undefinedCourtesy Rollie Mckenna Collection.

 

My first glimpse of James Merrill, a dozen years ago, was in black and white. It was a photograph of him, in the Brinnin and Read anthology called The Modern Poets. He had just turned toward the camera—his mouth slightly open, as if not expecting an observer—from a piano on which was propped a mazy score. He had on an open white dress shirt, which had the effect of elongating his neck, of giving his seated figure a slim, tense elegance. There was a pack of Chesterfields on a table in the foreground, and the edge of a potted fern.

When I visited him during July 1981, it was as if that old photograph had been retouched—by time, and in color. The piano is on the top floor of the poet’s house in Stonington, Connecticut, and he was playing it when I walked in. He turned, as if surprised. This time he was wearing a royal blue T-shirt and white slacks. His face was older, but the lines draw out a puckish quality in his features. He remains slim, his brown hair silvered, and now he smokes Camels. He had been practicing the Adagio of Haydn’s “Sonata in A,” the one with the plucked arpeggio accompaniment—and the source, Merrill supposes, of Granados’s “The Lady and the Nightingale,” itself the source (he grins) of “Besame mucho.”

We are in a big room, airy, sunny, nearly all windows, with a chessboard linoleum floor. Merrill and David Jackson, with whom he has lived for nearly thirty years, added this rooftop room to the building on Water Street they bought in 1956. There are shops on the ground floor, rented apartments on the second; the top two stories are theirs. (For years the outside was a dull aubergine, but it had just been repainted a shade of leg makeup.) Soon after, they had enclosed the roof and added a planked deck that overlooks the village and a dazzling swatch of Long Island Sound; in the cellar of nearby Connecticut College’s museum they found a marble bust of the Roman emperor Otho. It was sold to them for a song. Blackface removed, it was set up outside, and presides over the deck.

Inside, near where the poet had been practicing at the baby Steinway, is a circle: three eccentric chairs and a Victorian sofa in one of Fortuny’s magic-formula stamped cottons, low cases of novels and Gallimard paperbacks (one case hides a futon), and a freestanding garlic-head fireplace that from one end of the room faces a huge Larry Rivers landscape at the other.

Merrill has a reputation for being one of the best readers of poetry before the public. One hears why. His light baritone, with its urbane accent, has an expressive range of inflections. He laughs easily, and has a quick, enharmonic wit. On second thought, it is like his poetic voice. There is a self-possession to it that guards an abiding seriousness difficult to draw out—and thereby the more convincing.

 

INTERVIEWER

You’ve left your house in Athens for good now, right?

 MERRILL

It looks that way.

 INTERVIEWER

And your original decision to settle there—was that just an accumulation of accidents?

 MERRILL

Oh, there’s no accident. I went first to Greece to visit Kimon Friar in 1950. Between then and 1959, when I went back with David, we’d gone to a great number of other places too—to the Orient and, either together or separately, all over Europe, except Greece. And suddenly here was a place—I can’t tell you how much we liked it. We liked Stonington, too, but didn’t want to stay there all year round. It had slowly dawned on us, as it continues to dawn on young people in Stonington, that it’s a community of older people by and large. Nearly all our friends were five to fifty years older than we were. And in Greece we began seeing, for a change, people our own age, or younger.

 INTERVIEWER

I presume you came to Stonington to get away from New York. If, by analogy, you went to Athens to get away from things in America, what was it you found there?

 MERRILL

Things that have mostly disappeared, I’m afraid. The dazzling air, the drowsy waterfronts. Our own ignorance, even: a language we didn’t understand two words of at first. That was a holiday! You could imagine that others were saying extraordinarily fascinating things—the point was to invent, if not what they were saying, at least its implications, its overtones. Also, in those days foreign tourists were both rare and welcome, and the delighted surprise with which the Greeks acknowledged our ability to put two words together, you know, was irresistible.

 INTERVIEWER

What sort of people did you find yourselves falling in with? Other Americans?

 MERRILL

No, certainly not. In fact, even Greeks who spoke English or French had to be extremely charming for us to want to see them more than once. We wanted to learn Greek and we also wanted to learn Greece, and the turn of mind that made a Greek.

 INTERVIEWER

It can’t be accidental, then, that your leaving Greece coincides with the completion of your trilogy—

MERRILL

Probably not. A coincidence over which I had no control was that, within a year of my finishing the trilogy, David had come to see that Athens was no longer a livable place. We’d both seen this day coming, I’m afraid, but for one reason or another neither of us wanted to believe his eyes. If he’d stayed on, I’d still be going back and forth. Maria might have been another reason for staying. Even after her death—or especially after her death, as her role in the poem grew clearer—I couldn’t have faced, right away, cutting ourselves off from the friends we’d had in common, friends also in their own right, who made all the difference.

 INTERVIEWER

That’s Maria Mitsotáki? Was she really—

 MERRILL

Everything I say she was in the trilogy? Oh yes, and more. Her father had indeed been prime minister, three times, I think—but under which king? Constantine I or George II, or both? I’m vague about things like that. I’m vague too about her husband, who died long before our time. They’d lived in South Africa, in London . . . Maria went home for a visit and was stranded in Athens during the whole German occupation. Horrible stories—and wonderful ones: dashing young cousins in the underground, hidden for weeks in bedroom closets. Literary men fell in love with her, quite understandably—aside from being an enchantment to look at, she never missed a thing you said.

 INTERVIEWER

Your trilogy attests to a warm, intimate relationship with Maria Mitsotáki and W. H. Auden. Did working on the poem change your feelings about them?

 MERRILL

In a way, yes. The friendships, which had been merely “real” on earth—subject to interruption, mutual convenience, states of health, like events that have to be scheduled “weather permitting”—became ideal. Nothing was hazed over by reticence or put off by a cold snap. Whenever we needed them, there they were; and a large part of that wonder was to feel how deeply they needed us. I can’t pretend to have known Wystan terribly well in this world. He liked me, I think, and approved of my work; and liked the reassurance of David’s and my being in Athens to stand by Chester Kallman [Auden’s friend and collaborator] when emergencies arose. But he was twenty years older and had been famous while I was still in boarding school, and—well, it took the poem, and the almost jubilant youthfulness he recovers after death, to get me over my shyness. With Maria it was different. In the years we knew her she saw very few people, but we were part of that happy few. Many of her old friends whom she no longer saw couldn’t imagine what had come over her—“She’s given us up for those Americans!” We simply adored her. It seemed like the perfection of intimacy, light, airy, without confessions or possessiveness—yet one would have to be Jung or Dante to foresee her role in the poem.

