James Ingram Merrill (March 3, 1926 – February 6, 1995) was an American poet who also published novels, plays, essays and a memoir. Merrill was born in New York City to Hellen Ingram Merrill and Charles E. Merrill, founding partner of the Merrill Lynch investment firm. As a boy, Merrill enjoyed a highly privileged upbringing in economic and educational terms. As a teenager, Merrill attended the Lawrenceville School. When Merrill was 16 years old, his father collected his short stories and poems and published them as a surprise under the name Jim’s Book.
Merrill’s studies at Amherst College were interrupted by service in the U.S. Army from 1944 to 1945. Another book, The Black Swan, was privately printed in 1946 while he was still in college. Following his graduation in 1947, he taught for a year at Bard College. Merrill’s first commercially published volume, First Poems, was published by Alfred A. Knopf in 1951 to critical acclaim.
Despite great personal wealth derived from unbreakable trusts made early in his childhood, Merrill lived modestly. In 1956, he used a portion of his inheritance to found the Ingram Merrill Foundation, which has since awarded grants to hundreds of artists and writers. Beginning with the prestigious Glascock Prize, awarded for “The Black Swan” when he was an undergraduate, Merrill would go on to receive every major poetry award in the United States, including the 1977 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for Divine Comedies. Merrill was honored in mid-career with the Bollingen Prize in 1973. He would receive the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1983 for his epic poem The Changing Light at Sandover. In 1990, he received the first Bobbitt National Prize for Poetry awarded by the Library of Congress for The Inner Room. He garnered the National Book Award for Poetry twice, in 1967 forNights and Days and in 1979 for Mirabell: Books of Number. He was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1978. Merrill also served as a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets from 1979 until his death.
A writer of elegance and wit, highly adept at wordplay and puns, Merrill was a master of traditional poetic meter and form who also wrote a good deal of free and blank verse. As Merrill matured, the polished and taut brilliance of his early work yielded to a more informal, relaxed voice. Already established in the 1970s among the finest poets of his generation, Merrill made a surprising detour when he began incorporating occult messages into his work. The result, a 560-page apocalyptic epic published as The Changing Light at Sandover (1982), documents two decades of messages dictated from otherworldly spirits during Ouija séances hosted by Merrill and his partner David Jackson. The Changing Light at Sandover is one of the longest epics in any language, and features the voices of recently deceased poet W. H. Auden, Merrill’s late friends Maya Deren and Greek socialite Maria Mitsotáki, as well as heavenly beings including the Archangel Michael.
Following the publication of The Changing Light at Sandover, Merrill returned to writing shorter poetry which could be both whimsical and nostalgic. His last book, A Scattering of Salts, was published a month after his death.