In the Dark Before Dawn: New Selected Poems of Thomas Merton
edited by Lynn R. Szabo
New Directions, $16.95 (paper)

When Selected Poems first appeared in 1959, Mark Van Doren wrote that Thomas Merton believed that “poetry at its best is contemplation—of things, and of what they signify.” At a time when poets are sometimes too quick to force significance or, on the other hand, to celebrate darkly the inability to grasp the meaning of things, it’s worthwhile to consider how there is almost no one in contemporary American poetry who sounds likes Thomas Merton: “Listen to the stones of the wall. / Be silent, they try/ To speak your / Name . . . O be still, while / You are still alive, / And all things live around you” (“In Silence”). A poet who humbly, if sometimes falteringly, demonstrates his intimacy with things and their significance, Merton can be at once strangely humorous and ecstatic, as in these lines from “Elegy for the Monastery Barn”: “Who knew her solitude? / Who heard the peace downstairs / While flames ran whispering among the rafters?” In addition to Merton’s most successful poems, this expanded selection presents samples from later and more experimental work, including excerpts from his long “anti-poem,” Cables to the Ace, as well as hitherto unpublished love poems and literary translations. Augmented with Szabo’s thoughtful and well-researched introduction, this generous edition attends to readers’ continued interest in Merton’s work since his death in 1968, but it also risks repetition and requires us to wade through some less interesting material. And consciously or not, Szabo’s editorial choices—the poems are arranged according to theme, rather than chronology—undermine our ability to read Merton’s development as a poet and suggest, perhaps correctly, that the most profitable way to approach Merton is for philosophical content before poetic artistry. Still, if Merton’s compelling and sincere engagement with the world sometimes produces regrettable results (“O peace, bless this mad place: / Silence, love this growth”—from “Love Winter When the Plant Says Nothing”), his best poems continue to read as essential acts of imaginative contemplation unhindered in their path toward clear expression.