I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
James Merrill, who has just turned 65, is one of America’s most distinguished poets. Critic Stephen Yenser has called Merrill’s epic poem The Changing Light at Sandover “a landmark in American literature.” Certainly it’s the only epic poem mostly dictated on a Ouija board to its two mediums, JM and DJ (Merrill and his co-adventurer David Jackson). In a career including—so far—two novels, two plays, a book of essays, and 13 books of poems, he has been awarded the Pulitzer Prize, the Bollingen Prize, the National Book Award (twice), and, most recently, was inaugural winner of the Rebekah Johnson Bobbitt National Prize for Poetry, awarded by the Library of Congress.
He has lived in interesting times. The house he lived in until he was five (“18 West 11th Street,” also the title of a poem on the subject) was blown up by the Weathermen in 1970. His poems of the ’60s, sometimes berated then for a lack of surface topicality, are alive and well today. Merrill’s work has never lost its uncanny capacity to surprise, change direction, or even (as in “Syrinx”) change all directions—
A poet who works fluently in traditional forms, Merrill has been called, by Harold Bloom, “the Mozart of American poetry,” and he has admirers, by now, across a wider political spectrum than most poets living at this fractured moment in the history of poetry. Traditional does not mean conservative, and Merrill has accomplished, at both the highest and the most easygoing moments of his art, “Things unattempted yet in Prose or Rhyme.”
James Merrill started using a Ouija board in 1953, promptly encountering an engineer “who’d met Goethe”; but the board lit up in the summer of 1955 when JM and DJ contacted a spirit called Ephraim, “A Greek Jew/Born AD 8 at XANTHOS” who was killed on Capri, “throttled/By the imperial guard,” for having been a lover of Caligula. Ensuing adventures in the other world led to “The Book of Ephraim” in 1976, now the first section of Sandover, where one meets Auden and Jane Austen as well as Plato, Alice B. Toklas, God Biology, the angel Michael, and the Architect of Ephesus, to name only a few. Merrill has said of his oracular method, “if it’s still yourself 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.” And ours: whether Merrill’s other world is beyond or within is left up to the reader, who may find the Ouija board, which consists of no more than 26 capital letters, zero, nine digits, and the words YES or NO, to be the perfect metaphor for language. In any case, the poem is a singular success: in A History of Modern Poetry, David Perkins calls Merrill “one of the most moving, imaginative, and ambitious of living poets,” and says of Sandover, (excepting works by Hart Crane, T. S. Eliot, and Ezra Pound) “no other long poem written by any American since Whitman can be ranked above Merrill’s.”
The subject was pursued cross-country for this written interview, by mail, fax machine, and telephone; but since Merrill’s manners in his conversational verse and versatile conversation are wonderfully alike, I had no trouble imagining we were sitting down to chat before a quietly uncoiling tape.
Thomas Bolt The traditional question: what are you working on at the moment?
James Merrill It’s hard to say. My computer is working on a memoir of the early 1950s, and I’m simply hanging onto its coattails. Prose was becoming increasingly laborious to write—I could spend a week simply working up my courage to start a three-page piece. The computer changed all that. I am Kundry to its Klingsor. I rise from sleep with a shriek to do its bidding.
TB Why the early 1950s?
JM It was a turning point. I went to Europe and stayed for two and a half years. Not a particularly happy time, but I must have needed to break with what I knew.
TB Was something of this period in your life evoked by the mood of Francis Tanning at the start of your novel, The Seraglio? What, precisely, were you breaking with, and how? Was it a time of experimentation, sort of an internal Wanderjahre? Were you writing at the time?
JM I wasn’t writing, no. Francis Tanning wasn’t writing either; that’s one reason we were both so unhappy. He seems to represent the person I might have become if I’d had no talent. Not that I was at all sure of having talent, back then … . The point, in any case, was to break with constraining ideas of how I should live. My parents’ ideas and my friends’, but also my own.
