“Raiding the Unspeakable: Parody in three antipoems of Thomas Merton”
During the late 1950s and until his death in 1968, Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk, author, poet, artist and social critic, moved from being a traditional, pious monk extolling the virtues of monastic separation from the world to an outspoken commentator on the horrors of his time: Hiroshima, Auschwitz, Vietnam, Watts, Birmingham. Confronting these grim realities with his ever-present poetic ear, he heard the ways in which language was being emptied of its power to reveal, was being co-opted by euphemism and officialese into the service of atrocity; Merton came to believe that “in our mechanical age, all words have become alike, they’ve all been reduced to the level of the commercial. To say ‘God is love’ is like saying ‘Eat Wheaties.’”[i] Responding not only to the discrete events that made the headlines, but more critically to what he saw as the debasement of language in the twentieth century that helped legitimate all those events, he moved into what he called “antipoetry,” a rejection of more flowery visions of poetry in favor of a more socially engaged poetic voice that gained a brief moment of popularity in the mid 1960s, particularly among Latin American poets, many of whom Merton counted as friends and allies. Characterized by parody, that is, the ironic repetition with critical distance,[ii] of the unspeakable, Merton’s variety of antipoetry, a sort of “assemblage art,” mimics quotations and paraphrases from those who enacted and supported the horrors of the time so as to highlight the absurdity and obscenity of the worldview they inhabited. In three of his antipoems, “Original Child Bomb”; “Chant to be Used in Processions Around a Site with Furnaces”; and “Epitaph for a Public Servant” Merton makes use of irony at every turn, appropriating the language of officialese, turning it back upon itself to break through the numbness it fostered and resensitize the reader.
From earlier forms of poetry that favored images of seclusion from the world, the paradise of the world inside the monastic walls and later in the woods where his hermitage was situated, Merton came to link poetry with the capacity for prophetic critiques of what he called “the mass mind,” and what I call “the prosing of the world”: the world of absolute finality, of officialese, euphemistic speech designed to eliminate the toxic reality of language. While he continued to produce prose essays on any number of social concerns, he singled out his vocation as a poet as a privileged place of recognizing what has happened to language. In his article “War and the Crisis of Language” Merton argues that “poets are perhaps the ones who, at the present moment, are most sensitive to the sickness of language – a sickness that, infecting all literature with nausea, prompts us not so much to declare war on conventional language as simply to pick up and examine closely a few chosen pieces of linguistic garbage.”[iii] In the words of his friend and fellow antipoet Nicanor Parra, “The poet is there/To see to it the tree does not grow crooked”.[iv] In his poem “The Tower of Babel”, the stanza “History is a dialogue between/ forward and backward/going inevitably forward/by the misuse of words”[v] illustrates the cessation of dialogue, back-and-forth, as language serves the unstoppable juggernaut of power, progress, “prose,” shouting down those who, on behalf of those caught in the treads of empire, counter with a poetic destabilization of the finality that a prosaic account of reality would claim.
