Jimmy of the Spirits: James Merrill Was Notorious for an Epic 'Dictated' Via a Ouija Board. Now His Collected Poems and Memoirs by His Friends Suggest He Was a Tad More Complicated
Gates, David, Newsweek
One summer afternoon in the late 1950s, the then aspiring novelist Alison Lurie and the then aspiring poet James Merrill were discussing love affairs with famous people--Lurie theoretically, Merrill not. (If he named names, they're lost now.) She told him, half-jokingly, that he was going to be famous himself. "I expected him to laugh and protest," Lurie recalls in a new memoir, "but I was wrong. 'Yes,' he said, slicing a ripe red tomato with his little serrated knife. 'I know it'." The knife and tomato may be uncannily sharp recollections, or invented props to give the scene immediacy. But that's him: so confident of his calling, and of his fitness for it, that his Pulitzer and his National Book Awards already seemed like done deals. Part of it might have been his privileged background--his father was the Merrill of Merrill Lynch--but most of it was pure genius.
Merrill, who died in 1995, never wrote much like anybody else. But one poet he admired and learned from, Wallace Stevens, said Merrill reminded him of his younger self; another, W. H. Auden, called him his favorite young American poet. After John Berryman and Robert Lowell died, he was widely considered American poetry's top dog--except by those who thought his formalism was retrograde. When he won the Bollingen Prize, poetry's Academy Award, in 1973, The New York Times (of all places) denounced him for being "literary, private and traditional." It must have struck him as high praise.
As far as we know, Merrill hasn't kept versifying beyond the grave--unlike the clamorous spirits who supposedly seized control of the willowware teacup used for a pointer on Merrill's homemade Ouija board, and dictated large chunks of his 560-page poem, "The Changing Light at Sandover." But he left behind plenty of work for the living to wrestle with--and to delight in. As his friend and fellow poet J. D. McClatchy puts it, "the pleasure principle is high in Jimmy's sense of what a poem ought to provide." He also left friends who still lapse into present tense when they speak of him, and summon him back to life in such written reminiscences as Lurie's "Familiar Spirits," her new memoir of Merrill and his companion David Jackson.
This month Knopf begins republishing Merrill's work, supervised by McClatchy. First up: the handsome, 885-page "Collected Poems" with the poet's toothy half-smile on the two-inch-thick spine and a lilac-colored ribbon marker. (This includes only his lyric poems, not the epic "Sandover," in which various spirits talk poetry, philosophy, reincarnation and cosmology, to Merrill's own wonderment, bemusement and consternation.) For a poet praised as meticulous and dismissed as precious, the volume is surprisingly beefy, though nearly fat-free. Merrill was at his desk early every day, and in the course of 50 years--he was 68 when he died--even a meticulous poet's work will accumulate. And he was always working. "If he found a honeydew melon at the market and gave it to a neighbor," McClatchy recalls, "he would write a quatrain on it--now lost to history down the garbage disposal."
Even McClatchy admits "Sandover" is daunting. "It's not a poem that I have taken the measure of," he says. "Or I should say, it has not yet taken the measure of me. It would take a lifetime to give a poem of 17,000 lines the sort of attention you can give the shorter poems. I feel like the blind man walking around the elephant, you know?" The pleasure of the "Collected Poems," though, comes in doses small enough for mortals. Merrill rhymes, scans, writes sonnets and sestinas, but for a formalist he's unusually light on his feet--"effervescent and slithery," as McClatchy puts it. They're about the usual--love, loss, mortality, imagination, poetry itself--suggested by what's close to home: food, rain, a burning log, a childhood memory.
But things get complicated. Consider "Charles on Fire," a short poem from the mid-'60s, based on a gaffe at a dinner party. …