New Robert Lax Book and Publisher

Franciscan Institute Publications at St. Bonaventure University (in collaboration with one island books of the Robert Lax Literary Trust) has just published a lovely little chapbook reprinting two of Lax’s best-loved poems, “21 pages” and “psalm.” The book includes a “prelude” and “interlude” preparing the reader for the main texts and connecting the poems to each other. It also offers a short afterword on each work (one each by the book’s co-editors, Paul J. Spaeth and Joshua Benson) and a brief note about the origins and publishing history of the texts.

One of the book’s most pleasing aspects is how it looks. Featuring an all-black cover with only the names of the two poems and the author in white on the front, it echoes the cover Emil Antonucci designed for Lax’s second book, New Poems, published in 1962.

This is the first in a planned series of Lax re-releases.

The book is available for $14.95  at the Franciscan Institute Publications website.


Lax in the Time of Coronavirus

As I often do when I’m not sure how to think about something, I’ve been musing on how Lax might have responded to all that is happening in our country and our world right now. Self-quarantine wouldn’t have bothered him much. He tended to self-quarantine most of the time anyway. And he was used to staying in touch with friends only by mail or phone or, later in his life, email. Even when he went out, he tended to keep what we now call “social distance.” And the possibility of dying because he was older wouldn’t have caused him worry.

What I think he would have been doing is spending more time in contemplation. Not trying to figure out what a spreading pandemic meant but simply holding himself in the moment, waiting on God, resting in the reality of being alive. He would have prayed for his friends and for peace in this time as in all times. And he would have written—poems, of course, but also letters to the people on the long list of correspondents he kept–assuring them he was okay, asking if they were, making a joke and encouraging them.

Most of us live such busy lives, it can be difficult at first to slow down in the way this virus is making us slow down. But once we do, we start to see what Lax saw before he left the United States to live by himself on a Greek island: Much of what busies our lives is a chasing after things—a doing—that keeps us from simply being.

In a long meditation I quote on page 207 of my book, Pure Act, Lax wrote this:

“Deprived of being we have recourse to having, which is indispensable for us, and good, as long as we know how to use it largely and simply for our real needs. But there is a danger: having, in giving us many things (burdening us) weighing us down, gives us the disastrous illusion of making up for our deficiency of being, and we are always tempted to look for a (consistency) in it, to attach ourselves to it as to a security, and to accumulate more and more…instead of turning ourselves, as empty as possible, toward the Source of being who alone is capable of satisfying our thirst and giving us happiness joy blessedness.”

With our world shut down, now is a good time to think about our real needs, the illusions we live by, where our security lies, and what we are really thirsting for.

Yesterday afternoon, when my wife and I walked around the lake near our Seattle home, there were more people out than usual on a cold day. After the walk, my wife asked: “Did you notice that we didn’t hear the snippets of complaining we usually hear when we walk the lake?” I hadn’t noticed that, but I had noticed that the people we passed seemed lighter in spirit–less burdened than usual–despite the uncertainty the virus has brought. Freed of their usual busyness, they were able to slow down. Able to let go.

Slowing down. Letting go. Being. And loving. These are the things Lax would focus on right now, I’m sure. These are the things that will get us through this.

(This meditation originally appeared in The Robert Lax Newsletter–March 2020. If you would like to receive the newsletter, go to this site’s main page and look for the sign-up box on the left-hand side.)

Painter Abbey Ryan Talks about Her Series of Meditations on Lax’s “the light, the shade”

kohlakoura beach, lipsi, greece (the light / the shade), oil on linen on panel, 5×4 inches, 2017, painting by Abbey Ryan, from her website

Painter Abbey Ryan has spent a half-dozen years creating postcard-size oil paintings inspired by Robert Lax’s book-length poem “the light, the shade.” She painted many of the images in the series in 2017 while living on the Greek island of Patmos, near where Lax spent the last years of his life.

In this video, Ryan talks about how Lax’s attention to simplicity and presence has inspired her in her painting and approach to life. The video also shows a beautifully designed display of her Lax-inspired work at Arcadia University in Pennsylvania.

published by Pendo-Verlag, 1989, currently unavailable

Michael Mott, Thomas Merton Biographer and Lax Friend, Has Died at 88

(Photo of Michael Mott from the Wages & Sons Funeral Home website)

Michael Mott, who published a celebrated and definitive biography of Thomas Merton in 1984, died  at 88 on October 11. While working on his Merton biography, Mott relied heavily on interviews with Lax for both details and interpretations of some events in Merton’s life. During their work together, the two became friends. (Mott’s writings about Merton and his archives at Northwestern University were hugely helpful to me in the writing of my Lax biography.)

