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“My Dearest James”: Agha Shahid Ali and James Merrill

Manan Kapoor—

Sometime in the 1990s, Agha Shahid Ali wrote a poem about the Bosnian War and sent it to James Merrill, who responded: “There is nothing that you can do about Bosnia, but the least you can do is write a good poem.” Merrill’s presence during the late 1980s and early 1990s not only transformed Shahid poetics but was one of the strongest friendships in Shahid’s life.

In December 1986, Shahid received the Ingram Merrill for The Half-Inch Himalayas. In a few months, he heard that Merrill was coming to Tucson for a reading at the University of Arizona Poetry Center. Shahid called the director, Lois Shelton, and told her that he wanted to be a part of each event where Merrill was invited, barring the visit to Desert Museum, where Shelton took everyone—Shahid hated museums. By this time, he had gained a reputation in the city as a wonderful cook. In his own words his “cuisine had become quite a legend in Tucson among all kinds of people and I was known for throwing the most extravagant dinners, far more extravagant than anyone”.1 A story that is often recounted with reference to Shahid’s cooking is that once he misjudged the number of guests who were coming over for dinner and added extra chili powder in the main course so people wouldn’t ask for seconds.

When Shelton asked him to prepare dinner at her place, Shahid cooked a Kashmiri–Brahmin meal, which received a round of applause from everyone. At dinner, Shahid asked Merrill, who had come to Tucson with Peter Hooten, if he had been on the panel for the Ingram Merrill Fellowship. Although Merrill didn’t reveal it to Shahid at the time, he had an active part in the selection committee and knew Shahid’s work. At the party, they talked about the McCarran–Walter Act on citizenship for immigrants of Asian descent, and the poet Yannis Ritsos, who, like Merrill, had written an epic called ‘Epitaphios’ and had been an influential figure for Shahid. Merrill congratulated Shahid for The Half-Inch Himalayas and said: “When you come to New York you must get in touch and come to the City and visit us.” In an unpublished essay, Shahid recalled the events of the evening and wrote that “‘it was a very enchanting evening. There was a touch about it that placed it above the regular. It seemed there was a lot of elegance to the air because of his presence.”2

Merrill’s formalism immensely influenced Shahid; both of them would spend hours breaking down a single stanza of a poem. In one of his interviews, Shahid said, “Merrill had vetoed certain rhymes: ‘seem’ and ‘scene’ were not acceptable, but ‘clean’ and ‘scene’ were a good pair. And then he said, ‘Do you have a rhyming dictionary? No? I’ll send you one.’ And I said, ‘Send me the rhyming dictionary.’ I revised the poem according to his strictures and he called me to congratulate me about the rhymes I had.”3 The rhyming dictionary would stay with him forever, and Shahid would make sure that each of his students at Hamilton, at UMass and later at New York University had their rhyming dictionaries with them, because he had come to believe, thanks to Merrill, that it was essential for a poet to hold his language in his hands, to have their own vocabulary which was palpable. In a letter to Merrill dated 30 September 1990, Shahid wrote to Merrill, declaring how his presence had transformed Shahid’s outlook:

I simply must tell you now when I write I am constantly aware of you. It isn’t that I am imitating you (who could?) but that I am trying to learn from you. And strangely enough, my interest in being recognizably formal is proving to be liberating (now I can see many vers-librettos going crazy over this remark). I think free verse in the past two decades has become an exercise in laziness; I still love free verse but I don’t see its current practitioners challenging themselves.4

Shahid once said about Merrill: “I value him immensely as a presence in my work, and I would say he’s in some ways the formal spirit guiding me through The Country without a Post Office”. 5 In turn, Merrill had told him that Shahid’s friendship was important to him and Peter as Shahid was someone who had no sense of Merrill’s past with David Jackson, Merrill’s former lover, and so they could create a friendship which was unencumbered. In all his collections published after he became friends with Merrill, Shahid’s poems are alive with Merrill’s influence as well as his words. “Feel the patient’s heart—pounding—oh please! This once,” reads one of the epigraphs of a ghazal from Rooms Are Never Finished. And in his poem “I Dream I Am at the Ghat of the Only World”, Shahid makes a direct reference to Merrill’s poem “The Changing Light at Sandover”, evoking Merrill himself in the first stanza: “Which mirror opened to JM’s descent to the skeletoned dark”. He ends the poem with a line borrowed from Merrill’s “For Proust”, beckoning Merrill to console him: “HUSH, SHAHID, THIS IS ME, JAMES, THE LOVED ONE ALWAYS LEAVES.”6

By that time, Shahid had started teaching poetry, and so, in class, he would urge his students to read Merrill’s poem “Charles on Fire”. Often, while discussing other matters with Merrill, Shahid would casually slip in a line or a few words from Merrill’s poetry, and upon realizing that they were his words, Merrill would gently smile—Shahid’s sense of humor was another reason why Merrill liked him. Merrill and Shahid had once gone to a fancy butcher’s shop to buy meat. Shahid insisted that the butcher cut the meat with the bones in. But the butcher kept reminding Shahid that he had to be careful with this and that a child could choke on a bone while eating. To this, Shahid responded saying that he didn’t care “if all the children at the party choked on a bone and died”, just to shut him up.Merrill later told him that he often remembered that moment and laughed, saying that it was a pure example of style.

On 9 December 1994, Shahid met Merrill in New York, and they spent the day together. First, they had lunch at Merrill’s place, where both of them talked about a canzone that Shahid had written (Merrill said that he wished it was consistently pentameter or consistently decasyllabic, and asked Shahid to work on it some more). Later, both went to the Guggenheim Museum, where W.S. Merwin was reading. Merwin and Merrill asked Shahid to come with them to a party where Galway Kinnell and other poets were present. At the party, Shahid watched from a distance as Merrill waved him goodbye, took the elevator and left. To Shahid, he looked tired. That was when Shahid realized that Merrill’s health was failing. Shahid went downstairs looking for Merrill, and said goodbye to Merwin and his wife Paula, but Merrill was no longer there. Shahid didn’t know it then, but that would be the last time he would see Merrill. On 6 February 1995, Merrill died from complications of AIDS in Tucson. Shahid continued to teach his poems, and although Merrill was no more, he remained with Shahid as a formal spirit until his own death in 2001.

  1. Ali, Agha Shahid, “Shahid on Merrill”, Box 9, Section 1, Special Collections at Hamilton College, Burke Library, Hamilton College, Clinton, New York. 
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ali, Agha Shahid, “Shahid on Merrill”.
  4. Ali, Agha Shahid, “Letter to James Merrill”, 30 September 1990, Special Collections at Hamilton College, Burke Library, Hamilton College, Clinton, New York.
  5. Benvenuto, Christian, ‘Interview with Agha Shahid Ali’, Massachusetts Review, vol. 43, no. 2, Summer 2002, p. 262.
  6. Ali, Agha Shahid. The Veiled Suite: The Collected Poems. United States: W. W. Norton, 2009.
  7. Ali, Agha Shahid, “Shahid on Merrill”.

Manan Kapoor is the author of The Lamentations of a Sombre Sky, which was a finalist for the 2017 Sahitya Akademi’s Yuva Award. He lives in Cambridge, MA.

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