Resident Poet at the Merrill House will Talk About House Poems

“One of the neat things about this apartment at 107 Water Street as you go into different rooms — and I find myself writing in a different room each day — you get different ideas of how a poet would begin writing a poem,” said Walt Hunter, the poet in residence at James Merrill House for the month of September. 

The rooms in the house represent visions of how a poet might find inspiration, said Hunter.

“In his study, there are bookshelves full of his peers and older poets or precursors, or influences and you get the sense that poems have something to do with the other poems that came before them, they emerge from that deep history,” he said. “But if you go up to where I’m currently sitting on the roof, you’re looking out over the Sound and you get the sense that poems come from the real world in some way. They get prompted by what you see out there.”

Hunter, 38, who is a professor at Clemson University,  is working on a new book about 20th and 21st century house poems. He will give a virtual talk about the house in poetry and in Merrill’s poetry in particular on Saturday at 5 p.m.

He said the connection between the poet and the house is an old one going as far back as Chaucer or further. The houses in the older poems were often grander than those poets write about today but the metaphor of the house continues in the present in a variety of poetic forms. 

“What remains the same is the sense that there’s a connection between the dreaming up of a poem and the inhabiting of a home. And that connection gets teased out in the 20th century by poets like Gwendolyn Brooks in her kitchenette poems about Chicago in the 1940s or Adrienne Rich in her poems about raising a family and feeling some of the pressures of that work,” he said. “And then of course James Merrill, whose house I’m living in, who writes about houses in a way that makes them sort of come alive as spaces of almost cosmic imagination.”

Merrill wrote “The Changing Light at Sandover,”  a 560-page epic poem, at his house in Stonington, Hunter said. The poem was published in three volumes from 1976 to 1980. 

“One of most enchanting parts of Merrill’s vast poetic career was his interest in writing about his life and transforming it into a very beautiful style and he did that often by writing about the houses where he was living. You get poems by him that are simply ravishing — something like ‘The Broken Home’ — it’s about his parents’ divorce and how it takes place in the house. It’s a meditation on how you might put things back together after they’ve been broken,” Hunter said. 

Hunter said Merrill thought about his poetic stanzas as the same process as walking through the rooms of his house.

“So I’m looking at a kind of fun exploration or ‘walkthrough’ of his different houses in his poems and pointing out some of the delightful moments in them — things that fall on the ear in a charming way or objects that one might recognize,” Hunter said. 

Despite  COVID-19 and social distancing, Hunter said friendship was the main thing he will take from his residency at Merrill House. 

“I’ve been welcomed into this milieu of writers, academics, and people who live here. The conversations with those people have been inseparable from my writing. I expected solitude, I expected time to write, I didn’t expect to have such a generous and generative relationship to the community,” he said. 

At the end of his residency Hunter will travel to Colorado to see his wife, Lindsay Turner, who teaches at University of Denver. He’ll teach remotely at Clemson this fall. 

Adrienne Rich is among his favorite poets and he recommended reading Nikki Wallschlaeger and Jennifer S. Cheng as well as Jorie Graham’s new book, “Runaway.” For readers new to poetry, Hunter recommended “To Autumn” by John Keats, “One Art” by Elizabeth Bishop, and “George Floyd” by Terrance Hayes. Also on his list are new books — “Surge” by Jay Bernard and “The Next Loves” by Stéphane Bouquet, who are from outside the U.S. 

“There are two ways that I try to get people to feel that poetry isn’t above their level or their pay grade — through really vibrant imagery or patterns of sound,” he said. “One of the things I feel most passionately about is bringing poets to a wider audience of readers — serving as a kind of intermediary between the poet and the audience. I think that’s one good role that the academic can play.” 

He said he hoped the audience on Saturday will consider housing in a broader, global context.

“As I talk about Merrill, I would love it if people would think about all the different ways in which housing today is at the center of our minds in terms of pressures that are exerting on families — from eviction to debt to foreclosure to immigration — one thinks about the house in a very different way than Merrill did,” he said. 

Hunter said he had been writing many poems while at the Merrill House. This poem, previously unpublished, is set in Stonington…

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