The poet and critic John Greening sums up the career of James Merrill, who died twenty years ago tomorrow, in a 2010 essay, “Ouija”:
James Merrill made a point of breaking all the rules, of remaining recklessly formal when all about him were casting off their chains, of being incorrigibly discursive and elitist, shunning the rhythms of speech for something more refinedly musical, and unswerving in his determination to squeeze every last pun out of a line.—John Greening, “Ouija,” The Dark Horse, Summer 2010
He was a rebel in his adherence to rules in a rule-breaking era. He wrote dazzling, perfect poems and employed almost every verse form available to him, as an actor might use accents. Greening quotes George Bradley: “Reading James Merrill is enough to make the rest of us suspect we’re not smart enough to write poetry.” Even at his smartest, he is engaging and not impenetrable. His pleasure in the sounds of words and the poetic effects he creates and his many puns are always evident. He compliments his readers in assuming that we must know what he is writing about at least as well as he.
He is not the poet of nature as much as a poet who will describe a beautiful painting of a natural scene. (In “A Renewal,” a park that he and his beloved are sitting in is rendered as, “A clear vase of dry leaves vibrating on and on.”) American poetry loves its confessional writers, its Beats and its bards like Whitman and Sandburg and Ginsburg, but Merrill made a lifelong project out of reminding us that the life of the mind takes one down a road no less winding that any western blue highway. And he found a way to be a bard, nonetheless.
As alluded to in the title of Greening’s essay, “Ouija,” Merrill “chose as the subject of his major work one of the literary world’s unremarked taboos: the occult.” If there is one thing the average reader knows or thinks he or she knows about Merrill’s work, it is something along the lines of, “He wrote with a Ouija board, didn’t he?”
He did. The Poetry Foundation calls “The Changing Light at Sandover” his “Ouija-inspired epic poem.” His “Collected Poems” presents over 300 poems in over 850 pages, with the Sandover poem absent. It alone is 560 pages long and was published in three volumes across several years; the first volume won him a Pulitzer Prize, the second won the National Book Award, and the one-volume complete edition won the National Book Critics Circle Award. It was highly regarded when it was new and has not slid back in critical esteem in the thirty-plus years since the full book was published.
He and his life-long partner, David Jackson, indeed spent more than three decades communing with, well, something, via a self-drawn Ouija board; the two used a teacup as their planchette, and Merrill kept his left hand on it, which freed his right hand for transcription purposes. Letter by letter the messages were spelled out, like texts from beyond composed on a phone number pad (press 3 three times for E), over many years.
Dozens of figures, legendary artists and writers, friends both famous and unknown, appear in the poem; Sandover sometimes reads like a seance as cocktail party. The voices of the spirits are rendered in capital letters, for clarity. The two humans, “JM” and “DJ,” are guided by a spirit, Ephraim, a First Century Greek Jew. As Dante was guided through Hell and Purgatory by Virgil (and then sent on his way alone to Heaven), Merrill is aided by Ephraim. Whether or not he wanted to claim a place for himself next to Dante and Milton at the outset of composition, Merrill found himself in esteemed literary company in pursuing his Sandover project, because, like Dante, he uses Ephraim to describe many other world(s). Nothing less than a universal message about the universe and our role in it is what is developed in Sandover.
The raw materials, those transcriptions, are housed at Washington University in St. Louis, MO, and are partly digitized. Over 1600 pages fill 22 folders, and those that have been scanned can be viewed online here: The James Merrill Digital Archive. The photo at top is of one of the books.
Their friends were concerned that the project was a strange obsession and sometimes wondered whether it was Merrill or Jackson (or someone else) who was the driving force behind it; Jackson himself seemed to come to a grudging acceptance that even though his name ought to have been next to or at least near Merrill’s on the title page, his continuous presence in the pages (as “DJ”) would have to be enough. Merrill wrote that he entertained the thought of publishing it as “by DJ, as told to JM.” He did not.
