AT THE END of James Merrill’s poem “A Tenancy,” Merrill hears a knock at the door of his new house. Three friends have stopped by, unannounced, for an evening visit. Their arrival carries an uncertain air: it’s maybe not the first time they’ve dropped in, but the evenings together are not a regular ritual, either. As they file past him, Merrill notices that “one has brought violets in a pot; / The second, wine; the best, / His open, empty hand.”
“A Tenancy” closes Merrill’s 1962 volume Water Street. At the risk of sounding the same pop-psychological note that he excoriates elsewhere (see “Family Week at Oracle Ranch”), the poem, and the book as a whole, are about self-discovery. Merrill has decided to settle down with his partner and buy a house in a small Connecticut village. The purchase occasions a reflection on previous inabilities to be at home—Merrill’s childhood was bizarre, full of extreme wealth and conflict, and his early adulthood vagabond and unhappy. Now, fifteen years on, the final stanza of “A Tenancy” concludes, “If I am host at last, / It is of little more than my own past. / May others be at home in it.”
Despite their qualifier, the fluency of these lines claims a newfound easiness towards experience. The three friends’ arrival at Merrill’s door was the latest test, and proof, of this change. Not only does Merrill welcome them in, but he recognizes something in the third, giftless friend that he wishes to single out for affirmation. Flowers and wine are appropriate housewarming presents to be sure, but the third friend is “best,” Merrill suggests, because his hand is “open, empty.” He hasn’t brought anything but himself.
It’s worth lingering over the order of those two adjectives. An earlier version of Merrill might have seen the hand’s emptiness—the lack of a present in exchange for his hospitality—first, especially in comparison with the other visitors. But now, looking beyond economy, “open” is the initial perception that attaches to the friend’s hand. Literally, the word signifies his friend’s readiness to shake hands or embrace. But more generally, openness (receptivity to new possibilities, above all in oneself) is the value Merrill’s poem, and his life in its series of pit stops, have been moving towards.
The development had an artistic as well as a psychological dimension. As Langdon Hammer writes, “Merrill recognized that, to get beyond the self-enclosure of his early poems, he didn’t have to reject rhyme and meter; he could change how he used them” (emphasis mine). The openness with which “A Tenancy” ends is generative because it is self-accepting. It feels generous of Merrill to locate this saving value in his friend, helping us to see it for the gift it represented to Merrill at this point in his life.
In a passing moment at the door, Merrill captures a truth about the influence of friendship. Through the unaware examples of others, we recognize values we have been searching for in ourselves—edges or shades of the person we might become. “In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts,” Emerson famously wrote in “Self-Reliance.” “They come back to us with a certain alienated majesty.” Friendship allows for a less agonized, more actionable mode of this same encounter. I imagine Merrill imagining himself in the role of that third friend from his poem: the eager-to-please and still-young poet of means and impeccable manners, showing up empty-handed at another’s house. To do so would be to slough off some of the baggage of Merrill’s social background, trusting that his presence (and his present) sufficed. By showing up with nothing, a best friend offered Merrill a sight of his own better self.
The goal of Christianity, Wittgenstein declared, “is to become a different person.” (Thirty years after “A Tenancy,” when the decidedly secular Merrill wrote his memoir, he chose A Different Person as the title.) In snatches and glimpses, our friends model the transformations we wish to see enacted in our own lives. And though via Merrill’s poem I have chosen a mundane, domestic incident as the site for that change, there is an undeniably spiritual aspect to this effect of friendship when it takes root.
But not every open hand tenders what is welcome. There is a shadow side to friendship’s power to influence. In his essay “Friendship,” Emerson flinches from the same interpersonal immediacy that Merrill celebrates. “A new person is to me a great event and hinders me from sleep,” Emerson complains early on in the piece. Emerson’s mix of respect for and wariness of a kindred spirit reminds me of Thomas Wentworth Higginson’s letter to his wife after visiting Emily Dickinson. “Without touching her, she drew from me,” Higginson wrote. “I am glad not to live near her.” I wonder how Dickinson experienced the face-to-face encounter with the editor whose responsiveness to her poetry she credited with saving her life. Given her appreciation for distances (“The world looks staringly, and I find I need more vail”), the exhaustion was probably mutual.
Or perhaps exhaustion is too mild a term. Higginson’s “drew from me” echoes the idiom of medicine, invoking phlebotomy or transfusion. Theories of poetry have often considered influence as a kind of influenza or contagion. Jorie Graham, in her Paris Review interview, puts it this way: “I’d say poetry wants to be contagious, to be a contagion.... [Poems] want to go from body to body.” Graham’s vision for the art is ultimately a positive one, but her metaphor captures our susceptibility in the face of a poem’s dynamic information. Writers handling such potent materials—especially at the moment of creating something new—might well regard the proximity of another body with self-protective suspicion.
