Thomas Merton and Allen Ginsberg and The Beats

The Beinecke Library just recently sent out a copy of this wonderful letter from Thomas Merton to William Carlos Williams (part of their extensive collection of materials in their William Carlos Williams archive)

Thomas Merton, in the summer of 1961, writing from his cloistered home in the Abby of Gethsemani  (but, he asserts, not too cloistered!):

“Dear Dr.Williams,  It has taken me a long time to be able to follow your advice and read “Kaddish”, because nobody sent me one. But finally (James) Laughlin is out in S.F. and the Citylights Bookshop (sic) sent me a copy. I agree with you about it. I think it is great and living poetry and certainly religious in its concern. In fact who are more concerned with ultimates than the (B)eats? Why do you think that just because I’m a monk I should be likely to shrink from (the) (B)eats. Who am I to shrink from anyone, I am a monk, therefore by definition, as I understand it, the chief friend of (the) (B)eats and one who has no business reproving them. And why should I?  Thank you for telling me about “Kaddish” and I also liked very much the poem on Van Gogh’s ear (“Death to Van Gogh’s Ear”). I think this (sic) is one of the few people around who is saying anything. The others are in a bad way. I hope I can sometime send you a long poem I think you may like. It is being printed by a friend of mine down the road here in Lexington. God bless you. I liked two poems of yours that were in Harpers. I wish you all good things.   Cordially in Christ   Tom Merton

Thomas Merton, the “Honarary Beatnik“, as Robert Inchausti has called him.
Merton’s letter brought us back to David Belcastro‘s exhaustive study for the Thomas Merton Society – “Thomas Merton and the Beat Generation – A Subterranean Monastic Community“.

Belcastro charts Merton’s “friendship” with the Beats (which, as he observes, was
“a precarious friendship”). 1961 was clearly a high-point, Merton famously contributed the lead poem that year (“Chant to be Used in a Procession around a Site with Furnaces”, a poem that was taken up by, of all people, Lenny Bruce) to the premier issue of the radical ecology journal, The Journal for the Protection of All Living Beings, issuing from City Lights.

All the ensuing attention and notoriety (his “public presence”) earned him a rebuke (not the last of them) from his abbott at Gethsemani, James Fox.

There was a sympathy but also “a tension” between these two men (Merton and Allen). Belcastro cites an extraordinary early dream Allen had had back in 1955 – (“My feeling a mixture of affection, envy & contempt..”) after reading Merton’s Tears of the Blind Lions)
– and an article that appeared some ten years later in Harpers.

These were Merton’s observations:
“The South American poets who had a meeting in Concepcion, Chile, last winter, considered the two Americans present [(Lawrence) Ferlinghetti and Ginsberg] to be “innocents” – should one say fools?  Especially one [Ginsberg] – who was continually making a huge fuss about how poets needed lots of drugs and sex and was always the first one to go home..”

Merton clearly mellowed in his opinions (Ferlinghetti and Jack Kerouac, though significantly, not Allen, were included in his experimental “little magazine”, Monk’s Pond, (1968)). Merton continued to be intrigued by the ethical solidity of the “counterculture” and of the Beat stance.

Merton’s shocking and sudden death in December of that year, (an “accidental electrocution”, though recent reporting has challenged that overly simplistic explanation), as Inchausti puts it, summarily “ended the conversation”.  We’ll never know what might’ve happened.
Their differing but shared compassion,  their abhorrence of the Vietnam War as it was unfolding, there was much that united them.

The Beats represented the hullabaloo”, Belcastro writes, “the absurd, the mysterium tremendum. This strange and unpredictable movement of God, which Merton believed,
had been walled out by the old monastic system.”

His conclusion:

“Merton found in the Beat generation monks in the modern world who stand outside the structures of their day, risking everything for the third position that rebels against the subordination of human life to power and authority invested in social institutions. He saw their work as compatible with the Gospel. Living outside monastic walls, these monks howled through the dark hours of the night in the streets of America. Merton was their friend – a friend who recognized and valued what they had to offer.”

Catholicism as activism – we have already noted elsewhere Allen’s respect for such principled figures as peace activist, Dorothy Day

Liberation theology –  We might conclude this with the observation that today (December 20th) is the anniversary of the birthday of one of Merton’s “star pupils” (and also a long-time comrade of Allen’s) – happy birthday in eternity! – Nicaraguan poet and priest (and inspiration)  Ernesto Cardenal


One comment

  1. I have long admired Merton and Kerouac, and am writing a book on how Zen Buddhism changed both of their lives profoundly, and how much each had in common: Catholicism, college, same English teachers encouraging each of them to write, both poets, etc. I wrote on Kerouac and his double, Neal Cassady, in an earlier book, “The Double: Male Eros, Friendships, and Mentoring–from Gilgamesh to Kerouac” (Lethe Press, 2013). (Available at Now I am into my new manuscript on them. Do you know if Merton and Kerouac ever met? I do know that they corresponded.

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