A Catch of Anti-Letters

After finishing The Way of the Dreamcatcher I was looking for additional books about Robert Lax and discovered A Catch of Anti-letters by Thomas Merton and Lax. I finally finished reading it today. In retrospect, I don’t think I would buy it, or read it, again, though I did gain some new insights into both Lax and Merton, though there were certainly hints of the same traits in The Way of the Dreamcatcher.

Unfortunately, I also reminded myself why I never pursued a PHD. Although I love reading primary sources, i.e. poetry books or novels, I have no great love for secondary works, and I would certainly consider Anti-letters a secondary source. The book is not as boring as most secondary sources or critical essays for there were some entertaining moments in the book, but I suspect much of what’s here would mainly interest serious scholars or literary critics, and I ain’t one of them.

What the book did confirm was that Lax and Merton had a real sense of humor, that they were fond of puns and “inside jokes.” The book begins with a letter from Lax informing Merton that he was applying for a Guggenheim grant and had used Merton as a reference:

Here is a short note from the Insuls of Greichland to say that I have applied for a yo-ho-ho-erie from the Guggenhaus—that I have named you as my luckiest staretz and have given them right to ask you a frank appraisal of my staves.

Be frank, it is the only thing to be with the googenhows. (If you are not allowed to write, then leave it to Bro. Hilarion and if he not, to Brother Cellarer and if he not, Brother Barnabus, or anyone you like among the tigers.)

I don’t think I ever noticed any humor in Lax’s poetry, though he used phrases like “yo-ho-ho-erie” in his conversations with Georgiou. It’s not quite the attitude I would have expected from someone who had applied for a Guggenheim grant. I’m not sure what he means by “staretz” or “staves,” but unfortunatelyI didn’t feel motivated enough to hunt down their meaning, either.

Merton’s reply was perhaps even more surprising to me.

And so, my Dear Waldo,

lt turns out that you are among the Greeks. This is clearly educational, especially as you refer to your Guggenhappy fellowspot, which is of an educational nature. And education is, I feel, what most interests the Googenspit. What then shall l tell them in my frank appraisals? Shall l not conceal how you hoot at the educations? Fifty dollars. Shall I not make hidden your scorn of the university? Fifty dollars. Shall I not bury in oblivion your contempt for the Greed's eppig Hornware, Suffoelits, Europates, Askils? All you have contemned and spurned. Fifty dollars. Apart from that I will make light of Goggenball and fling reservation to the winds. How do you send me the sheets, the pencils, the carbons, the erasers and the microcards with which I am to inform of your spirits? Hath a high spirit, is indomitable, kicked over the traces at Columbia U., flouted Dean Hawkes, thumbed nose at Prexy Butler, a man of indomitable energies and corruscating Russian humors, burned all the books of the Greeks, smiled only at ]ohn O Hara.

No. This was only a joke: I will indite a long homework of praises for you bei dem Guggenfellow, a veritable epic in itself, substance and accident, category and isagoge, Porphyry and Isocrates shall spring into the gap with a pithy quip at the wrong instant, spoiling all, upsetting Guggy from his swivelchair. And you shall have millions wherever you go, principally in the lnsels.

Let it suffice to say that the typewriter shall creak with your happy praises and the fellowships will be edified. Signed Staretz Nikodim.

At first it’s almost as hard to imagine Lax a college rebel as it is to believe Merton would even joke about bribes, but considering the lifestyle Lax finally chose and how radically different his poetry is, it’s seems plausible he was a radical. I’ll readily admit, again, that I didn’t understand most of the references here and at least a third of the words seem to be invented-words but I still felt no compunction to discover their meaning. Still, it’s refreshing to discover this down-to-earth, humorous side of their nature, even if I don’t exactly share the same sense of humor. Their constant punning and word play also helped me to understand why Lax told Georgiou that Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake was one of the greatest contemporary novels, a novel I looked at and immediately refused to read.

