In the fall of 1985 I was a freshman at the University of Iowa and I read two books that changed my life. In many ways these books were tandem in history and they have always been in tandem for me as a poet and a person. It is the 50th anniversary of the publication of On the Road by Jack Kerouac and next year will be 6o years since the Publication of The Seven Storey Mountain by Thomas Merton.
Kerouac's work gets dismissed often today because it is such a male book. We have become a feminised literary scene where expressions of maleness are treated as odd or oppressive. There is nothing female about Kerouac and this has elicited negative responses but like Merton's book and the Confessions of St Augustine Kerouac's journey is one that is taken by a man into his soul and he comes out as a new creation. In reading Kerouac I realized that I could fuse my Catholic self with my poet self with my child of immigrants self and make myself something new.
While it might seem strange Thomas Merton is doing the same thing. Merton unlike Kerouac is fancy people. Child of intellectuals- bon vivant- who chooses the most austere order in the Catholic Church. His book the Seven Storey Mountain is viewed today as naive but in many ways it encapsulates a Catholic sense that comes out in other writers as diverse as Flannery O'Connor, Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh. The romantic allure of ruined monasteries, Rome and monasticism that makes the hokus pocus of Catholicism seem romantic and real. Merton's book is again a male book but one where instead of going on the Road like Kerouac he goes into himself and contemplates.
As a 40 year old poet and professional I often go back to these books as pure mind candy. I have moved on from much of them but they remain lodestars for me and they allowed me to remain what I am a Catholic, a Poet and a questor. When I moved to South America these were two of the books I brought along and they sit with Motorcycle Diaries by Ernesto Guevara as the greatest inheritors of Augustine's Confessions as books of journey and questing for more than the ordinary.