This volume presumes an older one of Selected Poems, which was published by New Directions in 1959 and again in 1967, in an enlarged edition with an introduction by Mark Van Doren. Van Doren had been Thomas Merton’s university professor and mentor at Columbia. It was he who put Merton’s early poems into the hands of James Laughlin, the founder and financial backer of New Directions.
Laughlin considered Merton’s early poetry to be stylistically tame, but he was taken with Merton’s contemplative calling and found him the easiest of his authors to work with. Laughlin undertook to submit Merton’s poetry to a spectrum of journals, and then oversaw its publication in discrete volumes. Eventually, in 1977, he gathered the corpus in The Collected Poems of Thomas Merton, totaling 1,048 pages. This book is still the standard; but it is so massive that we need a judicious selection, like this one from Lynn Szabo.
Szabo has drawn widely from the furious poetic writing of Merton’s final years. This new spectrum of poems helps us tap into the complexity and mystery of Thomas Merton. Readers of Merton’s journals will be aware of his shifting attitude to all sorts of things—being an American, being a monk at Gethsemani, being a writer, in particular a poet. Szabo helps us here by assembling the poems in eight thematic sections, so as to display the multiple Mertons. There was the contemplative, drawn to the silent beauties of Gethsemani Abbey, especially at night. There was the stinging and at times declamatory social critic, the admiring and painstaking translator, the avant garde experimentalist and, toward the end, the lovelorn monk.
The Gethsemani poems of the early 1940’s have a smooth iambic flow, with long parallel lines not unlike those of the psalms. They display not only Merton’s acute powers of observation but his ebullience of simile and metaphor. In “The Reader,” for example, where he describes himself as the lector for a Trappist community meal, he writes: “The monks came down the cloister/ with robes as voluble as water.” This is a quip from the master of volubility!
Merton in the 1940’s is full of faith and consolation. The expansive poems of this era could have used some pruning and tightening, but gems lie among them, such as “Elegy for a Trappist,” “Evening” and the delightful “A Practical Program for Monks.” In the 1950’s, where we suddenly come upon “Solitary Life,” a poem about Merton’s hermitage on the monastery grounds: “And I worry about the abbot/ coming up here to/ inspect/ and finding/ a copy of Newsweek/ under the bed.” What is this? A chastened, “anti-poetic” style that Merton derived from his reading of the moderns. For a poem, consider “In Silence” (1957): “O be still, while/ you are still alive,/ and all things live around you/ speaking (I do not hear)/ to your own being,/ speaking by the Unknown/ that is in you and in themselves.”
Merton becomes more daring with syntax and punctuation during the 1950’s and begins verging into poetic prose, especially in poems of social protest. “Original Child Bomb” (1962), a tight-lipped narration of the dropping of the atom bomb, is unforgettable. “Chant to Be Used in Procession Around a Site With Furnaces” (1963), which speaks from the self-justifying viewpoint of a death-camp commander, rivals it. “Epitaph for a Public Servant” (1967) is the pretended self-defense by Adolph Eichmann of himself as a hard and dispassionate worker. All the cuts and switches and the unfinished patches of this poem typify Merton’s final period. He has Eichmann repeating: “Repentance is for little children.”
Merton is at his most elusive in The Geography of Lograire, issued in 1968, “that bruising year,” as David Cooper, editor of Merton’s correspondence with James Laughlin, rightly calls it. Merton ruminates here on his wide readings in anthropology—about the Ghost Dance of Native Americans, about the Cargo cults of Melanesia, about the festivals of the Mayans.
Szabo samples Cables to the Ace, also from 1968, the year of Merton’s death. The “cables” are prose paragraphs of a gnomic Zen quality, plus tantalizing poems that I have just begun to admire.
In 1963 Merton published “Hagia Sophia,” in five sections to match the liturgical hours. The prose poem speaks glowingly of Holy Wisdom, the tender and creative feminine spirit, “life considered as passive, as received, as given, as taken, as inexhaustibly renewed by the Gift of God.” Three years later, on his hospital bed recuperating from back trouble, Merton was awakened by the soft hand of a student nurse. This young woman, known now as “M,” stirred all of Merton’s sensitivity and responded to it. There were meetings, phone calls and letters, and, from Merton, a set of 10 poems. Despite his experimental tendencies at this time, they are quite accessible and, while starry-eyed, quite lovely. New Directions publishes them here for the first time.
A good concluding note about Merton as poet may be the opening stanza of “Antipoem I” (1964). We find the monk wryly of two minds about romanticism, and prescient, given the mode of his death. Above all, we feel his attraction to a great love that demands our all:
O the gentle fool
He fell in love
With the electric light
Do you not know, fool,
That love is dynamite?