Lynn R. Szabo, ed. In the Dark Before Dawn: New Selected Poems of Thomas Merton. Preface by Kathleen Norris. New York: New Directions Books, 2005. Paperback, xxxiv + 253 pages.
I have long been an admirer of Thomas Merton (1915-1968), the Trappist monk about whom H.H. the Dalai Lama said that he was “ someone that we can look up to” and that he “had the qualities of being learned, disciplined and having a good heart.”
Merton achieved worldwide fame for his bestselling spiritual autobiography The Seven Storey Mountain (1948) in which he chronicles his early struggle as a monastic starting with his entering the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemane in 1941. Once his order had permitted him to put his many thoughts on paper, he started to relax more into the spirit of renunciation, before long finding a new rhythm between solitary contemplation and outward creativity as a prolific writer, gifted poet, well-loved teacher, and an iconoclastic thinker.
His numerous publications include Seeds of Contemplation (1949), The Waters of Siloe (1949), The Sign of Jonas (1953), The Silent Life (1957), The New Man (1961), and Mystics and Zen Masters (1967). His topics ranged from the many aspects of spiritual practice to social criticism (some writers have called him the “conscience of the peace movement”). Toward the end of his life he became deeply interested in interreligious dialogue, and it was during his participation in an interreligious conference in Bangkok in 1968 that his life was snuffed out by a freak accident. Curiously, he died exactly, to the day, twenty-seven years after joining the Trappist order.
Merton has left us an uncommonly rich legacy. Since his death, many more of his writings have been published, which reveal his incredible perceptiness, masterful clarity of thought, and mastery of the English language. These qualities are also, and sometimes even more so, present in his many poems.
The present anthology nicely complements an earlier compilation of Selected Poems, published in 1959, and has the distinct advantage over its predecessor of featuring also many of his later poems. It serves well its stated purpose of representing Merton’s aesthetic vision as a writer and monk. To consult his poetic output as a whole, the reader may be referred to The Collected Poems of Thomas Merton (over 1000 pages), released in 1987, though new pieces of writing are found all the time.
Lynn Szabo, who is a professor of American literature at Trinity Western University in Canada and a Merton expert, chose the poems in the present volume carefully, and her selection criteria are obvious from her arrangement of the selected poems into eight plausible categories.
Some of my favorite poems are found in the category entitled “On Being Human,” which includes poems reflecting on his hospitalization in the mid-1960s and the late-blooming love for his unnamed nurse.
If we must reckon Merton among the great American poets, this is not least because of his ability to listen—one of the virtues to be cultivated by a Trappist monk. His listening was not merely with the ear but with his entire being. And so his poetry speaks to us in our entirety, reflecting to us not merely our present reality but also and especially our uncharted potential. I will treasure this anthology as part of my growing Merton collection.
The date given for Merton’s birth on the backcover of In the Dark Before Dawn seems to be incorrect. Most sources I have consulted state 1915, not 1914.
Copyright ©2006 by Georg Feuerstein. All rights reserved.
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