TB There’s more than one way to break: in the middle of Water Street, in the middle of the poem “To a Butterfly,” the poem’s tone, after a “sincere” beginning, is shattered by the word enough. The sentiment, the metaphors so far developed (and the reader’s yes, isn’t that so) are called abruptly to account and rejected.
Goodness, how tired one grows
Just looking through a prism:
I’ve tried, Lord knows,
To keep from seeing double,
Blushed for whenever I did,
Prayed like a boy my cheek be hid
By manly stubble.
The poem proceeds by encompassing and developing its own critical contradiction. This kind of deflationary reinvigoration, the midstream thought-correction so central to Water Street and nearly everything you’ve written since (1962), seems to have become, in your work, a consistent basis for investigation, a way to reconcile hope and fear, a Romantic’s reality and a realist’s disgust with the Romantic. When and how did you first develop your technique of abrupt dislocation of tone?
JM The technique probably came to me from writing dialogue. After my First Poems I wrote a novel and a couple of plays. They loosened me up some. Especially the plays. Writing for the stage, you didn’t feel obliged to carry an idea to its conclusion, to make the kind of “argument” you try for in the single unbroken flow of a lyric. If things got sticky you called in another voice to interrupt. In a poem the voice would usually be your own, but from another part of your self.
TB How important is this tactic (this way of thinking) to your work?
JM The danger is that the tack becomes a tic, an automatic escape route to the exclusion of all others. At worst it keeps me from facing my true subject or its implications. I try to save it for moments of genuine impatience with my “material”—if that word covers both form and content.
TB A related question: your poems are continually surprising, in part because of a propensity for self-correction, but that only accounts for part of their inventive unpredictability. How important are surprise, astonishment, an awkward brush with the unknown, to your art?
JM All that’s part of the silver lining. Life’s advantage over art is its genius for the unexpected. Just as new wrinkles in the tradition imply something unforeseeable in the life of a particular artist, so dislocations in a text or a painting can take on the look of shorthand for life itself.
TB Are you yourself in poems, a version of your real self, or the famous “I-character” of the old New Criticism? If your lyric “I” is James Merrill (apart from the JM of Sandover), how does the literary James Merrill differ from the one met outside of books?
JM We shot a film of Sandover last summer. I’ve just spent a couple of weeks in a lush Hollywood editing room, watching the special effects being added. It’s amazing what can be done. Our demonic “bats” now appear in black-and-white negative within a gilt mirror-frame—so simple and so weird; in close-up their teeth look black and the dark inside of the mouth reads as a kind of terrible snow-white saliva … But that’s not what you asked, is it?
I’m one of nine actors. I play myself; “JM” rather. When it’s over Helen Vendler interviews a me who isn’t at all like the character in the film.
TB How do you account for the difference?
JM Well … perhaps it’s that JM was at no loss for words. The script had been written and he’d memorized his lines. My lines, if you like. But the person being interviewed has no idea what he’s going to say next, so that his face and gestures and tone of voice are all noticeably more ingratiating, more placating—as if begging pardon for all the dumb things he’s going to end up saying in a “live” situation where he can’t collect himself and work up his answers in solitude.
TB Like these answers.
JM Exactly. Well, that’s just one instance among dozens, or thousands. It doesn’t surprise me, does it you?—that we should be different people in our work. Or should I say the same person at different stages of composure? I mean, after all, if art has any advantage over daily life it’s that it allows us to get things right for a change.
TB You have a poem, “Santo,” in Late Settings (1985); and a one-act play in verse, “The Image Maker,” in The Inner Room (1988), features a santero. How did you come to be interested in Santeria, a major religion in my neighborhood?
JM It wasn’t Santeria itself that interested me so much as the idea of repainting and renaming the statuette. This seemed so much like what the artist does-recycling his material, trying it another way if it no longer does the trick. That little poem [“Santo”] struck me, after writing it, as expressing in miniature the whole self-revising nature of the Sandover books, where no “truth” is allowed to rot under a single, final aspect. I mean, in Sandover God himself is given a new name [God B, or God Biology] and new attributes; you can’t get much more anti-fundamentalist than that.
