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UCLA Magazine Fall 2002
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Fall 2002
The Scholar & the Poet
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STEPHEN YENSER WAS A 25-YEAR-OLD GRADUATE STUDENT WHEN HE MET THE POET JAMES MERRILL. MORE THAN THREE DECADES LATER, THE BOND THEY FORGED CONTINUES TO BE A FOCUS OF HIS LIFE.

By Meg Sullivan
photography by Jonah Light & Tom Victor

THEIR FRIENDSHIP BEGAN 35 YEARS AGO WITH "A MISERABLE LITTLE POEM" THAT A RETICENT GRADUATE STUDENT NAMED STEPHEN YENSER SHARED WITH A RISING LITERARY STAR, JAMES MERRILL.

"What I remember is that James took my poem utterly seriously. There wasn't a touch of condescension in his manner," Yenser recalls. "He assumed that, for better or for worse, I had slaved over the poem. Which indeed I had."

Even when Merrill — a recipient of a National Book Award who would go on to win the Pulitzer Prize and comparisons to Robert Frost for his lyrical approach to traditional poetic forms — zeroed in on a particular phrase and declared, "Now that just won't do!" Yenser didn't flinch, so convinced was he of the older man's sincerity. "I was terribly gratified. James was treating me as an equal and thinking about the line as though he himself had written it."

That first meeting in 1967, while Yenser was a 25-year-old graduate student at the University of Wisconsin, changed his life: "Everything I did after James and I became friends was different because of James."

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