Robert Lax: Poems (1962-1997)
Edited by John Beer
400 pages, $25
By Anthony Bannon
NEWS BOOK REVIEWER
Robert Lax was a poet, a pilgrim and a priest of sorts. He lived the last half of his life as a hermit. He wrote incessantly, filling notebooks and generously fulfilling correspondences. Yet his poetry, a powerful distillate, uses very few words.
Lax grew up in Olean and kept returning throughout his life to our western part of New York State, for three years as an artist in residence (1974-76) at Artpark, and in several other art residencies from Olean to Buffalo.
Lax came back to us from the island of Patmos – for the last time in the year 2000, returning to die. He is buried in the Franciscan Fathers grave site, across the street from St. Bonaventure University.
He was many things during the course of his 85 years. For a poet who lived on the avant-garde fringe, he spent good time in the mainstream, too: as film critic for Time magazine and as writer/editor for the New Yorker, for Jubilee and for Parade. He was a screenwriter under contract in Hollywood to producer/director Arthur Ripley. He was a circus roustabout in Canada and in Italy, and he taught at Connecticut College and the University of North Carolina.
Graduated from Columbia College in 1938, Lax studied with the poet and critic Mark Van Doren and worked on The Jester, the College literary magazine, along with the Trappist Poet Thomas Merton and Ad Reinhardt, the New York School painter.
It turns out he was very well-connected, and he was focused, contemplative and serious; slyly funny, too, people said.
Merton said of him in his autobiographical “Seven Storey Mountain”: “To sum it up, even the people who have always thought he was ‘too impractical’ have always tended to venerate him – in the way people who value material security unconsciously venerate people who do not fear insecurity.”
Lax had no fear. He was a wanderer, catching on to opportunity and then breaking free, and all the time keeping his peace through the word, incessantly writing in journals and scraps of poems maintained now in huge archives at Columbia, which holds his early material, and St. Bonaventure, which has most everything of his life’s second half, spent mostly in as much solitude as he could muster. It is just that he was a magnet for so many who were making culture in the second half of the century – among them such as Richard Avedon and Robert Frank, the photographers; John Ashbery, ee cummings, Denise Levertov, Robert Creeley, Susan Howe and James Agee, the poets; Sun Ra, the jazz musician; Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, the beat writers, and Bob Dylan, the singer-songwriter.
Richard Kostelanetz, the poet and critic, wrote in the New York Times that Lax was “among America’s greatest experimental poets … who can weave awesome poems from remarkably few words. Though a survivor, Lax remains the last unacknowledged – and, alas, uncollected – major poets of his post-’60s generation.”
After years of publications in small press settings, a hefty collection of his work during more than 30 years is out, edited by John Beers. Beers work with Wave, the Seattle press specializing in poetry, takes up Kostelanetz’s challenge, gathering poems known and unknown, from still hot out of the archive to reproduction of the anchor book published in 1962 with Emil Antonucci’s Journeyman Press.
Lax created a new form that Kerouac imitated, and others, such as Creeley and cummings approached – a long river of words that turned the eye from the horizontal line to a vertical drop, often one syllable per line, faint breaths that linger in the mind, wisps of letters lined up as if frames in a skinny film, unreeling like this:
At Lax’s bedside in his family home on Madison Street in Olean, as he lay there waiting for death, the poet had set the Torah and Alban Butler’s 18th century Catholic touchstone, “The Lives of the Saints,” as companion reading at the last. Lax was Jewish, nephew of the Marcus family which established the landmark Olean House Hotel. He became a Roman Catholic in 1943, after a flirtation with Orthodoxy, shortly after graduating from Columbia.
By his own account, Lax was “post denominational,” and likewise was his writing. For insiders in the arts, Lax was a fascinating contemplative, a wanderer and searcher, whose work and conversation influenced kindred souls who wondered as did he about the basic units of art and the spirit. Just what were the essentials? And how might these notions come together into an art made life, an art that cut straight to the heart and perhaps the soul?
One of his pulls for living for so long on Patmos was its religious community and spirit around the place where St. John the Divine was said to have written the visionary Book of Revelations, the last writings in the New Testament. Too, Patmos was inexpensive, and he could find quiet there, an inner silence to observe, to search out the clarity to tackle large meanings, offered up in accessible forms, one word, taking one step, just one word after another:
and I am
Short lines from a much longer poem: Feeling the expanse of Eastern mysticism through a lens held by the Cartesian philosopher Rene Descartes, whose “I think, therefore I am,” put two feet on the ground.
John Beer, the editor of this book, was Lax’s literary assistant on Patmos, helping the poet arrange his materials for deposit at St. Bonaventure. Beer himself is a fine poet. So his introduction and selection carefully surveys the range of Lax work and is graced by compassionate and wise interpretation.
Beer is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a professor of creative writing at Portland State University. His generous tone permits entry to Lax’s style of poetics, likely unfamiliar to most. Beer’s experience with Lax over years leaves a quiet respect for a “less is more aesthetic,” and only a few times does Beer put on the gown of academic caution to construct conditional speculation that he must know should be unqualified.
Lax said elsewhere that he sought to construct poems which encourage a reader’s participation in the poet’s creation; and, yes, these slight poems live much larger than they appear. Beer has no need to hold on to an academic rhetoric, and only a few times does he pursue the bad habits of jargon and its indulgences.
There is left a wish for more of Beer’s charming, dropped-in facts, such as an account of the young Lax meeting Thomas Edison at Chautauqua, and the collegian Lax partying with Greenwich Village neighbor ee cummings along with a heady group from English Lit. The editor must have a good measure more of these gems.
Beer’s objective, well met, was to “introduce readers to the variety and depth of Robert Lax’s work…” - from “humorous sketches … abstract poems … extended prose journals, and spiritual meditations.” This volume leaves out the prose journals. But touches the rest. The book is a treasure and inspiration, a testimony of a life lived roundly, in full circle, and full of healthy contradictions.
One more poem:
“are you a visitor, asked
“yes,” i answered.
“only a visitor?” asked
“yes,” i answered.
“take me with you,” said
Anthony Bannon is the Executive Director of the Burchfield Penny Art Center.