Monday, January 2, 2012

The Poetry of Thomas Merton - summer 1966

I have promised longtime louie reader, Mr. Spaget, a poem by Merton that impresses me.  Merton thought of creativity/art as an act of work/labour.  From Rowan Williams, "A Silent Action: p. 46:
"Labor is to do this rather than that, and to engage in the discipline and limits of doing this rather than that.  Work, labour, involves local  commitment and specificity.  Work is what has to be done in this moment, here and now, by this person, in the encounter ...

"He speaks of 'this unique instant' in terms of 'the sense of water on the skin,' a very powerful image.  The poet acts, works, in that moment of contact with truth."
And Merton knew that he wasn't quite there.  From a letter to St. Therese Lentfoehr, written in 1948:
"With me, I know what the trouble is.  I come upon a situation and the situation seems to require a poem.  But the poem turns out to be not the precise, individual poem which that specific situation had demanded from all eternity but just 'a poem'.  A generic poem by Thomas Merton that is something like all the other poems by Thomas Merton and which he drags out of his stock to fit on every situation that comes along.  That is why Figures for an Apocalypse  is a whole string of complete misses.  All I can say is that the arrows were in the general direction of some target or other but I'd be hard put to it to connect the firing with the real object that was there to be fired at."
And then came the summer of 1966.  That was the tormented summer that Merton fell in love with the nurse, that he made no sense whatsoever to himself or others, confounding his abbot, his fellow monks, and his friends.  This is the poem:

summer 1966

Bright post-examination weather; in the redudant
classroom, the only point seems here, the belly
of Kentucky heat, the shaven sweating mariners
singing Gregorian shanties in a slow
light evening.  What do I want?  What sixteen-year-olds want,
no doubt; but also: to learn how to sail that sweaty ship,
words falling moistly from the timber, shining,
Latin, American, French.  And the horizon that you think
(so slow the light, so slow the gestures and the voices)
night never quite closes on.

                      The same month
you made a landfall, emptied on to the shore,
gasping and heaving against a new hard element,
against the solid sand.  And now I read you, years on,
leap and flail, mouth wide, reaching - you once-fluent fellow --
for the words to fix it, finding in the unfixable
a bizarre homeliness.  You spent my sixteenth birthday
making a clean(ish) breast of things to the steel smile
of Abbot James.  You staged show after show
for friends, then cancelled.  Not to make sense is
what most matters.

                      What was I seeing,
then, that summer?  light from a dead star?
Not quite.  But who could tell the night, closing its mouth,
the hard sand, were, after all, where the hot songs
would lead?  Practise the Gothic scales for long enough
and they will conjure, surprisingly, this place, flat concrete
convenience foods, an empty page to look into,
finding the anger; painting, then blotting faces you might
hers, yours, that only in fiction would stand still.
Not to make sense, inside the keel of sweating ribs,
not to make sense but room.

I'd say he hit the target with this one.


  1. I read in his diaries of that late and painful "falling in love". I was moved and impressed by his moral honesty.
    The poem is new to me: it is searing..

  2. i feel like i need a cigarette after that

    those images: ocean, sand, fish - why do 16 year olds go for the clipper ship? i know i did, melville, lou reed (heroin)

    last 2 lines: a kick in the yarbles

    it did knock off my socks

  3. the "water on skin" made me think of one of Daniel Berrigan's poems: poet writing like scratching surface of wall w/ blind fingers

    I did appreciate the words about "misses" very much and it helped me because I often feel that way myself when I witness a poem need that confounds me in the pedestrian output - I can never come close, really, to the experience.

  4. NB: Last poem is BY Rowan Williams ABOUT Thomas Merton.


2nd Sunday of Advent 2023

Photo by John P. Walsh F rom Alfred Delp S.J.,   Prison Writings , Orbis Books, Maryknoll, New York, 2004: “So this Sunday we must again fol...