James Merrill (1926 – 1995 ) was a beautiful man who wrote beautiful poetry. His work is autobiographical in source and theme, but never particularly confessional.
Merrill was the only child of Charles E. Merrill, one of the founders of financial services giant Merrill Lynch. His extremely wealthy family had estates in Southampton and Palm Beach, plus a penthouse at the Carlyle Hotel in Manhattan. Poor little James never lived in one place for very long.
A public man and a giant figure in the world of finance, Charles Merrill worried about having a sissy son. When he discovered his son’s first lover, he hired a hooker to make James straight. Yet oddly, he was quite accepting and proud of his son’s poetry. His father published his son’s first book of stories and poems himself when Merrill was just 16 years old.
Merrill was taught German and French by his Prussian nanny. He had the money to go where he wanted, study where he wanted, and to meet the very best, brightest people.
Merrill graduated from Amherst College in 1947. First Poems, was officially published in 1951. In 1953, he met David Jackson, an artist and writer who would be Merrill’s partner for the next 40 years, even if they were anything but monogamous.
Jackson was thought of, as anyone would have been in his place, of being a gold-digger. Truman Capote once asked him:
“Tell me, David, how much do you get a throw?“
Merrill’s verse is formal, but witty, with a depth of real feeling beneath a coy facade. His poetry meant a great deal to a lot of readers. But early critics wrote that his poetry was brittle, neurotic, and unworldly (like that’s a bad thing). Some of that had to do with the era’s pronounced homophobia and class resentment.
Merrill was a big fan of the opera. He and Jackson would get stoned during intermission at the Met.
Both men had a longtime obsession with Merrill’s homemade Ouija board, where they communicated with spirits on the other side, including famous dead poets. Merrill and Jackson would bring out the Ouija board after dinner along with the brandy.
The first voice to break through, as Merrill recounts in his poem Voices From The Other World (1959), was an engineer:
Originally from Cologne.
Dead in his 22nd year
Of cholera in Cairo, he had KNOWN
NO HAPPINESS. He once met Goethe, though.
Goethe had told him: PERSEVERE.
During the séances at Stonington, and at their winter home in Greece, Jackson served as the medium; Merrill’s fingertips rested on the planchette (small heart-shaped piece of wood); his role was “scribe”, marking down letters in an airless sequence that required later translating into words and sentences. Those transcripts, written in blue ballpoint, became the basis for Merrill’s 560-page poem The Changing Light at Sandover, a book that managed to all at once horrify and embarrass the literary establishment; win major accolades and prizes; and inspire critic Harold Bloom to call Merrill “…the strangest, the most unnerving of all this country’s poets“.
Jackson reported that, using a Ouija board, he and Merrill had contacted Capote in the afterlife, in a place called “The Hedge”. The Hedge seemed to be a kind of screen through which the dead can peer at human life as well as eavesdrop upon the affairs among the living. Presiding, as the hostess was Alice B. Toklas. Since all the spirits wanted to talk all at once, she decided, as she did in Gertrude Stein‘s Parisian salons, who could communicate and in what order.
Merrill didn’t start out to write an epic poem. He was known for his technically flawless short works. Sandover didn’t even begin as a poem at all, but rather as a novel that fictionalized Merrill and Jackson’s conversations with the poor engineer with cholera.
Merrill took the Ouija board sessions seriously. They made him feel frightened, but exhilarated. He strongly believed in a spirit world, but he sometimes simply dismissed them as mere entertainment. I understand, having spent some time moving that planchette around on an Ouija board myself. There might be something to it.
Merrill lived in a pre and post-Stonewall world and he felt the new shifting backdrops of Gay Liberation, and HIV/AIDS, with the slang, choices, and conditions for being a queer, changing with the times.
Merrill had an enormous appetite for sexual encounters. He had many lovers. He also had many STDs. He was ultimately taken by complications from HIV. Even though he was fully out of the closet by then, he did not speak publicly about his diagnosis. Merrill:
“In my opinion there cannot be too much denial.“
His poetry never shied away from his life as a queer. Merrill won nearly every major American prize for poetry, including two National Book Awards, Library Of Congress’s Bobbitt National Prize, Yale University’s Bollingen Prize, and the Pulitzer Prize.
Merrill and Jackson shared a famous, much written about house in the village of Stonington, Connecticut, and the couple spent part of each year in Athens. Greek themes, locales, and characters occupy a prominent place in Merrill’s poetry. Later, Athens was replaced by Jackson’s own 300 square foot home in Key West, a far cry from the houses Merrill had grown-up in. Merrill’s poem Clearing The Title is about this cottage on Elizabeth Street.
Though Merrill was very wealthy his entire life, he lived a rather modest life and he understood the financial situation of artists of all kinds. He founded the Ingram Merrill Foundation, a permanent endowment created for writers and visual artists. He contributed generously to literary causes, the arts, and PBS.
As Merrill grew older, the polished and taut brilliance of his early poems changed to an informal, relaxed style, even though he had already been established in the 1970s as one of the finest poets of his generation.
In his memoir A Different Person (1993), Merrill writes candidly about gay life in the 1950s, and about of his relationships with lovers real and imaginary, including writer Claude Fredericks, art dealer Robert Isaacson, and Jackson. At one point, Jackson and Merrill lived in a fairly long three-way relationship with actor Peter Hooten.
For over 30 years Merrill and friends used that special Ouija board for Merrill’s writing. The sessions brought many ghosts into their lives. But, near the end of his life, Merrill discouraged other people from ever using or playing with the Ouija board.
Merrill put down his pen for good in 1995, taken by complications from HIV while vacationing in Arizona, where he had gone thinking the hot dry air would be good for his health, just a month before his 69th birthday.
If you want to know more, and you really should, try James Merrill: Life And Art (2015) by Langdon Hammer.
But nothing’s lost. Or else: all is translation
and every bit of us is lost in it
and in that loss a self-effacing tree
Color of context, imperceptibly
Rustling with its angel, turns the waste
To shade and fiber, milk and memory.