Wednesday, 10 June 2020

ROBERT LAX (1915-2000) - AN EXTRAORDINARY AMERICAN POET

Louise and I fell in love with the holy Greek island of Patmos in the summer of 1988 when we spent a vacation there for two weeks. All this after I had swallowed my pride and returned to classroom teaching in the January of that year. We had created our own summer vacation fest that summer - two weeks in Kalymnos, followed by two weeks in Patmos - both Greek islands in the Aegean; our first Greek holiday. My bid to be a full-time writer for the time being had been broken but my income had increased exponentially. I continued my life as a born-again teacher and we afforded the time and money to return to Patmos in 1989 and then, after the deaths of my father in 1992 and my mother in 1995, we were drawn back in 1995, 1996, 1997 and 1998. We never returned to Kalymnos.

By 1995, Robert Lax had turned 80 and his health was beginning to decline. Louise has a clear memory of seeing him on more than one occasion and in more than one year on the waterfront in Skala, the main port and town in Patmos so we think those sightings were probably in 1988 and 1989. Although we did not realise it at the time, the striking and singular lean figure of an ancient man she had seen was indeed Robert Lax, the American poet who had made Patmos his home after over a decade living on Kalymnos before eventually being compelled to leave by an unfortunate twist of history. Some of his former Greek friends had become convinced he was an American CIA agent working in the interests of America's ally, Turkey, at the time of the Turkish invasion of north Cyprus in 1974. Lax tried hard to mend bridges over the next few years but to no avail. In 1981, aged 66, he made Patmos his home.


Robert Lax (probably taken on Patmos in the late 1980s)


My head was still in a spin after two terms struggling to make sense of my return to the classroom so I have no clear memory of Robert Lax. My loss. But I have sought to acquaint myself further with the
essence of the man - and Michael N. McGregor's biography: 'Pure Act' (2015) has been invaluable.


The biography of Robert Lax published in 2015


Robert Lax's father, Siggie, had emigrated to the USA from Austria when he was 16. Under-educated and never losing his accent, Siggie the Jewish emigrant made his living from selling clothing, door-to-door. He introduced his son to the types of people that Robert was to feel most comfortable with for all his life: those who were both ordinary and yet extraordinary; circus folk, gypsies, street sweepers and peanut-sellers in the park, back then in his childhood. In time, Robert Lax would add Greek island fishermen and farmers and sponge-divers  to that list.

America provided opportunity despite the Wall Street Crash in 1929 to those such as Robert with stable and supportive families. He was always a star-student and won his scholarship to Columbia University, New York to become an Ivy League graduate in 1938 with life-time friendships established with other brilliant odd-balls who loved to write and discuss. Thomas Merton, who became a Catholic monk and writer of distinction, was a close friend who described Lax as 'a mind  full of tremendous and subtle intuitions, and every day he found less and less to say about them'.


A younger Lax in the USA 


Lax the graduate could not settle. For short periods, he was a professor at Connecticut College, a film critic for Time magazine, a screenwriter in Hollywood. He lived also, for a short while, in Paris with friends; in Marseilles in a flop-house-cum-whorehouse, in the Canary Islands with banana farmers, and in New York. The one constant in this shifting landscape was his rejection of materialism and a culture that prized 'getting ahead'. Robert Lax was primarily concerned with understanding the thoughts in his head about the meaning of all that he encountered and why he was drawn to those who seemed most grounded and artless in their living.

That attraction was most intense when exhibited by ordinary folk who had developed skills he could never hope to match. His first poetry that really stands out was inspired by his time living with and observing circus performers. He was now on a path that led to his admiration, as a mature man, for Greek-island fishermen and sponge-divers. These were people he wanted to be close to - but always reserving his own space to be alone as the poet. And his poetic style came to mirror this search for extrordinary meaning in the ordinary at its most pure and meaningful.

