Poets and cranks
James Merrill, one of the great 20th-century American poets, was probably a credulous fool who wrote at enormous length about the cosmic wisdom he and his partner gleaned from their homemade Ouija board — a crank, in other words; but hold on a second. Merrill’s modern epic poem, The Changing Light at Sandover, is a record of a twenty-year communion with spirits through the board, W.H. Auden and a Roman centurion among them; the climax of the poem is a visit to ‘God Biology,’ a kind of helpless, infinitely melancholy cosmic radio blasting out in the void of space:
IVE BROTHERS HEAR ME SIGNAL ME
ALONE IN MY NIGHT BROTHERS DO YOU WELL
I AND MINE HOLD IT BACK BROTHERS I AND
MINE SURVIVE BROTHERS HEAR ME SIGNAL ME
DO YOU WELL I AND MINE HOLD IT BACK I
ALONE IN MY NIGHT BROTHERS I AND MINE
SURVIVE BROTHERS DO YOU WELL I ALONE
IN MY NIGHT I HOLD IT BACK I AND MINE
SURVIVE BROTHERS SIGNAL ME IN MY NIGHT
I AND MINE HOLD IT BACK AND WE SURVIVE
In isolation that stream of text resembles automatic writing, the scribblings of an obsessive (a visionary/occultist alone, perhaps); and given the nature of the Ouija board as a tarot-like ‘divinatory’ tool, a scaffold for verbal improvisation, in a sense that’s what it is. (Merrill’s ‘friend’ (partner) David Jackson handled the homemade planchette most nights; much of the text of the poem transcribes his/their own improvisations verbatim, though Merrill’s framing verses and responses are the poem’s main ‘voice.’) Sandover is an intimate poem about an increasingly isolated gay couple who drove away friends like Truman Capote through the obsessive pursuit of occult knowledge; Merrill would die a few years later of complications from HIV, after pushing Jackson away. Taken in that context, the transmission of ‘God B’ is one of the purest, saddest bursts of poetic music I’ve ever encountered. Merrill’s self-consciousness, a strain of incredulity, grants his acceptance of the ‘reality’ of his paranormal experiences an unlikely emotional power; the poem’s ‘truth value’ is uncertain, and the reader’s provisional acceptance of Merrill’s account (as of any poetic-fictional account) as ‘true’ is more complicated than usual. The poem makes clear that Merrill believes both that something ‘supernatural’ or at least outside of the reach of his waking consciousness is occurring, and that there’s a perfectly satisfying ‘materialist’ explanation — he’s committed to what he’s seeing (imagining), the vision, but he knows how deceptive vision can be, not least when we ‘speak to the dead.’ That epistemological complexity, the uncertain imaginative footing beneath Sandover‘s reader/poet/poem contract, is characteristic of best eliptonic writing; I’d say it’s one of the main attractions of the stuff, what separates the actually-Weird from the conventionally reassuring.
So was Merrill a crank? Well: was Yeats? Dante? Blake? Philip K Dick? Decide for yourself whether it matters and act accordingly, knowing that the poem’s there for you regardless, merely itself. It has more to give than the ‘facts’ it delivers; you’ll take from it whatever you’re able. I mean ‘willing.’
Still, asking the question matters. A proper (improper) eliptonic reading of the poem holds that the question, the uncertain epistemology, the wondering, is the source of some of its power.
Reading Sandover against, say, The Montauk Project — a popular1 late-20C delirium variorum linking UFOs, MiB sex abuse, the Philadelphia Experiment, time travel, Aleister Crowley, parapsychological experiments, secret messages in radio waves, Jungian shadow-beasts, and more ‘synchronicity’ babble than average, written by two actual cranks, and believe me I’ll come back to it later in this book — you begin to make out a spectrum of credulity, from Merrill’s ironic-(ir)religious awe to Nichols & Moon’s voracious appetite for any and all paranormal wish-fulfillment. Real crank literature tends to grow in the telling, as conspiracy theories do, because as fiction it’s only responsible to itself; The Montauk Project was a surprise hit, and spawned an entire ‘Montauk mythos’ that fills a good portion of the RAW/Joseph Farrell shelf at my local esoteric bookstore. The formal constraints of Merrill’s poem, structured by the symbols of the Ouija board and bound like Dante’s Comedy by the desire-curves of literature written for other human beings, work against such endless extrapolation. Sandover does get less satisfying as it goes along, because Merrill leans more and more heavily on lightly-edited transcripts of the Ouija board’s output, which his partner David Jackson was primarily in charge of. (In a sane world Jackson would be credited as the poem’s coauthor and recognized as one of the great 20C monologists.) But it rises to an ecstatic narrative peak with its vision of God B, and ends on a complexly celebratory/melancholy note in a very modern register, as Merrill begins to recite Sandover itself for an audience of the dead — ending his epic with a reference to its first line: a semisincere apology for its poetic form.