In this regard, a friend’s very openness might be what makes him most dangerous. Without a set of commitments of his own, an “empty” friend may be no more than a parasite, sucking life from his host. (In Connecticut and on his travels, Merrill suffered his share of bad houseguests and leech-like personalities.) Even worse, the “open, empty hand” of a friend may arrive helplessly carrying another’s influence. Sebastian Smee relates the anxiety experienced by Henri Matisse in 1906 whenever Gertrude and Leo Stein, his collectors and fellow artists, showed up at his Paris studio. The Stein siblings were in the midst of discovering Matisse’s younger colleague and burgeoning rival, Pablo Picasso. Matisse needed the Steins’ support yet couldn’t stomach too much of their art talk, seasoned as it was with Picasso’s strong temperament. The susceptibility flowed both ways, of course—Smee describes a moment in Gertrude’s apartment where Matisse was showing her a sculpture and Picasso walked in: “One imagines Picasso turning the sculpture over in his hands, both listening to and at the same time trying not to hear what Matisse was saying about it.”
“Pure?” Sylvia Plath asks ironically at the beginning of her poem “Fever 103°.” “What does it mean?” Artist friends like Matisse and Picasso and Gertrude Stein, wary as they were of each other’s influence, ultimately courted that influence, as long as it occurred on terms they could control. As Matisse said in a 1907 interview, “I believe that the personality of the artist develops and asserts itself through the struggles it has to go through when pitted against other personalities.” In the open-air attitudes of turn-of-the-century Montmartre, such exposure was inevitable. Furthermore, Matisse knew that his interactions with Picasso could strengthen his own artistic identity, in the same way that controlled exposure to a virus bolsters one’s immune system.
There remains an altogether different realm of experience in which the “open, empty hand” of another can assert its influence. During his short life, John Keats made a study of the intensities, and the boundaries, of fellow feeling. After stumbling upon a school of Scottish dancers in the Cumberland countryside in 1818, he wrote to his brother, “I was extremely gratified to think that, if I had pleasures they knew nothing of, they had also some into which I could not possibly enter.” Keats’s generosity here lies in respecting the limits geography and culture have established upon empathy. Country dancer and poet enjoy the world in their separate ways; it is a grace that not all lives are mutually susceptible.
Only the act of writing, for Keats, could challenge the boundaries material conditions imposed on influence. By December of 1819, Keats was already suffering symptoms of the tuberculosis that would end his life. His great odes behind him, he was working on a long comic poem subtitled “The Jealousies.” At some point, his hand strayed into the margin of the manuscript, and he began a poem in a very different tone:
_____ This living hand, now warm and capable
_____ Of earnest grasping, would, if it were cold
_____ And in the icy silence of the tomb,
_____ So haunt thy days and chill thy dreaming nights
_____ That thou would wish thine own heart dry of blood
_____ So in my veins red life might stream again,
_____ And thou be conscience-calm’d—see here it is—
_____ I hold it towards you.
Though Keats insists his hand is still “warm and capable,” in this fragment he addresses us posthumously as well. We feel the pastness of the hand’s life through the presence and pressure of the address. (Notice how “thy” and “thou” become the more intimate “you” in the final line.) Edward Hirsch describes the request enacted here as an “impossible blackmail.” And Keats does promise to haunt our days.
But the final gesture is also one of friendship and generative exchange: “I hold it towards you.” The second half of the last line remains blank, as if awaiting a response. Writing takes what is alive and unfixed—feelings, experiences, bodies—and brings them to a point of inertness in language, in the enormous gamble that someone else, perhaps inhabiting another time or identity, will find necessary life therein. Much as Prospero reveals his reliance on the audience in the coda to The Tempest, it is only in my reading and forming mental images of his words that Keats can have life again. But when I see his hand, he does.
Is this frantic transmission between two strangers, flitting in and out of time, a kind of friendship? Without a doubt, for those of us who need it. Most of the time, we may prefer the physical hand of a real friend, as in Merrill’s poem. But the range of possible influences extended by Keats’s literary hand, now “warm and capable,” then cold and haunting, applies to all the effects of friendship I have been tracking.
Emerson’s essay “Friendship” ends by recommending that we treat our friends like we treat our books: “I would have them where I can find them, but I seldom use them.” At first glance, the prescription feels like a dismissal of society in favor of self-reliance. But Emerson’s connection of his friends with his books pays homage to the impact of both forces upon his life. “I seldom use them” can be read as an admission that they are just as likely to use him, in the way of over-influence that Matisse recognized among his Paris circle. “I would have them where I can find them” acknowledges our essential need for friendships, but also reveals how slippery these constellations of affinity and occasions for self-examination can prove. To think that we’ve located our friends once and for all would be to make the same mistake about our selves.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.