 INTERVIEWER

You hadn’t even an inkling of that role when you began the poem?

 MERRILL

Oh, no. It’s true, I began “Ephraim” within days of hearing that she’d died—and felt, I suppose, enough of a coincidence to list her among the characters. There’s only one mention of her in the whole “Book of Ephraim,” yet I kept her in, and look what happened! The cassia shrub on the terrace—how could the poem have ended without it? I couldn’t bring it home to America, though I did the next best thing and sneaked some seedpods through customs. They’ve given rise to that rather promising affair out there on the deck.

 INTERVIEWER

Panning the Ouija board transcripts for poetic gold—that must have been a daunting project. How did you go about it?

 MERRILL

The problem changed from volume to volume. With “Ephraim,” many of the transcripts I had made from Ouija board sessions had vanished, or hadn’t been saved. So I mainly used whatever came to hand, except for the high points which I’d copied out over the years into a special notebook. Those years—time itself—did my winnowing for me. With Mirabell it was, to put it mildly, harder. The transcript was enormous. What you see in the poem might be half, or two-fifths, of the original. Most of the cuts were repetitions: things said a second or third time, in new ways often, to make sure we’d understood. Or further, unnecessary illustrations of a point. I haven’t looked at them for several years now, and can only hope that nothing too vital got left out. Getting it onto the page seemed really beyond me at first, perhaps because I’d begun imagining a poem the same length as “Ephraim.” By the time the fourteen-syllable line occurred to me (that exchange with Wystan is largely contrived) I’d also decided where to divide it into books, so it all got under way at last.

With Scripts, there was no shaping to be done. Except for the minutest changes, and deciding about line breaks and so forth, the Lessons you see on the page appear just as we took them down. The doggerel at the fêtes, everything. In between the Lessons—our chats with Wystan or Robert [Morse] or Uni [the trilogy’s resident unicorn]—I still felt free to pick and choose; but even there, the design of the book just swept me along.

 INTERVIEWER

You don’t feel that too much was sacrificed for the sake of shapeliness?

 MERRILL

If so, perhaps no accident? I came upon the pages of one of our very earliest evenings with Ephraim. He’s giving us a lecture about the senses: polish the windows of your eyes, etc., each sense in turn. That obviously prefigures, by over twenty years, one of the themes crucial to Volume 3—but isn’t it nicer and less daunting somehow to have it emerge casually, without pedantry?

Then there were things outside the transcript—things in “life” which kept staring me in the face, only I couldn’t see them, as if I’d been hypnotized, until the danger was past. Only this year I was in my study, playing the perhaps ten thousandth game of Patience since beginning “Ephraim.” I’m using my old, nearly effaced Greek cards with their strange neoclassical royalties; and I do a little superstitious trick when I’m through. I reassemble the deck so that the Queen of Hearts is at the bottom, facing up. Now on those old-style Greek cards the queens are all marked K, for Kyria—Lady. It’s what George calls Mother Nature, and I’d simply never made the connection. Furthermore, the kings are all marked B, for Basileus. God B of Hearts? “You’re nothing but a pack of cards!” You can be sure I’d have dragged all that in if I’d thought of it in time. Plus another clever but expendable allusion to the graveyard scene of the Rake, where Tom calls upon the Queen of Hearts and is saved. Driven out of his wits, but saved.

Other things, that in retrospect seem indispensable, came to hand just when they were needed, as if by magic. Stephen Yenser explaining the Golden Section when I was halfway through “Ephraim.” Marilyn Lavin telling me about the X-rayed Giorgione—I’d already written V and W—and hunting up the relevant article. Stephen Orgel’s book on the masque, which he sent me not a moment too soon. A friend of my nephew’s, Michael Beard, writing me a letter on the metaphysical implications of Arabic calligraphy. A month or so later I would simply need to versify some of his phrases in order to make that little lyric about the Bismillah formula. Then Alfred Corn’s joke about E—Ephraim—equalling any emcee squared. I felt like a perfect magpie.

 INTERVIEWER

What do the Ouija transcripts look like?

 MERRILL

Like first-grade compositions. Drunken lines of capitals lurching across the page, gibberish until they’re divided into words and sentences. It depends on the pace. Sometimes the powers take pity on us and slow down.

 INTERVIEWER

The Ouija board, now. I gather you use a homemade one, but that doesn’t exactly help me to imagine it or its workings. An overturned teacup is your pointer?

 MERRILL

Yes. The commercial boards come with a funny see-through planchette on legs. I find them too cramped. Besides, it’s so easy to make your own—just write out the alphabet, and the numbers, and your yes and no (punctuation marks too, if you’re going all out) on a big sheet of cardboard. Or use brown paper—it travels better. On our Grand Tour, whenever we felt lonely in the hotel room, David and I could just unfold our instant company. He puts his right hand lightly on the cup, I put my left, leaving the right free to transcribe, and away we go. We get, oh, five hundred to six hundred words an hour. Better than gasoline.

 INTERVIEWER

What is your fuel, would you say? With all the other disciplines available to a poet, why this one?

 MERRILL

Well, don’t you think there comes a time when everyone, not just a poet, wants to get beyond the Self? To reach, if you like, the “god” within you? The board, in however clumsy or absurd a way, allows for precisely that. Or if it’s still yourself that 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. I’ve stopped, by the way, recommending it to inquisitive friends.

 INTERVIEWER

When did you start using a Ouija board?

