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Saturday, 11 June 2016

American Catholic poets & writers

Mark Van Doren (June 13, 1894 – December 10, 1972) was an American poet, writer and critic, apart from being a scholar and a professor of English at Columbia University for nearly 40 years, where he inspired a generation of influential writers and thinkers including Thomas Merton, Robert Lax, John Berryman, Whittaker Chambers, and Beat Generation writers such as Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac.’

'This was the time of Vatican II and Ed Rice's Jubilee magazine when a springtime of the church was celebrated in art, poetry and deep spirituality extending to all faiths - all this jubilation aided and abetted by Merton and Lax.' (Ned O'Gorman, blurb for 'Merton and Friends')

Van Doren taught that only religious poetry can be truly great. David Zlotnick reported on an address given by Van Doren to an Undergraduate Newman Club audience where he argued that "if poetry is about the world, religious poetry is about the universe":

‘"Today," he said, "we have narrowed and specialized the function of poetry," and tend to think of the Hymn as being symbolic of religious poetry. Professor Van Doren, however, finds it "the weakest and least moving form of religious poetry," because it is a limited form. Great religious poetry, he indicated, is poetry or prose which has emerged after struggle, conflict, and "terrific drama" have taken place in the souls of the authors, as they search for God. Expanding his thesis that those who initially fight most within themselves are, after coming to the truth, the most religious of people, Professor Van Doren emphasized that "God is very difficult to understand." "God did a tremendous thing when he made us free to hate him—he could have made us unfree to hate him. Yet," Professor Van Doren went on, referring to Lucretius' criticism of religion, "there is nothing like an attack on religion to reveal its power.”'

Van Doren was an English professor who offered, according to Merton, explorations “about any of the things that were really fundamental – life, death, time, love, sorrow, fear, wisdom, suffering, eternity.” But Van Doren's influence was felt beyond the classroom as well. It was he who proposed to Merton that the door to the ordained priesthood might not be closed after his rejection by the Franciscans.’

Merton, Lax, and Rice ‘were college buddies who became life-long friends, literary innovators, and spiritual iconoclasts. Their friendship and collaboration began at Columbia College in the 1930s and reached its climax in the widely acclaimed magazine Jubilee, which ran from 1953 to 1967, a year before Merton's death. Rice was founder, publisher, editor, and art director; Merton and Lax two of his steadiest collaborators. Well-known on campus for their high spirits, avant-garde appreciation of jazz and Joyce, and indiscrimate love of movies, they also shared their Catholic faith. Rice, a cradle Catholic, was godfather to both Merton and Lax.’

Merton, who died some 30 years before the other two, was the first to achieve fame with his best-selling spiritual autobiography, The Seven-Story Mountain. Lax, whom Jack Kerouac dubbed "one of the great original voices of our times," eventually received recognition as one of "America's greatest experimental poets, a true minimalist who can weave awesome poems from remarkably few words" (New York Times Book Review). He spent most of the last 35 years of his life living frugally on one of the remotest of the Greek isles. After Jubilee folded, Rice wrote 20 books on world culture, religion, and biography. His 1970 biography of Merton, The Man in the Sycamore Tree, was judged too intimate, forthright, and candid by those who, in Lax's words, "were trying so hard to get pictures of [Merton's] halo that they missed his face." His biography of the 19th century explorer and "orientalist" Sir Richard Burton became a New York Times bestseller.

Despite their loyalty to the church, the three often disagreed with its positions, grumbled about its tolerance for mediocrity in art, architecture, music, and intellectual life and its comfortableness with American materialism and military power. And each in his own way engaged in a spiritual search that extended beyond Christianity to the great religions of the East.’

‘From 1948, when he wrote his first letters to Evelyn Waugh, who was editing The Seven Storey Mountain, until his death in 1968, Merton corresponded with writers around the world, developing an ever-widening circle of friends … [including] Czeslaw Milosz, Henry Miller, Walker Percy, Boris Pasternak, and others.’

‘Famed Trappist monk Thomas Merton corresponded with an extraordinary range of writers, among them Evelyn Waugh, Henry Miller, Jacques Maritain, Walker Percy and William Carlos Williams. He spoke out boldly against political oppression, social injustice, racism and nuclear weapons, and expressed solidarity with Boris Pasternak, Czeslaw Milosz and James Baldwin. His letters to Nicaraguan poet Ernesto Cardenal and to Argentine feminist Victoria Ocampo reflect his deep love of Latin American culture.’

