Robert Lax - Mystic Poet

LAX, ROBERT -- Mystic Poet

Robert Lax, a poet whom Jack Kerouac called ³one of the great original voices of our times ... a Pilgrim in search of beautiful innocence² died in his sleep Sept. 26 in Olean, N.Y. He was 84.

Born in 1915 in Olean, he had returned to that town only weeks before he died, after having lived for more than 35 years on various Greek islands, most recently on Patmos. Lax wrote hundreds of poems and dozens of books in his long career, but never reached the level of recognition that some of his peers say he deserves.

One of his most acclaimed works was Circus of the Sun, a book of poems metaphorically comparing the circus to Creation. Called by a critic in The New York Times Book Review ³perhaps the greatest English language poem of this century,² an excerpt was handed out to those attending Lax¹s funeral at St. Bonaventure University Sept. 29:

And in the beginning was love.Love made a sphere:
all things grew within it; the sphere then encompassed
beginnings and endings, beginning and end. Love
had a compass whose whirling dance traced out a
sphere of love in the void: in the center thereof
rose a fountain.

As a student at Columbia University in the late 1930s, Lax worked on the college humor magazine, Jester, with a classmate who became a close lifetime friend, Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk and author of many spiritual books. Others on the Jester staff were Edward Rice, founder of Jubilee magazine, to which all three men contributed in the 1950s and ¹60s, and Ad Reinhardt, the painter.

The correspondence of Lax and Merton, written in a kind of comic argot, was published in 1978. In his biography, The Seven Storey Mountain, Merton describes Lax at a meeting with other Jester staff: ³Taller than them all, and more serious, with a long face, like a horse, and a great mane of black hair on top of it, Bob Lax meditated on some incomprehensible woe.²

Mark Van Doren, one of his Columbia professors, wrote that ³The woe, I now believe, was that Lax could not state his bliss: his love of the world and all things, all persons in it.²

In fact, he did indeed state his bliss in beautiful writing.

Some of his poems, however, were whimsical: ³

are you a visitor?² asked the dog, ³yes,² i answered. ³only a visitor?² asked the dog. ³yes,² i answered. ³take me with you,² said the dog.

Over the years the poems became more and more minimilist, sometimes consisting of single words, even single syllables, running down page after page, often in varying colors.

Much of his output, while not outright spiritual, evoked religious thoughts. Many Western visitors to his tiny house in Patmos had their spirits recharged in the presence of his peaceful mien. William Maxwell even likened him to a saint. ³

To the best of my knowledge,² wrote Maxwell, ³a saint is simply all the things that he is. If you placed him among the Old Testament figures above the south portal of Chartres, he wouldn¹t look odd.²

Lax converted to Catholicism from Judaism in 1943, five years after Merton did, and Rice was godfather to both men. In the ¹40s, Lax worked on the staff of The New Yorker, was poetry editor of Time, wrote screenplays in Hollywood, and taught at both the University of North Carolina and Connecticut College for Women.

He traveled with the Cristiani Brothers circus in 1949, which enabled him to generate material for Circus of the Sun. He helped start Jubilee, a lay Catholic magazine, under its founder, Edward Rice, in 1952 and became its roving editor before moving to the Greek Islands in 1962.

James Harford, a friend of Robert Lax for 48 years, is the emeritus executive director of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics. He lives in Princeton and is writing a book on the long friendship of Lax, Merton and Rice. National Catholic Reporter, October 20,2000

Robert Lax loved the world By JAMES HARFORD
Special to the National Catholic Reporter




When Prophecy Still Had a Voice: The Letters of Thomas Merton and Robert Lax
Biddle, Arthur (ed), (Lexington University Press of Kentucky, 2001) ISBN 0-8131-2168-x (HB) $39.95
Arthur Biddle and Dan PhillipsDuring the summer of 2001, at the International Meeting of the Thomas Merton Society, I had the opportunity to sit on the front porch of Merton's Hermitage and talk with Arthur Biddle.

Our discussion ranged from how he became interested in Merton and Lax to his general feelings about Lax. Much of what we shared is in the final pages of When Prophecy Still had a Voice. But a couple of his comments stuck with me.

In trying to figure out his initial interest in Merton and Lax he said, "God does make accidents!" His reference of course meaning that God's hand was in the encounter. (And haven't we all had that experience a times when dealing with Merton?)

And then I asked him his impression Lax. He thought for a long time and said, "A saintly (long pause) then "NO WHAT A GREAT SOUL!" And those words may be the best description of Lax by someone who had walked similar paths with him during the last days of his life.


What a treasure Arthur Biddle has given to us and we thank God for that meeting has enriched all of our lives.

I first became acquainted with Robert Lax through Catherine Pearson and Richard Raspa's book, "Discovery in Literature," produced in 1970.

Lax's poem, The Morning Stars, from his book, Circus Days and Nights, was exciting and meaningful to me in 1970, and even more meaningful now.

