Poetry Review: “The Victor Dog” by James Merrill

James_MerrillI do not go to a lot of poetry readings. Seeing poets in person and hearing them read has just never struck me as a way I want to spend a free evening. I would much rather go to a baseball or basketball game to be entertained. For an evening of poetry, I prefer a quiet bookstore where I can read the poet myself while sitting in a comfortable chair in silent solitude.

A number of years ago, on a whim, I went to the Walker Art Museum in Minneapolis to hear James Merrill read. I must have read in the paper, or heard on the radio that he was going to be there… and Sue must have been otherwise engaged. For whatever reason, I went and listened to him read.

I do not remember if he was good at reading his work. I do not remember much about him at all: what he wore, what his voice sounded like, what poems he read that evening. I only remember feeling uncomfortable sitting amid so many outwardly “artsy” people in such an outwardly “artsy” place. I remember thinking that a modern art museum is no place for poetry to be read… I already knew that outwardly artsy people are not the kind of people I  want to spend an evening with.

I have always liked Merrill as a poet. He is admittedly difficult at times and has a tendency to make a number of obscure references. But I am fine with that. I have never felt compelled by any poet or writer to spend a great deal of time trying to chase down footnotes and references. If I fail to “get” some of the references, I am fine with that. I feel neither cheated nor diminished. I spend most of my life feeling like I am missing important references anyway.

I do not remember the first time I encountered “The Victor Dog.” It may very well have been the night I heard Merrill read at the Walker. But I suspect it was sometime before that.

“The Victor Dog” is a good example of Merrill’s poetic style and word play and the great intelligence he brings to his art. It is also, to my mind, an example of how W.H. Auden’s work influenced Merrill.

In “The Victor Dog” Merrill uses the familiar music company logo to think about music and the nature of art and artists.


The Victor Dog

Bix to Buxtehude to Boulez,
The little white dog on the Victor label
Listens long and hard as he is able.
It’s all in a day’s work, whatever plays.

From judgment, it would seem, he has refrained.
He even listens earnestly to Bloch,
Then builds a church upon our acid rock.
He’s man’s–no–he’s the Leiermann’s best friend,

Or would be if hearing and listening were the same.
Does he hear?I fancy he rather smells
Those lemon-gold arpeggios in Ravel’s
“Les jets d’eau du palais de ceux qui s’aiment.”

He ponders the Schumann Concerto’s tall willow hit
By lightning, and stays put.When he surmises
Through one of Bach’s eternal boxwood mazes
The oboe pungent as a bitch in heat,

Or when the calypso decants its raw bay rum
Or the moon in Wozzeck reddens ripe for murder,
He doesn’t sneeze or howl; just listens harder.
Adamant needles bear down on him from

Whirling of outer space, too black, too near–
But he was taught as a puppy not to flinch,
Much less to imitate his bête noire Blanche
Who barked, fat foolish creature, at King Lear.

Still others fought in the road’s filth over Jezebel,
Slavered on hearths of horned and pelted barons.
His forebears lacked, to say the least, forebearance.
Can nature change in him? Nothing’s impossible.

The last chord fades.The night is cold and fine.
His master’s voice rasps through the grooves’ bare groves.
Obediently, in silence like the grave’s
He sleeps there on the still-warm gramophone

Only to dream he is at the première of a Handel
Opera long thought lost–Il Cane Minore.
Its allegorical subject is his story!
A little dog revolving round a spindle

Gives rise to harmonies beyond belief,
A cast of stars . . . . Is there in Victor’s heart
No honey for the vanquished? Art is art.
The life it asks of us is a dog’s life.

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