When I think of Mark Van Doren, I always think of Thomas Merton. That is because it was Merton that first led me to read Van Doren, or rather, reading Merton’s Seven Story Moutain that led me to want to find and read Van Doren’s poetry.
Once Van Doren was widely acclaimed as a poet. His Collected Poems won the Pulitzer Prize in 1940. As time has passed though, his stature has diminished. His books are difficult to find. Looking on Amazon.com, I find used copies of his poetry available… but little currently in print.
It is difficult to say why Van Doren has fallen so far out of fashion. It is not his poetry or his poetic ability. It may simply be that at this point in time predominant tastes do not lean in his direction. Some day they will again. They must because his poetry is too good to be lost.
The first volume of Van Doren’s poetry I ever purchased was one I found at a used bookstore in Birmingham, Alabama. I was killing time waiting for a Greyhound bus headed for Florida and Key West. I stepped into a small used bookstore on my way back to the bus station from a barbecue place that someone had recommended to me.
The store was cramped and filled with Harlequin romances and old best sellers. On a table in the back, I found a paperback copy of Van Doren’s Collected Poems. It may have been the only volume of poetry in the whole store. It was beat up but unmarked and only .75 cents. I bought it.
I read the book on the bus through Florida and in Key West. When I read one of his poems now, I quite often think of Key West… of Red Stripe beer and boats… of long, lazy mornings and lazier afternoons… of music and girls and sun… of my youth.
What better way to start the weekend than reading a poem that reminds you of all of that….
I wake and hearing it raining.
Were I dead, what would I give
Lazily to lie here,
Like this, and live?
Or better yet: birdsong,
Brightening and spreading –
How far would I come then
To be at the world’s wedding?
Now that I lie, though,
(Oh, but not forever,
Oh, end arriving)
How shall I praise them:
All the sweet beings
Eternally that outlive
Me and my dying?
Mountains, I mean; wind, water, air;
Grass, and huge trees; clouds, flowers,
And thunder, and night.
Turtles, I mean, and toads; hawks, herons, owls;
Graveyards, and towns, and trout; roads, gardens,
Red berries, and deer.
Lightning, I mean, and eagles; fences; snow;
Sunrise, and ferns; waterfalls, serpents,
Green islands, and sleep.
Horses, I mean; butterflies, whales;
Mosses, and stars and gravelly
Rivers, and fruit.
Oceans, I mean; black valleys; corn;
Brambles, and cliffs; rock, dirt, dust, ice;
And warnings of flood.
How shall I name them?
And in what order?
Each would be first.
Omission is murder.
Maidens, I mean, and apples; needles; leaves;
Worms, and planers, and clover; whirlwinds; dew;
Bulls; geese –
Stop. Lie still.
You will never be done.
Leave them all there.
Old lover. Live on.