Although this sense of humor dominates their correspondence, more serious moments appear, too, as one might expect. This short note from Lax helps to explain Lax’s retreat to a Greek island:

dear friends in the outer circle of the john stuart mill society:

i address you once agin in my new listless style feeling it to be the most appropriate to our times, filled as they are with utterly meaningless bustle. bustles says the machine; filled as they are with utterly meaningless bustles.

While some critics might consider his minimalist poetry “listeless,” and perhaps this choice of words actually refers to such criticism, it’s clear he sees his meditative poetry as a rebuttal of the machine age’s demand for a hectic lifestyle.

Merton commonly mentioned his health issues in his letters to Lax, and though Lax’s sympathy is clear in his replies, he almost invariably tempers that sympathy with humor:

Bien cher Feuerbach,

i am prized with sorrow when i see that while i was off at the shootings in athens you were at that time fed by science in the hospital & forced to eat the ground-up innocuous foods. i am laffs again when i see that you are only a stumble across the hall from the co’colas & the milky ways, & that you are visited in your splatz by the tray-dropping jailbaits. this should not put you off in your thoughts. dropping a tray is only a way of asking for counsel. i know this because i had a great whale of a nurse once who dropped a tray, & i know she was asking for counsel.

the gut tangle, as you've rightly supposed, comes from thinking too much & living in the wrong country. i used to get it everytime i'd set foot on the island of new york. this would often end up in the hospital, the clickity-click down the hall & the wavery appearance of your friends in the recovery room.

it is good if they only feed you the mashes. you must be obedient to the mashes & the milky ways. always swallowing down the one & not neglecting the other. & you must act benignly, like a benign 50-year old author, toward the small trembling girls & you will not be sorry. very small girls, like 8 & 10, stand outside the door & call my name all day. they do not invite me to their parties yet, but i know they will.

i too am full of hostility, even on kalymnos, but most of the time it does not make knots in my stomach. a good thing, too, because the only hospital they have around here is for fish. if a fish looks bad, they take it off to the hospital & make it look good. but there is no such thing as a greek looking bad. if a greek looks bad, he's dead.

what i mean is that there is no such thing as a greek either looking or being tired. getting tired is something that seems to happen to strangers. sometimes they get tired of greeks. greeks never get tired of anything.

I like the way Lax sneaks in his diagnosis of the cause of Merton’s ailments: thinking too much and living in the wrong country. Of course, the letters were written in the midst of the Vietnam War and I’m sure there was enough hostility in the air to drive pacifists like Lax and Merton to despair.

Although I resisted the temptation to look up most of the references I didn’t understand on the internet, I couldn’t resist the temptation to look up “Miss Velma” because she was referred to so often in the later letters.

Here’s an early reference by Merton:

Hoy: While you sleep, while all Athens sleeps, Miss Velma [F] does not sleep. She is awake and fathoming the teen age mind. She is packing them into the pews next to the giraffe and the ape. I leave you to judge for yourself about the teen age giraffe. It works.

Lax’s reply to this letter was much longer,

Dear Dr. Klaventook,


Miss Velma keeps me awake night & day with her questions. I'd have written long before but it is always Miss Velma with a question: what am I made for? Where is we all going? You are going to Fukuoji-cho, Kyoto. You are going there tomorrow. Never mind the other questions & never mind about the giraffe. You are going to Kyoto on the morning train tomorrow.

And everything else l have is going to Kyoto, too. One thing at a time. One verse at a time. Kyoto is the place. The Japanese are harbingers of good.

It's been a long, hard couple of seasons, I'll tell you. First the films, as l told you, then the visitors, later the krankenhaus '(auf Athen). The stomach pump, the rheumatic pains in every conceivable joint. They are drifting away. I'll be well again soon, with the help of St. Dominic Savio.

Miss Velma was first all answers & then in a sudden turn-about, all questions. Why am I dressed as a clown? Why am I leading a giraffe? How do I come to appear on Radio Kiev? (There was no way at all of apprising her of the facts.)

