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
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

what pressure
thrusts us up
as we descend?

of the city’s singing

pressure of
the song
she hath witheld.

hath long witheld.

for none
would hear

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