 MERRILL

Frederick Buechner gave me one as a birthday present in 1953. As I recall, we sat down then and there to try it, and got a touching little story from a fairly simple soul—that engineer “dead of cholera in Cairo,” who’d met Goethe. I used it in the first thing I ever wrote about the Ouija board (a poem called “Voices from the Other World”), although by that time the experiences behind this poem were mine and David’s. We started in the summer of 1955. But the spirit we contacted—Ephraim—was anything but simple. So much so that for a long time I felt that the material he dictated really couldn’t be used—then or perhaps ever. I felt it would be like cheating, or plagiarizing from some unidentifiable source. Oh, I put a few snippets of it into The Seraglio, but that was just a novel, and didn’t count. Twenty years later, though, I was yet again trying to tell the whole story as fiction, through a set of characters bearing little resemblance to David or me. I’d got about fifty pages done, hating every bit of it. I’m not a novelist, and never was. No accident, then, that I simply “forgot” the manuscript in a taxi in Atlanta, and never recovered it—well, all that’s described in “The Book of Ephraim.” But I went on, I didn’t take the hint. I put together all the drafts and notes for those lost pages, and proceeded to forget these in a hotel room in Frankfurt! By now I was down to just two pages of an opening draft. As I sat glaring at them, the prose began to dissolve into verse. I marked the line breaks with a pencil, fiddled a bit, typed it up, and showed the two versions to a friend who said quite firmly, “You must never write prose again.” At that point “The Book of Ephraim” crystallized, and got written without any particular trouble.

 INTERVIEWER

Throughout the trilogy you have many “voices”—Wallace Stevens, Gertrude Stein, Pythagoras, Nefertiti . . . How does this work? Do they simply break in, or do you ask specifically for them?

 MERRILL

Either way. Most of the time, we never knew what to expect. Last summer, for instance, we were about to sit down at the board—no, I was already in my chair—when David called from the kitchen. He can never keep abreast of the rising postal rates, and wanted to know which stamp to put on his letter. I called back, “Put on an Edna St. Vincent Millay”—I’d bought a sheet of her commemoratives just that week. And when we started at the board, there she was. Very embarrassing on both sides, as it dawned on the poor creature that we hadn’t meant to talk to her at all.

 INTERVIEWER

Does what Auden tells you via the Ouija board remind you of him . . . I mean, are there distinctive phrases or sentiments that could only be his?

 MERRILL

Some of his best-known sentiments get revised—his Christian views, for instance—but the turns of phrase sound very like him, to my ears. Remember, though, that we never knew each other well, not in this world.

 INTERVIEWER

Would the Ouija board be your instrument—like a keyboard on which a musician composes or improvises?

 MERRILL

Not a bit! If anything, the keyboard was us. And our one obligation, at any given session, was to be as “well tempered” as possible.

 INTERVIEWER

So the Ouija board is by no means a mnemonic device—it is not something to get you going . . .

 MERRILL

No. At least, not something to start me writing. In other ways, evidently, it did start us “going”—thinking, puzzling, resisting, testing the messages against everything we knew or thought possible.

 INTERVIEWER

What is David’s function when you use the Ouija board?

 MERRILL

That’s a good question. According to Mirabell, David is the subconscious shaper of the message itself, the “Hand,” as they call him. Of the two of us, he’s the spokesman for human nature, while I’m the “Scribe,” the one in whose words and images the message gets expressed. This would be a fairly rough distinction, but enough to show that the transcripts as they stand could never have come into being without him. I wonder if the trilogy shouldn’t have been signed with both our names—or simply “by DJ, as told to JM”?

 INTERVIEWER

Could not the “they” who move the teacup around the board be considered the authors of the poems?

 MERRILL

Well, yes and no. As “they” keep saying throughout, language is the human medium. It doesn’t exist—except perhaps as vast mathematical or chemical formulas—in that realm of, oh, cosmic forces, elemental processes, whom we then personify, or tame if you like, through the imagination. So, in a sense, all these figures are our creation, or mankind’s. The powers they represent are real—as, say, gravity is “real”—but they’d be invisible, inconceivable, if they’d never passed through our heads and clothed themselves out of the costume box they found there. How they appear depends on us, on the imaginer, and would have to vary wildly from culture to culture, or even temperament to temperament. A process that Einstein could entertain as a formula might be described by an African witch doctor as a crocodile. What’s tiresome is when people exclusively insist on the forms they’ve imagined. Those powers don’t need churches in order to be sacred. What they do need are fresh ways of being seen.

 INTERVIEWER

Does the idea of the Ouija board ever embarrass you—I mean that you have this curious collaborator?

 MERRILL

From what I’ve just said, you see how pompous I can get. The mechanics of the board—this absurd, flimsy contraption, creaking along—serves wonderfully as a hedge against inflation. I think it does embarrass the sort of reader who can’t bear to face the random or trivial elements that coalesce, among others, to produce an “elevated” thought. That doesn’t bother me at all.

 INTERVIEWER

Does the Ouija board ever manifest maniacal tendencies? Do you ever feel yourself lost in its grip?

 MERRILL

Thanks perhaps to a certain ongoing resistance, we seem to have held our own. We kept it as a parlor game for the first twenty years. Those early voices in Mirabell gave us, I admit, a nasty turn. Looking back, though, I’ve the sense that we agreed to let them take us over, for the sake of the poem. Poems can do that, even when you think you’re writing them all by yourself. Oh, we’ve been scared at times. A friend who sat with us at the board just once went on to have a pretty awful experience with some people out in Detroit. She was told to go west, and to sail on a certain freighter on a certain day, and the name of the island where she’d meet her great-grandmother reincarnated as a Polynesian teenager who would guide her to a mountain cave where in turn an old man . . . and so forth. Luckily she collapsed before she ever made it to California. I don’t believe she was being manipulated by the other people. The experience sounds genuine. But she didn’t have the strength to use it properly—whatever I mean by that! It would seem that David and I have that strength; or else, that we’ve been handled with kid gloves. A number of friends have been scared for us over the years. One of them took me to a Trappist monastery, to talk to one of the more literary priests. It was a lovely couple of hours. I read from some of the transcripts, filling in as much as I could of the background. Afterwards, the priest admitted that they’d all been warned in seminary against these devilish devices, but that, frankly, I’d read nothing to him that he didn’t believe himself. I suspect a lot of people use the board to guide them through life—“What’s next week’s winning lottery number?”—and get the answers they deserve. Our voices are often very illuminating when we bring up a dilemma or a symptom, but they never tell us what to do. At most they suggest the possibilities, the various consequences. Now that I think of it, our friend might have misread a hint for a command, or a metaphorical itinerary of self-discovery for a real trip to Hawaii.

 INTERVIEWER

What about more conventional aids to inspiration—drugs? Drink?

