The car deposited its passengers at Gethsemani in late morning. Merton’s quarters were “a nice comfortable little cabin out in the woods, out from the monastery,” as Davenport later recalled. “It was heated by an oil stove, I think. Bathroom was still an outhouse.” The men sat down to “a four-hour winter conversation over Trappist cheese and bread with bourbon from one of the distilleries nearby.” Here, at a Cistercian monastery nestled into the stony hills of central Kentucky, was an unlikely confluence of figures: four men of disparate backgrounds, each a confident artist, each attuned to new developments in poetry, philosophy, and art. They had come to Kentucky for different reasons: Davenport to teach English at the university; Meatyard to work for an optician; Merton to retreat from the world and pursue his spiritual calling. Williams recognized remarkable figures and wanted to forge relationships among them, so he visited from North Carolina frequently. As Davenport later said, “Jonathan knows at least five people in every town in the United States. There is no such thing as being too small for Jonathan.”
Their conversation that day must have ranged widely; certainly poetry, a shared passion, was one subject, and another was Meatyard’s photographs, which Merton immediately admired. (Merton had pursued photography with increasing avidity since the early 1960s.) Perhaps Meatyard and Merton also discussed Zen Buddhism, a subject they had arrived at from different places. Merton came to Buddhism in his attempt to better understand Christian mysticism; photographer Minor White had introduced Meatyard to the philosophy in 1956, recommending books on Zen.
Whatever the subjects of their conversation, the introduction was a success. Writing in his journal the following day, Merton confided, “The one who made the greatest impression on me as artist was Gene Meatyard, the photographer.” Meatyard felt similarly: “We hit it off famously from the first. Our interests were all the same, some more avidly in one area, some another.” The two men began a correspondence and paid visits to each other. Writing to Merton in August, Meatyard suggested a novel endeavor: “Would you be willing to try something in an experimental vein? … What I propose is to see how closely I, or any artists sic can connect with the utterances of another. If you were to send me words, prose or poetry and number of words doesn’t matter and I don’t necessarily understand the personal or private meaning of them—then try to make a photograph … of them? We might also if that works try my abstracted photo first and then your words.” Three days later Merton responded: “I like very much your suggestion of trying something experimental; poems and pictures. Let’s think about that.”