(Note: If you really want religious inspiration, compare The Morning Stars from Circus of the Sun with Job 38. I believe you will be amazed!!)

Lax was one of Merton's oldest and dearest friends. They met while both were students at Columbia University in New York City in 1935. They spent time together as part of the Jester staff at Columbia and for two summers were in Olean, New York, at a cottage where, with other writer friends, they spent writing.

The book is in 5 sections, each with a brief introductory note by Biddle.

Section one (1938-1941)

This section deals with the pre-monastery days. Many of the letters seem to have been written in a secret code between Merton and Lax. The language is frustrating, a lot of double talk, and a rising sense of futility, especially since both are searching for the right employment and a meaning for their lives.

Section 2 (1942-1951)

Beginning with Merton's entrance into Gethsemani, this section covers the years 1942-1951. I like Merton's style during this time. He is still enthusiastic about the monastery, has become a successful author with Seven Storey Mountain, and has published several books of poetry.

Lax, on the other hand, struggles with vocation. Lax goes from screenwriting, to teaching, to becoming a part of a circus--which eventually amounts to his book Circus Under the Sun.

Merton, realizing Lax's struggle, writes, "Pray to him and ask him for a definite vocation, that is important and I would do that." That Lax heard his friends advice is evident a page later (p.104) when he says, "I'll continue to pray for a vocation. Please Pray for us."

Section 3 (1952-1960)

This period has few letters to begin the first portion. It picks up considerably in 1956 when Merton becomes Novice Master. In 1959 Lax's Circus of the Sun was finally published.

To celebrate the importance of this publishing event, Merton for once forsakes the double talk language so often used between him and Lax, to say,

"Before I begin with the double talk....I would prefer to say in serious tones what I would say about the Circus book, which, with measured looks and profound surmise I take to be one of the first if only religious books of any value that has skidded off the slides in these United Steaks for many years." (page 182)

Lax returns the compliment by noting in a letter to Merton that his The Solitary Life, printed by Victor and Carolyn Hammer, is a "magnificent and eloquent masterpiece."

(Note for editor: I have finally been struck by the Merton-Lax hex. Most of the times these letters are perplexing, at times totally unreadable, and leaves one sitting on a broken limb. BUT ALAS, I think I know what is happening. Both of these screwballs are writing subconsciously a pre-literary form that pre-supposes their greatest works.

For example, Merton's story of the crazy nuns (p.195-198) is like finding a pre-historic Merton or the Dead Sea Scrolls. It is fantastic. Merton in a creative tizzy. Alert, responsive, crazy, searching for words from the monastic vaults. Great! This is not great literature, it is fantastic literature that shows Merton's prehistoric literary mind working.

And Lax, on page 200, works similarly. Read between the lines and see the creativity and how he and Merton stimulate each other. Every literature major should be forced to read these diatribes in earnest as a way to show them where seminal literature begins in creative minds .)

Section 4 (1961-1964)

In this period Merton is moving toward more time at the hermitage and he has become increasingly involved in a larger world filled with hate and violence. Lax, at this time is becoming more interested in retreat and silence, eventually ending up in Greece for most of the rest of his life.

These letters are for the most part unreadable. Merton mentions his meeting with Suzuki and Lax mentions the misfortunes of Jack Kerouac. Lax seems to be getting use to Greece. "I have the consolations of a solitary life," he says.

Section 5 (1965-1968)

"The letters in this period are perhaps the most linguistically playful of the entire collection," says Biddle.

Merton now lives in his hermitage, falls in love with M, a student nurse, and begins a literary magazine named Monk's Pond.

Lax is still living on Kalymnos and experimenting with poetry. He becomes poet in resident at the University of South Dakota in 1967. In the spring of 1968 he visited 5 days with Merton at Gethsemani.Merton died December 10th of that year.

Deaths of friends, health problems for Merton, including surgery, and Lax complaints of bursitis for which he takes vitamin C 5 times a day. (p.336)

Many of the letters share a common grief of several of their Columbia friends who die this year. Their own invincibility becomes suspect.

Concluding letters mention Monk's Pond, Merton's literary magazine, and Lax writing from South Dakota while teaching there. Merton writes of his exciting trip to Asia and Lax sends one last letter to Merton on December 8th which Merton never read before his death.

Many memories are covered in these letters. Memories of over 30 years of consistent friendship. Maybe they are at times unreadable but mostly they give an indication that some friendships do last forever.

Concluding the book is an intensive interview with Lax in Patmos. Covering several trips to Patmos by Biddle, it covers 20 pages, having been reduced from hundreds of pages of interviews.

E-mail Dan Kenneth Phillips
JAN. 18, 2002


Thomas Merton and Robert Lax: A Friendship in Letters by Arthur W. Biddle

Jason Garland's Introduction to Lax's poetry and technique.

Poet Robert Lax to receive St. Bonaventure University Arts Award

The Poets - San Francisco. Includes article about Kerouac.

Thomas Merton - Monk and Poet