 MERRILL

Liquor, in my parents’ world, was always your reward at the end of a hard day—or an easy day, for that matter—and I like to observe that old family tradition. But I’ve never drunk for inspiration. Quite the contrary—it’s like the wet sponge on the blackboard. I do now and then take a puff of grass, or a crumb of Alice Toklas fudge, when I’ve reached the last drafts of a poem. That’s when you need X-ray eyes to see what you’ve done, and the grass helps. Some nice touches can fall into place.

 INTERVIEWER

In hindsight, do you have any general feelings about the occult, about the use of the occult in poetry?

 MERRILL

I’ve never much liked hearing about it. Usually the people who write about it have such dreadful style. Yeats is almost the only exception I can think of. The first thing to do is to get rid of that awful vocabulary. It’s almost acceptable once it’s purged of all those fancy words—“auras” and “astral bodies.”

 INTERVIEWER

Has it been a kind of displaced religion for you? I take it you have a religious streak somewhere in you.

 MERRILL

Oh, that’s a very good phrase for it—“displaced religion.” I never felt at home with the “pastoral” Episcopalianism I was handed. Unctuous mouthings of scripture, a system that like the courtier-shepherds and milkmaids at the Petit Trianon seemed almost willfully deluded, given the state of the world and the fears and fantasies already raging in my little head. Mademoiselle’s Catholicism corresponded more to these. She taught me the Ave Maria—without which the Lord’s Prayer calls up the image of dry bread in a motherless reformatory. Even her Jesus, next to the Protestant one, was all blood and magic—the face on Veronica’s napkin, the ghastly little Sacred Heart hanging above her bed, like something out of a boy’s book about Aztec sacrifice, or something the gardener pulled out of the earth. These images connected. I mean, we used napkins the size of Veronica’s at every meal. As Shaw reminds us, Christ wasn’t out to proselytize. He said that God was in each of us, a spark of pure potential. He held no special brief for the Family. All very sensible, but I’m afraid I’ve long since thrown out the baby with the churchly bathwater. The need, as you say, remained. I never cared for the pose of the atheist—though the Angels came round to that, you know, in their way, insisting on man as master of his own destiny.

INTERVIEWER

You don’t describe yourself as having been a very good student, and still seem a bit self-conscious as an “intellectual.”

 MERRILL

Ummmh . . .

 INTERVIEWER

No accident, then, that the trilogy’s caps are all unrelieved meaning? A case of the return of the repressed?

 MERRILL

You’re probably exactly right there, at least where the “Grand Design” is concerned. Also in passages—like Mirabell on Culture or Technology—where the proliferation of crisp ideas sounds almost like a Shaw preface. Not at all the kind of page I could turn out by myself. On the other hand, a lot of what we’re loosely calling “meaning” turns out, on inspection, to be metaphor, which leads one back towards language: wordplay, etymology, the “wholly human instrument” (as Wystan says) I’d used and trusted—like every poet, wouldn’t you say?—to ground the lightning of ideas. We could say that the uppercase represented a range of metaphor, a depth of meaning, that hadn’t been available to me in earlier poems. Victor Hugo described his voices as his own conscious powers multiplied by five, and he was probably exactly right there, too.

 INTERVIEWER

Though your trilogy takes up the ultimate question of origins and destiny, you are not a poet—like Yeats or Auden or Lowell—who has taken on political issues in your work. Or is that very avoidance itself a kind of “stand”?

 MERRILL

The lobbies? The candidates’ rhetoric—our “commitments abroad”? The Shah as Helen of Troy launching a thousand missile carriers? One whiff of all that, and I turn purple and start kicking my cradle. I like the idea of nations, actually, and even more those pockets of genuine strangeness within nations. Yet those are being emptied, turned inside out, made to conform—in the interest of what? The friendly American smile we’re told to wear in our passport photos? Oh, it’s not just in America. You can go to an outdoor concert in Athens—in that brown, poisonous air the government isn’t strong enough to do anything about—and there are the president and the prime minister in their natty suits, surrounded by flashbulbs, hugging and patting each other as if they hadn’t met for months. God have mercy on whoever’s meant to be impressed by that. Of course I can’t conceive of anyone choosing public life, unless from some unspeakable hidden motive.

INTERVIEWER

What newspapers do you read?

MERRILL

In Europe the Paris Herald—I get very American over there, and it’s so concise. Here, I never learned how to read a paper. My first year away at school, I watched my classmates, some of them littler than I was, frowning over the war news or the financial page. They already knew how! I realized then and there I couldn’t hope to catch up. I told this to Marianne Moore before introducing her at her Amherst reading in 1956. She looked rather taken aback, as I did myself, a half hour later, when in the middle of a poem she was reading—a poem I thought I knew—I heard my name. “Now Mr. Merrill,” she was saying, “tells me he doesn’t read a newspaper. That’s hard for me to understand. The things one would miss! Why, only last week I read that our U.S. Customs Bureau was collecting all the egret and bird-of-paradise feathers we’d confiscated during the twenties and thirties—collecting them and sending them off to Nepal, where they’re needed . . .” And then she went right on with her poem.

INTERVIEWER

I’ll have to interrupt. Why were those feathers needed in Nepal?

MERRILL

Oh, headdresses, regalia . . . you must remember—the papers were full of it!

But let’s be serious for a moment. If our Angels are right, every leader—president or terrorist—is responsible for keeping his ranks thinned out. Good politics would therefore encourage death in one form or another—if not actual, organized bloodshed, then the legalization of abortion or, heaven forbid, the various chemical or technological atrocities. Only this last strikes me as truly immoral, perhaps because it’s a threat that hadn’t existed before my own lifetime. I take it personally. That bit in “The Broken Home”—“Father Time and Mother Earth, / A marriage on the rocks”—isn’t meant as a joke. History in our time has cut loose, has broken faith with Nature. But poems, even those of the most savage incandescence, can’t deal frontally with such huge, urgent subjects without sounding grumpy or dated when they should still be in their prime. So my parents’ divorce dramatized on a human scale a subject that couldn’t have been handled otherwise. Which is what a “poetic” turn of mind allows for. You don’t see eternity except in the grain of sand, or history except at the family dinner table.