‘… it is Merton’s correspondence with Ernesto Cardenal … which really stands out. Cardenal had entered Gethsemani in 1957 and was a novice there under Merton until he left in 1959 to return to Latin America. Merton encouraged Cardenal whilst at Gethsemani to keep up his interest in Latin America and in the political events in his own country. Cardenal had a profound influence on Merton and the enormous changes in Merton’s view of the world dating from the late fifties were no doubt partly due to his contact with Cardenal. Merton’s interest in Latin American poets and literature was also encouraged by his contact with Cardenal.

Cardenal also fed Merton's desire to travel, especially to visit Latin America and was central … in attempts Merton made to leave Gethsemani in the late fifties and early sixties.’

Robert Giroux writes that one of Flannery [O’Connor]'s ‘admirers was Thomas Merton, who became more of a fan with each new book of hers. Over the years I came to see how much the two had in common—a highly developed sense of comedy, deep faith, great intelligence. The aura of aloneness surrounding each of them was not an accident. It was their métier, in which they refined and deepened their very different talents in a short span of time. They both died at the height of their powers.’

Robert Lax ‘attended Columbia University and graduated in 1938, where he interacted with artistic and literary geniuses such as Ad Reinhardt, Thomas Merton, Edward Rice, Robert Giroux, James Loughlin and John Berryman (all beneficiaries of the great mentor Mark van Doren). Lax converted to the Roman Catholic faith in 1943, following an extensive study of St. Thomas Aquinas and dialogue with his Columbia classmate and “soul-friend,” the Trappist monk Thomas Merton (who converted to Catholicism upon graduation from Columbia in 1938 and entered Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941).’

Lax ‘is one of the great enigmas of American letters. A classmate of John Berryman '36 and a mentor of Jack Kerouac '44, his poetry has been admired by writers as diverse as John Ashbery, William Maxwell, James Agee, Allen Ginsberg '48, E.E. Cummings, Richard Kostelanetz, and Denise Levertov - yet he remains very largely unknown …’

Jack Kerouac (the “Beat” writer influenced by Lax and his contemporaries, who entered Columbia University two years after Lax’s graduation) dubbed Lax in a dust jacket blurb for his earliest published book, The Circus of the Sun, as “ of the quiet original voices of our times… simply a Pilgrim in search of a beautiful Innocence, writing lovingly, finding it, simply, in his own way.”’

Elizabeth Kirkland Cahill wrote a moving article on John Berryman and his late "Eleven Addresses to the Lord." ‘The article recounted Berryman's struggles with alcoholism and despair and how a conversion experience in a rehab center had led to the "Addresses." Tragically, the conversion didn't take, nor did the alcoholism cure, and Berryman killed himself by leaping off the Mississippi River Bridge in Minneapolis.’

‘Elizabeth Kirkland Cahill's piece places Berryman as one those spiritual seekers who swerve between great doubt and great faith. His "Eleven Addresses to the Lord," found in his 1970 "Love & Fame," … reflect that conflict.’

‘Many of the poets of Berryman's generation were known for their personality extremes. While Berryman wasn't medically diagnosed as manic depressive like his sometimes admirer Robert Lowell, Berryman showed all of the erratic behavior and mood swings of his peers.’

‘Berryman's longing for religious grace and spiritual healing was among his most admirable features, along with his handling of the vernacular as a poet and his depth as a scholar and critic.’

Thomas Andrew Rogers ‘describes the representation of Christianity in the writings of John Berryman - his struggle with the faith being the most central and incessant preoccupation of his verse …

In The Dispossessed the issue of faith is evident, but obscured; however, much of his unpublished verse of the period is characterised by a more transparent confessional idiom, frequently expressing his dilemma of conscience over the question of religious commitment. His failure to develop an effective poetic voice is the main reason why his religious poetry of the 1930s and 1940s remained in the private sphere. He achieved his stylistic breakthrough with Berryman's Sonnets, where the struggle with his conscience is depicted as a religious conflict, in which his adultery means a confrontation with the Law of God.

