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Fall 2002
The Scholar & the Poet
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Years after the accident, Yenser would have another life-transforming experience when he enrolled in a workshop at the University of Wisconsin led by Merrill. After their first meeting, Yenser and Merrill began to correspond. Soon they were swapping poems, a routine that continued for the next 27 years until Merrill's death in 1995 at the age of 68.

"Almost everything I wrote went before him first, especially poetry and a lot of my prose, too," Yenser says. "Even when I wasn't going to be showing him, say, a draft of an essay, James was always present in my mind. He was my ideal reader. He still is. I don't even have to think, 'What would James say?' It's ingrained by now."

Merrill reciprocated, passing most of his poems and much of his other work by Yenser. "Merrill felt Stephen knew Merrill's own work better than Merrill did," McClatchy says. "He was so closely attuned to the ins and outs of Merrill's imagination. Merrill sensed it from the beginning. Stephen was James Merrill's ideal reader."

It helped that Yenser was something of a recurring character in Merrill's work. (En route to Yenser's second marriage, Merrill left his wedding gift on the seat of a cab along with the only copy of a newly begun novel. Merrill used the mishap as fodder for "The Will," the eighth of nine poems in his 1976 collection Divine Comedies, which received the Pulitzer Prize. When that marriage dissolved 17 years later, Merrill expressed his disappointment in "Pledge," an elegy that appeared in his posthumously published collection A Scattering of Salts, which he dedicated to Yenser.)

And as Yenser became a recurring element of Merrill's work, so, too, Merrill became an element of Yenser's. Over the years, their friendship transformed to the point that Yenser became a guardian of Merrill's legacy. His first book about Merrill, The Consuming Myth: The Work of James Merrill, published in 1987, is considered the definitive look at the poet's work.

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