 

By the time I returned, three months later, to resume our conversation, the cassia had been potted with a seaweed mulch, moved to an exposed spot indoors (but chaperoned by a matronly Norfolk pine), bloomed, and shed a buttercup dandruff all over the bookcase and stairwell. Down those stairs to the right is Merrill’s study. To the left, where we turn, are the living and dining rooms, and the rest of the house. These rooms have best been described in Merrill’s own poems. Section B of “The Book of Ephraim” sketches the dining room, scene of so many séances: the “walls of ready-mixed matte ‘flame’” with their collage of pictures and icons; the “turn of the century dome / Expressing white tin wreaths and fleur-de-lys / In palpable relief to candlelight”; under it, the milk-glass tabletop, no Ouija board on it today. (With his trilogy completed, the poet tells me, he never “uses” the board to spring a poem; in fact, he and DJ rarely consult it—“perhaps a courtesy call when the moon’s full, or to see that a recently dead friend gets in with the right crowd. They say it’s time we weaned ourselves from all this—do admit they have a point.”)

But we sit in the living room, whose rug, wallpaper, and immense Victorian mirror dominate the opening pages of Mirabell. A card table has been set up in the middle of the room, where the poet has been opening and answering his mail. There is a great deal of clutter, which adds to the impression of a boutique fantasque. What is not in this room? There are two chairs, a horsehair divan where we sit, and an Eames chair. A watercolor by a friend in Atlanta had just arrived and the only place for it is the Eames; so there he sits, a whimsical hussar with a fennel shako, whose greatcoat’s fur collar turns into a caterpillar. There are piles of new books here and there, a heap of magazines in a swan-clip (I can see Time, Scientific American, The New York Review of Books). There is a Maxfield Parrish that belonged to his father, a Madeleine Lemaire (not roses, but violets), and half a dozen other pictures. On cabinets and tables against the walls are cacti and shells, a glass bowl filled with glass globes, a tanagra, an Instamatic, a snapshot of his goddaughter, medallions and boxes, a wooden nickel, a pair of miniature cloisonné deer, a Javanese puppet head on a pin, a Venetian mask, an upheld hand of the Buddha . . .

The poet pours out two cups of Hu Kwa.

 

INTERVIEWER

You had a very privileged childhood, in the normal sense of “privileged”—wealth, advantages. But the privilege also of being able to turn the pain of that childhood into art. How do you look back on it now?

 

MERRILL

Perhaps turning it into art came naturally . . . I mean, it’s hard to speak of a child having a sense of reality or unreality, because after all, what are his criteria? It strikes me now maybe that during much of my childhood I found it difficult to believe in the way my parents lived. They seemed so utterly taken up with engagements, obligations, ceremonies—every child must feel that, to some extent, about the grown-ups in his life. The excitement, the emotional quickening I felt in those years came usually through animals or nature, or through the servants in the house—Colette knew all about that—whose lives seemed by contrast to make such perfect sense. The gardeners had their hands in the earth. The cook was dredging things with flour, making pies. My father was merely making money, while my mother wrote names on place-cards, planned menus, and did her needlepoint. Her masterpiece—not the imaginary fire screen I describe in the poem—depicted the facade of the Southampton house. I could see how stylized it was. The designer had put these peculiar flowers all over the front lawn, and a stereotyped old black servant on either side. Once in a while my mother would let me complete a stitch. It fascinated me. It had nothing really to do with the world, yet somehow . . . Was it the world becoming art?

INTERVIEWER

The picture your poems paint of yourself as a child is of someone who’s bored. Were you?

MERRILL

We shouldn’t exaggerate. There were things I enjoyed enormously, like fishing—something responding and resisting from deep, deep down. It’s true, sometimes I must have been extremely bored, though never inactive. My mother remembers asking me, when I was five or six, what I wanted to do when I was grown up. Didn’t I want, she asked, to go downtown and work in Daddy’s office? “Oh no,” I said, “I’ll be too tired by then.” Because, you see, everything was arranged: to so-and-so’s house to play, the beach for lunch, a tennis lesson. As we know, the life of leisure doesn’t give us a moment’s rest. I didn’t care for the games or the playmates. I don’t recall there being anyone I really liked, my own age, until I went away to school.

INTERVIEWER

There may be links between that boredom and an impulse to write, to make up a life of your own. I suppose you were a great reader as a child?

MERRILL

Was I? I loved stories, but can’t remember being very curious about the books in the library. Once, all by myself, I opened a copy of Barrie’s Dear Brutus to the following unforgettable bit of dialogue: “Where is your husband, Alice?” “In the library, sampling the port.” Now I knew what port was: it was where ships went. And I knew what a sample was because even I had been consulted as to new wallpaper and upholstery. Suddenly a surrealist bit of language! But generally I read what I was told to read, not always liking it. My mother gave me Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch and I remember throwing it out the window. By then I was . . . eight? A couple of years later I read Gone with the Wind. No one told me there were any other novels, grown-up novels. I must have read it six or seven times in succession; I thought it was one of a kind. As for good literature—one got a bit of it at school, but not at home.

INTERVIEWER

You began writing at that age too?

MERRILL

I had written at least one poem when I was seven or eight. It was a poem about going with the Irish setter into my mother’s room—an episode that ended up in “The Broken Home.” The Irish setter was named Michael and I think the poem began: “One day while she lay sleeping, / Michael and I went peeping.” My first publication was in the St. Nicholas magazine, a quatrain: “Pushing slowly every day / Autumn finally makes its way. / Now when the days are cool, / We children go to school.” They wanted a drawing to illustrate your verses. And that gave me my first severe aesthetic lesson, because when the poem and sketch were printed—the sketch showed a little boy on the crest of a hill heading for a schoolhouse far below—I saw to my consternation that, although I’d drawn the windows of the schoolhouse very carefully with a ruler, the editors had made them crooked, as befitted a child’s drawing. Of course they were right. But the lesson sank in: one must act one’s age and give people what they expect.

INTERVIEWER

A ballroom, empty of all but ghostly presences, is an image, or scene of instruction, that recurs in key poems during your career. I’m thinking of “A Tenancy” in Water Street, “The Broken Home” in Nights and Days, the Epilogue to the trilogy. It is a haunting image, and seems a haunted one as well. What associations and significance does that room have for you?