The fact is, she wanted to dress as a clown, she wanted to ride a giraffe, she wanted to call her sermon that day: "The Circus of Youth"—and all the rest. Well, there she is on her way to Kyoto, & I hope she finds it rewarding.

and his description drove me to finally look Velma up on the internet. It was surprisingly easy to find because Miss Velma was apparently quite popular. Here’s a good starting point if you’d like to read more. Don’t miss the YouTube link at the bottom. At least on this point I actually shared their sense of humor.

Merton on “Spiritual Life”

The section of Merton’s Thoughts in Solitude entitled Aspects of the Spiritual Life consists of 19 “essays” or meditations on various topics. I would be hard pressed to summarize those ideas in any meaningful way, particularly when it comes to the religious ideas.

Perhaps the style and content of the book can best be conveyed by citing one of these “essays,” one that I found particularly interesting:

Spiritual life is not mental life. It is not thought alone. Nor is it, of course, a life of sensation, a life of feeling-“feeling” and experiencing the things of the spirit, and the things of God.

Nor does the spiritual life exclude thought and feeling. It needs both. It is not just a life concentrated at the “high point” of the soul, a life from which the mind and the imagination and the body are excluded. If it were so, few people could lead it. And again, if that were the spiritual life, it would not be a life at all. If man is to live, he must be all alive, body, soul, mind, heart, spirit. Everything must be elevated and transformed by the action of God, in love and faith. Useless to try to meditate merely by “thinking”-still worse to meditate by stringing words together, reviewing an army of platitudes.

A purely mental life may be destructive if it leads us to substitute thought for life and ideas for actions. The activity proper to man is not purely mental because man is not just a disembodied mind. Our destiny is to live out what we think, because unless we live what we know, we do not even know it. It is only by making our knowledge part of ourselves, through action, that we enter into the reality that is signified by our concepts.

To live as a rational animal does not mean to think as a man and to live as an animal. We must both think and live as men. Illusion to try to live as if the two abstract parts of our being (rationality and animality) existed separately in fact as two different concrete realities. We are one, body and soul, and unless we live as a unity we must die.

Living is not thinking. Thought is formed and guided by objective reality outside us. Living is the constant adjustment of thought to life and life to thought in such a way that we are always growing, always experiencing new things in the old and old things in the new. Thus life is always new.

I’ve often said that I’m interested in the spiritual side of life though I don’t consider myself religious. Much of the time I’m referring to my mental life, reading Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, the Taoists, Chan Buddhists, and Zen Buddhists. I’ve even suggested that my love of poetry took the place of going to church.

I consider my interests in nature an extension of the beliefs I’ve gathered from those areas. I suspect every long hike, every long backpack spent in the wilderness has been, at least in part, a spiritual experience. It’s probably no coincidence that birding trips are often scheduled Sundays because many birders feel closer to “God” when they are admiring his creations.

Whether I’ve actually lived my beliefs is a larger question, one I’m not sure I’m able to answer right now. I’d like to think so. I sometimes think I’ve succumbed to too many of my materialistic urges, sacrificed too much of myself to acquire things that seemed rather meaningless far too soon.

I don’t ask much more of a book than it make me think about things I haven’t considered enough, and this book has certainly done that.

Thomas Merton’s “Wisdom”

I've just finished reading Selected Poems of Thomas Merton, and am happy to report I preferred the second half of the book to the first half, perhaps because it was easier to understand. It probably helped that Merton commented on several historical events that I was familiar with and tended to refer to less Catholic literature, though I still feel a need to look up Duns Scotus on the internet after reading one of his poems.

Merton certainly has some unforgettable lines in poems examining contemporary issues. He ends "A Picture of Lee Ying," a poem about a Chinese refugee turned away from Hong Kong with the line, "When you are back home remember us we will be having a good time." His poem "Chant to be Used in Processions Around a Site with Furnaces," a poem about the Nazi death chambers, ends with the equally haunting line, "Do not think yourself better because you burn up friends and enemies with long-range missiles without ever seeing what you haved done." I thought seriously about discussing one of these poems because they show how poems can successfully comment on political matters and still remain above everyday political commentary, but there are other poems that I prefer to these.

My favorite poems have nothing to do with contemporary events. One:

WISDOM

I studied it and it taught me nothing.
I learned it and soon forgot everything else:
Having forgotten, I was burdened with knowledge--
The insupportable knowledge of nothing.