TB A remark by Vladimir Nabokov ranking Bely’s Petersburg with Proust’s Lost Time and Joyce’s Ulysses resulted in an immediate English translation and a new readership, as it was probably calculated to do. Assuming poems are allowed, any more, to be great (no capital G, but also without quotation marks), what great poems of the twentieth century are we missing out on?
JM Auden’s “The Sea and the Mirror” and/or “For the Time Being.” These two long poems were the first Auden I read with full appreciation. Along with everything else, they’re wonderful showcases for forms and tones. “Artorius” by John Heath-Stubbs. Everything he does has distinction. This is an especially rich and nutty affair based on Arthurian legend. One section is a little Noh play in which a wandering scholar meets Guinevere’s ghost. John Hollander’s Visions from the Ramble and Aspects of Espionage—these are marvels of vision and wit. The former’s rich, nostalgic frescoes depict the shaping years of a New York poet. The latter shows him irrevocably committed to his codes and fellow-agents, working in secret for the mother-tongue. “In and Out” and “Academic Festival Overtures” by Daryl Hine. Both autobiographical, both dealing poignantly and hilariously with early sexual stirrings, both triumphant vindications of meter. I should probably mention “The Return” by Frederick Turner; Irving Feldman’s “All of Us Here”; Alfred Corn’s “Notes from a Child of Paradise”; Gjertrud Schnackenberg’s “The Lamplit Answer”; Richard Kenney’s “The Hours of the Day” and “Orrery”—where to stop? Shall I embarrass you by including “The Way Out of the Wood” by Thomas Bolt?
TB I’m beyond embarrassment, but off to the bookstore. What poem of yours deserves closer attention, or seems to have fallen through the cracks?
JM I can tell you one poem I wish would fall through the cracks. It’s called “Kite Poem,” and no Anthology for Young Readers would seem to be complete without it. So many anthologists do their work by culling from previous anthologies rather than the poet’s actual books. When I was a young firebrand of 40 I implied as much in a note to a professor somewhere, who’d asked for permission to use “Kite Poem” in his forthcoming textbook. It really touched a nerve. He wrote back a letter beginning, in effect, “Why you little shit … ” Elizabeth Bishop had the same problem with “The Fish.” It was made to seem at times like the only poem she’d ever written. Of course it’s a hundred times better than “Kite Poem.” One Christmas I received a book all about the zoology of fish. It was inscribed to me from Elizabeth Bishop.
TB Very nice. Was Elizabeth Bishop an influence as well as a friend and colleague?
JM Oh goodness yes. I should have added her to my list of instructors in the art of breaking. Her way of interrupting herself—? But much more. Her natural, completely unaffected intelligence. Her love of the trivial: birdcages, paper flowers. The human scale of her work, so refreshing next to the modernist “giants” like Pound, or her friend Robert Lowell. The lucid, intimate tone of voice. She set standards for me as no other contemporary did. I don’t always follow them but I never lose sight of them.
TB Who, Proust or Cavafy, is the slightly larger inspiration? Why?
JM Proust more than Cavafy. I love Cavafy. I’ve learned a lot from him as a poet: his desert-dry tone, his mirage-like technical effects—something one would never guess from his translators. But he hasn’t shaped my way of seeing to the degree that Proust has. For one thing, Cavafy is a miniaturist; for another, he writes without metaphor. I mean it! Virtually nowhere in his work will you find metaphor or simile. He’s John the Baptist eating locusts in the desert, far from any “Jordan” of metaphor. Whereas in Proust that water table is all but flush with the surface of the page.
TB Do you ever write entirely without metaphor? How important is metaphor to poetry; and what do you think of the flat, photorealist, ametaphoric verse that’s been popular the past decade or so?
