A Lax Poem and a Children’s Book About Thomas Merton

In April 2016 I wrote about the luminous paintings based on Lax’s poetry done by a talented young painter named Abbey Ryan.  Lately, I’ve been corresponding with Abbey’s father Greg Ryan, who knew Robert Lax for many years.  Greg sent me this image of the kind of thing Lax often included with his letters:

Greg and his wife Elizabeth Ryan are the author and illustrator of a lovely new children’s book about Thomas Merton called The ABCs of Thomas Merton: A Monk at the Heart of the World.  It is a well-pitched and pleasingly illustrated introduction to Merton and his world for children age 6-10.  You can find it on Amazon.  Here’s the cover:

By the way, the featured image for this entry is a note Lax sent to Greg and Elizabeth when they were expecting Abbey, the “bright newcomer from the sky.”

Looking for Online Examples of Robert Lax’s Poetry?

Garrison Keillor has featured Robert Lax’s poetry on his “The Writer’s Almanac” radio show several times and the poems are all still featured on the “Almanac” website.  You can even listen to Garrison Keillor read them.  The one to read or listen to now, perhaps, is “Greeting to Spring (Not Without Trepidation),” which first appeared in The New Yorker in the early years of World War II.

For those who like to watch something while listening, here’s a YouTube video of Keillor reading “The Alley Violinist.”  Keillor included this one in his 2002 book Good Poems.

Happy spring!

A Found Recording of Robert Lax & Robert Wolf Reading “Sea & Sky” and “Black & White”

I received a message this past week from a man named Edouard Jeunet, who said he’d found an old cassette of Robert Lax reading his “Sea & Sky” and “Black & White” poems in Italy in 1978 and uploaded a digital version to the Internet.  I passed the message on to Lax’s niece and literary executor, Marcia Kelly, and she asked some of Lax’s old friends if they knew of it.  Judy Emery, who knew Lax for decades and edited a couple of his books, sent the following reply: “I thought this tape had been lost.  It was not made in Italy but right here in New York in September 1974.  Three people: Emil Antonucci, Robert Wolf (nee Kachnowski) and Bob Lax spent an entire day recording Sea & Sky and other Lax poems.”

Here’s a link to the digital version.  The first voice you hear is Robert Lax; the second voice is Robert Wolf.  The recording copyright belongs to the Robert Lax Literary Trust.

 

 

Robert Lax Talks About Art as a Guide to Love and Understanding

Robert Lax in conversation with Michael N. McGregor, March 12, 1996 (an excerpt):

RL: I think that evolution, and all of history, moves through three classical stages: from power to wisdom to love.  The ultimate one is love.  You can say the reason for gaining some power is so you can gain some wisdom; the reason for gaining some wisdom is so you can finally understand or live in a state of love.  We talk about going from earth to paradise and we think of paradise as being the whole kingdom of love.

MM: So where does art fit into that movement?  What is the purpose of art?

RL: Well, I’ll talk figuratively for a second.  Just as Virgil could lead Dante into hell and up as far as he could, and Beatrice could lead Dante the rest of the way up to heaven, art is a guide.  Art is a bridge or a guide that leads you along to upper levels.  It doesn’t drag you along by any means.  At most it coaxes you or invites you.  You might think, if you’d never seen any art or read any poetry, that your dreams and things that go beyond the ordinary were yours alone, and you might consider them a problem.  Or you might consider your reactions to what someone said, which seemed so elaborate and so much beyond what, in the ordinary course of things, you’d expect them to be—she slammed the door; she didn’t slam the door, she just shut it a little quietly but still I’ve been thinking about it all day, the way she closed that door—if you’re alone with those thoughts and have no art to open up that world to you, you could be in trouble.  But fortunately somebody learned to write about these things.  Somebody learned to put them on stage.  That helps the whole community know how to understand those moments—not just to deal with them but to understand and even appreciate them.

MM: I’m thinking about that phrase from Blake: the doors of perception.  Is that what you’re talking about with art?

RL: Yes.  I think that’s very apropos.  I think that’s exactly it.

A Quote from Robert Lax on His 101st Birthday

Today is Robert Lax’s 101st birthday.  Picturing him as a child all those years ago, it’s interesting to contemplate something he wrote in the late ’60s:

 

“…the meaning of our lives, and what we write, and what we do,

is somehow in us from the beginning:

in this sense, the child’s only duty is to live and grow”

–p. 304, Pure Act: The Uncommon Life of Robert Lax

 

Happy birthday, Bob.

A German flyer for THE SIREN OF ATLANTIS, Robert Lax’s only screenwriting credit

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A few weeks ago, a cardboard package marked “Do Not Bend!” arrived at my home.  Inside was a fragile German movie flyer from 1949 advertising “Die Herrin von Atlantis,” the German name for “The Siren of Atlantis,” the only film Robert Lax received credit for writing.  The first image here is from the cover; the others are from the flyer’s interior.  The closeup shows Lax receiving second credit after Rowland Leigh under “Drehbuch”  (Script).

“Dull is the word,” declared Alexander Wolcott in his review for the New York Times when the film debuted.  In a more recent review on the website The Spinning Image, Graeme Clark wrote:

“A remake of L’Atlantide, Siren of Atlantis was the victim of a troubled production, seeing at least three directors run through its scenes, which might be surprising for a film barely over an hour long and filled with stock footage and borrowed sets – or maybe not. Its chief draw, then and now, was the famed screen beauty Maria Montez who guarantees interest from those film buffs who have a liking for camp; she may have been glamorous, but that doesn’t mean she had the talent to back those good looks up…”

Despite these harsh judgments, the film has acquired something of a cult following.  The only viewer review on its imdb page is titled “Camp de luxe… but oddly watchable.”

