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Merrill: On Puns (1972)


James Merrill

A pity about that lowest former of humor. It is suffered, by and large, with groans of aversion, as though one had done an unseemly thing in adult society, like slipping a hand up the hostess’s dress. Indeed, the punster has touched, and knows it if only for being so promptly shamed, upon a secret, fecund place in language herself. The pun’s objet trouvé aspect cheapens it further – why? A Freudian slip is taken seriously: it betrays its maker’s hidden wish. The pun (or the rhyme, for that matter) "merely" betrays the hidden wish of words.

It betrays also a historical dilemma. If World War I snapped, as we hear tell, the threads of civilization except where it continued briefly to baste the memories of men like Valéry and Joyce, the next generation’s problem was to create works whose resonance lasted more than a season. A culture without Greek or Latin or Anglo-Saxon goes off the gold standard. How to draw upon the treasure? At once representing and parodying our vital wealth, the lightweight crackle of wordplay would retain no little transactional power in the right hands. But was it – had the gold itself been – moral? Didn’t all that smack of ill-gotten gains? Even today, how many poets choose the holy poverty of some secondhand diction, pure dull content in translation from a never-to-be-known original. "There is no wing like meaning," said Stevens. Two are needed to get off the ground.

from James Merrill, "Object Lessons" (a review of two books by Franis Ponge in the New York Review of Books in 1972). rep. in J. D. McClatchy, Recitative: Prose by James Merrill (North Point: San Francisco, 1986), 111-112.


Mulu Konuk Blasing:
On Merrill’s Remarks on Puns (1998)

[In Merrill’s discussion] a pun is a transgression – specifically, a sexual transgression – of established rules; it exceeds proper bounds of naming, meaning, property and propriety; it accesses a "feminine" source, evading the father’s law; and in its "objet trouvé aspect," it seemingly lies outside the author’s control. … Puns threaten all rules that would stabilize the signifier and upsets the one-to-one correspondence of word and thing and the correspondence theory of "truth." The synchronicity of puns subverts not only reference and rhetoric (as figuration and persuasion) but all modes of thought that proceed diachronically, such as causality, induction and deduction. …

Puns escape the idealizing economy of referential and representational substitution, since their multiple meanings are coeval, residing in the letters of the word. Hence, as Merrill defends them, puns are immoral (there can be no question of "justice" or "equity"), cheap (their "wealth" has no measurable value and posits no standrd for such evaluation), transgressive (of the naming father and the hierarchical structures of substitution, whether of name for thing or vehicle for tenor), and "unseemly" (they offer forbidden sxual pleasure and economize on psychic expenditure … by skirting the economy of sublimation)."

From Mutlu Konuk Blasing, "James Merrill: ‘Sour Windfalls on the Orchard Back of Us’" in Politics and Form in Postmodern Poetry: O’Hara, Bishop, Ashbery and Merrill. (Cambridge: Cambridge U P, 1995), 175-176, 181.


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