James Merrill: A Poem to Begin Things
Here is how James Merrill begins his 560 page poem, The Changing Light at Sandover, published between 1976 and 1982; it being the record of his conversations with a Ouija board, & with the spirits of W. H. Auden & many many others:
Admittedly I err by undertaking
This in its present form. The baldest prose
Reportage was called for, that would reach
The widest public in the shortest time.
Time, it had transpired, was of the essence.
Time, the very attar of the Rose,
Was running out. We, though, were ancient foes,
I and the deadline. Also my subject matter
Gave me pause – so intimate, so novel,
Best after all to do it as a novel?
Looking about me, I found characters
Human and otherwise (if the distinction
Meant anything in fiction). Saw my way
To a plot, or as much of one as still allowed
For surprise and pleasure in its working-out.
Knew my setting; and had, from the start, a theme
Whose steady light shone back, it seemed, from every
Least detail exposed to it. I came
To see it as an old, exalted one:
The incarnation and withdrawal of
A god. That last phrase is Northrop Frye’s.
I had stylistic hopes moreover. Fed
Up so long and variously by
Our age’s fancy narrative concoctions
I yearned for the kind of unseasoned telling found
In legends, fairy tales, a tone licked clean
Over the centuries by mild old tongues,
Grandam to cub, serene, anonymous.
Lacking that voice, the in its fashion brilliant
Nouveau roman (even the one I wrote)
Struck me as an orphaned form, whose followers,
Suckled by Woolf not Mann, had stories told them
In childhood, if at all, by adults whom
They could not love or honor. So my narrative
Wanted to be limpid, unfragmented;
My characters, conventional stock figures
Afflicted to a minimal degree
With personality and past experience –
A witch, a hermit, innocent young lovers,
The kinds of being we recall from Grimm,
Jung, Verdi, and the commedia dell’ arte.
That such a project was beyond me merely
Incited further futile stabs at it.
My downfall was “word-painting.” Exquisite
Peek-a-boo plumage, limbs aflush from sheer
Bombast unfurling through the troposphere
Whose earthward denizens’ implosion startles
Silly quite a little crowd of mortals
– My readers, I presumed from where I sat
In the angelic secretariat.
The more I struggled to be plain, the more
Mannerism hobbled me. What for?
Since it had never truly fit, why wear
The shoe of prose? In verse the feet went bare.
Measures, furthermore, had been defined
As what emergency required. Blind
Promptings put at last the whole mistaken
Enterprise to sleep in darkest Macon
(Cf. “The Will”), and I alone was left
To tell my story. For it seemed that Time –
The grizzled washer of his hands appearing
To say so in a spectrum-bezeled space
Above hot water – Time would not;
Whether because it was running out like water
Or because January draws this bright
Line down the new page I take to write:
The Book of a Thousand and One Evenings Spent
With David Jackson at the Ouija Board
In Touch with Ephraim Our Familiar Spirit.