How sweet my life woud be, if I were wise!
Wisdom is well known
When it is no longer seen or thought of.
Only then is understanding bearable.

gives advice that has nearly become a cliche, but there remains enough truth in the idea that it doesn't hurt to be reminded that scholarly knowledge and true wisdom are not necessarily synonymous, particularly since most of us dedicated to poetry tend to be far too literary in our tastes.

My other favorite poem probably stems from this idea, but I was probably also influenced by my earlier reading of Emily Dickinson, and, if the truth be known, I find her religious views more compatible with my ideas than Merton's ideas:

O SWEET IRRATIONAL WORSHIP

Wind and the bobwhite
And the afternoon sun.

By ceasing to question the sun
I have become light,

Bird and wind.

My leaves sing.

I am earth, earth

All these lighted things
Grow from my heart.

A tall, spare pine
Stands like the initial of my first
Name when I had one.

When I had a spirit,
When I was on fire
When this vallley was
Made out of fresh air
You spoke my name
In naming Your silence:
O sweet, irrational worship!

I am earth, earth

My heart's love
Bursts with hay and flowers.
I am a lake of blue air
In which my appointed place
Field and valley
Stand reflected.

I am earth, earth.

Out of my grass heart
Rises the bobwhite.

Out of my nameless weeds
His foolish worship.

Though I've never heard the bobwhite's song I participate regularly in this irrational form of worship. In fact, I often see my hikes and backpacks as a form of religious meditation, certainly a mindless, though I hope not entirely foolish, form of worship.

Perhaps it is merely reassuring to see someone from a much more traditional religious viewpoint find spiritual reassurance in nature. Though few of these poems rival the nature poems of fellow Catholic monk Gerard Manley Hopkins, they are beautiful in their own right, reminding us of the beauty of God's creation.

You can find several interesting Merton poems at Thomas Merton's Marian Poetry and I found The Red Diary containing notes from Merton fascinating. Needless to say, there is much more than I had time to read on Brother Merton on the internet that can be revealed by a simple Google Search.

Merton’s “Song for Nobody”

Things are too hectic around here with the Easter Bunny and all to really devote much of the day to blogging, but I couldn't let yesterday's post stand alone today. So, here's a more optimistic poem by Merton, the one that ends Selected Poems of Thomas Merton:

SONG FOR NOBODY

A yellow flower
(Light and spirit)
Sings by itself
For nobody.

A golden spirit
(Light and emptiness)
Sings without a word
By itself.

Let no one touch this gentle sun
In whose dark eye
Someone is awake.

(No light, no gold, no name, no color
and no thought:
O, wide awake!)

A golden heaven
Sings by itself
A song to nobody.

I'm nobody. I hope you are, too.

“The Selected Poems of Thomas Merton”

Although I hate to admit it, I found myself thinking that "The Selected Poems of Thomas Merton" seemed more "foreign" to me than the Japanese haiku poets I was exploring earlier in the week. Without the aid of Google I would have found it nearly impossible to understand many of the references in Merton's poems, not only references to historical figures like Federico Lorca but, more often, references to Catholic Saints, Catholic sacraments, or the history of the Catholic Church itself.

I was also a little taken aback by the "dark" elements in Merton's early poems, though perhaps considering that much of the early poetry was published when Eliot and Pound held sway in the poetic world, that his brother perished in World War II and that his French homeland was overrun by the Germans, Merton's despair is understandable.

Several of the poems are memorable, but I particularly liked this one devoted to a Spanish poet murdered by the Nationalists in the Spanish Civil War:

IN MEMORY OF THE SPANISH POET FEDERICO GARCIA LORCA

Where the white bridge rears up its stamping arches
Proud as a colt across the clatter of the shallow river,
The sharp guitars
Have never forgotten your name.

Only the swordspeech of the cruel strings
Can pierce the minds of those who remain,
Sitting in the eyeless ruins of the house;
The shelter of the broken wall.

