Starting in the late sixties and early seventies, American poet James Merrill became interested in the occult and began using a Ouija board regularly to communicate with spirits. He began to use those conversations for his poems.

The Ouija board was originally known as a spirit board or talking board.  “Ouija” is a trademark of Hasbro, Inc. who bought the rights and produced it as a game board using the French oui and German ja to make the foreign-sounding yes+yes board name. How about a $260 glow-in-the dark version?

This flat board is marked with the letters of the alphabet, the numbers 0–9, the words “yes”, “no”, “goodbye” and sometimes includes  “hello” and other symbols and graphics. The user places their fingers lightly on a heart-shaped piece of wood or plastic called a planchette. The movement of the planchette supposedly spells out words and the occult idea is that the movement is controlled by a spirit you have contacted.

The original talking board of 1894

The original talking board of 1894

Most people treat the Ouija as a party game. It was big with teenage girls in my youth as a way to find out about boyfriends and future events. Once upon a long time ago, I spent some serious hours using it with a girlfriend who was into all things strange. She read the books and had rules we followed. For example, never ask a question that you already know the answer to. We received some “messages” that were difficult to pass off as coincidences or as things we had deliberately pointed the planchette to spell out. There were things that we were later able to confirm as accurate. There was also a lot of gibberish.

American Spiritualist Pearl Curran popularized its use as a divining tool during World War I. He believed that the dead were able to contact the living and he used a talking board to enable faster communication with spirits.

When I taught middle school, the Ouija board always seemed to come up somehow in some a class discussion. I would tell students that some religions, like Christians, think that its use can lead to demonic possession. That warning probably just made it seem more appealing to my students, as did reading about it in Stephen King’s The Stand or watching The Exorcist.

Paranormal and supernatural beliefs like the Ouija are generally considered pseudoscience. The planchette moves because of unconscious (or quite conscious) movements by the users. I’m sure Merrill wasn’t interested, but if you want some science, look into the psychophysiological explanation under ideomotor effect.

With his partner David Jackson, Merrill spent more than 20 years transcribing supernatural communications during séances using a Ouija board. He published his first Ouija board narrative in a poem for each of the letters A through Z, calling it “The Book of Ephraim.”  It appeared in the collection Divine Comedies, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1977.

“The Book of Ephraim,” a 90-page narrative poem in that volume. It comes from those 20+ years using the Ouija board and revelations spelled out by Ephraim. That spirit was a Greek Jew once in the court of Tiberius. Merrill mixed his own personal memories with Ephraim’s messages. In Mirabell: Books of Number, a sequel to “The Book of Ephraim” he continued that path at even greater length.

Is it great poetry? Not for me. I prefer other work by Merrill, but with a Pulitzer and with Mirabell getting the National Book Award for Poetry, don’t rely on my critical opinions.

Merrill is an interesting poet story.  He had a pretty sweet early life as the son of a founding partner of the Merrill Lynch investment firm. He had a governess that taught him French and German. They lived on a 30-acre estate in Southampton. Yes, James rejected much of that and lived a fairly simple life.

When Merrill thought he had exhausted the Ouija inspiration, the  “spirits” “ordered” (his word) him to write and publish more. That’s spooky. This led to further installments and finally a complete three-volume book titled The Changing Light at Sandover in 1982. It is a 560-page apocalyptic epic poem.