The Strife between the Poet and Ambition

By Thomas James Merton 1915–1968
Money and fame break in the room   
And find the poet all alone.
They lock the door, so he won’t run,   
And turn the radio full-on
And beat the poor dope like a drum.

“Better sing your snatch of song
Before that ostrich voice is dumb,
Better hit your share of gong
Before the sounding brass is mum:   
Tomorrow, tomorrow Death will come   
And find you sitting dumb and senseless   
With your epics unbegun,
And take away your pens and pencils—

There’ll be no sculptures on your tomb   
And other bards will occupy   
Your seven-fifty sitting room.”

“Pardon, sirs, my penny face   
Bowed to your dollar presences,   
Curtsying to Famous Verse,
Flattering wealth with smiles and smirks,
Choking down my hopeless tears!   
For someone stole my crate of birds,   
And busted up the music box   
In which I kept my market flocks   
Of bull-ideas and mental bears   
And my poetic pocketfox,
My case of literary deers,
My eagle-vans to bat the airs!   
They broke the cages and let go   
My aviary of metric birds,
And all the diction in my zoo   
Was let out by the amateurs!
The fishpond of my Friday words   
Is fished out by the days and years.   
My whole menagerie of verse   
Is ruined by these sly monsieurs!”

The days and years run down the beach   
And throw his ideas in the air   
And wind his similes up to pitch   
And bat his verses out of reach.   
He mopes along the empty shore   
With gullcries in his windfilled ear.   
The hours and minutes, playing catch   
With every image they can snatch,   
Bat his metaphors to the birds
And cheer him with these bullying words:
“Better sing your snatch of song   
Before that ostrich voice is dumb:   
Better whack your share of gong   
Before the sounding brass is mum:
Tomorrow, tomorrow Death will come   
And find your epics unbegun:   
There’ll be no statues on your tomb,   
And other bards will occupy   
Your seven-fifty sitting room!”

Thomas Merton, “The Strife between the Poet and Ambition” from The Collected Poems of Thomas Merton. Copyright © 1968 by Thomas Merton. Reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corporation.

Source: The Collected Poems of Thomas Merton (New Directions Publishing Corporation, 1977)

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Poet Thomas James Merton 1915–1968

Subjects Arts & Sciences, Living, Death, Poetry & Poets

Biography

A monk who lived in isolation for several years, and one of the most well-known Catholic writers of the twentieth century, Thomas Merton was a prolific poet, religious writer, and essayist whose diversity of work has rendered a precise definition of his life and an estimation of the significance of his career difficult. Merton was a Trappist, a member of a Roman Catholic brotherhood known for its austere lifestyle and vow of . . .

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Poem Categorization

SUBJECT Arts & Sciences, Living, Death, Poetry & Poets

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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