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New Light on Sandover

In response to:

The Genius and Generosity of Jimmy Merrill from the December 22, 2016 issue

To the Editors:

Kudos to Professor Edward Mendelson on his sterling review of Langdon Hammer’s James Merrill: Life and Art [NYR, December 22, 2016]. It is a percipient assessment of both Hammer’s epic biography and Merrill’s monumental work. The comments on Hammer’s inspired structure, which proceeds from recording fascinating but sometimes unconnected biographical details to showing how these details grow into densely interwoven motifs in the work, are especially edifying.

An important issue Professor Mendelson raises is the degree to which the text of Merrill’s long poem The Changing Light at Sandover is indebted to his lifelong partner and fellow Ouija boarder David Jackson. The pertinent sentence is as follows: “As Merrill’s friends reported privately at the time, the spirit messages [in Mirabell: Books of Number and Scripts for the Pageant, the last two large major parts of the Sandover trilogy] were—in unspecified ways—largely Jackson’s words, written in Jackson’s voice.”

In view of the significance of the issue, the claims “reported privately” by anonymous “friends” and the “unspecified ways” make me uneasy. The matter of origins here is complex and in some regards by nature mysterious, and Merrill declared on several occasions that Jackson was indispensable to their communication with the au-delà. Jackson, he said, was the lightning rod, the conduit for the spirit’s messages, “the hand,” in short, whereas he himself was “the scribe” who wrote down the words spelled on the board. (Both were right-handed, by the way. Mendelson tells us that they placed their left hands on the teacup that was their planchette, but in fact Jackson had his right hand on the teacup, leaving the left free for a cigarette, and Merrill had his left hand there, so that his right was free to transcribe. See the photo in the review.)

But as a comparison of the extant transcriptions and the published work, along with a comparison of subsequent drafts of the latter, will demonstrate, everything in Sandover went through a process of revision by Merrill alone, starting with the transcription itself. Some of the published passages are surprisingly nearly verbatim versions of transcripts, but most of the otherworldly dictation has been edited and recast—corrected, clarified, amplified, retouched, extended. Except for explicit quotations and paraphrases, of what got into print, none were “largely Jackson’s words, written in Jackson’s voice”—unless (as skeptics might argue) some parts were surreptitiously determined by him as the cup moved (and it moved very quickly, as those of us who saw séances can vouch) under their two hands.

As Professor Mendelson points out, Merrill admitted that he wrote one of Auden’s speeches by himself, “unprompted by the Ouija board,” and there is no reason to suppose that he limited himself to that one address. As for “Jackson’s voice,” it is hard to know what that phrase can mean. It cannot mean, as Professor Mendelson might imply, that subject matter which might fall into the “New Age” category. Merrill’s correspondence, his interviews, and many of his poems will all testify to his fascination with unconventional or edgy thought, from Transcendental Meditation and Santeria to sacred geometry and chaos theory. Unlike Jackson, he was an insatiable reader.

Perhaps I should also observe in passing that, as Hammer shows, Jackson did not have “money of his own.” Professor Mendelson is right to stress Hammer’s revelation of Merrill’s “faithfulness, compassion, and love.” The poet’s generosity, which he habitually hid, took the form not only of the many grants funded by his Ingram Merrill Foundation, but also subventions of book publication, unsolicited contributions, and outright gifts. Even some of his close friends took his loose references to Jackson’s inheritance at face value, but in fact they were characteristically designed to obviate any possible embarrassment for his partner.

Thank you for Professor Mendelson’s review and for your attention to this letter.

Stephen Yenser
Distinguished Professor Emeritus
Department of English, UCLA
Los Angeles, California

Edward Mendelson replies:

Stephen Yenser is right about David Jackson’s money. I mistakenly credited Jackson’s fib that he had inherited wealth, and didn’t notice that Langdon Hammer, in his excellent biography, had set the record straight.

As for Jackson’s voice in the second and third parts of the Sandover trilogy, I understood my sources to be reporting something to the effect that Merrill and Jackson sensed that the spirits who dictated much of those two parts of the poem had been speaking through Jackson, that the words, though transcribed and modified by Merrill, were the product largely of Jackson’s unconscious in the same way that the words of the spirit Ephraim, in the first part, were the product of Merrill’s. As Hammer reports, it was Stephen Yenser to whom Merrill complained, “This poem isn’t mine,” and it would have been characteristic of Merrill to have meant more than the obvious point that the poem had been dictated by spirits. Merrill’s insistence on giving Jackson the poem’s most prominent voice makes plausible sense of an otherwise baffling (and temporary) falling-off in Merrill’s writing, which, embarrassing as it has been to his expositors, was morally and emotionally admirable.