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The Ouija Poet 

UCLA’s Stephen Yenser on his friend James Merrill

Wednesday, Apr 4 2001

Through no fault of his own, the poet James Merrill (1926--1995) was separated from the ordinary run of humanity in three ways: He was extremely rich (his father was a founder of the brokerage firm Merrill-Lynch), he was gay and he was a genius. Not many people are dealt such a hand in life, but Merrill played his wisely. He never had to work, but he worked hard from childhood on, first learning, then mastering, the art of poetry. He spent most of his life in a long relationship with one man, David Jackson. And he lived far more frugally than necessary while quietly supporting other artists, either privately or through the auspices of the Ingram-Merrill foundation, which he set up.

Given such a background, one doesn‘t look to Merrill for the literary equivalent of Aaron Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man. Though he could do almost anything with a line of verse, the one thing he couldn‘t do is be plain (as, say, Auden could be). Even his most straightforward poems come adorned in prosodic jewelry. Reading Merrill’s work, one is always aware of seeing things through the scrim of a particularly privileged consciousness and life. His is an ironic, lucid, gifted, graceful presence, funny and kind, curious and extraordinarily clever.

Confronted with a tome the size of his newly published Collected Poems, one hardly knows where to start, such is the variety of subject matter and form. And the book does not include Merrill‘s controversial epic poem The Changing Light at Sandover, published in installments from 1976--82, in which Merrill and Jackson recorded their conversations with the spirit world through the medium of a Ouija board. For some critics, the 500-page work merited comparison with the giants of visionary literature -- Dante, Homer, Milton, Blake. For others, it was a more dubious enterprise. In the recently published Familiar Spirits: A Memoir of James Merrill and David Jackson, the novelist Alison Lurie treats Merrill and Jackson’s Ouija sessions as a form of madness that destroyed their relationship and corrupted the poetry. Although most critics would disagree with that assessment, the balance of opinion does lean toward Merrill‘s shorter lyric poems as representing his best work.

What’s extraordinary about Merrill is that a poet whose early poems tended toward the miniaturized and precious could have become a writer capable of encompassing so much of the world in his work. In this sense, the late poem “Self-Portrait in Tyvek™ Windbreaker” seems particularly suggestive. In it, Merrill describes the reaction to a jacket he has bought, a windbreaker with a map of the world printed on it. The jacket fascinates people; suddenly, everyone loves him:

“Great jacket!” strangers on streetcorners impart.

The Albanian doorman pats it: “Where you buy?”

Over his ear-splitting drill a hunky guy

Yells, “Hey, you‘ll always know where you are, right?”

“Ever the fashionable cosmopolite,”

Beams Ray. And “Voila mon pays” -- the carrot-haired

Girl in the bakery, touching with her finger

The little orange France above my heart.

Everyman, c’est moi, the whole world‘s pal! . . .

In her memoir, Lurie likens Merrill to “a highly civilized alien from another planet.” A Different Person was the title Merrill gave to his own autobiographical memoir, published in 1993, and the idea that he could end up describing himself as an Everyman, the whole world’s pal, would have been unthinkable earlier in his career. In fact, it‘s still unthinkable. (The next line is “The pity is how soon such feelings sour.”) Merrill was, in the best sense, an elitist; he was also conservative politically and (his critics would say) artistically.

Merrill helped a lot of writers during his career, including Lurie, whose first book he published. Another beneficiary was Stephen Yenser, now professor of English literature at UCLA and a distinguished poet himself. Yenser was in his 20s when he met Merrill at a creative-writing workshop in 1967. It was the only workshop Yenser ever took, and one of the few that Merrill taught. After it was over, Yenser asked the then-40-year-old poet by what criteria one could possibly grade a creative-writing workshop. Merrill replied, “It’s easy. I gave an ‘A’ to those people who loved poetry. I gave a ‘B’ to those people who loved themselves. And I gave a ‘C’ to those people who didn‘t love anything.”

One presumes that Yenser got an “A,” for he and Merrill soon became friends. A Scattering of Salts, the last book of poems Merrill saw through production, was dedicated to him. Together with poet J.D. McClatchy, he is also the co-editor of the Collected Poems and is working on an edition of Merrill’s letters. Recently, Yenser and I sat down at a restaurant in Westwood to discuss the life and work of his late friend.

L.A. WEEKLY: Having known Merrill‘s work as long as you have, what impresses you about it the most?

STEPHEN YENSER: I think that the most impressive thing about Merrill, both as a person and a poet, was his inclusiveness. There was no genre he didn’t try: the novel, the play, the epic, the lyric, the haiku . . . He loved to experiment. He wrote a couple of ballads, and they‘re perfectly limpid, colorful stories with witty rhymes. But there are also some very, very dense lyrics. There were those two different directions -- the symbolist, dense layering of language, and the narrative poems. In his strongest work, you see both things working at once. So I guess I would say the sheer variety and the ability to bring these things together -- it’s beyond virtuoso.

One of the things that‘s unusual about Merrill is that he became steadily more prolific as time went on. By the end, he seemed to have achieved such technical mastery that he could turn almost anything into a poem. How quickly was he writing poems toward the end? There are so many of them.

James did everything quickly. As I’ve said elsewhere, to spend a day with him was an illumination. I stayed with him at Stonington [Connecticut, where Merrill had a house] for several days. He would get up in the morning and put on the coffee, and he‘d go in and start writing a letter, and then he’d take a telephone call from Athens, then sit down and do some work on a poem. Then he‘d come out and start making stock for the bouillabaisse for the evening. He’d talk to me, look at a poem I‘d written, offer some criticism. He’d dip into this book and that book, play the piano -- he was a good pianist -- and that was the way the day went! He‘d go out and do some shopping, come back, sit down, same ball of wax. And all of that stuff went into the poems.

What do you make of the Ouija-board stuff? Do you agree with Alison Lurie’s view of it?

No, and that‘s probably an indication of the difference between my point of view and Alison’s. She writes it off as being a part of a game gone beyond its means and not to be taken seriously. And certainly James had his moments when he thought that too. I remember talking to him in Santa Monica when he came to visit as that book was being written. He wondered where this stuff was coming from, and he was rather in awe. It‘ll be very interesting to see how Sandover is received in future years. I have no doubt about the lyrics. They’re here to stay, and he‘s one of the poets by whom we will recognize the late 20th century. Sandover is a different thing.

Lurie talks about feeling very daunted by Merrill, of being in his company and being suddenly aware of the cliches that fell from her mouth. He seems to have been an incredibly fluent sort of guy.

He never needed a second take. I do know what Alison means, but when I met him he was only 40 and just beginning to hit his stride, and was probably in some ways insecure himself. I don’t think I was ever much intimidated by him, but I do know that this is something people say about him, particularly those who got to know him later. And I can certainly understand. Over the years his conversation, his correspondence and his poems came increasingly to resemble one another. And in this respect he is really rare, I think. One could sit down and talk to him, and he would speak in perfect sentences, glinting with wit, and it would be like reading one of his letters. And then you‘d go to the poems and hear his voice. I think the goal was for there to be one voice for everything. There was nothing he couldn’t talk about, and his manners were perfect.

  • UCLA’s Stephen Yenser on his friend James Merrill

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