A woman has begun to sing:
O music the color of olives?
Her eyes are darker than the deep cathedrals;
Her words come dressed as mourners,
In the gate of her shadowy voice,
Each with a meaning like a sheaf of seven blades!

The spires and high Giraldas, still as nails
Nailed in the four cross roads,
Watch where the song becomes the color of carnations,
And flowers like wounds in the white dust of Spain.

(Under what crossless Calvary lie your lost bones, Garcia Lorca?
What white Sierra hid your murder in a rocky valley?)

In the four quarters of the world, the wind is still,
And wonders at the swordplay of the fierce guitar;
The voice has turned to iron in the naked air,
More loud and more despairing than a ruined tower.

(Under what crossless Calvary lie your lost bones, Garcia Lorca?
What white Sierra hid your murder in a rocky valley?)

Although I'd never heard of the Spanish Poet Federico Garcia Lorca, a quick search of the internet revealed that this martyr was killed by Franco's Nationalists and buried in an unmarked grave because intellectuals were considered "dangerous". (God, how I'd like to be considered "dangerous" by Bush's minions, though I'm not particularly desirous of being martyred, even at my advanced age.)

The poem itself seems not only a tribute to Lorca and his poetic powers but an acknowledgement of Spain's "dark" past and sorrowful music, the "swordspeech of the cruel strings" of the Spanish guitar. More interestingly, the martyred poet is compared to Christ's crucifixion, as nature itself seems transformed into the cross in "The spires and high Giraldas, still as nails/ Nailed in the four cross roads" and Lorca's poetry becomes a celebration of that martyrdom, "where the song becomes the color of carnations, and flowers like wounds." In the end, of course, it's the haunting refrain "(Under what crossless Calvary lie your lost bones, Garcia Lorca?/What white Sierra hid your murder in a rocky valley?) that leaves the reader feeling the senseless tragedy of this murder.

Although an aubade is defined as a " song, poem, or piece of instrumental music celebrating or greeting the dawn" and an early poem by Sir William Davenant illustrates the celebratory nature of the poem, Merton's "Aubade-Harlem seems more like a dirge than a celebration:

AUBADE-HARLEM (For Baroness C. de Hueck)

Across the cages of the keyless aviaries,
The lines and wires, the gallows of the broken kites,
Crucify; against the fearful light,
The ragged dresses of the little children.
Soon, in the sterile jungles of the waterpipes and ladders,
The bleeding sun, a bird of prey, will terrify the poor,
Who will forget the unbelievable moon.

But in the cells and wards of whiter buildings,
Where the glass dawn is brighter than the knives of surgeons,
Paler than alcohol or ether,
Greyer than guns and shinier than money,
The white men's wives, like Pilate's,
Cry in the peril of their frozen dreams:

"Daylight has driven iron spikes,
Into the flesh of Jesus' hands and feet:
Four flowers of blood have nailed Him to the walls of Harlem."

Along the white walls of the clinics and the hospitals
Pilate vanishes with a cry:
They have cut down two hundred Judases,
Hanged by the neck in the opera houses and museums.

Across the cages of the keyless aviaries,
The lines and wires, the gallows of the broken kites,
Crucify, against the fearful light,
The ragged dresses of the little children.

I'm not sure what my attraction to this poem says about me, except perhaps that I am an unrepentant liberal. Here the innocent children of the poor, or perhaps their hopes of a better future, have been crucified, martyred to those who exploit the poor for their own ends. The children's prayers of a better life, like kites floating upward, have been crucified on the ghetto's "lines and wires." Their very imaginations, like the moon, have become a victim of the "bleeding sun, a bird of prey." Only the wives of the white men, like Pilate's wife, cry for the poor who can no longer dream.

Merton envisions the innocent children's sacrifice as synonymous with Jesus' crucifixion, "Daylight has driven iron spikes/Into the flesh of Jesus' hands and feet:/ Four flowers of blood have nailed Him to the walls of Harlem." For someone who has dedicated himself to Jesus, such an indentification would seem synonymous with dedicating his life to the poor children. Having returned to teaching after serving two years in Vietnam, I can appreciate such a dedication.