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:
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
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.