Thomas Merton, the most prominent Catholic monk of the 20th century, famously left the world to live a cloistered life at the Cistercian Abbey of Gethsemini in rural Kentucky, taking vows and becoming Father Louis. As many will recall, he described his journey to the cloister in one of the century’s masterpieces of memoir, The Seven Story Mountain.
Later, expanding his sense of vocation through deepening exposure to Buddhist philosophy and meditative traditions as well as the social upheavals of the early 1960s in America, Merton began to comment, from his cloistered perspective, upon the events of the wider world. He published his observations in a remarkable collection of short essays: Confessions of a Guilty Bystander.
It is not so easy, in retrospect, to sense the full impact of this work. It predates Vacation II, and, at the time, the idea of a priest—a cloistered monk, no less—writing about the world was unheard of. Monks were (mistakenly) thought of as innocents, certainly not political beings, certainly not public intellectuals, but rarefied, childlike creatures who might write poetry, or share religious visions, or create kitschy art for sale to pilgrims in monastery bookstores. They did not enter into dialogue and debate with the worldly. And if they did speak out, it was in pious platitudes. Merton defied all that, despised kitsch and platitudes. His startling voice—that of a great literary artist—was a trumpet blast from another dimension, and it shook the literary world.
Merton inspired a generation of writers with a mystical bent to explicitly draw the connection between ecstasy and the everyday world, to approach the interior cave of making, the rebellious joy of Bohemia, as if it were a monastic vocation. In this light, a generative relationship can be perceived between the Trappist Monk/Priest of Gethsemani in rural Kentucky and the Buddhist inspired Beats of urban San Francisco.
I think of Merton now, because I am a writer with a contemplative bent, inspired by dreams and shamanic practice, seeking ecstasy in words and visions, yet, like you, I live in America at a time of upheaval that demands my engagement.
In recent years, writers have increasingly thought of themselves as having political responsibilities. Few serious writers, these days, have not at least considered writing about the political scene. It is unfashionable to avoid political subjects.
A couple of years ago, I had the privilege of interviewing the great Jack Hirschman, former poet laureate of San Francisco. Hirschman, in my view, is a major poet, and his Arcanes are a mid-twentieth century masterpiece. He is also a deeply committed political thinker, who sacrificed what would surely have been a distinguished academic career and an assured place in the recognized literary canon when, as a young professor at UC Berkeley, he lost his chance for tenure due to his loud and public opposition to the disaster in Vietnam. Hirschman curates a weekly reading series in San Francisco (Thursdays at Readers) and we talked about what sort of work he chooses to present. He told me he is mostly interested in work with political content. He doesn’t really care about poetry that is too personal or focused upon aesthetic or spiritual experiences with no explicit political content, though he carefully noted he doesn’t object to non-political work, or consider it less worthy. He simply finds it uninteresting, and seems puzzled that anybody would feel otherwise.
As a writer, sometimes a poet, I am more inclined to look for inspiration to my dreams and my spiritual experiences, including encounters with nature, than to politics. I have written and do write about society, both in prose and poetry, but it is not my natural inclination.
At a time of great political upheaval, an historical moment that clearly puts demands on those having the talent to respond eloquently to do so, one who feels as I do is left in a quandary. Am I obligated to write to conditions? Do my artistic responsibilities and my social responsibilities necessarily overlap?
My feelings about this flicker rapidly between “yes” and “no” like a signal light, fully committed to both approaches, but not simultaneously.
I am a writer. My job is to ask questions and invite readers to think — not to give answers. The moment writers start answering questions they become propagandists. Literature and the arts create a free thinking space outside of the known and familiar — through catharsis, shock, through passionate thinking. I am going to read, write and think: this is me and my solution.
Today, I talk about politics and activism. Tomorrow I may speak of the side-by-side orange and lemon trees that reside in the sunlight outside our kitchen window and how, through cross-pollination, they produce sour/sweet lemons and sweet/sour oranges.
Zarina, writing of her artistic parents and their friends in the Soviet Union of her youth, reports:
My parents and their friends did not join the communist party, unions or collectives. They did not fight or resist the Soviet Union openly. They read banned books, thought banned thoughts and created banned art. Their life was an act of defiance, often through art.
So, I say that this is a time when our lives must be an act of defiance: whether that defiance takes the form of overt political protest, politically inspired poetry, contemplative study, or even the personal commitment, in the crucible of one’s own heart, to keep dreams alive.
However you choose to be, I am with you. For myself, I may be a Tuesday activist and a Thursday contemplative, a January writer of political prose, and a July singer of ecstatic rhyme. But I will live, no matter what, beyond Trump and all that he represents.
One of my favorite poems, which expresses my ambivalent feelings, comes from another priest poet, the eccentric depressive ecstatic Gerard Manley Hopkins, who wrote, in “Pied Beauty”:
Glory be to God for dappled things –
__For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
____For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
__Landscape plotted and pieced – fold, fallow, and plough;
____And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.
All things counter, original, spare, strange;
__Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
____With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
Rumpus original logo and artwork by James Lorenzato, aka Argyle C. Klopnick (ACK!).
“The Storming Bohemian Punks the Muse” was originally developed as a column under the editorship of Evan Karp at Litseen. An earlier incarnation of this work can be found there, along with many other interesting things.