of Words complexly articulates the determinants of lyric style at a moment when the utility of “lyric” as a genre is hotly contested. In her terms, tension between the materiality of words and their symbolic meaning is not accidental to the genre but defines it. She therefore argues that the experience of lyric restages the pain and pleasure of first language learning, of first entering a mother tongue by using meaningless sounds and phonemes to intend meaning. This restaging has emotional effects and may, in addition, restore something valuably equivocal to the otherwise reductive logics of our discursive experience. In the terms Blasing establishes, James Merrill’s poems are eidetically lyric. Shimmering with the plural senses, and nonsense, produced by the play of language’s materials, they resist readings that trace reductive cultural myths and easy polemics. In this, Merrill sometimes outdistances his critics. Readings that purport to discover the poet’s progress toward a heroic autonomy, or that ignore political possibilities of meaning because the poems suggest no bright-line distinction between “us” and “them,” are insufficiently responsive to the equivocal subtlety of Merrill’s own work and of the lyric genre as such.

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