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James Merrill and the Other World: Langdon Hammer in Conversation

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Langdon Hammer

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February 20, 2014


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Langdon Hammer, chairman of the Department of English at Yale University, is the author the biography James Merrill: Life and Art (Alfred A. Knopf, 2015). Poets.org spoke with him about Merrill's use of the Ouija Board as part of his process, his celebrated epic poem The Changing Light at Sandover, and more.


Poets.org: How seriously did Merrill take channeling? On the one hand, the spirits Merrill channeled rhymed, in iambs. They do all sorts of very Merrillian things. But on the other hand, in the poem "Nine Lives," Merrill actually goes to a bar looking for the very specifically described reincarnation of a dear friend on the recommendation of the Ouija board. W. S. Merwin, in a New York Times Book Review of Merrill's A Scattering of Salts, describes "Nine Lives" as a "farewell...to a subconscious," and notes all the stage imagery in it—making the whole Ouija experience into a theater. But, when it's all said and done Merrill goes. And he becomes upset with Ephraim, the spirit who told him to go, when the Ouija prediction proves incorrect. Yet then Merrill finds a way to make it pan out by deciding that the Ouija board had spoken metaphorically and that the cat he saw on the street was the reincarnation. Can it really just all be play to Merrill?

Langdon Hammer: From childhood onwards, Merrill took in great quantities of books, theater, and opera. When it came to suspending disbelief, he was very good at it. That's not quite the same thing as credulity. It's more like Keats's notion of "negative capability"—an ability to dwell in uncertainties and "as ifs."

But comparing him to Keats makes it all seem like a literary matter. There is something grand and high-stakes about Merrill's spiritualism—he founds his own religion after all. There's also something small and private in his sometimes desperate emotional need to believe in the Other World and its benevolence.

You've already put it perfectly: "When it's all said and done, he goes"—meaning, for all the self-consciousness and irony of his Ouija board, Merrill really played the game, really wanted to believe. Really needed to.

For example, in the incident you mention that's described in the late poem "Nine Lives," he did go to a certain cafe in Athens at a certain hour expecting/hoping to find his friend Maria reborn as a boy from India, etc. He didn't just do it to write a poem about the experience—although he had in mind that back-up all along, I'm sure, so that even if he didn't find Maria that day he could write about the disappointment. Either way, he was going to get a poem out of it. But he was disappointed: His diary (not his poem) admits that, after he came home from the café, he cried.

Poets.org: When reading Merrill, one can discern, perhaps, that his confessional personality and any sort of sentimentality sometimes takes a back seat to his craft—his prosody, meter, rhyme. Then you read The Changing Light at Sandover and yes, absolutely, all that craft is there and there are massive cosmological themes—but there are also some moments that are deeply heartfelt, and clearly very personal to Merrill. The love he feels for Maria, the sort of adoptive mother of he and David Jackson, is so obvious and deep. When DJ's parents pass away and visit the board, it's really emotionally raw. On a lesser scale, things like DJ's back-ache, and little instances of the day-to-day get so much love and attention in the poem by the spirits. Do you think the channeling experience in general, and specifically the Ouija board, opened Merrill up to more sentiment in his poetry?

LH: Merrill was allergic to sentimentality—does that mean he was susceptible to it? There are sentimental passages in Sandover, but they aren't the ones you mention. The ones you mention, yes, stand out for their simple humanity: the deaths of DJ's parents, Maria's feeling for JM and DJ and theirs for her, and for that matter their feeling for each other. Getting all of that into a poem, with necessary simplicity and directness, was something new for Merrill. Somehow the Ouija board was necessary to achieving that! A huge metaphysical enterprise designed to smuggle in ordinary reality and plain-spoken feeling.

Poets.org: In Merrill's memoir A Different Person, Merrill draws a clear distinction between those he sees as intellectuals—people like his lover Claude who reads Plato and listens to Bach—and himself, who he doesn't see as an intellectual. How seriously are we supposed to take this assertion? When you read Sandover there's obviously such a wealth of reading and brain-power behind it. And yet Ouija doesn't seem like an activity a self-styled intellectual would spend two decades with. So how much of an intellectual was Merrill? How did his self-perception come into play in his poems, and his relationship with channeling?

LH: Merrill insists he is an amateur and a dilettante, someone who is precisely not a professional or an expert. It's part of his disdain for organized religion of almost any kind. If we are going to get the gods to talk again, it has to be in some new way, personal, experimental, and experiential. A great deal of reading and reflection did go into the poem. But it was based on something that happened, on an experience, not on a book or a philosophy.

Poets.org: Merrill was very sexually open-minded—he travelled really freely. Do you think this kind of openness could've had anything to do with why he was willing to pave his own way religiously and mystically? Studying the occult isn't really the stuff of a Merrill-Lynch heir.

LH: Sexually he was more than a little promiscuous—from say the late 1950s to the late 1970s. Travel and promiscuity went together when he bought a house in Greece in 1964. The same spirit shows in his poetry, which becomes adventurous and experimental in the same period.

His interest in the spiritual was promiscuous in maybe related ways—Jung and "archetypes," the Tibetan Book of the Dead, Santeria, voudon, Noh drama. He tried out Transcendental Meditation and toyed with New Age fads (pyramids, ley lines). What he couldn't abide were the Republican Episcopalian church services he submitted to when he visited his mother. These he rails about in his diary.

Poets.org: Just to ask a little further in that direction—do you think the fact that Merrill was gay uniquely catalyzed Sandover? Could Sandover's mystical elements specifically have occurred to a straight white American man in the 1950s? Is the poem a uniquely gay artifact?

LH: In Sandover Merrill jokes about how well suited he and David Jackson are to receive the spirits' messages, being "docile takers-in of seed" rather than macho phallic system erectors. It's a joke but there's something to it. Authorship is traditionally conceived in patriarchal terms, on the model of God the Father. Here in Sandover are two men writing together in a collaborative venture that's an extension of their erotic relationship. When they first meet Ephraim in the 1950s, he tells them stories about Roman orgies and gives advice for maximizing sexual pleasure.

Their first encounter with Ephraim was in the 1950s, the era of the Closet, McCarthyism, and the Lavender Scare. When Merrill wrote Sandover and made that joke about the "docile takers-in of seed," it was in the post-Stonewall Disco era. Sandover is, I think, "a uniquely gay artifact," as you put it. To be precise, an artifact of two distinct eras of American gay culture, the 1950s and 1970s. Thom Gunn called Sandover "the most convincing description I know of a gay marriage." That was high praise from Gunn, and surprising praise, because JM and DJ's relationship is not what most people would say the poem is about. But that relationship is the basis of the poem.

Poets.org: Did Merrill's "American-ness"in any way shape Sandover or his relationship to channeling?

LH: Merrill called himself as American as "lemon chiffon pie." How can I improve on that? About the specifically American dimension of his channeling: well, Yeats and Hugo both—but especially Yeats—were important to Merrill, and both were European. But of course idiosyncratic heresy and vision thrive, like crazy, on the soil of this continent.

Poets.org: What was sacred to Merrill?

LH: To go back to Keats: "the holiness of the heart's affections." That is, what we consecrate by our personal devotion, including our friendships. But I think, through the Ouija board, Merrill came to see language—the human capacity for signs, for metaphor, and representation, not only words—as sacred. And gradually (when it was too late to save her, he thought) he came to see Nature—Mother Earth—as sacred.

Copyright © 2012 by Langdon Hammer and Max Ritvo for the Academy of American Poets.