MERRILL

The original, the primal ballroom—in Southampton—would have made even a grown-up gasp. My brother once heard a Mrs. Jaeckel say, “Stanford White put his heart into this room.” Four families could have lived in it. Two pianos did, and an organ, with pipes that covered the whole upper half of a wall, and a huge spiral column of gilded wood in each corner. And a monster stone fireplace with a buffalo head above it. At night it was often dark; people drank before dinner in the library. So that, after being sent to bed, I’d have to make my way through the ballroom in order to get upstairs. Once I didn’t—I sat clutching my knees on one of the window seats, hidden by the twenty-foot-high red damask curtain, for hours it seemed, listening to my name being called throughout the house. Once I was allowed to stay up, before a party, long enough to see the chandeliers lit—hundreds of candles. It must have answered beautifully to my father’s Gatsby side. It’s a room I remember him in, not my mother. He took me aside there, one evening, to warn me—with tears in his eyes—against the drink in his hand. We didn’t call it the ballroom—it was the music room. Some afternoons my grandmother played the organ, rather shyly. One morning a houseguest, a woman who later gave me piano lessons in New York, played through the whole score of Pagliacci for me, singing and explaining. That was my first “opera.” Looking back, even going back to visit while my father still had that house, I could see how much grander the room was than any of the uses we’d put it to, so maybe the ghostly presences appeared in order to make up for a thousand unrealized possibilities. That same sense probably accounts for my “redecoration” in the Epilogue—making the room conform to an ideal much sunnier, much more silvery, that I began to trust only as an adult, while keeping carefully out of my mind (until that passage had been written) the story of how Zeus cuts off the scrotum, or “ballroom,” of his father Cronus and throws it into the sea, where it begins to foam and shine, and the goddess of Love and Beauty is born.

INTERVIEWER

As a young poet starting out in the fifties, what did you look forward to? What did you imagine yourself writing in, say, 1975?

MERRILL

I was a perhaps fairly typical mixture of aspiration and diffidence. Certainly I could never see beyond the poem I was at work on. And since weeks or months could go by between poems, I tried to make each one “last” as long as possible, to let its meanings ever so slowly rise to the surface I peered into—enchanted and a touch bored. I looked forward, not without apprehension, to a lifetime of this.

INTERVIEWER

How would you now characterize the author of The Black Swan?

MERRILL

This will contradict my last answer about “starting out in the fifties.” By then I’d come to see what hard work it was, writing a poem. But The Black Swan—those poems written in 1945 and 1946 had simply bubbled up. Each took an afternoon, a day or two at most. Their author had been recently dazzled by all kinds of things whose existence he’d never suspected, poets he’d never read before, like Stevens or Crane; techniques and forms that could be recovered or reinvented from the past without their having to sound old-fashioned, thanks to any number of stylish “modern” touches like slant rhyme or surrealist imagery or some tentative approach to the conversational (“Love, keep your eye peeled”). There were effects in Stevens, in the Notes, which I read before anything else—his great ease in combining abstract words with gaudy visual or sound effects . . . “That alien, point-blank, green and actual Guatemala,” or those “angular anonymids” in their blue-and-yellow stream. You didn’t have to be exclusively decorative or in deadly earnest. You could be grand and playful. The astringent abstract word was always there to bring your little impressionist picture to its senses.

INTERVIEWER

But he—that is, the author of The Black Swan—is someone you now see as a kind of happy emulation of literary models?

MERRILL

No, not a bit. It seems to me, reading those poems over—and I’ve begun to rework a number of them—that the only limitation imposed upon them was my own youth and limited skill; whereas looking back on the poems in The Country of a Thousand Years of Peace, it seems to me that each of at least the shorter ones bites off much less than those early lyrics did. They seem the product of a more competent, but in a way smaller, spirit. Returning to those early poems now, obviously in the light of the completed trilogy, I’ve had to marvel a bit at the resemblances. It’s as though after a long lapse or, as you put it, displacement of faith, I’d finally, with the trilogy, reentered the church of those original themes. The colors, the elements, the magical emblems: they were the first subjects I’d found again at last.

INTERVIEWER

About the progress of a poem, a typical poem—one, say, you’ve never written—is it a problem that you feel nagging you and try to solve by writing? Are you led on by a subject, or by chance phrases?

MERRILL

Often it’s some chance phrases, usually attached but not always—not even always attached to a subject, though if the poem is to go anywhere it has somehow to develop a subject fairly quickly, even if that subject is a blank shape. A poem like “About the Phoenix”—I don’t know where any of it came from, but it kept drawing particles of phrases and images to itself.

INTERVIEWER

But by “subject” you mean essentially an event, a person . . .

MERRILL

. . . a scene . . .

INTERVIEWER

. . . a landscape?

MERRILL

A kind of action . . .

INTERVIEWER

. . . that has not necessarily happened to you?

MERRILL

Hmmm. And then I think one problem that has presented itself over and over, usually in the case of a poem of a certain length, is that you’ve got to end up saying the right thing. A poem like “Scenes of Childhood” made for a terrible impasse because at the point where my “I” is waking up the next morning, after a bad night, I had him say that dawn was worse. It took me a couple of weeks to realize that this was something that couldn’t be said under nearly any circumstances without being dishonest. Dawn is not worse, the sacred sun rises and things look up. Once I reversed myself, the poem ended easily enough. I had the same problem with “An Urban Convalescence,” before writing those concluding quatrains. It broke off at the lowest point: “The heavy volume of the world / Closes again.” But then something affirmative had to be made out of it.

INTERVIEWER

You’re so self-conscious about not striking attitudes that the word “affirmative” makes me wonder . . .

MERRILL

No, think of music. I mean, you don’t end pieces with a dissonance.

INTERVIEWER

When you write a poem, do you imagine an immediate audience for it?

MERRILL

Oh, over the years I’ve collected a little anthology of ideal readers.

INTERVIEWER

Living and dead?

MERRILL

Now, now . . . But yes, why not? Living, dead, imaginary. Is this diction crisp enough for Herbert? Is this stanza’s tessitura too high for Maggie Teyte? The danger with your close friends is that they’re apt to take on faith what you meant to do in a poem, not what you’ve done. But who else has their patience? Three or four friends read the trilogy as it came out, a few pages at a time. I don’t see how I could have kept going without their often very detailed responses.

INTERVIEWER

Are these reactions ever of any practical help? Would they lead you to change a line?