In addition to his Merton biography, The Seven Mountains of Thomas Merton, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, Mott published 11 poetry collections, two adult novels, and two novels for children. You can read much more about his long life and many writings on his website.

Grammy Nomination for Choral Recording Based on Lax Writings

(Image from the Clipart Library)

I just learned from composer Kile Smith that The Crossing’s performance of his composition “The Arc in the Sky,” a choral arrangement based on Lax’s poetry and other writings is a finalist for a 2020 Grammy Award!

Here’s what Smith wrote about the news on his website this morning:

When The Arc in the Sky was thrown into the Grammy hat a couple of months ago, I thought the chances were slim of its advancing, just because of how large the pool is at that stage. And since The Crossing won Grammys the last two years in a row, those chances, to me, felt even slimmer. But now The Arc is one of the finalists, it’s up against all worthies, including great friends of mine, and so here we go. See you January 26th!”

January 26 is the date the Grammy Awards will take place and the winners will be announced.

Here’s a full list of the finalists in Best Choral Performance:

  • Boyle: Voyages, Donald Nally, conductor (The Crossing)
  • Durufle: Complete Chroral Works, Robert Simpson, conductor (Ken Cowan; Houston Chamber Choir)
  • The Hope of Loving, Craig Hella Johnson, conductor (Conspirare)
  • Sander: The Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, Peter Jermihov, conductor (Evan Bravos, Vadim Gan, Kevin Keys, Glenn Miller & Daniel Shirley; PaTRAM Institute Singers)
  • Smith, K.: The Arc in the Sky, Donald Nally, conductor (The Crossing)

You can read all about Smith’s composition and The Crossing’s recording of it (under the direction of conductor Donald Nally) here.

You can buy the recording here.

You can see the complete score at MusicSpoke here.

And here it is at Navona Records, and on Spotify.

Congratulations to Kile Smith, Donald Nally, and the entire ensemble of The Crossing!

Philip Glass Composes “Circus Opera” Based on Robert Lax Poems

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is e07c6758-66fb-44ee-98e1-2008227160c1.jpg
(Photos from Cirkus Cirkör website: top by Mats Bäcker; bottom by Einar Kling Odencrants)

Iconic American composer Philip Glass, known for his minimalist approach, is working on a “circus opera” based on Lax’s Circus Days and Nights. Since Lax has often been called a minimalist himself, this seems like a perfect match.

And playwright David Henry Hwang, author of the Tony-winning opera-based play “M. Butterfly” is writing the libretto!

A cooperative venture between Cirkus Cirkör, a well-known circus group in Sweden, and the Malmö Opera, the new Glass/Lax work will have its world premiere in Malmö, Sweden, in May 2021. After that, Cirkus Cirkör plans to take it on a world tour.

Here’s a description from Cirkus Cirkör‘s announcement of the project:

A circus opera in two acts, based on the American poet Robert Lax’s book by the same title. Circus Days and Nights is a collection of existential poems where the Circus acts as a metaphor for life and the human condition.

This brand new opera, commissioned by Cirkus Cirkör and Malmö Opera is com­posed by the legendary Philip Glass with a libretto written by Tony Award winner David Henry Hwang. The piece is co-conceived and directed by the Swedish circus director Tilde Björfors, recipient of the Premio Europa/New Theatrical Realities.

The story follows a travelling circus company from day into night, and investigates the circularity of time, the constant travelling and seeks the joy in the repetition of the daily chores of everybody involved in this extended circus family. The circus tent acts as an image of the world, and of a greater spiritual side to the world’s perpetual journey through space, here interpreted as a circus act.

For more information, go to Cirkus Cirkör and download the “info sheet” PDF.

“I have had the rights to the poem for about ten years, but forgot to write the piece. But when I saw Tilde’s staging of ‘Satyagraha’ it struck me: They could do it!”
–Philip Glass

(from “Circus Days and Nights” info sheet.)

Here are a few more details from the Cirkus Cirkör website and a recent press release (with thanks to Tomas Einarsson for translations):

Since the 1970’s, Philip Glass has been one of Americas most successful composers. His music is sometimes labeled as minimalism but it is powerful and suggestive, and often has a hypnotic force. He has a large fan base all over the world through his rich production of film music, operas, world tours with his own ensemble, and cooperations with artist such as David Bowie and Laurie Anderson.  

