Ph.D., English Language and Literature, Yale University
B.A., English Major, summa cum laude, Yale University
I study the history of poetry and its place in culture. I am interested in how poetry has been defined in principle and in practice. I am interested in how the poet’s life has been imagined and lived. I’m concerned with literary biography and literary theory (enemies, in many people’s minds). I am an archival scholar and a close reader. I edit texts. I read letters and diaries. I look at the poem on the page (or screen) and I listen to it in the ear (which involves acoustics, but also what Robert Frost called “the imagining ear”). My subject is poetics, of all kinds. I agree with Emily Dickinson: “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.”
My James Merrill: Life and Art, a critical biography, was published by Knopf in 2015. The book was widely reviewed and praised, and won the Lamda literary award for gay biography. My work on it was supported by full-year fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation (2003-04) and the Leon Levy Center for Biography at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York (2012-13), and by residential fellowships from the James Merrill House (2008) and the Bogliasco Foundation (2009). For reviews and more about the biography, click on the book’s website: http://www.jamesmerrillweb.com/
While writing James Merrill, I edited two volumes for the Library of America—The Collected Poems of May Swenson (2013), the first collected edition of Swenson’s work, and Hart Crane: Complete Poetry and Selected Letters (2006). My work on Crane began with Hart Crane and Allen Tate: Janus-Faced Modernism, published by Princeton University Press in 1993. That book was reviewed in the TLS, made the focus of a review-essay in Modernism/modernity, and named a “Breakthrough Break in Modernism” by Lingua Franca. In a sequel to it, I introduced, chose, and edited a collection of Crane’s letters called O My Land, My Friends: The Selected Letters of Hart Crane (Four Walls Eight Windows, 1997).
A Whole World: Letters from James Merrill, a collection of Merrill’s correspondence, which I edited and annotated with Stephen Yenser, was published by Knopf in 2021 and reviewed in the Wall Street Journal; New Criterion; New York Times Book Review; Times Literary Supplement; Poetry Foundation; and New York Review of Books.
I often write about poetry for the New York Times Book Review and other magazines with broad readerships. Since 2004, I’ve been the poetry editor of The American Scholar, where I have published short essays introducing poetry by Major Jackson, Srikanth Reddy, A. E. Stallings, Adam Fitzgerald, Louise Glück, Nausheen Eusuf, Valerie Martinez, Robin Robertson, Angie Estes, Kevin Young, Christian Wiman, John Koethe, Elizabeth Spires, John Ashbery, Eavan Boland, Elizabeth Alexander, Maureen N. McLane, Gary Snyder, Rosanna Warren, Henri Cole, Kay Ryan, Carl Phillips, Heather McHugh, Rowan Ricardo Phillips, Andrew Motion, Frank Bidart, Michael Longley, Thylias Moss, Mary Jo Salter, Paul Muldoon, Andrew Motion, Charles Wright, Charles Simic, and many other poets (https://theamericanscholar.org/).
I joined the Yale English Department faculty in 1987. I served three terms as Department Chair, 2005-08, 2014-17, and 2017-19.
Essays on modern and contemporary poets
Shadows Walking: With Wallace Stevens in New Haven in Los Angeles Review of Books (July 3, 2021)
Letters: Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘Art Form or Something’ in New York Review of Books Daily (February 25, 2020)
The Art of Losing [on The Dolphin Letters: Elizabeth Hardwick, Robert Lowell, and Their Circle] in New York Review of Books (2019)
Still to Love: For J. D. McClatchy in The Yale Review (2019)
Lyric, the Virtual Poem, and Wallace Stevens in The Wallace Stevens Journal 43 (2019)
Inside and Underneath Words [on Susan Howe] in New York Review of Books (2017)
Voice and Erasure in Srikanth Reddy’s Voyager in The Fate of Difficulty in the Poetry of Our Time (2017)
Stevens and Modernism in Wallace Stevens in Context (2017)
Plath’s Lives, Representations (2001)
Useless Concentration: Life and Work in Elizabeth Bishop’s Letters and Poems in American Literary History (1996)
Works in Progress
I am writing a critical biography of Elizabeth Bishop for FSG.
My undergraduate courses at Yale include English 127, a seminar on Lyric Theory, a seminar on The Life of the Author, and the lecture course Poetry Since 1950, which morphs every year. My lectures in the course Modern Poetry were recorded and transcribed in 2007 as a pilot course in Yale’s Open Access Video Project and reviewed in the New York Times (2008) and Chronicle of Higher Education (2012).
This year Meghan O’Rourke and I will teach a graduate-level workshop on Public Criticism. Recent graduate courses have included seminars on Elizabeth Bishop and on lyric theory. I’ve been the dissertation director and/or a committee member for more than thirty PhD students, many of whom have turned their dissertations into important books, and all of whom have built impressive careers in the academy or outside it. In 2011, I won Yale’s Graduate Student Mentor Award in the Humanities.
I’ve also led numerous seminars on poetry for public school teachers in the Yale New Haven Teachers Institute and the Yale New Haven Teachers Institute National Initiative, and taught summer seminars for the Bread Loaf School of English in Santa Fe, which awarded me the Robert Frost Chair for teaching excellence.