Homage to Mistress Bradstreet features a more developed representation of a similar conflict; the two alternative life choices before him are personified in the characters of Anne Bradstreet and the 'poet'. Difficulties of faith continue to play a major role in The Dream Songs, where the poet, adopting the persona of Henry, directly confronts God and Christianity with the problem of evil and the historical quest for Jesus. His poetry portrays a perceived conflict between faith and reason, and an intellectual pursuit for the truth epitomised by his poem 'The Search'. However, the poet's 'conversion experience' during the composition of Love & Fame is depicted as a response to the direct intervention of God in his life. His subsequent devotional poetry is dominated by his new sense of relationship with the' God of Rescue', who increasingly becomes associated with the full Christian conception of Jesus Christ the Saviour.’

Dana Gioia sums up the literary and intellectual environment in which these poets and writers participated as follows:

'Sixty years ago, Catholics played a prominent, prestigious, and irreplaceable part in American literary culture. Indeed, they played such a significant role that it would be impossible to discuss American letters in the mid-twentieth century responsibly without both examining a considerable number of observant Catholic authors and recognizing the impact of their religious conviction on their artistry. These writers were prominent across the literary world. They included established fiction writers — Flannery O’Connor, Katherine Anne Porter, Walker Percy, J. F. Powers, Ernest Hemingway, Paul Horgan, Jack Kerouac, Julien Green, Pietro di Donato, Hisaye Yamamoto, Edwin O’Connor, Henry Morton Robinson, and Caroline Gordon. (Sociologist Fr. Andrew Greeley had yet to try his formidable hand at fiction.) There were also science-fiction and detective writers such as Anthony Boucher, Donald Westlake, August Delerth, and Walter Miller, Jr., whose A Canticle for Leibowitz remains a classic of both science fiction and Catholic literature.

There was an equally strong Catholic presence in American poetry, which included Allen Tate, Robert Lowell, Robert Fitzgerald, Kenneth Rexroth, John Berryman, Isabella Gardner, Phyllis McGinley, Claude McKay, Dunstan Thompson, John Frederick Nims, Brother Antoninus (William Everson), Thomas Merton, Josephine Jacobsen, and the Berrigan brothers, Philip and Daniel. These writers represented nearly every aesthetic in American poetry. There were even Catholic haiku poets, notably Raymond Roseliep and Nick Virgilio.

Meanwhile the U.S. enjoyed the presence of a distinguished group of Catholic immigrants, including Jacques Maritain, Czeslaw Milosz, Dietrich von Hildebrand, Henri Nouwen, René Girard, John Lukacs, Padraic and Mary Colum, José Garcia Villa, Alfred Döblin, Sigrid Undset, and Marshall McLuhan. Some of the writers came to the U.S. to flee communism or Nazism. (Jesuit philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin came here, late in life, to flee the European Catholic hierarchy.) These writers were supported by engaged Catholic critics and editors with major mainstream reputations, such as Walter Kerr, Wallace Fowlie, Hugh Kenner, Clare Boothe Luce, Robert Giroux, William K. Wimsatt, Thurston Davis, and Walter Ong. The intellectual milieu was further deepened by “cultural Catholics” whose intellectual and imaginative framework had been shaped by their religious training— writers such as Eugene O’Neill, John O’Hara, J. V. Cunningham, James T. Farrell, John Fante, Mary McCarthy, and John Ciardi, as well as — at the end of this period — John Kennedy Toole and Belfast-born Brian Moore.

The cultural prominence of mid-century American Catholic letters was amplified by international literary trends. The British “Catholic Revival” led by writers such as Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, J. R. R. ­Tolkien, Edith Sitwell, Ronald Knox, Hilaire Belloc, David Jones, Muriel Spark, Elizabeth Jennings, and Anthony Burgess provided a contemporary example of how quickly a Protestant and secular literary culture could be enlivened by new voices. (G. K. Chesterton had died in 1936, but he continued to exercise enormous influence on both British and American writers.) At the same time in France, another Catholic revival had emerged, guided by novelists Georges Bernanos and François Mauriac and poets Paul Claudel and Pierre Reverdy, all of whom were widely read in the U.S. Another factor inspiring American Catholic authors, a disproportionate number of whom were Irish-American, was the rise of modern Irish literature. Long the province of Protestants, twentieth-century Irish letters suddenly spoke in the Catholic accents of writers such as James Joyce, Sean O’Casey, Frank O’Connor, and Flann O’Brien. Not surprisingly, American Catholic writers of this period saw themselves as part of an international movement.'


Robert Lax - is was - was is.

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