The James Merrill Digital Archive: Materials for The Book of Ephraim

About Merrill's Work

 

American poet James Ingram Merrill (March 3, 1926-February 6, 1995), according to one famous review, left his readers feeling he was “writing down your century, your language, your life.”[1] He won the Pulitzer Prize for his Divine Comedies (1977) as well as two National Book Awards for Poetry, first in 1967 for Nights and Days and again in 1979 for Mirabell: Books of Number. He also won a National Book Critics Circle Award for his epic poem The Changing Light at Sandover, described by Stephen Yenser as “one of the most ambitious, original and variously brilliant works written by an American.”[2] His first collection of short stories and poems, Jim’s Book was published by his father, Charles Merrill of Merrill-Lynch, when James was 16 years old. Merrill published another book, The Black Swan, in 1946 while still in college at Amherst. His first commercially published volume, First Poems, was published in 1951 to critical acclaim.

Merrill’s poems from later in his career reflect his interest in the occult. What was to become a sustained project was first developed in the second part of the Divine Comedies in his epic poem The Book of Ephraim, which recounts “a Thousand and One Evenings Spent / With David Jackson at the Ouija Board / In Touch with Ephraim Our Familiar Spirit” (ll. 67-69). Ephraim, a Greek Jew born in 8 A.D., is Merrill’s first contact with the spirit world, and The Book of Ephraim is Merrill’s first extended poetic transcription of their encounters. Merrill’s Ouija sessions, as he describes in his poem, were conducted with his partner David Jackson. Jackson would ask the questions, and Merrill would transcribe the answers; Merrill is often referred to as “SCRIBE” in the Ouija transcripts. Using an overturned teacup instead of a planchette, Jackson would put his right hand on the cup and Merrill would use his left, leaving his right hand free to transcribe. They would receive five hundred to six hundred words an hour, resulting in something “like first-grade compositions. Drunken lines of capitals lurching across the page, gibberish until they’re divided into words and sentences.”[3] Over a thousand pages of Ouija transcripts resulted.

The Ouija sessions shaped Merrill’s poetry both directly and indirectly, generating material and general imaginative framework about what it meant to compose, to revise, and to draw inspiration. And the composition of Merrill’s poetry, in turn, generated new material in his Ouija sessions, invited commentary from his “familiar spirit,” and inspired new ideas in the framework of his cosmic philosophy. The pages of his Ouija materials are mingled with poetry fragments, just as his poems are full of block letters of Ouija transcriptions. He takes from the Ouija board his structure for the books on his spiritual encounters, The Book of Ephraim (Divine Comedies, 1976) divided into sections A through Z, Mirabell: Book of Number (1978) divided into sections 0 through 9, and Scripts for the Pageant (1980) divided into sections “YES,” “&,” and “NO.” Each of these works was originally published separately, but they were later combined into Merrill’s epic work, The Changing Light at Sandover (1982).

 


[1] The review is reprinted in Helen Vendler, Part of Nature, Part of Us: Modern American Poets (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1980), 205-10.

[2] Yenser, Stephen, The Consuming Myth: The Work of James Merrill (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1987), 217.

[3]This is James Merrill’s description in an interview: “James Merrill: The Art of Poetry No. 31,” by J.D. McClatchy, Paris Review 84 (1982), MLA International Bibliography, EBSCOhost (accessed June 19, 2013).