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Monday, 15 August 2016

Thomas Merton and Latin American poets

Thomas Merton had a real curiosity about Latin American faith. His description of a visit to Cuba formed a key part of his popular autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain. Later he ‘explored Latin American poetry and translated poems by a number of noted poets, including Ernesto Cardenal of Nicaragua, who was one of Merton’s novices at Gethsemani, Alfonso CortesCésar Vallejo, and Ruben Dario.’

‘From 1948 (when he first wrote to Evelyn Waugh, who was editing The Seven Storey Mountain for publication in England) until his death in 1968, Thomas Merton corresponded with writers around the world, developing an ever-widening circle of friends in Europe, the Soviet Union, South and North America. Merton wrote, and heard from, many prominent writers of the stature of Waugh, Jacques Maritain, Czeslaw Milosz, Boris Pasternak, James Baldwin, Walker Percy, Henry Miller, and Victoria Ocampo. He also corresponded with and encouraged newer writers in Latin America, like Ernesto Cardenal. Merton sensed in these writers a hope for the future of humanity and believed that the courage for truth was their special gift. Writing to Jose Coronel Urtecho, Merton asserted that poets "remain almost the only ones who have anything to say ... They have the courage to disbelieve what is shouted with the greatest amount of noise from every loudspeaker." Courage rooted in true freedom is evident in Merton's own life. He shared with his literary friends his concerns about war, violence and repression, racism and injustice, and all forms of human aggression. Forbidden to publish on the subject of war by his superiors, he obeyed but continued to circulate his famous "Cold War Letters." He did not hesitate to criticize his church when he saw there was more concern for the institutional structure than there was for people. Merton especially admired those who had the courage to write under oppression, like Pasternak, Milosz, and Cardenal.’

Merton’s correspondence with the Argentinian writer, editor, lecturer and publisher Victoria Ocampo began soon after his ‘Fourth and Walnut experience in downtown Louisville which broadened his view of the type of issues he would address, namely, moving from writing exclusively personal reflections about the spiritual life and poetry centered around life at Gethsemani to writing essays and poetry that brought his religious convictions to bear on the social issues of the day and that addressed global concerns.” Mark C. Meade writes that “Scholars like William Shannon have noted that not long after this experience, Merton entered into dialogue with people from outside the monastery, from various places globally, and from religious and cultural traditions quite different from his own.’

Brendan Jordan notes that in the same time period Ernesto Cardenal was admitted to the Abbey at Gethsemani under Merton’s counsel:

‘For two years, Merton advised Cardenal on matters of the spirit, as well as matters of poetry and politics. In his recollections of Merton, Cardenal often expressed surprise at how wide-ranging and often secular their conversations were. “At first I was disconcerted by the way in which he imparted spiritual direction,” Cardenal wrote. “I had the incredible privilege of receiving my instruction from the grand master of mysticism who for so many years I had admired. And when [we began speaking], he began to ask me of Nicaragua, of Somoza, Nicaraguan poets, other Latin American poets, other dictators…” Cardenal at first expressed great frustration at having wasted so much time for spiritual guidance on secular matters.

However Cardenal eventually conceded that the secular discussions had a purpose, and that he had learned through them that renouncing all political and social concerns was not only unhealthy for a monk, but that it ran counter to a monastic’s duty to engage with the world.’

Paul M. Pearson sums up this period well: ‘In the late 1950’s Thomas Merton’s writings began to undergo a radical change as he moved from his initial embrace of the monastic ideal, in fleeing the world, to a new position where he was free to embrace the world. It is impossible to identify any single influence on this sea change. Merton’s work with the novices at Gethsemani was certainly significant, as was his growing correspondence. It was also during the mid to late 1950’s that Merton’s interest in Latin America was re-awakened. He had growing contacts there relating to the translations of his books into Spanish and Portugese; there was talk of a possible monastic foundation in Latin America by Gethsemani, with which Merton was keen to be involved; as well as a growing interest from Latin Americans in embracing the monastic life at Gethsemani. Merton’s interest was stimulated further by the arrival at Gethsemani of Ernesto Cardenal to join the novitiate. Cardenal, with his own literary and political interests, was influential in introducing Merton to the writings of a wide variety of literary figures from Latin America.’

Stefan Baciu, the author of the seminal essay, "Latin America and Spain in the Poetic World of Thomas Merton," reflected on this period:

‘Already forty years have passed, if memory is "not betraying me," since the poetical oeuvre of Thomas Merton started the process of "penetration" in Latin American literature which the monk of Gethsemani in Kentucky knew, better than all others of his colleagues from the United States.

I still remember the decade of the 1950s when the Brazilian poet and translator, Manuel Bandeira, and the essayist and Catholic leader, Alceu Amoroso Lima, started writing essays, critiques and book reviews and translated several of his poems and short essays. At approximately the same time, in Nicaragua where Pablo Antonio Cuadra was one of his first "discoverers" and exegetes and "via" Pablo Antonio the poet, Cuadra and Ernesto Cardenal distinguished themselves as his first serious researchers and publishers.

The rest is already a page of literary history. I was not surprised when, through the years, I found more and more frequently translations or reviews of Merton, sometimes in Mexico, and later in El Salvador, in Argentina and in Chile.’

In correspondence with Baciu regarding his essay, Merton listed the Latin American writers that he particularly appreciated. These were:
In a separate letter to the Origenes poet Cintio Vitier, Merton also listed the Cuban poets which he was reading: Cintio Vitier, Fina Garcia Marruz, Eliseo Diego, Octavio Smith and Roberto Friol.

Baciu wrote: “During the last two decades, Merton was one of the constant and most accurate spokesmen for this realm [the realm of Latin American poetry] through a series of translations without equal in the literature of the United States, or, for that matter, in world literature.” Merton “knew how to love, understand, and interpret the Spanish and Spanish-American worlds.” Merton valued these poets because they were ‘alive,’ with ‘something honest to say’ and were ‘sincerely concerned with life and humanity’.

Merton's Message to Poets was read at a meeting, to which he had been invited by Miguel Grinberg, of the “new” Latin-American poets – and a few young North Americans – in Mexico City, February 1964. Merton, in a statement that could stand for all his contacts with other writers, stated:

'We believe that our future will be made by love and hope, not by violence or calculation. The Spirit of Life that has brought us together, whether in space or only in agreement, will make our encounter an epiphany of certainties we could not know in isolation.'


Thomas Merton - First Lesson About Man.

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