Merrill maintained at least an agnostic pose about his beliefs regarding the reality of the spirit world he was visiting with his partner. He includes in the poem a visit to his therapist, who proclaims the project a folie à deux, a “mutual madness” between the two partners. Thus skepticism about the poem is injected into the poem. In interviews, he discussed the technical aspects of creating the poem, of editing and shaping the transcripts, of coming to understand the messages contained in the “messages.” The Ouija board is spoken of like a tool, a favored writing implement: “The commercial boards come with a funny see-through planchette on legs. I find them too cramped. Besides, it’s so easy to make your own—just write out the alphabet, and the numbers, and your yes and no (punctuation marks too, if you’re going all out) on a big sheet of cardboard. Or use brown paper—it travels better. On our Grand Tour, whenever we felt lonely in the hotel room, David and I could just unfold our instant company. He puts his right hand lightly on the cup, I put my left, leaving the right free to transcribe, and away we go. We get, oh, five hundred to six hundred words an hour.” (Paris Review, The Art of Poetry 31, Summer 1982.)
What is your fuel, would you say? With all the other disciplines available to a poet, why this one?
Well, don’t you think there comes a time when everyone, not just a poet, wants to get beyond the Self? To reach, if you like, the “god” within you? The board, in however clumsy or absurd a way, allows for precisely that. Or if it’s still yourself that you’re drawing upon, then that self is much stranger and freer and more farseeing than the one you thought you knew. Of course there are disciplines with grander pedigrees and similar goals. The board happens to be ours. I’ve stopped, by the way, recommending it to inquisitive friends.—Paris Review
For a skeptic like me, any question about authorship—Merrill, Jackson, or Ephraim?—is answered right there. It was Merrill, and having his preferred writing tool—a Ouija board— and his preferred writing environment—sitting at a table with his love beside him—took him to “wherever poetry comes from.”
As with the remainder of Merrill’s poetry, the raw materials of life, in this case, the spirit world transcriptions, simply presented him with the technical challenge of finding the proper rhyme scheme (if needed), rhythm, repetition, line breaks. He uses as many different forms as he can; a poet with as large a theme as, well, everything, ought to utilize every form and method of presentation.
The first appearance of his Ouija board poems was “Voices from the Other World,” which appeared in his 1959 book, “The Country of a Thousand Years of Peace.” It is almost two decades before the longer Sandover poems were published, and it sticks out from the remainder of the volume. But not by much.
Voices from the Other World
Presently at our touch the teacup stirred,
Then circled lazily about
From A to Z. The first voice heard
(If they are voices, these mute spellers-out)
Was that of an engineer
Originally from Cologne.
Dead in his 22nd year
Of cholera in Cairo, he had KNOWN
NO HAPPINESS. He once met Goethe, though.
Goethe had told him: PERSEVERE.
Our blind hound whined. With that, a horde
Of voices gathered above the Ouija board,
Some childish and, you might say, blurred
By sleep; one little boy
Named Will, reluctant possibly in a ruff
Like a large-lidded page out of El Greco, pulled
Back the arras for that next voice,
Cold and portentous: ALL IS LOST.
FLEE THIS HOUSE. OTTO VON THURN UND TAXIS.
OBEY. YOU HAVE NO CHOICE.
Frightened, we stopped; but tossed
Till sunrise striped the rumpled sheets with gold.
Each night since then, the moon waxes,
Small insects flit round a cold torch
We light, that sends them pattering to the porch …
But no real Sign. New voices come,
Dictate addresses, begging us to write;
Some warn of lives misspent, and all of doom
In ways that so exhilarate
We are sleeping sound of late.
Last night the teacup shattered in a rage.
Indeed, we have grown nonchalant
Towards the other world. In the gloom here,
our elbows on the cleared
Table, we talk and smoke, pleased to be stirred
Rather by buzzings in the jasmine, by the drone
Of our own voices and poor blind Rover’s wheeze,
Than by those clamoring overhead,
Obsessed or piteous, for a commitment
We still have wit to postpone
Because, once looked at lit
By the cold reflections of the dead
Risen extinct but irresistible,
Our lives have never seemed more full, more real,
Nor the full moon more quick to chill.
Their lives never seemed more full, more real. When something makes life seem real, with the emphasis on seem, a universe can open up and a spirit world of a poet’s own imagining can parade before him and his readers and offer an explanation for the whys of everything. (Hint: Love is quite important.) Twenty years ago tomorrow, James Merrill died and may have joined that parade.
Here is a recording of Merrill reading the above poem.
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