Monday, January 25, 2021

January 25: My Own Wisdom and Talents, Nobel Prize, Classroom Miracle

 Merton contemplates his vocation as a writer . . . 

In November 1938, I acquired a sudden facility for rough, raw Skeltonic verses—and that lasted about a month, and died. They were not much, but one of them took a prize which it did not deserve. But now I had many kinds of sounds ringing in my ears and they sometimes asked to get on paper. When their rhythms and tones followed Andrew Marvell, the results were best. I always liked Marvell; he did not mean as much to me as Donne or Crashaw (when Crashaw wrote well) but nevertheless there was something about his temper for which I felt a special personal attraction. His moods were more clearly my own than Crashaw’s or even Donne’s. 

When I lived on Perry Street, it was hard to write poems. The lines came slow, and when it was all done, there were very few of them. They were generally rhymed iambic tetrameter, and because I was uneasy with any rhyme that sounded hackneyed, rhyming was awkward and sometimes strange. 

I would get an idea, and walk around the streets, among the warehouses, towards the poultry market at the foot of Twelfth Street, and I would go out on the chicken dock trying to work out four lines of verse in my head, and sit in the sun. And after I had looked at the fireboats and the old empty barges and the other loafers and the Stevens Institute on its bluff across the river in Hoboken, I would write the poem down on a piece of scrap paper and go home and type it out. 

I usually sent it at once to some magazine. How many envelopes I fed to the green mailbox at the corner of Perry Street just before you got to Seventh Avenue! And everything I put in there came back—except for the book reviews. 

The more I failed, the more I was convinced that it was important for me to have my work printed in magazines like the Southern Review or Partisan Review or the New Yorker. My chief concern was now to see myself in print. It was as if I could not be quite satisfied that I was real until I could feed my ambition with these trivial glories, and my ancient selfishness was now matured and concentrated in this desire to see myself externalized in a public and printed and official self which I could admire at my ease. This was what I really believed in: reputation, success. I wanted to live in the eyes and the mouths and the minds of men. I was not so crude that I wanted to be known and admired by the whole world: there was a certain naive satisfaction in the idea of being only appreciated by a particular minority, which gave a special fascination to this urge within me. But when my mind was absorbed in all that, how could I lead a supernatural life, the life to which I was called? How could I love God, when everything I did was done not for Him but for myself, and not trusting in His aid, but relying on my own wisdom and talents? 

Lax rebuked me for all this. His whole attitude about writing was purified of such stupidity, and was steeped in holiness, in charity, in disinterestedness. Characteristically he conceived the function of those who knew how to write, and who had something to say, in terms of the salvation of society. Lax’s picture of America—before which he has stood for twelve years with his hands hanging in helplessness at his sides—is the picture of a country full of people who want to be kind and pleasant and happy and love good things and serve God, but do not know how. And they do not know where to turn to find out. They are surrounded by all kinds of sources of information which only conspire to bewilder them more and more. And Lax’s vision is a vision of the day when they will turn on the radio and somebody will start telling them what they have really been wanting to hear and needing to know. They will find somebody who is capable of telling them of the love of God in language that will no longer sound hackneyed or crazy, but with authority and conviction: the conviction born of sanctity. 

Merton seeks glory through his writing.  Not international acclaim.  He doesn't want to be popular to the masses.  He wants to be admired by the intellectually elite.  Readers of The New YorkerPartisan Review.  People who look down on simplicity.  Who devote themselves to self-promotion instead of spiritual devotion.  Merton wants to be a Nobel Prize winner, not a saint.

I understand this version of Merton.  For as long as I can remember, I've been rehearsing my Nobel acceptance speech to deliver in front of the King of Sweden.  Imagined being in the heart of Columbia University, taking home my Pulitzer Prize.  Dreamed of going to my mailbox, finding a royalty check that will pay for a vacation to Disney World.  In short, I have been just as shallow as the young Merton.

I won't say that I've outgrown these ambitions.  They still haunt me, as they do any writer.  Regardless of the popular stereotype of poets, we want to be read and loved.  The idea that we're all Emily Dickinsons, scribbling away in our rooms, sewing our poems into little books that will never be seen by human eyes until after we're dead--well, that notion is pretty much rubbish.  Writing is like holding out a hand on the playground, hoping to find a new friend.  We all want to be King of the Hill, Lord of the Monkey Bars.

But only 117 people have won the Nobel Prize in Literature in its 119-year history.  That makes my chances of being called a Nobel Laureate pretty slim.  And what are titles anyway?  Do they make a person better?  I would say that they just amplify who you are to begin with.  If you were an asshole before winning the Nobel Prize in Literature, you will be a flaming asshole after winning.  Spotlights intensify; they don't purify.

Today, I taught a composition class at the university.  A group of undergraduates who looked about as engaged as parishioners in a church pew on a Sunday morning after a night at the bars.  They didn't want to be there.  Couldn't have cared less about what I was saying, even though I've been Poet Laureate of the Upper Peninsula for the past four years and have received the Excellence in Part-Time Faculty Teaching Award.  Titles mean nothing to these kids.

I read these students a poem about nature today.  About disconnecting from iPhone screens in order to reconnect with the world.  Then one of my students stood up and read a journal entry he'd written about witnessing a sunrise over Lake Superior, a moment when, just as the sun entered the sky, the entire world exploded with birdsong.  His hands that were holding his notebook were shaking.  I could tell that what he was sharing was important to him.  Earth-shattering.  And it was electric.

For me, that is the greatest gift of being a writer.  Those raw instances of truth.  This student was baring his soul to everyone in that room.  It was real and important and holy.

Saint Marty gives thanks being a witness to that classroom miracle.  It was better than any Nobel Prize ceremony.

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