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James Merrill’s Myth: An Interview

(James Merrill recently published Mirabell: Books of Number,* in which he continues his account, begun in “The Book of Ephraim” published in Divine Comedies, of conversations held, via the Ouija board, with dead friends and spirits in “another world.” Merrill and his friend David Jackson receive the messages which are transcribed letter by letter; Merrill then edits and rewrites the transcriptions. The transcriptions are set in a frame of autobiographical narrative and personal reflection. The spirits and the dead speak in capital letters; the poet writes in lower case. The questions that it occurred to me to ask Merrill are those of a reader confronting a poem unquestionably beautiful, but also baffling.)

Helen Vendler: When you called your last book Divine Comedies, did you mean by that allusion to Dante that you were planning a trilogy?

James Merrill: Not consciously. I’d convinced myself that “The Book of Ephraim” told everything I had to say about the “other world.” Because of its length and looniness I’d taken to calling it the Divine Comedy—not of course a usable title, until David Jackson thought of making it plural. Dante, subtler as always, let posterity affix the adjective.

HV: In your new book [Mirabell: Books of Number], you say there will be one more volume in this vein; after that you will be permitted to return to your “chronicles of love and loss.” These three books have all been based on Ouija-board material. Is there anything else that unites them, in general, and that separates them from your earlier poetry?

JM: Chiefly, I think, the—to me—unprecedented way in which the material came. Not through flashes of insight, wordplay, trains of thought. More like what a friend, or stranger, might say over a telephone. DJ and I never knew until it had been spelled out letter by letter. What I felt about the material became a natural part of the poem, corresponding to those earlier poems written “all by myself.”

HV: In “The Book of Ephraim,” the first book, we heard the voices of the dead; but in Mirabell nonhuman voices are added, telling a complicated tale of evolutionary history, molecular biology, and subatomic behavior. Would you like to talk about the books you read before creating your phantasmagoria of “science”? (You mention The Lives of a Cell, and looking at a model of the double helix.)

JM: They weren’t many. The simplest science book is over my head. At college I’d seen my dead frog’s limbs twitch under some applied stimulus or other—seen, but hadn’t believed. Didn’t dream of thinking beyond or around what I saw. Oh, I picked up a two-volume Guide to Science by Asimov—very useful, still, each time I forget how the carbon atom is put together, or need to shake my head over elemental tables. A book on the black holes. Arthur Young’s Reflexive Universe—fascinating but too schematic to fit into my scheme. The most I could hope for was a sense of the vocabulary and some possible images.

HV: Do you think the vocabulary, models, and concepts of science—cloning, DNA, carbon bonds, the ozone layer, protons, etc.—offer real new resources to poetry? So far, poets haven’t seemed inclined to see poetry and science as compatible, even though Wordsworth thought they should.

JM: The vocabulary can be perfectly ghastly (“polymerization,” “kink instability”) or unconsciously beautiful, like things a child says (“red shift,” “spectral lines”). Knowing some Greek helped defuse forbidding words—not that I counted much on using them. You’ll find only trace elements of this language in the poem. The images, the concepts? Professor Baird at Amherst gave a course in “Science and Literature” which showed how much the “ideas” depended on metaphor, ways of talking. And while Science may have grown more “imaginative”—or at least more “apocalyptic”—in the decades since I left school, how many writers in that, or any, field are really wise to the ways of the word? Lewis Thomas is an exception—if only he would give us more than snippets. I’d like to think the scientists need us—but do they? Did Newton need Blake?

HV: What would you especially like a reader to be caught up by in your trilogy? The density of your myths? The civilized love of conversation? The range in tone? The domesticity?

JM: For me the talk and the tone—alone with the elements of plot—are the candy coating. The pill itself is another matter. The reader who can’t swallow it has my full sympathy. I’ve choked on it again and again.

HV: The new mythology you’ve invented via the Ouija board—including the new God Biology, a universal past including Atlantis, Centaurs, and Angels, an afterlife which includes reincarnation—how real does it all seem to you?

JM: Literally, not very—except in recurrent euphoric hours when it’s altogether too beautiful not to be true. Imaginatively real? I would hope so, but in all modesty, for the imagination in question kept assuming proportions broader and grander than mine. Also at times sillier: Atlantis, UFOs? I climbed the wall trying to escape that sort of material. But the point remained, to be always of two minds.

HV: In the past, you’ve written fiction as well as lyrics. Does the trilogy satisfy your narrative impulse as much as your fiction did? Or more?

