I’d first heard of Robert Lax (1915-2000) through Philip Lamantia. When I knew Philip, he was in his second great Catholic phase and consequently was looking for other “Catholic Poets” with whom he could identify. Lax was one of these, having converted from Judaism in 1943, a similarly pivotal year for Lamantia when, at age 15, he published his first poems in the avant-garde periodical View. I don’t think they ever met, though Philip probably learned about Lax from their mutual friend Jack Kerouac, whose poem “Hymn” Lax had published in the PAX broadside series for the progressive Catholic magazine Jubilee in 1959, the same year Lamantia published his unorthodox volume of Catholic poetry Ekstasis (SF: Auerhahn Press). And too, Lax had been a professional New York literary man of the ’40s and ’50s, holding editorial spots at places like The New Yorker and Time, though these days he’s chiefly known for his appearances in college buddy Thomas Merton’s autobiography The Seven Storey Mountain (NY: Harcourt Brace, 1948).
This is in part because Lax had made the bold move—as soon as he was able, around the age of 50—to drop out of the professional literary world, to drop out of the working world entirely, moving to live in hermetic poverty in the Greek islands, first on Kalymnos, but finally on Patmos, where John the Evangelist wrote the Book of Revelations. Here Lax spent the last 35 years of life writing poetry, indifferent to his reputation yet in turn inspiring devotion; in more than one case (Journeyman, Pendo Verlag), people began presses with the object of publishing him, according to the 2006 catalog Robert Lax (Basel: Museum Tinguely). As a poet, he’s better known in continental Europe than America and academia is blissfully unaware of his work, though he seems to have lingered in New York’s collective literary consciousness enough to warrant an occasional volume from old school imprints like New Directions (33 Poems in ’88) and Grove (Love Had a Compass in ’96).
It was probably early 1999 when Philip showed me a copy of A Thing That Is (NY: Overlook, 1998). He was enthusiastic, but I couldn’t get much out of it. It was completely alien to my sensibility. The poems were these skinny columns, usually a word, sometimes less than a word, per line, sometimes two or three columns per page. I thought this fairly ridiculous, though in truth, as a poet, I simply wasn’t ready. I was only 26, just writing the last poems of my first book, and it wasn’t until the beginning of my second book that I began grappling with a minimal line under the influence of Robert Creeley and, even more so, the orthographic tactics of Andrew Joron. At the time, however, I couldn’t wrap my head around what Lax was up to, and even after I’d embraced what I’d similarly yet independently conceived of as composition by column, as he termed the work of his seminal volume New Poems (NY: Journeyman, 1962), I never returned to him. No reason—I just forgot; Philip turned me onto so many great writers I could spend the rest of my life fleshing out the myriad figures he mentioned in passing, and Lax was just one part of one afternoon.
But that afternoon came rushing back to me with all the force of the proverbial Proustian macaroon a few days ago, on receiving in the mail from Wave Books an advance copy of Poems (1962-1997) by Robert Lax, edited with an introduction by John Beer. The book hit me at the right time; The Collected Poems of Philip Lamantia, which I co-edited with Joron and Nancy Joyce Peters, had just come out, so I was extra-sensitive to any chance connection to my late mentor and friend. And in marked contrast to my experience 14 years earlier, reading Lax felt both effortless and profound. At 41, I was a different poet, and what had once seemed to me inessential affectation now appeared to be well-considered necessity. I’d been driven there myself, and confining myself to such short line lengths eventually became a habit I forced myself to break; having gone so far into the individual word as a poet, I felt I could easily remain there forever. Lax is an example of a poet who took up permanent residence on this microscopic level, and the selected Poems (1962-1997) showcases the variety of effects he could achieve with such a restricted line.
In his introduction to the book, editor John Beer—one of apparently several poets who spent some time on Patmos assisting Lax in his old age—captures what is so peculiar and intriguing about Lax’s work.
New Poems found its most welcoming audience among the practitioners of and admirers of concrete poetry, the movement initiated by Swiss poet Eugen Gomringer and Brazilian brothers Augusto and Haroldo de Campos which sought to place the visual dimension of the words and letterforms on an equal footing with sound and sense in poetry. . . . All the same . . . Lax’s work always sat somewhat uneasily alongside the work of Gomringer, the de Camposes, or [Ian Hamilton] Finlay. Where concrete poetry emphasized the material conditions of writing, Lax’s poetry sought to transcend those conditions. And while the visual impact of Lax’s narrow columns of words and syllables is undeniable, the primary impetus behind Lax’s vertical structure is not visual but musical: both in its regulation of the repetitive patterns of sound that create the poetry’s deeply meditative effect, and in the tightening of the aperture of the reader’s attention, inviting intense concentration on individual words and syllables. (xviii-xix)
On occasion, Lax could be said to skirt the boundaries of concrete poetry; New Poems, for example, included here in its entirety, yields a 27-line poem composed of the word “is” 27 times (15-16), or the 1984 poem “light” explodes into a two-page spread of the word “light” 76 times arranged in 6 thin columns (112-113). But such moments are comparatively rare: he is more usually worrying music from the tiniest of motifs, often two words. Even when he gives you a poem that is stanzas of “no / no / no” alternating with stanzas of “yes / yes / yes” (30-31), he is always giving you something to read, rather than something to look at. Despite their striking visual effect, Lax’s starkly minimal poems foreground their sound, as if at such times he’s attempting to fathom the metaphysical essence of such basic linguistic units on the physical level. By “physical” I mean not “the material conditions of writing” but rather the human body, the physical conditions of hearing and speaking. To be sure, he is not always so entirely austere, but if Lax can be rightly called a “Catholic poet,” I think it’s in relation to the metaphysical aspirations that seem to lie at the heart of such poems. There’s nothing overtly religious here, but the frequently elemental character of his investigations— “light” and “dark”; the seasons of the year; “sun,” “sea,” “sky”—suggests the contemplative and mystic, as does his quasi-hermetic self-exile out there on Patmos.