MERRILL

That’s the point! Ideally you’d think of everything yourself, but in practice . . . There were two lines in “Ephraim,” about a stream reflecting aspen. The word “aspen” ended one sentence, and “Boulders” began the next. Madison Morrison, out in Oklahoma, sent me this little note on that section: “Aspen. Boulders . . . Colorado Springs?” I’d never have seen that by myself. Nine times out of ten, of course, I use those misgivings to confirm what I’ve done. So-and-so thinks a passage is obscure? Good—it stays obscure: that’ll teach him! No wonder that the most loyal reader gets lost along the way—feels disappointed by a turn you’ve taken, and simply gives up.

INTERVIEWER

Yet one of your strengths as a poet is so to disarm your reader, often by including his possible objections.

MERRILL

That might even be the placating gesture of a child who is inevitably going to disappoint his parents before he fulfills the expectations they haven’t yet learned to have. I was always very good at seeming to accede to what my father or mother wanted of me—and then going ahead to do as I pleased.

We move into Merrill’s small study. As a rule, he works here every day from early morning until noon. One wall is books, with a built-in daybed on which is laid out a balked game of Patience. On his desk are dictionaries. Next to it a blue Selectric sprouting a draft. Friends look on, from photographs thumbtacked to the wall behind. One is of Proust.

INTERVIEWER

You say in “The Book of Ephraim” that you’ve read Proust for the last time. Is that true?

MERRILL

            I thought so when I said it, but in fact—just before starting to write the party scene which ends the Epilogue—I took a quick look at Le Temps retrouvé.

INTERVIEWER

In a sense, Proust has been the greatest influence on your career, wouldn’t you agree?

MERRILL

I would.

INTERVIEWER

Odd for a poet to have a novelist over his shoulder.

MERRILL

Why? I certainly didn’t feel his influence when I was writing novels. My attention span when writing or “observing” is so much shorter than his, that it’s only in a poem—in miniature as it were—that something of his flavor might be felt.

INTERVIEWER

Speaking of influences, one could mention Stevens, Auden, Bishop, a few others. What have you sought to learn from other poets, and how in general have you adapted their example to your practice?

MERRILL

Oh, I suppose I’ve learned things about writing, technical things, from each of them. Auden’s penultimate rhyming, Elizabeth’s way of contradicting something she’s just said, Stevens’s odd glamorizing of philosophical terms. Aside from all that, what I think I really wanted was some evidence that one didn’t have to lead a “literary” life—belong to a ghetto of “creativity.” That one could live as one pleased, and not be shamefaced in the glare of renown (if it ever came) at being an insurance man or a woman who’d moved to Brazil and played samba records instead of discussing X’s latest volume. It was heartening that the best poets had this freedom. Auden did lead a life that looked literary from a distance, though actually I thought it was more a re-creation of school and university days: much instruction, much giggling, much untidiness. Perhaps because my own school years were unhappy for extracurricular reasons I didn’t feel completely at ease with all that. So much was routine—and often wildly entertaining of course: once, a long lunchtime discussion with Chester Kallman about whether three nineteen- or twenty-year-old guests who were expected for dinner should be offered real drinks culminated that evening in Wystan’s removing three tiny, tiny glasses from the big hearts-and-flowers cupboard and asking me to “make vodka and tonics for our young friends.” (I gave them straight vodka, of course.) The point’s not that Wystan was stingy—or if he was, who cares?—but that his conflicting principles (Don’t Waste Good Liquor on the Young versus Gastrecht, or the Sacred Duty of a Host) arrived at a solution that would have made Da Ponte smile. Soon everyone was having a good time. One of the young Englishmen proposed—this was late in the sixties—that poems should appear in common, everyday places: on books of matches, beer cans, toilet paper. “I sense the need,” said Chester rolling his eyes, “for applied criticism.”

It was du côté de chez Elizabeth, though, that I saw the daily life that took my fancy even more, with its kind of random, Chekhovian surface, open to trivia and funny surprises, or even painful ones, today a fit of weeping, tomorrow a picnic. I could see how close that life was to her poems, how much the life and the poems gave to one another. I don’t mean I’ve “achieved” anything of the sort in my life or poems, only that Elizabeth had more of a talent for life—and for poetry—than anyone else I’ve known, and this has served me as an ideal.

INTERVIEWER

When you read someone else’s poem, what do you read for? What kind of pleasure do you take? What kind of hesitations do you have?

MERRILL

Well, I’m always open to what another poet might do with the line, or with a stanza. I don’t know what particular turn of phrase I look for, but it’s always very important, the phrasing of the lines—Elizabeth’s elegy for Lowell struck me as such a masterpiece because you read the poem a couple of times and felt you knew it by heart. Every line fell in the most wonderful way, which is perhaps something she learned from Herbert. You find it there. I think you find it very often in French poetry.

INTERVIEWER

You’re drawn, then, primarily to technical matters?

MERRILL

To the extent that the phrasing leads to the content. I don’t really know how to separate those. The poems I most love are so perfectly phrased that they seem to say something extraordinary, whether they do or not.

INTERVIEWER

Increasingly, your work has exhibited a striking range in what would once have been called its poetic diction. Conversational stops and starts alternate with stanza-long sentences bristling with subordinate clauses. Scientific jargon lies down with slang. What guides these choices?

MERRILL

Taste, instinct, temperament . . . Too much poetry sounds like side after side of modern music, the same serial twitterings, the same barnyard grunts. Just as I love multiple meanings, I try for contrasts and disruptions of tone. Am I wrong—in the old days didn’t the various meters imply different modes or situations, like madness, love, war? It’s too late, in any event, to rely very much on meter—look at those gorgeous but imbecile antistrophes and semichoruses in Swinburne or Shelley or whoever. I’m talking from a reader’s point of view, you understand. Poets will rediscover as many techniques as they need in order to help them write better. But for a reader who can hardly be trusted to hear the iambics when he opens The Rape of the Lock, if anything can fill the void left by these obsolete resources, I’d imagine it would have to be diction or “voice.” Voice in its fullest tonal range—not just bel canto or passionate speech. From my own point of view, this range would be utterly unattainable without meter and rhyme and those forms we are talking about.

Of course, they breed echoes. There’s always a lurking air of pastiche which, consciously or unconsciously, gets into your diction. That doesn’t much bother me, does it you? No voice is as individual as the poet would like to think. In the long run I’d rather have what I write remind people of Pope or Yeats or Byron than of the other students in that year’s workshop.