Antipoetry arises for Merton as a sort of “last resort,” when even language, the fundamental medium of the poet, is no longer available, when even language has lost its power to open communication. “Then it becomes necessary in such a situation to write antipoetry. For what appears to be poetry and what appears to be communication is actually a common plot to repudiate poetry and refuse communication. The pretense has to be attacked with the anti-poem. The anti-poem is positive communication of resistance against the sham rituals of conventional communications.”[vi] Merton’s antipoems typically allude by eluding – the horrors to which they point are made present by what they do not say, what remains a step or two beyond what is immediately given, but which the reader cannot help but connect to the banal tone and the statements quoted in the poems. In “Original Child Bomb” the emotionless, almost casual prose, parodying the bureaucratic language of the development and deployment of the atomic bombs that struck
Hiroshima and , contrasts with the unspeakable reality that is being reported. In “Chant” and “Epitaph” Merton adopts the “persona” mask technique of Ezra Pound, appropriating the voice of the person whom he wishes to attack so as to show its absurdity and horror: the narrator of “Chant” evokes Rudolf Höss, the commandant at Nagasaki Auschwitz, while “Epitaph” directly claims to speak in the voice of Adolf Eichmann. Direct accusation and condemnation are unnecessary “when a diabolical anti-Psalm like ‘Chant to be used in Processions around a Site with Furnaces’ can be constructed by adapting only slightly the self-justificatory statements made by defendants at the trials of those responsible for murdering millions of Jews.”[vii]
“Original Child Bomb”
While referencing in the title the Japanese name for the first atomic weapon, the subtitle, “POINTS FOR MEDITATION TO BE SCRATCHED ON THE WALLS OF A CAVE”, alludes to a post-apocalyptic future in which survivors, recollecting the origins of the (il)logic of nuclear proliferation that culminated in the obliteration of civilization, will record these events in the only way left to them – with the Stone Age scholarship of marks scratched on cave walls. The ironic humor throughout the poem reflects a tone of disbelief at the insanity that had become so readily accepted: “Mr. Truman was a vice president who became president by accident when his predecessor died of a cerebral hemorrhage. He did not know as much about the war as the president before him did. He knew a lot less about the war than many people did.”[viii] The suggestion to share information about the bomb with the Russians to improve their friendly relationship was shut down because “all finally agreed that the
Soviet Union was now friendly enough.”[ix] Merton repeatedly uses religious imagery, including the belief and unbelief of those who speculated about whether the bomb would detonate properly, code names such as “Papacy” and “Trinity,” and the dreams that some officials had of the bomb producing “eternal peace”.[x] Compared with the droning pace of “Chant,” the slow, even understated pace of “Original Child Bomb” produces a contrast between the chilling subject and the matter-of-factness with which the narrator describes it. It leaves behind meter, diction, imagery in favor of “the poem as statement, even as journalism, reporting in a flat undramatic prose facts that are at the same time so banal and so inhuman that they become the images of their own inherent horror.”[xi] The use of contrast language subtly draws attention to the incongruity of that flat mode of reportage, drawing attention to the technologizing logic that dissolves humanity (figuratively and, in the case of Hiroshima, literally): “When they bombed Hiroshima they would put the following out of business: The Ube Nitrogen Fertilizer Company; the Ube Soda Company; the Nippon Motor Oil Company; the Sumitoma Chemical Company; the Sumitoma Aluminum Company; and most of the inhabitants.”[xii] “Putting out of business” takes a grimly euphemistic turn, re-inserting the dissonance it was intended to stifle in its original context, appearing suddenly, unaffectedly enough in an otherwise predictable verse to produce that shock.
The repeated mention of the innocuous code language similarly produces a contrast of signifier and signified, chilling all the more because Merton is parroting, not producing, that incongruous linguistic fracture: The weather scout plane, called “Straight Flush, in reference to the mechanical action of a water closet,”[xiii] sneeringly uses scatology to mask eschatology, while one of the escort planes was named “The Great Artiste,” appropriating an image of God in the act, not of creation, but of annihilation. Paul Tibbets, the pilot of the plane carrying the bomb, had named it after his mother, Enola Gay, tenderly carrying an apocalyptic Little Boy, an Original Child, in her womb. His pen dripping with irony, Merton says, “At the last minute before taking off Col. Tibbets changed the secret radio call sign from ‘Visitor’ to ‘Dimples.’ The Bombing Mission would be a kind of flying smile.”[xiv] A vaguely unwelcome guest now comes with cooing, chubby-cheeked innocence to bring death to the firstborn, and so many more, of
