Some Notes on Thomas Merton & His Poetry

I’m participating in a writing group, whose aim is to study the works of Thomas Merton.  We will meet every other Tuesday, for about three months or so, to discuss original essays inspired by the writings of the Trappist monk and poet.  I was first introduced to Merton a few years ago.  I don’t remember how, though I suspect it was from reading something else, and seeing his name, and thinking: why not?  The book may have been the American Book of Religious Poetry, co-edited by Harold Bloom.  I know I read Merton’s poems in the book, which I liked well-enough.  At least, I liked them well-enough to begin reading what turned out to be a pretty impressive body of work.  Merton was prolific if nothing else.

I started with Thoughts in Solitude, I think, and then moved on to New Seeds of Contemplation, eventually getting to his spiritual autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain.  I’ve read other Merton works, from a treaties on Bernard of Clairvaux to translations from The Wisdom of the Desert Fathers.  The last I like very much, and keep next to my bed on my nightstand, which is really less a nightstand than a bookshelf.

If you’ve never read Merton, but would like a taste, I might recommend a book called Dialogues with Silence, a collection of prayers and drawings.  It’s a handsome book.

But I haven’t begun writing this post merely to talk about my reading habits.

The title of this blog, or the subtitle, is Starting from Poetry.  The idea, for me anyway, is that one ought to start from poetry.  Obviously, this gives terrific authority to poetry.  I might have instead called it Starting from Reality, because I’m not always sure where one begins and the other ends.  It should be clear from this that when I say poetry, I don’t mean verse or the sort of thing one finds typically in a poetry anthology.  I mean, perhaps – in the best cases – what those poems aim to find.  I mean more what Dickinson means, when she says: True Poems–flee.  Or what Stevens means, when he suggests that poetry, like prayer, ought to be practice in times of solitude and silence, as in the earliest morning.

I’ve read Merton’s poems, and have found them lacking.  At least, they don’t quite do for me what I want poetry to do.  He is much more the poet, as far as I’m concerned, when he is writing these intense meditations in a book like New Seeds of Contemplation.  It seem that Merton the poet – and this isn’t always true, but it is true enough – separates, for a good portion of his career, the act of contemplation, which for him was holy and a means of uniting the soul to the beloved, from the act of writing a poem.  His poems seem, instead, to be a literary endeavor.  It may be that his religious and political convictions prohibited him from participating as fully as he might have in the act of poetry, when he was writing poetry.

I suspect there will be some who argue that I have got this all wrong.  That’s fine.  I might have it all wrong, and I welcome a swat if I deserve one.  However, tastes are tastes, and there is probably little anyone else can do to help me see the virtue I desire in Merton’s poetry.  I might, after a few years or months, come back to Merton’s poems and find, indeed, what I had been looking for and failed to discover now.  That has happened to me many times before.  And, who knows, perhaps my understanding of what poetry is and does will change.  This, too, has happened before, though less frequently and less dramatically.  Usually, this change is a correction or a refining and not a refutation of former convictions, though this happens.

But back to Merton.

This Christmas, I read a very compelling and convincing book on Merton’s poetry by a poet named Fred Smock.  The book’s basic argument is that Merton’s peace work gave shape to the poetry.  And, according to the preface, the book “considers poetry as an act of political engagement.”  Smock’s approach to writing the book – the pages consist of rather small, chapter-like meditations – is essentially a poetic approach.  I suspect, though I can’t know, that he wrote the preface and settled on his argument only after most if not all of the book was written.  In other words, he discovered his thesis as a result of the reflective act of writing the book and thinking about Merton’s poems.  Equally possible is the chance that the thesis was an inevitable one.  Smock’s temperament and experience couldn’t lead him to any other conclusion, and Merton’s work couldn’t either.

However, what Smock considers a strength of Merton’s poetry, I consider a flaw.  Or, if not a flaw, then something else, but not poetry.  It’s not that I think poets ought to steer clear of political engagement.  American poets, because we live in a democracy, have an obligation to explore political themes.  Nor do I think that poets shouldn’t, wherever possible, advocate for peace.  An argument for peace, to be convincing, must be poetical.  But it seems to me that these make poor aims for poetry.  Suggesting that these are the aims of poetry, reduces poetry to a mere literary endeavor.  A kind of rhetoric, which serves an altogether human argument.  If the argument for peace comes as a result of aiming for poetry, then so be it.  If a political poem points beyond the merely political, then terrific.  However, the proper aim of poetry is poetry, that larger realm, which – again as Stevens put it – must have the force of reality or none at all.

I’m not saying that Merton doesn’t do this.  That he doesn’t aim beyond the merely literary.  I just mean to say that if he is successful as a poet, the study of his poetry must find in his poems, where they touch the mystery, that which “flees.”  There are such places.  Many places even.  However, in the final analysis, the film of Merton’s convictions, both political and religious, may be thick enough to keep him from being consumed by that which he touches, and ultimately, may be too opaque to let us follow and touch, where he might have gone.

After reading some of the above, I realize now that there is still another possibility for the subtitle of this blog, which may be more accurate still, and that is: Starting for Poetry.  Even here, one might like to touch, what is just beyond one’s reach.

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