INTERVIEWER

The hallmark of your poetry is its tone, the way its concerns are observed and presented. And much of its effect depends on your fondness for paradox. Is that a cultivated habit of mind with you? A deliberate way into, and out of, the world and the poem?

MERRILL

It’s hard to know. “Cultivated” certainly in the gardening sense of the word—which doesn’t explain the mystery of the seed. I suppose that early on I began to understand the relativity, even the reversibility, of truths. At the same time as I was being given a good education I could feel, not so much from my parents, but from the world they moved in, that kind of easygoing contempt rich people have for art and scholarship—“these things are all right in their place, and their place is to ornament a life rather than to nourish or to shape it.” Or when it came to sex, I had to face it that the worst iniquity my parents (and many of my friends) could imagine was for me a blessed source of pleasure and security—as well as suffering, to be sure. There was truth on both sides. And maybe having arrived at that explained my delight in setting down a phrase like, oh, “the pillow’s dense white dark” or “Au fond each summit is a cul-de-sac,” but the explanation as such neither delights nor convinces me. I believe the secret lies primarily in the nature of poetry—and of science too, for that matter—and that the ability to see both ways at once isn’t merely an idiosyncrasy but corresponds to how the world needs to be seen: cheerful and awful, opaque and transparent. The plus and minus signs of a vast, evolving formula.

INTERVIEWER

I want to come back to a phrase you just used—“pleasure and security.” Would those twinned feelings also account for your affectionate and bracing reliance on traditional forms?

MERRILL

Yes, why not? Now and then one enjoys a little moonwalk, some little departure from tradition. And the forms themselves seem to invite this, in our age of “breakthroughs.” Take the villanelle, which didn’t really change from “Your eyen two wol slay me sodenly” until, say, 1950. With Empson’s famous ones rigor mortis had set in, for any purposes beyond those of vers de société. Still, there were tiny signs. People began repunctuating the key lines so that each time they recurred, the meaning would be slightly different. Was that just an extension of certain cute effects in Austin Dobson? In any case, “sodenly” Elizabeth’s ravishing “One Art” came along, where the key lines seem merely to approximate themselves, and the form, awakened by a kiss, simply toddles off to a new stage in its life, under the proud eye of Mother, or the Muse. One doesn’t, I mean, have to be just a stolid “formalist.” The forms, the meters and rhyme-sounds, are far too liberating for that.

INTERVIEWER

Liberating?

MERRILL

From one’s own smudged images and anxiety about “having something to say.” Into the dynamics of—well, the craft itself.

INTERVIEWER

Few words can make contemporary poets cringe more than “great”—I mean, when applied to poems or poets. That’s something that certainly doesn’t hold for other arts, say, painting. Why do you suppose this is so? Is the whole category outdated?

MERRILL

I hope not. Just because “great” is now a talk-show word meaning competent or agreeable, it doesn’t follow that we have to take this lying down. It’s really the bombast, the sunless pedantry—waste products of ideas—that make us cringe. They form on a text like mildew. Straining for exaltation, coasting off into complacency . . . Words keep going bankrupt and ringing false, and as you say, this wouldn’t be true in painting. A “new” Revlon color doesn’t invalidate a Matisse that used it fifty years earlier. Subjects date more quickly; you don’t see many weeping Magdalens or meadows full of cows in the galleries nowadays, and I can’t think of much celestial machinery in poetry between The Rape of the Lock and “Ephraim.” But painters still go to museums, don’t they? They’ve seen great paintings and even survived the shock. Now surely some of our hundred thousand living American poets have read the great poems of the Western world, and kept their minds open to the possibilities.

INTERVIEWER

Is “heroism” or “high tone” the word I want to pinpoint what’s been missing from American literature these past decades? Or do those terms mean anything to you?

MERRILL

Oh, heroism’s possible, all right, and the high tone hasn’t deserted some of us. Trouble is, our heroes more and more turn up as artists or invalids or both—the sort that won’t be accepted as heroic except by fellow artists (or fellow sufferers). Sir Edmund Hillary will “do” of course, but I don’t gasp at his achievement the way I do at Proust’s. Must this leave the healthy, uncreative reader at a loss, not being sick or special enough to identify? Does he need to, after all? It’s not as though only people in superb physical shape were thrilled by the conquest of Everest. And Proust is subtle enough to persuade us that the real feat has been one not of style but of memory, therefore within even the common man’s power to duplicate. It’s not the prevailing low tone so much as the imaginative laziness. We don’t see life as an adventure. We know that our lives are in our hands; and far from freeing us, this knowledge has become a paralyzing weight.

INTERVIEWER

An adventure without obvious dragons and princesses, composed merely of the flat circumstances of a given life—that’s not always apparent to the naked eye.

MERRILL

No. Yet your life, and that means people and places and history along with la vie intérieure, does keep growing and blossoming, and is always there as potential subject matter; but the blossom needs to be fertilized—you don’t just versify your engagement book—and when that bee comes can’t ever be predicted or willed.

INTERVIEWER

You’d disagree, then, with Auden, who said he was a poet only when actually writing a poem.

MERRILL

Lucky him. What was he the rest of the time?

INTERVIEWER

A citizen, I believe he said.

MERRILL

Oh. Well, that citizen must have heard a lot of funny sounds from the poet pigeonhole next door. I certainly do. Whether you’re at your desk or not when a poem’s under way, isn’t there that constant eddy in your mind? If it’s strong enough all sorts of random flotsam gets drawn into it, how selectively it’s hopeless to decide at the time. I try to break off, get away from the page, into the kitchen for a spell of mixing and marinating which gives the words a chance to sort themselves out behind my back. But there’s really no escape, except perhaps the third drink. On “ordinary” days, days when you’ve nothing on the burner, it might be safe to say that you’re not a poet at all: more like a doctor at a dinner party, just another guest until his hostess slumps to the floor or his little beeper goes off. Most of those signals are false alarms—only they’re not. Language is your medium. You can be talking or writing a letter, and out comes an observation, a “sentence-sound” you rather like. It needn’t be your own. And it’s not going to make a poem, or even fit into one. But the twinge it gives you—and it’s this, I daresay, that distinguishes you from the “citizen”—reminds you you’ve got to be careful, that you’ve a condition that needs watching . . .

INTERVIEWER

Sounds like that doctor’s turning into a patient.

MERRILL

Doesn’t it! How about lunch?


Author photograph by Nancy Crampton.