November 30 would have been the 100th birthday of Robert Lax, a poet perhaps best known as Thomas Merton’s close friend. Merton said of Lax, “His was one of the voices through which the insistent Spirit of God was determined to teach me the way I had to travel.”
A native of New York, Lax graduated from Columbia University in 1938 with a degree in English Literature. After much wandering he traveled to Greece where he made Patmos, Isle of the Revelation, his spiritual and creative workshop. There, he quietly resided for over 30 years, writing the ascetic and experimental verse that would rank him among America’s greatest poets, a true minimalist who can weave breathtaking poetry from remarkably few words.
The New York Times Book Review called Lax’s best-known book, The Circus of the Sun, “perhaps the greatest English language poem of this century.” And Jack Kerouac called Lax “a Pilgrim in search of beautiful innocence.”
But author/editor Steve Georgiou called him Bob — and friend, and sometimes “Uncle Robo.”
Steve Georgiou’s new book, In the Beginning Was Love: Contemplative Words of Robert Lax, reveals the inner life of Bob Lax through this anthology of poems and journal writings, including handwritten images and photos.
Simplicity and minimalism are themes in Lax’s poetry. To see Lax’s handwriting from his journal feels like an intimate glimpse into his artist’s soul. And the playful structure of his poems invite reflection on more than the words alone. As Steve told me, each poem may be read as a meditation, which can lead to discussion.
In the Introduction, Georgiou writes:
Throughout Lax’s writing we hear his perennial plea to “slow down,” “relax,” “simplify,” to consider where we came from, where we are now, and were we are going….Ultimately he tells us — just as he told the young Merton decades before — that we are all called to be peacemakers…
Lax inspires us to begin a ‘renaissance of goodness.’ He inspires us to see how a new age grounded in spirit and art is possible, if only we take the ‘inward passage; and emerge with gifts of the heart to share.
C&R: I loved seeing Lax’s handwriting and his artwork. Is the cover art one of his drawings? What did Robert teach you about the practice of creating art?
SG: Great you’ve enjoyed the book & like its arrangement, Lax art-writing, etc.. The book’s cover drawing is mine but certainly Lax inspired, in terms of the free play of creativity-creation and the water-fish-circuit-circus theme (all things are rhythmically, playfully alive in God, and the journey is to God in God…).
Regarding what Lax taught me about art, I think all of Lax’s wisdom interrelates — art-poetry-spirit. For him, spirituality & creativity were two sides to the same coin.
C&R: Finding your authentic voice and turning to wonder are two key practices in Courage & Renewal. I noticed several poems about songs and wonder. Did you hear Robert sing often?
SG: No, I never really heard Bob singing, but he might say one word aloud (softly, slowly) repeatedly, like a mantra; something as simple as saying “good,” created a calming effect, at least for me. The word “song” does come up from time to time in his poetry because, in a sense, everything is singing in God, everything is being what it was created to be, there is a cosmic song ever going on. Bob loved jazz, felt that we all have our own “special solo” to play, but we can only play it well if we pause to listen, deeply listen, to life.
C&R: What poem by Bob Lax has the most personal meaning to you? Which one would he pick, do you think?
SG: Hmmm, this can change from day to day, I guess. But for some reason, I keep on thinking of one poem this past week, I just wrote it into a guest book at a retreat center I visited:
Every being you’ve ever known, the only being you’ve ever known, keep with you always, wherever you may be.
I also like the one about hearing the “night-song of the world…”
C&R: What do you most want people to know or appreciate about Robert Lax as we’re marking his centenary year?
SG: I guess it might be to appreciate the calm, creative “still point,” to “put themselves in a place where grace can flow,” as he would say from time to time. From there one can begin to hear one’s voice, one’s own song (& the eternal song of creation calling unto the Creator).
By the way, though Lax was a fount of inspiration & wisdom, I did not think of him as a guru, rather a compassionate teacher who integrated the realms of art and spirit. His mentoring qualities were undeniable, not just for me, but for many searchers-artists-travelers he happened to meet over the years.
Excerpts reprinted with permission of Templegate Press LLC. www.templegate.com.