Hymn of Not Much Praise for New York City

By Thomas James Merton 1915–1968
When the windows of the West Side clash like cymbals in the setting sunlight,
And when wind wails amid the East Side’s aerials,
And when, both north and south of thirty-fourth street,   
In all the dizzy buildings,
The elevators clack their teeth and rattle the bars of their cages,   
Then the children of the city,
Leaving the monkey-houses
   of their office-buildings and apartments,
With the greatest difficulty open their mouths, and sing:
“Queen among the cities of the Earth: New York!   
Rich as a cake, common as a doughnut,
Expensive as a fur and crazy as cocaine,
We love to hear you shake
Your big face like a shining bank
Letting the mad world know you’re full of dimes!

”This is your night to make maraccas out of all that metal money
Paris is in the prison-house, and London dies of cancer.   
This is the time for you to whirl,
Queen of our hopped-up peace,
And let the excitement of your somewhat crippled congas   
Supersede the waltzes of more shining
Capitals that have been bombed.

“Meanwhile we, your children,
Weeping in our seasick zoo of windows while you dance,   
Will gobble aspirins,
And try to keep our cage from caving in.
All the while our minds will fill with these petitions,   
Flowering quietly in between our gongs of pulse.   
These will have to serve as prayers:

“ ‘O lock us in the safe jails of thy movies!
Confine us to the semiprivate wards and white asylums   
Of the unbearable cocktail parties, O New York!   
Sentence us for life to the penitentiaries of thy bars and nightclubs,
And leave us stupefied forever by the blue, objective lights   
That fill the pale infirmaries of thy restaurants,
And the clinics of thy schools and offices,
And the operating-rooms of thy dance-halls.

“ ‘But never give us any explanations, even when we ask,   
Why all our food tastes of iodoform,
And even the freshest flowers smell of funerals.
No, never let us look about us long enough to wonder   
Which of the rich men, shivering in the overheated office,   
And which of the poor men, sleeping face-down on the Daily Mirror,
Are still alive, and which are dead.’ ”

Thomas Merton, “Hymn of Not Much Praise for New York City” from The Collected Poems of Thomas Merton. Copyright © 1977 by The Trustees of the Merton Legacy Trust. 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 Social Commentaries, Cities & Urban Life, Money & Economics

Poetic Terms Free Verse

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 Social Commentaries, Cities & Urban Life, Money & Economics

Poetic Terms Free Verse

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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