IT IS NO ACCIDENT that there is more bad religious poetry written than bad poetry of any other kind. Special difficulties threaten the religious peom: The effort to deal with subject matter supremely important in the eyes of some readers, irrelevant in those of others, the necessity for fresh handling of certain foregone conclusions; often, the implicit reliance on a given reaction to carry the poem.
No poet in the English language has ever produced 1000 pages of religious poems which sustain a high level, and Thomas Merton is no exception. Yet what he has done is remarkable.
In his still widely read book, The Seven Story Mountain , written when he was 26, Merton had already indicated the poles of his distaste and his desire: His revulsion from a world which he saw as cruel, dull, and disastrous was profound, as was his desire for withdrawal from that world, and for a solitude broken only by the company of human beings who believed and reacted a she did. It is interesting to see how the abrasive harshness and even arrogance of much of that book changes, almost abruptly, in the late chapters which deal with his conversion to Catholicism and his entrance into the Trappist Order. Almost all of Merton's poetry springs from the strength of these two emotions: revulsion and rejoicing. The world he leaves behind him, as seen through his poems, the "miserable, noisy, cruel world" is a melange of
. . . empty beer cans, cigarette butts,
smiles on faded photos, torn tickets
and the sawdust with which in the mornings,
they sweep out the bars.
Well, the problem with this reaction is that Merton sometimes gives the impression that he discovered it. But we know that we can go back, beyond, "Moloch! Moloch!," beyond Eliot's generation of "lost golf balls," beyond "getting and spending we lay waste our powers," back, back ad infinitum. There must be more than an indictment of a materialistic, valueless world. The poetry itself must create for us a fresh vision of that grimness. And here Merton's poetry runs into trouble. In the first place, it often tends to rail; the tone grows shrill and loses us. In the second - and more fatally from the viewpoint of poetry - it is apt to include in its rejection the whole flawed fabric of common life. When a poet can speak of "the triviality and bathos of normal human experience," he is in considerable peril. For the sovereign power of poetry is just that its oblique and surprising touch alters, as it recongnizes, that experience.
A poet's temperament is the very nature of his poetry, and Merton's limpid and beautiful lyrics, scattered through the pages of his poetry, are the products of his reaching an atmosphere as necessary to his nature as water to thirst. "The embrace of it, the silence! I had entered into a solitude that was an impregnable fortress . . . Every star that man has not counted is a world of sanity and perfection. Every blade of grass is an angle singing in a shower of glory."
His nature finds the frigidity of logic, of mechnanisms, abhorrent. Opposed to his blessed silence, he finds a false and opposing one: "the vast whispering perfumed cybernetic silence of the millenium of death (Death the millionaire, Death the dictator, Death the engineer)." He sums it up: Over the door of Hell is written: Therefore .
The poems which fail are the poems which, repetitive, derivative, excoriate Mammon (something which genius can always accomplish), or those which make a painfully effortful attempt to deal with contemporary life by adopting a technique unnatural to, and unmastered by, the poet:
It is not the ire run late hold strong Wales to a mast
Young siren sexes of the green sea wash
Hold captain home to Ithaca in a pattern of getaway
Hold passion portioin siren swinging porter
Gutt bundle and funk gone . . .
This is not obscure poetry. It is chaotic attempt, wrenched into the shape of a poem.
But - to use the language Merton detests - the impact of the book is more than the sum of its parts. It is not just that poems such as "Elegy For A Trappist," are fine poems in any context. It is not even that many of the long sections printed as prose are interesting and stimulating. It is that the voice is one which has endured, and continues to ensure in periods which ignore it, or in times such as the present when it is once again making itself heard - the voice of the born contemplative, of the man who hears in the silence what he can never hear in the most important or seductive sounds of the world.
The Collected Poems is valuable because it gives the poetic oeuvure from which the best can be gathered. The translations, especially those from the Spanish, are among the most satisfactory poems in the book.
More and more, Merton became interested in the contemplative poetry of the East: and here the harshness which often characterized his approach to sects or people outside his taste and convictions is utterly lacking. The Collected Poems gives us as complete an insight as we are apt to get into a complex, passionate man, often lacking in tolerance, in humor, in the sense of proportioin. But the voice is true to its insight, is strong with enormous vitality. Though never in the sense of the imitated, the presences of Blake and Hopkins are there: and if the dark poems lack the stature of those Hopkins or Donne, the poems of hope, of exultation, or of quiet attentiveness, are often close to that company.