The Burning of the Books

by Ruminate Magazine June 20, 2012

[M]y six-month-old son, after staring at the alien ground of sand, looks up at the white-haired sea (Job 41:32); the wind is blowing the water white and black (Eliot). And despite what the poets have to say and sing, my son cries at the evocative beauty before him, at the sound of the surf and the creep of the foam at our feet. He does not want wet feet. He has tasted the sand and found it unpleasantly salty. He turns his face, shaded by his wimple-like sunhat, and teethes on my bare shoulder. Even I am clammy and unsatisfying. I thought there was no connection between my affection for the ocean and my son’s distaste for it. He will grow to like it when he’s older, I thought. Six months is early yet for ocean exposure. But thinking the above led me to consider change in a writer’s life. How a writer can be passionate about her art one moment and apathetic the next. How the ocean is not a consistent, objective value in our life. How we are subjects and experience the world through our selves, our eyes, our tempers, our loves and disappointments. I am reading Thomas Merton’s (English professor, poet and writer, monk) autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain. Merton writes of his preparation to enter a Trappist monastery: “I took the manuscripts of three finished novels and one half-finished novel and ripped them up and threw them in the incinerator.” This line leaves me in a state of wonder. Yes, Merton confesses the novels were not very good writing…but they were finished! They were discreet, completed works. Three novels, I marvel. One cannot read the above without thinking of Gerard Manley Hopkins, burning his poems before entering the Jesuit priesthood. It was 1868, and Hopkins was 23 years old: “Slaughter of the Innocents,” he wrote in his journal. We push our writing away from ourselves. We pull it towards us. We burn it (is it ever truly gone?) and we recreate it. There is a time to keep and a time to cast away. Poet Jennifer Atkinson told me once that it is better to think of putting your writing underneath you than behind (the preferred, linear analogy). I am taken with Jennifer’s proposed image: somehow we are all getting taller for the writing we have accomplished and attempted. We stand upon it. Merton went on to write more than 70 books—his autobiography alone has been translated into more than twenty languages. And although Hopkins thought himself a dry root (“send my roots rain” petitions the close of his sonnet “Thou art indeed just, Lord, if I contend”), and his work lay unpublished until thirty years after his death, yet today he is a beloved poet on many sides of the world’s water. It is easy to understand how the occasional tearing-up of one’s writing can be healthful, and how stronger sentences and thoughts can be brought to light in the process of revision. It is more difficult to fathom how something can be beautiful one moment and distasteful the next, or how the ocean, say, can be one thing in my eyes and another in my son’s. A world of fixed values would be simpler, but it would not be our world. It would not be the waves that the wind blows both black and white. The world of the writer and the thinker—the world of the living. If you are struggling with writing anything at all, with even liking writing, or if you are in that euphoric space where the poems and chapters and lines just appear under your hands, in either situation, put the writing or the lack of it under you. Keep on standing and watch the water, because the change itself is part of the marvel of our world. by Hannah VanderHart


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