Thursday, October 8, 2020

October 5-8: Mark Van Doren, Saint Marty's Day, Good News

 Thomas Merton meets one of his heroes . . . 

Soon I was full of all the economic and pseudo-scientific jargon appropriate to a good Columbia man, and was acclimated to the new atmosphere which I found so congenial. That was true. Columbia, compared with Cambridge, was a friendly place. When you had to go and see a professor or an advisor or a dean about something, he would tell you, more or less simply, what you needed to know. The only trouble was that you usually had to wait around for about half an hour before you got a chance to see anybody. But once you did, there were no weird evasions and none of the pompous beating about the bush, mixed up with subtle academic allusions and a few dull witticisms which was what you were liable to get out of almost anybody at Cambridge, where everybody cultivated some special manner of his own, and had his own individual and peculiar style. I suppose it is something that you have to expect around a university, this artificiality. For a man to be absolutely sincere with generation after generation of students requires either supernatural simplicity or, in the natural order, a kind of heroic humility. 

There was—and still is—one man at Columbia, or rather one among several, who was most remarkable for this kind of heroism. I mean Mark Van Doren.

The first semester I was at Columbia, just after my twentieth birthday, in the winter of 1935, Mark was giving part of the “English sequence” in one of those rooms in Hamilton Hall with windows looking out between the big columns on to the wired-in track on South Field. There were twelve or fifteen people with more or less unbrushed hair, most of them with glasses, lounging around. One of them was my friend Robert Gibney. 

It was a class in English literature, and it had no special bias of any kind. It was simply about what it was supposed to be about: the English literature of the eighteenth century. And in it literature was treated, not as history, not as sociology, not as economics, not as a series of case-histories in psychoanalysis but, mirabile dictu, simply as literature. 

I thought to myself, who is this excellent man Van Doren who being employed to teach literature, teaches just that: talks about writing and about books and poems and plays: does not get off on a tangent about the biographies of the poets or novelists: does not read into their poems a lot of subjective messages which were never there? Who is this man who does not have to fake and cover up a big gulf of ignorance by teaching a lot of opinions and conjectures and useless facts that belong to some other subject? Who is this who really loves what he has to teach, and does not secretly detest all literature, and abhor poetry, while pretending to be a professor of it? 

That Columbia should have in it men like this who, instead of subtly destroying all literature by burying and concealing it under a mass of irrelevancies, really purified and educated the perceptions of their students by teaching them how to read a book and how to tell a good book from a bad, genuine writing from falsity and pastiche: all this gave me a deep respect for my new university.

We've all had people like Mark Van Doren in our lives--people we look up to, who teach us how to be better than we are.  For Merton, Van Doren is the embodiment of everything a student of literature should be.  It's all about the text.  No external psychological or sociological or political distractions.  Just words on a page.  Only words on a page.

I apologize for my long absence.  It has been an eventful Saint Marty's Day week.  Lots to celebrate.  Cupcakes to eat.  Presents to receive and open.  I am a man who has been blessed with family and close friends who really care about me.  So, these last few days have been a true affirmation of all the grace present in my life.  Yes, I sometimes struggle and curse and stare into the abyss.  I'm a poet.  That's what I'm supposed to do.  However, in spite of it all, above all, I am incredibly lucky to love and be loved.  

On Saint Marty's Day, I announced to the world the good news that I will be starting a new job in the middle of October.  In many ways, it's a dream job, utilizing all of my creative skills.  I will be the Adult Programming Coordinator at Peter White Public Library in Marquette, Michigan.  That means I get to plan cool events like readings and concerts and presentations and podcasts and art exhibitions.  In a year that has been characterized by so much strife and grief, I am holding onto this moment of light.

Another moment of light came to me the day after Saint Marty's Day.  I was driving my son home from a doctor's appointment, listening to Garrison Keillor's latest book, The Lake Wobegone Virus.  My son asked me to turn off the sound system in the car.  I did.  Then, my son shared a truth about himself with me.  (I will not talk about this truth.  That is my son's story to tell.)

After he was done talking, I told him that I loved him, would always love him.  I told him he was surrounded by love, would always be surrounded by love.  And then I said, "You know what?"  

He said, "What?" 

"You're my hero," I said.  

He looked at me as if I had just recited a Shakespearean sonnet.

"What you just did was really brave," I said, "and you're a hero for doing it."

I'm not sure if he really understood what I was saying, but I wanted him to hear me say it.  He said, "You can turn your book back on."

I shook my head.  "I don't really want to," I said.  And I didn't.  Instead, we rode the rest of the way in each other's silences.  A comfortable silence, unencumbered by unsaid things.  It was another Saint Marty's Day blessing.

And today, this morning, American poet Louise Glück won the Nobel Prize for Literature.  I was kinda hoping it was my year to be named, but, alas, it was not meant to be.  Instead, I celebrate that a poet won.  A poet that I admire greatly, with a view of the universe that it uncompromising and starkly beautiful.

Tonight, Saint Marty gives thanks for this week of blessings and graces.  For opening doors.  For feast days and inspired words.  But, especially, Saint Marty gives thanks for his son's bravery and honesty.  Thank you, Lord.

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