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This is a book for all seasons. It chronicles Merton's poetic career from start to finish, which close up can seem to change and veer abruptly. From the distance of this chronicle it looks more like the regular flow of those low domed hills his monastery calls home, the Kentucky knobs. Working in an astonishing variety of modes and moods, the care and control of Merton's poetic output is consistent and always thoughtful, respectful of the reader.
Merton started recording his haunted poetic impressions of the modern world in the years at Columbia just leading up to his conversion. A sample is collected here, leading up to a struggle with a view of a wintry Lent which, developed in a slightly different vein, becomes "Lent in a Year of War," the keynote to his first published set, Thirty Poems. The resurrection of the fragment before the first book gives an astonishing window on Merton the man, the poet, the monk, the later social critic and protester: they were all the same guy, and they were there from day one. He did not "turn from the world" then later "turn to it" as the editors of his complete journals suggest. He never left it and carried its issues with him more deeply into ground, as it were, where they ripened over time. Lent is an "evening of sinless murders" the young man annouces, an image fusing the precise matrix in the modern world that he set his spiritual-poetic career against, with some note of active determination -- not passivity.
There are four published sets between 1944 and 1949. They still constitute a vast ground for explication and sensitive critical commentary, for which there is hardly room in a review. However, these four sets are rich and classically constructed poems which even, without the rest of the book, would make the short list for anybody's desert island. Now the sounds and sights and prayers of monastic days fuse with that long and bottomless meditation on the world and time that Merton craved, and that a career in teaching with a Columbia degree could not have begun to satisfy -- or at least not without deadly struggle -- as anyone who works in the world must know. But the key thing again is religious imagery not as a shelter or a denial or a flight, but as a full frontal explication of the issues that drove this poet "underground," so to speak. In "Ode to the Present Century" it is modern man who is crucified, demonically on his own most cherished petards:
How have you hammered all your senses into curses,
Forever twisting in your memory
The nails of sensuality and death.
An eight year hiatus follows, ending with the transitional The Strange Islands in 1957. Then the Original Child Bomb in 1962, and the explosion of his own poetic output that followed right up to Merton's accidental death at age 53 in 1968. These poems are more generally known, and take on many contemporary issues -- still burning -- with both hands in any mode Merton can get ahold of. They are wild and some of them wildly funny. Merton is about the funniest poet I know so I hardly care who considers him "great" or "major"; I bought this book on publication in 1977 and it comes off my shelf at least as frequently as any other I own. For just that reason: this meditative priest always has exactly what I need, somewhere. It is uncannily as if the book knows me, and I gather many others have had this experience with the writer. It makes him, to an odd degree, a sort of cult writer; among his continuing circle he is probably sighted about as frequently as Elvis. Funny thing, that man from Tennessee and this born again Kentuckian oddly had their fingers on key synapses in this time of flux, and hearty humor grafted upon dead seriousness from the heart was central in both -- one a crooner of ballads and another a bardic scholar. Merton, of course, favored Dylan -- not really all too funny in those days, either, but when you realize he got out of Gethsemani one night to laugh uproariously at "What's New Pussycat" you will be ready for the poet's wild finale, surreal and outrageous. He even had time to look back, as evidenced by a late uncollected poem, "All the Way Down," in which he goes "down/Into the cavern" to the bottom of the sea, "lower/Than Jonas," lower than any diamond mine -- "I thought I was the devil/He was no deeper down/Than me" -- -- But wait:
And when they thought
That I was gone forever
That I was all the way
I got right back into my body
And came back out
And rang my bell.
Simply, there is no room to signal here the riches of Merton's grand finale of bell-ringing. The whole book stands there, finally, like a picaresque symphony from an incredibly meditated modern life. Cables to the Ace and The Geography of Lograire, especially, are two astonishing modernist sets that have never gotten appropriate recognition. There are translations, silliness, poems in other languages, "antipoems," protests and rubics for subversive rites, encounters with the East, and more. And always, however surrealistically sometimes set in a mad lost crowd, there always remains the deepest vein Merton mined in his own "dark hole" from the start: the horror point where modern man is confronted with the quite real and still bleeding figure of Christ crucified, walking right up to him.
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Thomas E. Defreitas
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Thomas Merton is one of the most recognizable names in 20th-century Catholicism. His prodigious output of books intended to enrich our spiritual lives represent a titanic accomplishment, by any measure. His poems are perhaps less well-known, but they do form a necessary, and often an excellent, part of his work.
However, as even the most generous reader must concede, the excellence in Merton's poetry is sporadic. For every virtue we note in his verse, there is some deficiency. There are the prosodically firm, securely sonorous cadences of the early, devotional verse, but perhaps some readers would find the topics too narrow in scope. It is here, this reviewer believes, that Merton's best work is to be found, in poems like "Aubade: Harlem," and "Evening: Zero Weather" and "Trappists Working."
There is a middle period in Merton's poetic development (in books such as THE STRANGE ISLANDS and EMBLEMS OF A SEASON OF FURY) where Merton's concern broadens laudably to include the wider society. We think of the prose-poem "A Picture of Lee Ying" as among his sharpest and most keenly observed. However, as the topics become more "inclusive," the technique suffers a trifle. This reader is not hostile to vers libre, but free should not mean slack. In spite of much that seems dashed off or even throwaway, there are memorable poems in this newer mode: "Love Winter When the Plant Says Nothing"; "O Sweet Irrational Worship"; the elegies to Hemingway and to the "five old ladies"; and the unindictably beautiful "Night-Flowering Cactus."
Toward the late 1960s, immediately prior to his death, Merton's poetry becomes radically experimental. It is only the most starry-eyed Mertonolater who would have the patience to slog through the unrewarding sprawl of his "epic," THE GEOGRAPHY OF LOGRAIRE, an unparalleled tedium leavened only rarely by Merton's characteristic humor. More felicitous is the playfully surreal, the almost wickedly merry CABLES TO THE ACE, 88 short lyrics (some in verse, some in prose) that cast a cold eye on a world grown increasingly technological and divorced from contemplation. Perhaps CABLES is a "guilty pleasure" -- and here, too, Merton can be culpably facile -- but there is humor and wit in CABLES which is absent from LOGRAIRE.
There are appendices in this thousand-page book which include Merton's many translations, which seem competent and workmanlike, and his concrete poems, which have the merit of being playful and whimsical. I do harbor a fondness for some of the "uncollected" verse gathered under the title of SENSATION TIME AT THE HOME, poems ranging from a tribute to Origen of Alexandria to an elegy for the four girls slain in the Birmingham church-bombing of 1963. Also memorable is the longer lyric "With the World in My Bloodstream."
We know now, from the many biographies of Merton, that the Collected Poems are not the complete poems. There was the privately published volume of verse entitled EIGHTEEN POEMS, odes to M., the nurse with whom Merton fell in love during the spring and summer of 1966. Some of these poems, I believe, can be found in the New Directions volume In the Dark Before Dawn: New Selected Poems.
To sum up: The Collected Poems of Thomas Merton do contain many moments of beauty, of whimsy, of humor, of devotional ardor, and of basic human joy. They also contain much that is slack, that is trivial, that is undisciplined, and less than perfectly workmanlike. The volume is, as others have said, a "must" for the ardent Mertonian, but with the caveat that in these reams of verse, one will be disaffected almost as often as one is enchanted.