JM A lot of metaphor must be in the beholder’s eye. My kind of mind is so used to “seeing double” that it finds unwelcome subtexts in an instruction manual. To put it too bluntly, I think metaphor is poetry; and if I open to a poem without any, I can’t help trying to see what’s there in a faintly metaphorical or symbolic light. It’s the way I’d look at a photograph, if it comes to that. How else could a picture be worth a thousand words? A psychiatrist friend calls the creative temperament Janusian—after Janus, whose nature is to look both ways. I thought everybody was like that but he said no, that for him, the implications of phrases like a “dark white” or a “burning cold”—which are mother’s milk to me—left him feeling, you know, seasick …
TB Speaking of metaphor—my candidate for the greatest American poet of the 19th century is Emily Dickinson—what do you think?
JM Hear, hear! I mean that. She brings off so much of it through puns, rhyme, cadence—things only the ear discovers.
TB Who is A. H. Clarendon, the authority you cite in the midst of “The Thousand and Second Night”?
JM A saintly human being and a superb hand at bridge.
JM You got it.
TB Do you feel any kinship with William Blake? Are you on the side of wild prophecy, or careful consideration, or do you moderate between the two?
JM I’m on the side of careful consideration. I’m suspicious of the wild, the grandiose, the larger-than-life. Taking up all that emotional space. I love the side of Blake that saw eternity in a grain of sand. What an inspired metaphor! So much better than “fear in a handful of red dust.” (Wait, though, do you hear, in the Eliot? “Dead rust…?”) Even in the prophetic books—not that I’ve read them—there’ll be ravishing details that show Blake’s early love of Pope. Of course Sandover simply swarms with “wild prophecy,” ideas, everything I’ve tried to avoid in my work, or think myself incapable of. It’s the unconscious—personal or collective—taking its revenge.
TB The word red is not in the original. But a poet’s mismemory is often revealing … Now, one of your biggest fans I know of is a sewer worker who has a band in which he plays eclectic guitar.
JM Hmm. Clean him up and bring him to tea?
TB He’s quite clean; he’d be delighted. But, transitionally speaking, one wonderful thing about good poetry is the surprising broadness of its appeal. Yet some people appear to want to communicate only in shorthand with a cozy group of folks with shared political or aesthetic assumptions. Is there a kind of discipline that reaches over the obvious problems or disaffection, miscommunication, plain disagreement? What’s good and bad about “the tendency toward progressive decentralization in contemporary poetry?” There used to be two or three camps, and now there are, seemingly, hundreds.
JM To me what unifies or centralizes all those different camps—and might conceivably discipline them, too, if they gave it a chance—would be the past. The past they derive from whether they know it or not, as well as the past they’ll have become in five or ten years. That’s all it takes nowadays. Am I wrong?
One gets the sense of tribe after tribe of poets who eat—read, rather, only their still-living kinsmen. Even the cannibal who devours his enemy has sounder instincts. I don’t mean that you have to have the Grand Tradition of World Poetry at your fingertips; just that there’s more to learn from an ancestor like Byron or Herbert than from your buddy in the Workshop who reads Neruda in English.
What’s good about this situation? It siphons off into harmless backwaters hundreds, perhaps thousands, of young people whom poetry will fulfill and civilize without their really amounting to much. The few of them who do will have had a great deal of provincialism to overcome, a diet of Wonder Bread and Coke. A new regime will make them stronger, more original, more resolute. Like a fat child (I was one) who knows better than ever to let that happen again.
TB Are you saying that awareness of past literature is enough to make what we write worth reading?
JM Oh god, no, is that what I—Strike it from the record! I just mean I wish people read more widely and wrote less narrowly.
TB I think everyone could agree with that—why miss out on anything? You’ve given us batwinged angels with glowing eyes, and transmutations to the peacock form; please describe your muse.
JM You’ve seen her described at some length in Sandover.
