Robert Hudson Explains How Bob Dylan Influenced Thomas Merton
Robert Hudson tells a story of two men who never met, except on the turntable of a record player, but who together captured and defined a moment in American culture.
In the summer of 1966, Thomas Merton was confessing to his abbot at Gethsemani Monastery in Kentucky that he’d been having a love affair with a nurse young enough to be his daughter. It was a crisis of both vocation and faith. And folk singer Bob Dylan, who would experience a motorcycle accident that July (the details of which are still debated), was making a major shift in his music with the release of the album Blond on Blonde, the third entry of a trilogy that included Bringing It All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited. Dylan would not be heard from for a year.
A brief snapshot of what was happening in that summer frames both Merton and Dylan. The military buildup was continuing in Vietnam, and the U.S. began bombing Hanoi and Haiphong. Civil rights activist James Meredith was shot (but survived) while walking in a protest across Mississippi. The Supreme Court ruled in an Arizona case, beginning the reading of Miranda rights to arrested suspects. Martin Luther King was leading civil rights marches. The U.S. landed a spacecraft on the moon. Race riots occurred in Lansing, Michigan, and Cleveland, Ohio. The federal Freedom of Information Act was signed into law. The National Organization for Women was founded.
To write a book like The Monk’s Record Player: Thomas Merton, Bob Dylan, and the Perilous Summer of 1966 requires an in-depth understanding of both Merton’s writings and Dylan’s music, which Hudson demonstrates repeatedly. Using references in Merton’s letters, journals, and other writings, Hudson makes a more-than-convincing case for Dylan’s influence on the monk; it’s all right there in Merton’s writings.
Merton was a voracious reader of poetry; he was often seen walking in the woods and fields of the monastery, reading poetry aloud. Then he began to listen to Dylan’s music. “For Merton,” Hudson writes, “like a man suddenly emerging from a dark room into full sunlight, hearing Bob Dylan was a profound jolt of poetry. For perhaps the first time since entering the monastery, he was actually hearing a poet (and Merton considered Dylan a poet) deliver powerful words directly to his ear rather than to his eye.”
For the next two years, until his accidental death in Bangkok, Hudson says, “Merton’s fascination for Dylan became a valuable distraction, if not an outright obsession.”
Hudson is the author of The Poet and the Fly, Kiss the Earth When You Pray: The Father Zosima Poems (2016), The Art of the Almost Said: A Christian Writer’s Guide to Writing Poetry (2018), and Beyond Belief: What the Martyrs Said to God (2002). The Monk’s Record Player was published in 2018. He also serves on the board of the Calvin College Center for Faith and Writing.
To read The Monk’s Record Player is to place oneself in that portentous time. I was all of 14, preparing for high school, and “the times they were a’changing” in my own family. My brother was in the Marine Corps Reserve, and Vietnam was always a possibility. My public high school in suburban New Orleans had integrated the year before, with fights, riots, and the daily presence of local police and federal marshals. My non-Catholic and distraught parents were moving heaven and earth to enroll me in a local Catholic high school. I finally told them to stop and that I would attend the public high school, riots and all. But the violence had exhausted itself the previous year, and nothing happened. I was familiar with Dylan’s music, but it would be years before I read Thomas Merton. And my house was a block from US 61, the highway so celebrated by Dylan.
Hudson brings all of this home and together in his book. It’s about poetry and music, about a monk and a singer/songwriter, and how they fit together to define that summer of 1966 and beyond.
How to Read a Poem uses images like the mouse, the hive, the switch (from the Billy Collins poem)—to guide readers into new ways of understanding poems. Anthology included.
“I require all our incoming poetry students—in the MFA I direct—to buy and read this book.”
—Jeanetta Calhoun Mish