. “Good soldiers” are those who can see through the unspeakable human cost, both to the bodies of the killed and the psyches of the killers, to unflinchingly maintain focus on the goal of victory “at any cost”; the Japanese “professional soldiers” who wanted to continue fighting “until everybody was dead”[xv] parallel Col. Tibbetts, a “well balanced man, and not sentimental”,[xvi] Merton quotes President Truman, “We found the bomb…and we used it,”[xvii] the imagery of “finding” the bomb giving the sense that it is a natural resource, that Japan stumbled across it, that they were not looking to create a weapon of such magnitude, but since they found it, they should use it. In the subsequent years, the plethora of similar (and greater) bombs that have been “found” led to “brisk speculation” about the future, but thinking about it is tiresome, uninteresting. Returning to the subtitle, the lack of interest in speculating about the future has played out in the devastation of civilization that has returned people to a Stone Age, as in Albert Einstein’s quote, “I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.”[xviii] The “sane,” like in Merton’s later essay “A Devout Meditation in Memory of Adolf Eichmann,” are the ones who can unflinchingly carry out institutional insanity. unlike the men in his crew who later suffered nervous breakdowns and are implied to be weak. America
“Chant to be used in Processions Around a Site with Furnaces”
“Chant” was one of Merton’s best-known poems and, because it marked a new moment in his antipoetic style and inaugurated a series of poems and essays critiquing the function of language in the legitimation of violence, one of his favorites. In a letter to his friend James Laughlin, Merton discusses “Chant,” which he refers to as “the
Auschwitz poem”, bemoaning the inability to break through the tone-deafness of the times. Thinking about how to write something about peace, Merton says, “There is no purpose to a silly book of editorial-like platitudes. Some more poems like Auschwitz, maybe. But the thing is to be heard. And everything is perfectly soundproof and thought proof. We are all doped right up to the eyes. And words have become useless, no matter how true they may be.”[xix] Discussing with Nicanor Parra his method of composing “Chant” “almost in its entirety from the very words of the commanders of Auschwitz,” Merton comments, “it would be impossible to invent something more terrifying than the truth itself.”[xx] Finally, in a letter to a religious Sister, Merton refers to “Chant” as “a florilegium of statements from official documents and other declarations, for the most part”, noting, “That makes it even more terrible.”[xxi] Merton saw this poem, then, as a “floral arrangement” of words, an ironic and black-humor twist on the assemblage of quotes from concentration camp officials, held together by the bombast of the imagined commandant himself.
The lack of punctuation and the placement of the spaces between strophes indicate the tempo at which “Chant” is to be read – not measured or halting, but a sort of droning recitation that indicates the voice of “officialese,” the accumulation of formulaic slogans that allow the speaker to bypass critical thinking. Language of purity, cleanliness, efficiency, and improvements made further amplifies the disconnection of the values that the “good functionary” can point to in his own defense from the horrible context in which he was so efficient and managerially competent. “[I]t was not hot water that came through vents though”[xxii] gives a hint of the diabolical nature of the work – something is not as it seems – only to take it back immediately with an organizational flourish: “efficient winds gave full satisfaction.”[xxiii] Merton uses an actual recipe for making soap from the remains of murdered Jews, found in the paperwork of one of the camps, to further illustrate the numbed industriousness of the commandant and the productivity of the camp: “How I commanded and made soap 12 lbs fat 10 quarts water 8oz to a lb of caustic soda but it was hard to find any fat,”[xxiv] again alluding by eluding, the absence of fat pointing not only to the use of human fat from which they would make soap, but to the emaciated bodies of the Jewish prisoners that lacked any fat, throwing into relief the images of love and happiness which the “guests” in the poem experienced. Using a combination of sophisticated terminology and near-baby talk (e.g. “big heater”), the commandant comes off as “simultaneously vacuous and moronic and technically sophisticated…[he] has no images in his prose, no metaphors, no emotion; his is the prose of fact, observation, and euphemism; the prose of clinical and detached discourse.”[xxv] The very prosaic flatness of the language underscores the incapacity of the speaker to critique his own self-contained world, as if there were no other way to imagine a concentration camp except in terms of efficiency and hygiene. Only at the end does Merton allow any slippage in the persona of the narrator, warning the audience that while they condemn his megalomaniacal actions, they are guilty bystanders to the actions of their government (particularly, but not only, in Vietnam), expressing a functionally identical mindset: “Do not think yourself better because you burn up friends and enemies with long-range missiles without ever seeing what you have done.”[xxvi] (*As a side note, comedian Lenny Bruce adapted “Chant” for use in his stand-up comedy routines, goose-stepping across the stage while reciting it in a loud, droning voice.*)