TB Right, wow, yes, all Nine Muses appear—
JM No, no, not a bit, that’s just vaudeville. The poem’s real muse is Maria—”Muse of my off-days,” I called her in real life. Mild, self-mocking, worldly; a slow gardener; dressed in black to match her humor; private, attentive, polylingual. Then we get a more unnerving muse in Nature, who turns out to be a version of Graves’s Triple Goddess; her other names are Psyche and Chaos. She can appear in any guise she fancies. Her characteristics—the benign ones—are boundless autocratic energy, lack of humor, and uncommon charm. In part to defuse or domesticate her, I pictured her to myself as the actress Ina Claire: bobbed blonde hair; big blue eyes, dressed in white with black ribbons, for Chekhovian houseparty.
TB Speaking of “The Book of a Thousand and One Evenings Spent/ With David Jackson at the Ouija Board/ In Touch with Ephraim Our Familiar Spirit” … In some incidental and some intrinsic ways, The Changing Light at Sandover is an apotheosis of homosexuality. Refreshing, certainly, compared to the traditional aposiopesis of homosexuality.
JM My, all these Greek words! Perhaps one or two of our readers are wondering what that second one means.
TB Aposiopesis means—but I blush to tell. It means leaving an expression of any thought suddenly and resoundingly incomplete, having become flustered, or tripped over the social obstacle of unmentionability. A last-minute self-repression, ending in embarrassed silence.
JM Very nice.
TB In a well-known passage of the “Mirabell” section, a bat still named (numbered?) 741 proclaims, as he is (“FILLD/WITH IS IT MANNERS?”) changing into the peacock Mirabell:
LOVE OF ONE MAN FOR ANOTHER OR LOVE BETWEEN
IS A NEW DEVELOPMENT OF THE PAST 4000 YEARS
ENCOURAGING SUCH MIND VALUES AS PRODUCE THE
OF POETRY & MUSIC, THOSE 2 PRINCIPAL LIGHTS OF
[ … . ]
FOR EVER SINCE THEIR SHAPING OF THE ORIGINAL CLAY
& THE PLUCKING OF THE APE (OR THE APPLE) FROM ITS
WE HAVE HAD AN IRRESISTIBLE FORCE TO DEAL WITH:
UNTIL THEN ALL HAD BEEN INSTINCTIVE NATURE A
LIKE FALLEN TREES IN THE EMPTY FOREST NO ONE
OR AUTUMN’S UNHATCHED EGG NO ONE TO REMEMBER
NOW MIND IN ITS PURE FORM IS A NONSEXUAL PASSION
OR A UNISEXUAL ONE PRODUCING ONLY LIGHT.
FEW PAINTERS OR SCULPTORS CAN ENTER THIS LIFE OF
THEY (LIKE ALL SO-CALLD NORMAL LOVERS) MUST
PRODUCE AT LAST
BODIES THEY DO NOT EXIST FOR ANY OTHER
This passage is followed instantly by the disclaimer “Come now, admit that certain very great/Poets and musicians have been straight;” but one must feel your double mind is at work. The breeder/reader is perhaps uneasy, but the 20th century hasn’t been particularly easy on readers of any stripe. And of course the real slur here is on painters, though you have written admiringly of Corot. Comments?
JM I always winced at that put-down of painting. We get a defense of painting in a later volume, but it doesn’t amount to much. A kind word for Chardin and Sesshu …
There’s a vast amount of questionable dogma in Sandover.
Remember that the speaker of this passage is demonic. Still, childlessness gets praised by just about all the characters in the poem; yet its high point, for me, is when that baby—Robert Morse’s new incarnation—gets born in the “Coda.” Nature herself coos and simpers over it. Of course that particular baby has been programmed to become a great musician, which sugars the pill—sorry, wrong metaphor. I wonder, by the way, where they get the idea that homosexuals aren’t breeders. I know quite a few who are.
