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UCLA Magazine Fall 2002
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Fall 2002
The Scholar & the Poet
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YENSER AND MERRILL GREW UP in very different worlds. James Ingram Merrill was born in 1926 in New York City and grew up wealthy and privileged in Manhattan and Southampton, the son of Charles Merrill, co-founder of the Merrill Lynch brokerage firm, and Helen Ingram Merrill, who published a small newspaper. Yenser was born in 1941 in Wichita, Kansas, the elder son of an aircraft-industry purchasing agent and a nurse who liked to write and occasionally published her poems in such magazines as Ladies' Home Journal. By the age of 8, Merrill already was writing poems, and while in prep school at age 16 his father privately published a book of his work. By the time Yenser was a teenager, he had been arrested several times and was thrown out of school for fighting.

"I was a punk," he admits.

A car accident in his sophomore summer changed that.

"My best friend was home on leave from the Navy, and he and I and three other guys got drunk at a nightclub, went home to get a gun with some crazy idea of confronting the bouncer, and on the way had a wreck that killed two of the other passengers," he says. The friend who had been at the wheel was charged with negligent homicide and went to jail. Yenser was badly hurt in the crash and spent months in traction and a body cast.

"The auto accident and its immediate aftermath constituted the most intense and self-contained period in my life to that point," he recalls. "Afterward, I started to take everything more seriously — school, reading, writing."

Yenser explores the experience in his poem "Intensive Care," which appears in The Fire in All Things:

…under snowpacked nurses'
Suspicious noses, in spite
Of Demerol, in spite of tranquillizers,
Pulleys and wires, they made him almost nightly
(God love their never-say-die attitude)
See how it could be even worse,
The accident that he kept coming through.

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