“Epitaph for a Public Servant”
Again using direct quotations and paraphrases, this time from Eichmann’s trial in Hannah Arendt’s book Eichmann in Jerusalem, the repetitive and derivative nature of the poem indicates that whereas Merton is intentionally burlesquing Eichmann, Eichmann was himself merely following Nazi doctrine. Whereas Merton still appears in “Chant” and “Original Child Bomb”, the poet disappears totally in “Epitaph,” Speaking of Eichmann, Arendt claimed that “‘the longer one listened to him, the more obvious it became that this inability to speak was closely connected with an inability to think, namely, to think from the standpoint of somebody else’. His speech was full of ‘empty talk’ and ‘stock phrases;’ he was ‘genuinely incapable of uttering a single sentence that was not a cliché;’ he was, in short, not stupid but vacuous.”[xxvii] Thus numerous lines are repeated throughout the poem, signifying the stock phrases to which Eichmann would turn for ready-made legitimations of his deeds. His refusal to think manifests in the repetition of the line, “Who was to have his own thoughts (in such a matter?),” referring to Arendt’s own parody of Eichmann’s “Pontius Pilate feeling,” his hands washed of all responsibility by awe at the “Popes of the Third Reich,” Hitler, Müller, and Heydrich. “Who was he to judge?” Arendt asks, ironically twisting the self-exonerating question he asked at his trial, “Who was he ‘to have [his] own thoughts in this matter’?”[xxviii] The refrain “Repentance is for little children,” which occurs six times, is a direct quote from Eichmann as he acknowledged his own legal (but not moral) guilt: he was prepared to hang himself as a warning to anti-Semites, but not because he felt remorse for what he believed had been, at the time, the appropriate thing to do. The nine repetitions of the line “Not out of mercy (did I launch this transaction)” refer to Eichmann’s conversation with Heinrich Himmler to trade one million Jews for ten thousand trucks: Eichmann considered the deal, not as a means of sparing Jewish lives, but out of a desire to keep the deportation of Jews from falling into the hands of someone who lacked the technical expertise he had.[xxix] Merton’s more noxious statements become weapons against the worldview that would use language to insulate itself from the reality of its actions: the line “From then on/Official orders/Were my only language” is an obvious paraphrase of Eichmann’s own statement that “Officialese is my only language.” Similarly, “Long live Argentina/Long live
Germany/We will meet again” is drawn nearly word-for-word from Eichmann’s final statement before his execution by hanging in in 1962. Israel
In his later essay “A Devout Meditation in Memory of Adolf Eichmann,” Merton discusses the sinister implications of Eichmann’s sanity, that he had allowed his pursuit of rationalistic values to override whatever basic humanity might resist his orders: “The sanity of Eichmann is disturbing. We equate sanity with a sense of justice, with humaneness, with prudence, with the capacity to love and understand other people. We rely on the sane people of the world to preserve it from barbarism, madness, destruction. And now it begins to dawn on us that it is precisely the sane ones who are the most dangerous.”[xxx] Merton’s focus on the normalcy of Eichmann resonates with Leonard Cohen’s 1964 poem “All There Is To Know About Adolf Eichmann”:
DISTINGUISHING FEATURES: None
NUMBER OF FINGERS: Ten
NUMBER OF TOES: Ten
INTELLIGENCE Medium[xxxi]Although Merton uses Eichmann several times as a foil in his writing, most successfully in his “Devout Meditation”, Merton is less concerned about Eichmann himself than about the bureaucratized “mass-man” whom he comes for Merton to represent, and the calm and measured insanity of those who enacted the nuclear proliferation of the Cold War and the vast devastation of Vietnam in the name of peace and democracy (and not uncommonly, God). As Merton scholar Anthony Padovano puts it, “We have forgotten the name by which God is to be called, the language by which the message we send can be read. The laws of technology have taken the place of the language of the heart.”[xxxii] The skintight fit of the mantle of officialese is sobering because Eichmann represents a new kind of criminal who, as Hannah Arendt puts it, “commits his crimes under circumstances that make it well nigh impossible for him to know that he is doing wrong.”[xxxiii] When language has built such an impenetrable world, what language is left to deconstruct it?