Cirkus Cirkör began when Tilde Björfors (artistic leader and co-founder, who will direct the new Glass/Lax work) and several other artists traveled to Paris and fell in love with the possibilities the contemporary circus offered. They decided to stop dreaming big and living small and instead give their all to make a reality of their dreams. Twenty years later, more that 2 million people have seen a Cirkus Cirkör show on stage and in festivals around the world. In addition, 400,000 children and youth have  been trained in contemporary circus techniques. Contemporary circus is now an established art form in Sweden. You will find it in all sorts of places, from preschools to universities and homes for the elderly.

Cirkus Cirkör and Philip Glass:

In 2016, Cirkus Cirkör, together with Folkoperan, performed the Philip Glass opera “Satyagraha” in Stockholm, which began a relationship between the circus and the composer. “Satyagraha” played almost 70 sold-out shows. It also made guest appearances in Göteborg, Copenhagen, and BAM in New York. All of the New York shows were sold out and Philip Glass attended the premiere.

Robert Lax & Politics

A few days ago, I gave a talk at the latest gathering of the International Thomas Merton Society called “Making Ourselves Heard: Lessons from Merton’s Approach to Principled Dissent and Communal Renewal.” When it came time for questions, the first one wasn’t about Merton but about Lax: “Was Lax political at all?” I gave the answer I’ve given before: Lax was political in that he believed deeply in peace. In other words, the pursuit of peace was his politics. He started his broadside Pax to promote the idea that simply disseminating poetry and art is an act of peace.

But as I’ve continued to think about the question, I’ve realized that in today’s context, Lax was political in many other ways as well. He had an absolute belief in nonviolence, even in extreme situations. He believed that those who oppose violence should eliminate it, in all forms, from their own life first. He believed that finding common language is a step toward finding common purpose. He believed that peace starts with individuals trying sincerely to communicate with each other. He believed that people should be free to do what they feel moved to do, as long as it is in harmony with others. And he never gave up hope, even when things looked bleak. At a time when I saw conflict everywhere, he saw the possibility that turmoil and unrest might lead to progress and new freedoms.

“I’m hopeful,” he said to me, “that the world’s societies are caught up in an evolutionary moment, one that will bring us into the ideal city, where music will play and all will move to it. If you decide to put on all blue clothes and do cartwheels across the square, that will be fine and in time with the music.”

Above all, he believed that we should make every decision consciously and carefully, slowing down and even stopping—waiting—until we can discern what is best for all concerned. I suspect that if we did nothing more than slow down in this country, waiting for discernment before we act or speak, the peace we think is impossible now might soon appear on the horizon, however hazy.

“In every moment,” Lax said, “we make decisions, both large and small. True life comes in understanding that these decisions are of ultimate importance.”

And isn’t it true life we seek, rather than some temporary victory, moral or otherwise?

“I think we will steadily become more receptive
to what love really means. There will be a
collective understanding of where we came from,
where we are, and where we are going.
I feel that we will increasingly sense a greater
interconnection and unity with the whole of existence,
and so we will become more gentle, more intuitive,
more caring, more giving, more loving as a result.”


–Robert Lax to Steve Georgiou (p. 242, The Way of the Dreamcatcher)

Listen to Robert Lax Poem “Jerusalem” Set to Music

Last June, a group called The Crossing performed composer Kile Smith’s “The Arc in the Sky,” a choral composition of Lax poems set to music by Smith. (See my write-up about the performance here.) The concert was widely praised by critics and a CD of the full performance is set to be released soon.

In advance of its release, Smith has posted one of the tracks, “Jerusalem,” in which Lax writes of “lovely, ruined Jerusalem.” You can listen to the choir’s haunting rendition here.

I’ll post details when the CD is available. For now, enjoy this taste of the combined talents of Lax’s words, Smith’s music, and these excellent choral voices. (I’ve included the poem below so you can follow along as you listen.)

Jerusalem by Robert Lax

reading of lovely Jerusalem,
lovely, ruined Jerusalem.

we are brought to the port
where the boats in line are
and the high tower on the hill
and the prows starting again
into the mist.

for we must seek
by going down,
down into the city
for our song.
deep into the city
for our peace.
for it is there
that peace lies
folded
like a pool.

there we shall seek:
it is from there
she’ll flower.
for lovely, ruined Jerusalem
lovely sad Jerusalem
lies furled
under cities of light.

for we are only
going down,
only descending
by this song
to where the cities
gleam in the darkness,
or curled like roots
sit waiting
at the undiscovered
pool.

what pressure
thrusts us up
as we descend?

pressure
of the city’s singing

pressure of
the song
she hath witheld.

hath long witheld.

for none
would hear
her.

–Robert Lax (1915-2000). Used with the permission of the Robert Lax Literary Trust and the Robert Lax Archives at St. Bonaventure University.