The Scholar & the Poet
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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.
photography by Jonah Light & Tom Victor
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.
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."
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."
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