As for any apotheosis of homosexuality, in a cosmos as perpetually self-revising as Sandover‘s, this or that idea can easily be raised to the highest power, then demoted when it’s no longer of use. I’m guardedly grateful for this emphasis within the poem. We have so few texts of really high quality—Shakespeare’s Sonnets, some Platonic dialogues, some of Gertrude Stein, Oscar Wilde’s criticism—for gay readers to find themselves in. Without, I mean, the obligatory pity and terror of say Death in Venice.
TB Your poems are included in various anthologies, everything from The Contemporary American Poets: American Poetry Since 1940 to the more recent Gay and Lesbian Poetry in Our Time. Besides satisfying curiosity as to which poets are what and come from where—I never knew that poet was American!—how useful are such categorical breakdowns? In combining the two, I don’t mean to infer (though some have) that one’s sexuality is a nation-state. But in a time when we who might prefer to read (without hunting in a hundred crannies) all the good poetry we can, feel absurdly cut off from Australian, Jamaican, Israeli, English, Irish, Scotch, and even Canadian poetry written in this language—not to mention all the many American groups a little or a lot off the meandering mainstream—have anthologies become overspecific?
JM This goes back to what we were saying about all the different camps. I hate this taxonomic bias. So did Elizabeth Bishop. She wouldn’t even allow her work to appear in a women’s anthology. Until recently men and women could read and admire each other’s work. Now I know a woman poet who doesn’t allow men’s and women’s books in the same room. It’s the Salem witchhunt with the genders reversed!
TB If books rubbing up against each other spawn Literary Criticism, keeping them apart might not be such a bad idea. But back to categories: what special strengths come to your work as a result of your being an American, or being gay?
JM The forms I use came originally from Europe. Being American allows me to question them, to adapt them freely and without guilt to my own needs. The attitudes I live by were no doubt first instilled by my parents, but being gay I can turn them inside out, if I like, and having grown up and seen how humanly fallible my parents were I can—well, you see what I’m saying. At 65 I’m no longer a national or a sexual being so much as whoever I’ve become over the years. When I go abroad, or join a dinner party of husbands and wives, I feel like a well-disposed ambassador from the other side; we make one another feel worldly and tolerant. Most of the time, that is. Get me caught in a demonstration and see who starts shouting “I’m Canadian!” in six languages.
TB What kind of anthology would you find most meaningful?
JM Aside from the multi-regional ones you propose, I’d go for the old-fashioned kind, like Untermeyer’s or Oscar Williams’s. Kimon Friar and John Brinnin did a marvelous one in 1951, full of New Criticism explications, and including passages from Finnegans Wake and Nightwood. Those were the good old days when literary politics were literary rather than political or sexual. For example, Oscar Williams in person was shall we say rather a creep. Be that as it may, Kimon and John decided to include a couple of his poems; you can be a creep and still write well. But do you know what poor insecure Mr. Williams did? He had his publisher ask for a letter from the anthologists, saying that they weren’t including his poems in order to hold them up to ridicule. It breaks the heart.
TB What’s the importance of music to your work? Whose, and how?
JM When I was 14 or 15 opera was my education sentimentale. It gave form to the wildest emotions; I tried them on, one after another, posturing in front of the phonograph. As I grew older I’d find some of my technical problems solved by reference to a Beethoven piano sonata, a Berlioz song. I wrote “variations” on the model of Mozart’s A Major Sonata or Beethoven’s Opus 34. The very distancing helps, letting your concerns ricochet off another medium. You learn about tempo and tone, the uses of dissonance, modulation into a new key. I’m not sure “how” this works but it often does.
TB What’s most fun about poetry?
JM To engage as much of the self as possible … and then to forget the self—is that fun? Ithink so. Innocent fun. I’d like to stress the innocence. Hours go by and nobody’s been harmed. The neighbors don’t even know you’re at home.
Thomas Bolt’s last book was a collection of poems, Out of the Woods, from Yale University Press. He is currently finishing a novel.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee