Published 70 Years Ago: Thomas Merton’s “Thirty Poems”

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Thomas Merton

Thomas Merton

The renowned writer and Trappist monk Thomas Merton became known to the broader reading public with his famous spiritual autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain in 1948. The book struck a chord with the reading public in the aftermath of World War II and the onset of the atomic age with is persistent threat of total annihilation. But this wasn’t Merton’s first book. His first work is a collection of poems that appeared seventy years ago simply titled Thirty Poems.

Merton first visited the Abbey of Gethesemani, a Trappist monastery near Bardstown, Kentucky, in April of 1941 as he was wrestling with the issue of religious vocation. He came to stay in December of 1941, and embraced the rigorous routine of manual labor, contemplation, and prayer that were the mainstays of a Trappist monk’s life. He came close to abandoning writing altogether, but continued to write poetry. His superiors, knowing that he had a literary gift, also assigned him writing tasks and one encouraged him to write the book that became The Seven Storey Mountain. Writing became part of his religious vocation.

Merton in later years with the young Dalai Lama.

Merton in later years with the young Dalai Lama.

Thirty Poems appeared in 1944, three years after Merton entered Gethsemani. Some of the poems were composed prior to 1941, and Merton’s former professor at Columbia, the distinguished poet, critic, and teacher Mark van Doren, did some editorial work on the collection.

Abbey of Gethsemani.

Abbey of Gethsemani.

Much of the collection focuses explicitly on Christian themes, figures, and stories—no great surprise for a young poet and monk who had recently found himself very much at home in the Abbey of Gethsemani. Monastic life is a subject of one poem: “The Trappist Abbey: Matins (Our Lady of Gethsemane, Kentucky).” Other poems with an explicitly Christian focus include “The Blessed Virgin Mary Compared To A Window,” An Argument—Of The Passion of Christ,” “Saint Jason,” and “Song For Our Lady of Cobre.”

Image of Our Lady of Cobre, a representation of the Virgin Mother that is a fixture in many Hispanic nations, including Cuba.

Image of Our Lady of Cobre, a representation of the Virgin Mother that is a fixture in many Hispanic nations, including Cuba.

One of the most powerful and well-known poems from the collection is Merton’s “For My Brother: Reported Missing In Action, 1943,” which is Merton’s elegy for his brother, Sergeant John Paul Merton of the Royal Canadian Air Force. It is a moving and eloquent poem.

Thomas Merton would compose many other poems. In later years his work would become more experimental and comment more directly on social and political issues. But in Thirty Poems we see clearly the spiritual depth that is a hallmark of his work, along with a concern for the suffering of the world, a love of creation and the Creator, and exhilaration at the redemptive power of Jesus Christ.

Patrick Kerin

Sources:

Thirty Poems, published as an appendix to Merton’s second volume of poetry, A Man in the Divided Sea. New Directions, New York, 1946.

Published 90 years ago: Louis Bromfield’s “The Green Bay Tree”

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Louis Bromfield and one of his beloved boxers.

Louis Bromfield and one of his beloved boxers.

The distinguished novelist and conservationist Louis Bromfield published his first novel, The Green Bay Tree, ninety years ago on March 18, 1924. It was the first in a tetralogy (a collection of four works) examining the lives of people, principally women, as they strive to find some kind of steady ground on which to stand in a world of materialism, corruption, and shoddy values. They also concern the conflicts between people concerning tradition, and the traditions of the places where they live, and the opportunities provided by modern life. Bromfield followed The Green Bay Tree with Possession (1925), treating the life of one of the characters from The Green Bay Tree, a pianist; Early Autumn (1926), and A Good Woman (1927).

Bromfield was born near Mansfield, Ohio on December 27, 1896. He was educated in local schools and later attended Cornell. He served during the First World War as a U.S. Army ambulance driver, then worked in publishing and as a book reviewer before the release of The Green Bay Tree. Later in the 1920s Bromfield moved his family to France and continued writing novels, some of which were adapted for the screen.

With the threat of war looming, Bromfield returned to the U.S. and purchased several worn-out adjoining farms in his native Richland County and began work restoring the land. His farm became known as Malabar Farm, and he wrote a number of books about the life and operations of the farm, becoming as well known as a spokesman for agrarian life and values as he was a novelist. Celebrities often visited the farm, and Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall were married there in May of 1945. The farm is now Malabar Farm State Park.

Malabar Farm

Malabar Farm (Photo courtesy of Touring Ohio.com)

The Green Bay Tree concerns a mysterious house on a hill called “Shane’s Castle” and the women who live there: Julia, the widow of John Shane, who became wealthy selling land for the factories that now surround the castle; Lily, a daughter who will leave the town for a more uninhibited life in Paris; and Lily’s sister Irene, who turns to religious asceticism in response to the events around her. Another important character is a cousin named Ellen Tolliver, a talented pianist who becomes the subject, as noted above, of Bromfield’s second novel, Possession.

There is tension between the Shane women and people in town. Julia Shane refuses to sell a piece of property for a railroad station, and is treated with hostility in town for what she feels if her adherence to older values (although the Shane wealth is built on earlier, similar transactions). Lily seduces the state’s governor at a party and becomes pregnant, fleeing to Paris for a life free of the town and its culture, although she will eventually return home and understand there is no escaping the forces of the modern world.

The Green Bay Tree (image courtesy of Goodreads).

The Green Bay Tree (image courtesy of Goodreads).

I don’t want to say too much as I hope this blog and anniversary-related posts such as these might inspire readers to pursue these books. But it’s safe to say there’s a complicated train of events in the novel highlighting Bromfield’s theme of tradition versus the forces of modern life, and the challenge of accommodating change in ways that respect human dignity and values. It’s a theme that echoed in Bromfield’s life as well—he sought in Malabar Farm a way of life that was in accordance with the rhythms of nature and grounded in humane values, an existence that stood in contrast to the chaos of the twentieth century.

Patrick Kerin

Sources:

The Green Bay Tree by Louis Bromfield. Reprinted by The Wooster Book Company, Wooster, Ohio, 2002.

Louis Bromfield by David D. Anderson. Twayne’s Publishers, Inc., New York, 1963.

 

Louis Bromfield: The Land and The Man Were One

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December 27 marks the birthday of Louis Bromfield, renowned Ohio author and conservationist. Louis Bromfield was born near Mansfield, Ohio on December 27, 1896. In his life he was not only a successful novelist, but also an agrarian spokesman who owned Malabar Farm, an experimental farm in Richland County now part of the Ohio park system. His influential writings about the farm and his philosophy of sustainable agriculture were widely read and remain in print along with some of his novels. Long before today’s green movement, Bromfield espoused an agrarian ethos in support of sustainable farming.

Bromfield’s family had lived and farmed in the Mansfield region for nearly a century by the time he was born. During his childhood and youth his family struggled financially, and at age sixteen he went to live on his grandfather’s farm. However, his mother wanted Louis and his brother to pursue a different life…

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Merry Christmas–and Happy Rod Serling’s birthday!

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Rod_Serling_photo_portrait_1959

Merry Christmas! And Happy Rod Serling’s birthday!

The noted screenwriter and television show host was born on December 25, 1924 in Syracuse, New York. His family moved to Binghamton, New York two years later and he attended local schools before enlisting in the U.S. Army, where he served with the 511th Parachute Regiment of the 11th Airborne Division  and saw combat in the Philippines. Following his release from the service he attended the famously progressive Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio. He later spent time in Cincinnati working at WLW radio as a continuity writer, and then wrote for television at WKRC. He freelanced and also wrote his own material he hoped to sell during this time.

He eventually left the Queen City and found success, first with the drama “Patterns,” then with “Requiem for a Heavyweight,” and then—you guessed it—“The Twilight Zone.”

Rod Serling will be featured more in-depth on Buckeyemuse in the future. Until then, enjoy Christmas—and remember Rod Serling, born ninety years ago.

Patrick Kerin

Source:

Wikipedia entry on Rod Serling

Thomas Merton’s Christmas-themed poem “The Flight Into Egypt”

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Thomas Merton at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky.

Thomas Merton at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky.

The great spiritual writer and Trappist monk Thomas Merton wrote a number of poems in connection with various liturgical days, saints, and Biblical themes and figures. Merton (1915-1968) was a member of the Trappist monastery at the Abbey of Gethsemani near Bardstown, Kentucky.

It has been seventy years now since Merton’s first collection of poetry—Thirty Poems—appeared. One of the poems in that collection is “The Flight Into Egypt,” recalling the story from the Gospel of Matthew (Matthew 2:13-23) in which Joseph is warned by an angel to take Mary and Jesus and flee into Egypt as Herod plans on executing the infant Jesus. Merton was also greatly troubled by the rise of totalitarianism in the world, and the lines “Squadroned iron resounds upon the streets;/Herod’s police/Make shudder the dark steps of the tenements” evokes the image of a fascist police unit going about its ugly business. I find the words “squadroned iron” particularly effective: I can see the shiny barrels of machine guns and hear jackboots pounding on city streets, although one can easily picture the brutal constabulary of an earlier time.

Giotto di Bondone's "The Flight Into Egypt" (c. 1305-06).

Giotto di Bondone’s “The Flight Into Egypt” (c. 1305-06).

Here is the poem:

Through every precinct of the wintry city
Squadroned iron resounds upon the streets;
Herod’s police
Make shudder the dark steps of the tenements
At the business about to be done.

Neither look back upon Thy starry country,
Nor hear what rumors crowd across the dark
Where blood runs down these holy walls,
Nor frame a childish blessing with Thy hand
Towards that fiery spiral of exulting souls!

Go, Child of God, upon the singing desert,
Where, with eyes of flame,
The roaming lion keeps thy road from harm.

–Thomas Merton, from Thirty Poems (1944)

Luc-Olivier Merson's "Rest on the Flight Into Egypt" (1880).

Luc-Olivier Merson’s “Rest on the Flight Into Egypt” (1880).

Wishing you all once again a festive holiday season, a Merry Christmas, and a prosperous and joyous New Year.

Patrick Kerin

Source:

“The Flight Into Egypt” as reprinted in Selected Poems of Thomas Merton, enlarged edition with introduction by Mark Van Doren. New Directions Publishing Corporation, New York, 1967.

A Christmas poem by Vachel Lindsay

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victorian_christmas-300x185

Here’s a Christmas poem from Vachel Lindsay’s The Congo and Other Poems, published one hundred years ago in 1914. It’s also an introductory poem to the first half of the third section of the book. It’s entitled “This Section Is a Christmas Tree.”

1920s1

“This Section Is a Christmas Tree”

This section is a Christmas tree:
Loaded with pretty toys for you.
Behold the blocks, the Noah’s arks,
The popguns painted red and blue.
No solemn pine-cone forest-fruit,
But silver horns and candy sacks
And many little tinsel hearts
And cherubs pink, and jumping-jacks.
For every child a gift, I hope.
The doll upon the topmost bough
Is mine. But all the rest are yours.
And I will light the candles now.

—-Vachel Lindsay

Wishing you all a Merry Christmas, a wonderful holiday season, and a prosperous and joyous New Year from the staff at Buckeyemuse (said staff being myself and three cats).

Patrick Kerin

Source:

The Congo and Other Poems by Vachel Lindsay, Dover Thrift edition edited by Shane Weller, Dover Publications, Inc., 1992.

Published A Century Ago: Vachel Lindsay’s “The Congo and Other Poems.”

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congo

It was 100 years ago that Midwestern poet Vachel Lindsay achieved prominence with his collection The Congo and Other Poems. Lindsay, born in Springfield, Illinois in 1879, had published a volume in 1913 called General William Booth Enters Into Heaven and Other Poems that garnered attention along with his dramatic public recitations. The Congo and Other Poems, with an introduction by poet and editor Harriet Monroe, sealed his reputation. That reputation would last only into the early 1920s, and by 1931 Lindsay was dead, a suicide who drank a bottle of Lysol after years of depression, poor health, financial problems, and a diminished status in the literary world of his time.

Lindsay grew up in Springfield. He briefly attended Hiram College in Ohio, than left for Chicago to study art. He later wandered the country, traveling by foot, on one journey walking from Florida to Kentucky. On one of the last of these trips he carried with him copies of a pamphlet of poems entitled Rhymes To Be Traded For Bread. Lindsay was deeply idealistic. He hoped to share with others along the way his vision of democracy, art, and the potential for America’s greatness as a civilization. It didn’t always work out so well, but I find something deeply touching in the image of this young man wandering the country and sharing his work and vision with others. He had great hopes for his country and for his native Midwestern region. He “put it out there” as we say today, and didn’t hold back from fear of rejection. He might have struck others as a starry-eyed dreamer, but Vachel Lindsay had guts.

It was during this time too that Lindsay developed a reputation as a lecturer and a reader of his own poetry on the college and lecture circuits. This public presence supported his publishing efforts.

Vachel Lindsay (image courtesy of The Vachel Pages).

Vachel Lindsay (image courtesy of The Vachel Pages).

The Congo and Other Poems is divided into five sections. I have the 1992 Dover Thrift edition, which is essentially a reprint of MacMillan’s 1915 reprint of the book only without the Harriet Monroe introduction. There are some slight changes in titling of the sections in my edition, but there is little difference between the edition I have—which is a common one—and the 1915 reprint.

Early edition of "The Congo and Other Poems" (image courtesy of Open Library).

Early edition of “The Congo and Other Poems” (image courtesy of Open Library).

The first section of the book is “Poems Intended to Be Read Aloud, or Chanted.” This section includes Lindsay’s famous and popular recitation piece “The Congo.” The poem certainly has a paternalistic racism, but is also an important example of Lindsay’s performance pieces. There are stage directions of a sort printed in the margins on the right suggesting how portions of the poem should be declaimed. Two of Lindsay’s other popular works in this vein—“The Santa Fe Trail (A Humoresque)” and “The Firemen’s Ball”—are included in the first section.

Lindsay in declamatory pose.

Lindsay in declamatory pose.

The second section is “Incense” and includes many poems on Biblical or spiritual themes, such as “The Alchemist’s Petition,” “Two Easter Stanzas,” and “The Soul of the City Receives The Gift of the Holy Spirit.”

Lindsay was also an artist. Here's an example of his style.

Lindsay was also an artist. Here’s an example of his style. (Image courtesy of the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency).

The third section has an entirely different feel and is broken into two parts. The first part is “A Miscellany Called ‘The Christmas Tree.’ ” This section contains a mix of poems with subjects ranging from fairies and Cinderella to tributes to silent motion picture stars Blanche Sweet and Mary Pickford. The second part is “Rhymes For Gloriana.” It has only four poems. The first is about the memory of a doll that was taken down from a Christmas tree and provided comfort during a spell of childhood sickness. The remaining three poems are praises of a girl named Gloriana.

Mary Pickford

Mary Pickford

The title of the fourth section pretty much says it all: “Twenty Poems In Which The Moon is the Principal Figure of Speech.” This section is also divided into two parts. The first is “Moon Poems For The Children,” and it includes the famous poem “The Moon’s The North Wind’s Cookie (What the Little Girl Said).” The second half is “The Moon Is a Mirror,” and once again various figures comment on the moon, or the moon plays a role in the poem in one fashion or another.

Blanche Sweet

Blanche Sweet

The fifth and final section brings the collection to an end on a serious note. The section is “War. September 1, 1914: Intended to Be Read Aloud.” There are seven poems here, the first of which is one of Lindsay’s most famous: “Abraham Lincoln Walks At Midnight.” In this poem, Lincoln, “the prairie-lawyer, master of us all,” is stirred from his tomb and walks anxiously about the earth as a new cataclysm engulfs the world. The great leader cannot rest, Lindsay tells us, until true democracy is established in Europe and the days of kings are at an end. All the poems concern war and bloodshed. Even the last poem, “Epilogue: Under The Blessing of Your Psyche Wings,” which concerns the persona taking comfort in some kind of spiritual female presence, includes the lines “Under the blessing of your Psyche-wings/I hide tonight like one small broken bird,/So soothed I half-forget the world gone mad:–/And all the winds of war are now unheard.”

World War I

For a period of time in America, Lindsay was enormously popular. His appearance in a city could draw front page notice and huge crowds. But his time was short, and as I noted earlier, by the 1920s he was passé, and poetry was moving in directions far removed from his own.

His world of prairie populism, fairy visions, exotic and Biblical landscapes and figures, combined with excursions into American folklore and political issues of the time may certainly seem a strange mix to a modern reader. But he has his own rewards for those willing to explore an earlier world of American poetry during the first heady days of Modernism. The Congo and Other Poems certainly provides an interesting overview of Lindsay’s poetic landscape.

Patrick Kerin

Source:

The Congo and Other Poems by Vachel Lindsay, edited by Shane Weller. Dover Thrift Editions, Dover Publications, Inc., New York, 1992.

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