You’ll find a full write-up on the film and Lax’s participation in it in Chapter 9 of Pure Act, “The Siren Call of Hollywood” (pp. 138-145).

To give you a brief taste, here’s the original trailer:

Lax’s Gently Satirical Take on Nature Poets

Page 243 of Pure Act talks mostly about the publication of Robert Lax’s second book, New Poems, where poems in his new, more experimental style first appeared , and his departure for a new life in Greece that same year, 1962.  Near the end of the page, though, I write: “His formal goodbye, you might say, to the life he’d been living and the lyrical way he’d been writing was a gently satirical poem called ‘Ah! The Nature Poets,’ published in the journal Approaches.”

When my book was edited for publication, that poem ended up on the cutting-room floor.  So here it is, in “print” for the first time in 50 years.  As page 243 says,”Nature would be central to many of Lax’s future poems, but it would be the simple nature of the Greek Islands rendered in even simpler verse.”

 

Ah! The Nature Poets

by Robert Lax

 

Ah! the nature poets—

Who can be tipped over

by a butterfly,

Who can swim for miles,

In a corolla filled with dew,

Whom lakes intoxicate,

whom mountains overcome:

Gaspers at the fallen leaf,

And eulogizers of the bird;

The far-flung white cloud’s

closest friends;

The thunder’s citizens,

The lightning’s fans:

Lovers of rain,

and of the changing seasons;

Cartographers of tracery in snow,

Breaking the first thin ice

Of the barn-yard foot-print:

Rabbit-patters,

Fish-watchers,

Gazers after deer;

As tireless as Nature is,

To whose long strings they’re tied;

And as importunate in praise

As she’s preoccupied.

(Used with permission of the Robert Lax Literary Trust.  All rights reserved.)

Video-Poem Based on a Robert Lax Work Wins Top International Prize–Watch It Here

A video based on Robert Lax’s poem “the light, the shade,” created by Susanne Wiegner of Germany, recently won the top prize in an international competition at the CYCLOP Videopoetry Festival in Kiev, Ukraine.  You can watch Susanne’s winning video (with Lax reading his own poem) and other videos she has made based on Lax’s poetry here.

To learn more about Susanne, go to her website.

A Podcast and a Long Lax Feature in the December issue of POETRY Magazine

A long section on the poetry of Robert Lax takes up a full quarter of the December issue of Poetry magazine (released today).  It includes previously unpublished poems written on Kalymnos in 1968, facsimiles of Lax’s handwritten notes and jottings, and a lengthy introduction by me.

Poetry has posted a downloadable podcast featuring poets who are in the December issue and a conversation with me about Lax, his poetry and his life in Greece.  You can listen to it here.  If you scroll down below it on the same page and click on Michael N. McGregor (or click here), you can read my introduction.  If you click on Robert Lax (or here), you can read the poems of his featured in the issue.  You’ll also see the lovely photograph of Lax shown here, taken by author Tom Stone, a friend of Lax who lived on Patmos.

Where Can I Find Robert Lax’s Poetry?

Although more than two dozen books of Robert Lax’s writing have been published, finding a Lax book in print can be difficult.  Only four fairly recent collections of his poetry are still available:

A Hermit’s Guide to Home Economics, edited by Paul Spaeth, New Directions, 2015, 64 pages

poems (1962-1997), edited by John Beer, Wave Books, 2014, 400 pages

Circus Days and Nights, edited by Paul Spaeth, Overlook Press, 2009, 188 pages

A Thing That Is, Overlook Press, 1998, 96 pages

The poetry in all of these books except Circus Days and Nights is from his later minimalist period.  The Wave book includes all of the poems from his seminal 1962 collection New Poems as well as later published and unpublished work.  Circus Days and Nights contains three circus cycles from his earlier, more lyrical period: “The Circus of the Sun,” “Mogador’s Book,” and “Voyage to Pescara.”  All four books are good collections.

The only other Lax writings still in print are:

Dear Jack: Heart Not Head, edited by Paul Spaeth, Water Row Press, 2014, 16 pages

When Prophecy Still Had a Voice: The Letters of Thomas Merton and Robert Lax, edited by Arthur Biddle, University Press of Kentucky, 2000, 496 pages

A Catch of Anti-letters, co-written with Thomas Merton, Sheed & Ward, 1994, 128 pages

(While these books include a few Lax poems, they are centered on his correspondence with Jack Kerouac and Thomas Merton.)

You can find some earlier Lax collections available online, but they’re often quite expensive.  The best of them is 33 Poems, which draws from all periods of his writing life.  It was published by New Directions in 1988.  I’ve asked New Directions to re-release it but have received no response yet.  If you’d like to help with this effort, please write to the New Directions editors at: editorial@ndbooks.com.

A second good-but-out-of-print collection covering all periods is Love Had a Compass, published by Grove Press in 1996.

Both of these books are available in many libraries.

To read Lax’s prose, try to get your hands on one of the small, brown, out-of-print collections of his journal entries published by the Swiss publisher Pendo Verlag.

For an extensive list of the many Lax books that have been published and information on which libraries have them, go to World Cat.