JM: Before trying a novel I wrote a couple of plays. (The Artists’ Theater—John Myers and Herbert Machiz—put them on in the Fifties.) Behind them lay one of my earliest literary thrills: to open a little Samuel French booklet, some simple-minded “play for children,” and find on the page a fiction made up of stage directions more suggestive than any rendered narrative scene, and of words set down to be spoken by a real, undreamed-of mouth—my own if I wished! The effect was somehow far more naked, far less quilted, than the nicely written stories I fell asleep to. Twenty years later, I confused an exercise in dramatic form with “writing for the theater”—that royal road to megalomania. But those two plays left me on fresh terms with language. I didn’t always have to speak in my own voice.

HV: Does the quartet activating the poem—you and David Jackson at the Ouija board, W.H. Auden and Maria Mitsotáki on the other side—make up a family constellation? Why do you think the poem needed a ghostly father and ghostly mother?

JM: Strange about parents. We have such easy access to them and such daunting problems of communication. Over the Ouija board it was just the other way. A certain apparatus was needed to get in touch—but then! Affection, understanding, tact, surprises, laughter, tears. Why the poem needed Wystan and Maria I’m not sure. Without being Dante, can I think of them as Virgil and Beatrice?

HV: The intense affection that binds you to your familiar spirit Ephraim, to dead friends, and even to the inhuman Bat-Angel you talk to in the new book, seems the quality celebrated and even venerated in the poem. Do you see this as a change from your earlier poems about your family and about love?

JM: In life, there are no perfect affections. Estrangements among the living reek of unfinished business. Poems get written to the person no longer reachable. Yet, once dead, overnight the shrewish wife becomes “a saint,” frustrations vanish at cockcrow, and from the once fallible human mouth come words of blessed reassurance. Your question looks down into smoking chasms and up into innocent blankness. Given the power—without being Orpheus, either—would I bring any of these figures back to earth?

HV: If it’s true that every poem, besides saying something about life, says something about poetry, what is this new form saying about itself?

JM: Something possibly to do with the doubleness of its source, spelled out on every page by the interplay between the spirits’ capitals and our own lower-case responses. Julian Jaynes’s book on the “bicameral mind” came out last year. Don’t ask me to paraphrase his thesis—but, reading Jaynes as I was finishing Mirabell, I rather goggled. Because the poem is set by and large in two adjacent rooms: a domed red one where we took down the messages, and a blue one, dominated by an outsize mirror, where we reflected upon them.

HV: The predecessors you have in mind seem to be Dante, Yeats, and Auden. Do you think of yourself as in any way distinctively American? Or of this poem as in any active relation to American literature and American culture?

JM: I feel American in Europe and exotic at home—and haven’t we our own “expatriate” tradition for that? I was about to suggest—until I recalled “The Anathemata” and John Heath-Stubbs’s wonderful “Artorius”—that the long, “impossible” poem was an American phenomenon in our day. The thought didn’t comfort me. How many of us get out of our cars when we hit the badlands in the Cantos, or take that detour through downtown “Paterson”? In such a context, “foreignness” would be the storyteller’s rather than the missionary’s concern for his reader’s soul.

HV: How did the poem get transcribed and composed? The work of transcription alone must have been enormous.

JM: The board goes along at a smart clip, perhaps 600 words an hour. Sometimes it was hard to reconstruct our words—“What was the question?” as Miss Stein put it. Then what to cut? What to paraphrase? What to add? Plus the danger of flatness when putting into verse a passage already coherent in prose. I could have left it in prose, but it would have been too sensational—like Castaneda, or Gwendolyn’s diary [in The Importance of Being Earnest].

HV: Couldn’t you have written without the help of the Ouija board, since it all comes out of your “word bank”? If not, why do you suppose the Ouija board is indispensable, in terms of the workings of your imagination?

JM: (a) It would seem not. (b) You could think of the board as a delaying mechanism. It spaces out, into time and language, what might have come to a saint or a lunatic in one blinding ZAP. Considering the amount of detail and my own limitations, it must have been the most workable method. And, as I have said, it’s made me think twice about the imagination. If the spirits aren’t external, how astonishing the mediums become! Victor Hugo said of his voices that they were like his own mental powers multiplied by five.

HV: Can you tell yet what the last book of the trilogy will be like? What the ending of the whole will be?

JM: Oh yes. Forgive me if I don’t go into it here. It should be out next year; I’m calling it Scripts for the Pageant. Full of surprises—it had us on the edge of our chairs. Naturally it was all “down” before I began to write, so that there were no false starts or agonizing decisions. I woke up day after day beaming with anticipation.

HV: Does Auden like the lines you’ve written for him to speak?

JM: It’s true, I’ve put some words into his mouth, but not those. Shall we say, I like the lines he’s given me to write?

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    Reviewed by Stephen Spender, NYR, December 21, 1978.

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