Merton and Lax had made a vow when young that they would focus on writing simply. Robert Lax took this injunction to the poetic extreme as you will see. But it is important to realise that this man of intensity was also a man of laughter and humour. For a while, he and the American writer, literary iconoclast and pioneer of the Beat Generation, Jack Kerouac, became friends. Kerouac lovingly described Lax as 'a laughing Buddha'. Robert Lax is a protean figure - a man of diverse forms - which perhaps helps explain his search, as the poet, for the simplest modes of expression.


Ad Reinhardt (artist and Columbia University contemporary of Lax and Merton), Thomas Merton, and Robert Lax at the Trappist Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky, USA in 1959



By 1939, Lax was deepening his spiritual beliefs, a move that led him to baptism in the Roman Catholic Church in 1943. Yet one vital seed had already been sown in his senior year in 1937 at Columbia when he met the first man he recognised as truly holy: Mahanambrata Brahmachari (1904-99), a Hindu monk and scholar who had arrived from an Indian ashram in 1932 at the age of 28, presenting a compelling message of truth discovered and realised through living in the world in poverty. Brahmachari also shaped the spiritual journey of Thomas Merton when they met as Bramachari was working towards his doctorate at the University of Chicago.

With the USA on the edge of entry into the second world war, Lax grappled with the issue of registering as a conscientious objector - like Tolstoy, he felt that non-violence was an essential part of Christian life -  but he was found '4F', unfit for service, regardless. The US army had its own views on odd-balls such as Lax. And so his life continued in its uncertain and stuttering fashion. By 1959, his writing style and outlook were being refined further in the direction of simplicity by the success of Beckett and Salinger with their emphasis on writing simply and naturally and sounding like no one other than themselves.



The poet who had found his ground in Greek island life



And then in 1962, answering a spiritual call, he set sail for the Greek islands for the first time. In Lesbos, he found unpretentious people, generosity and a simple but compelling landscape. The Greek love match had begun. Over the next four decades, Lax's poetry changed dramatically - eventually becoming stripped down to its bare essence in a vertical style that marked him out as a member of the avant-garde. One of the first entries in his journal for 1973 shows how far Lax had travelled from the doctrine-based beliefs of his baptism into the Christian church as a Roman Catholic, thirty years earlier:

'has the church
become an
old bottle
(into which
new wine
cannot be
poured)?'

As Lax's biographer, Michael McGregor, remarks: 'It wouldn't be much of a stretch to say that he had traded the Catholic Church for a new Greek church. Not the official Greek Orthodox Church but the church of the Greek islanders' daily life.' Lax's faith had been elevated by reduction. Now his dogmas were boiled down to basics such as these:

Love conquers all.
Grace conquers all.
God is love.

   
In these matters, I am very much on Robert Lax's wavelength.


Try this Lax poem from 1991 for size:

'peace
be
gins

when
an
y
two
be
ings

in
the
un
i
verse

at
tempt

(&
per
se
vere

in
try
ing)

to
un
der
stand

each
oth
er

-


I love this - it's very wise.


Lax continued writing 'jottings' in his journals. In the last year of his life, this appears:

'one
well-
chos
en

step
at
a
time'


Very wise indeed. A recipe for moving through a lifetime.





A pause



In conclusion, let me share with you the closing passage of Michael McGregor's biography of Robert Lax:

'Lax died on September 26, 2000 …. I was at school when the call came.  …. When I looked that afternoon, the sky was a deep Greek blue. "Go teach them," it seemed Lax was saying, "and give them all A's."

Several people who knew Lax have said he found what Merton was looking for: a kind of solitude, simplicity, and peace that passes human understanding. Some have said that he was the one who became a saint. None of this would have meant much to him except perhaps as an inspiration to others. What he - and Merton - found, he thought, was his own way of walking. His own way of singing the song. His own way of being pure act. For as he once wrote,

there are not many songs
there is only one song

the animals lope to it
the fish swim to it
the sun circles to it
the stars rise
the snow falls
the grass grows

there is no end to the song and no beginning
the singer may die
but the song is forever

truth is the name of the song
and the song is truth.'



 

 


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