Merton gives insight into his sense of the relationship between his political understanding of poetry and resistance to the hegemonic claims of the inhuman, arguing that “The real dynamic of nonviolence can be considered as a purification of language, a restoration of true communication on a human level, when language has been emptied of meaning by misuse and corruption…Above all, nonviolence is meant to convey and to defend truth which has been obscured and defiled by political double talk.”[xxxiv] His antipoetry, then, becomes a parodic attempt at the reclamation of words from their euphemistic legitimation of untroubled, “sane” devastation, and at the reclamation of the human person from the morass of the mass mind.
[i] Paul Pearson. “Poetry of the Sneeze: Thomas Merton and Nicanor Parra.” Thomas Merton Society.
http://www.thomasmertonsociety.org/sneeze.htm. Accessed 8 April 2010.
[ii] Linda Hutcheon. A Theory of Parody: The Teachings of Twentieth-Century Art Forms. (
: University of Urbana
[iii] Thomas Merton. The Nonviolent Alternative, ed. Gordon Zahn. (New York: Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 1981), p. 234.
[iv] “Poetry of the Sneeze.”
[v] Lynn Szabo. In the Dark Before Dawn: New Selected Poems of Thomas Merton. (
: New Directions, 2005), p. 145. New York
[vi] Thomas Merton. A Vow of Conversation. (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1988), p. 13.
[vii] George Woodcock. Thomas Merton: Monk and Poet. (New York: Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 1978), p. 144.
[viii] In the Dark Before Dawn, p. 111.
[ix] In the Dark Before Dawn, p. 112.
[x] In the Dark Before Dawn, p. 112.
[xi] Thomas Merton: Monk and Poet, p. 143.
[xii] In the Dark Before Dawn, p. 113.
[xiii] In the Dark Before Dawn, p. 116.
[xiv] In the Dark Before Dawn, p. 117.
[xv] In the Dark Before Dawn, p. 112.
[xvi] In the Dark Before Dawn, p. 116.
[xvii] In the Dark Before Dawn, p. 118.
[xviii] Albert Einstein, http://www.wagingpeace.org/menu/action/urgent-actions/einstein/. Accessed 1 May 2010.
[xix] David Joseph Belcastro. “Chanting on the Rim of Chaos, Sane Language in an Insane World.” Across the Rim of Chaos: Thomas Merton’s Prophetic Vision, Angus Stuart, ed. (Stratton-on-the Fosse,
UK: The Thomas Merton Society of Great Britain and , 2005), 60-72, at 63. Ireland
[xx] “Poetry of the Sneeze.”
[xxi] “Chanting on the Rim of Chaos”, p. 66.
[xxii] In the Dark Before Dawn, p. 121.
[xxiii] In the Dark Before Dawn, p. 121.
[xxiv] In the Dark Before Dawn, p. 121.
[xxv] John Porter. “Thomas Merton as Public Intellectual.”
http://www.spiritbookword.net/spirit/thomas_merton_as_public_intell.shtml. Accessed 8 April 2010.
[xxvi] In the Dark Before Dawn, p. 122.
[xxvii] “Thomas Merton as Public Intellectual.”
[xxviii] Hannah Arendt. Eichmann in
: A Report on the Banality of Evil. ( Jerusalem : Penguin Books, 2006), p. 114. New York
[xxix] Eichmann in
, p. 25. Jerusalem
[xxx] Nonviolent Alternative, p. 161.
[xxxi] “Thomas Merton as Public Intellectual.”
[xxxii] Anthony Padovano. The Human Journey Thomas Merton: Symbol of a Century. (Garden City, NY: Image Books, 1984), p. 111.
[xxxiii] Thomas Merton. Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander. (Garden City, NY: Image Books, 1989), p. 290.
[xxxiv] Thomas Merton. The Literary Essays of Thomas Merton. Patrick Hart, ed. (New York: New Directions, 1985), p. 27.