Merrill’s self-consciousness grounds his/Jackson’s visionary flights in the psychological metaphors then current with his high-literary audience, while the increasingly unmediated angel-voices of his otherworldly correspondents (which are, remember, essentially inspired ‘automatic speech’) invest the poem with what Harold Bloom, who was really in his wheelhouse with poetry in the Blake/Yeats visionary lineage, called a ‘daemonic force.’ The main difference between Merrill’s inspiration-via-Ouija and any other religious/spiritual poet’s own inspiration is that Merril’s candid about where the all-caps passages in his work come from. Merril remained agnostic about the ‘truth value’ of the Ouija board’s emanations, and (by a sort of transitive property) of the poem’s account itself:
As for the doctrine — or the belief — behind the poem, well, I’ve always tried to be of two minds, skeptical about what comes over the Ouija board; accepting of its metaphoric beauty and validity…
Nichols and Moon, meanwhile, embody a parallel strain. Without Merrill’s literary resources or refined artist’s temperament, they’re confronted, and in turn confront their readers, with something pure and simple: Nichols’s ‘memory’ of being sexually abused as part of a bizarre series of dimensional-travel experiments at a secret military facility on Montauk, and having his identity (not just documents and information but his memory of his authentic self) stolen from him by the government. While Merrill’s ‘dialogues’ veer for dozens of pages into didactic instruction — at times tediously so, though Merrill’s always ready with a leavening pun or startling inversion when the going gets tough — his goal is to entertain, and perhaps enlighten; Nichols and Moon are up to something else, and their specific aim is rarely entirely clear. The compulsive quality of so much eliptonic nonsense creeps into Merrill’s writing at times but it’s everywhere in Montauk; the writers’ need to convince their readers of their veracity, their realness, becomes a primary aesthetic feature of the series. It’s intensely sad.
Crank books tend to start out funny, because at first there’s always the possibility that it’s all a put-on. And when that possibility dries up and blows away, crank books can be the saddest things in the world. Laughing at a crank isn’t, I think, fun for kind people. Nor for me.
I feel a bit guilty linking Merrill’s splendid poem — aristocratic in bearing, though jazzily informal at times in speech — with the lurid illogic of the Montauk series. But it seems to me they share more than a general concern with ‘the occult’: they’re both attempts to work out the ramifications of a set of experiences (carefully shaped in Merrill/Jackson’s case, perhaps traumatically induced in Nichols’s), which seem to be understandable only in ‘magical’ terms. Nichols and Moon seem to ‘believe’ that something otherworldly happened in Montauk, the same way John Keel seems to’ve ‘believed’ in Indrid Cold; the scare quotes are there to draw attention to the difference between this belief and, say, your belief that the world is round. The tension generated by belief in a ‘crazy’ idea can produce high art, as it did for Merrill. But for eliptonists — ‘kooks,’ cranks — like Nichols and Moon, it can lead to a kind of compensatory terminal fixation on small thoughts, which build up like a katamari to a sort of mythic complex, driven by (subconscious) hope that a large enough accumulation of detail will make sense of the nonsense, though it always has the opposite effect. (See also: M. John Harrison’s heroically nasty characterization of SF/F ‘worldbuilding’ as ‘the clomping foot of nerdism.’)
Eliptonic nonsense gets bigger but not grander as it chases its own tale; the details are accumulated rather than uncovered. The experience is unshaped. But that’s enough for true believers.
- Popular, that is, among readers of self-published occult/paranormal nonsense, i.e. crank books. Unlike, say, Baigent/Leigh’s Holy Blood, Holy Grail Templar/Rosicrucian horseshit, the Montauk series isn’t written with enough brio to deserve a spot on the average reader’s bookshelf on its ‘literary’ merits, not that anybody actually applies those standards. But the Montauk books so neatly encapsulate all that’s unsettling about late-20C eliptonic Americana that I don’t hesitate to recommend at least the first one to anyone who, say, watched the X-Files episodes featuring depressive abductee Max Fenig and wondered if there were real people like him… ↩