There Is No Right Way of Singing…or Dancing…or Living

(Image from

In these fractious times, when competing visions of who we are (or should be) seem to separate us more and more, let me offer this short excerpt from Pure Act about a realization Lax came to in the fall of 1973, one of the most significant of his life (Lipsi is a small island near where he lived his later years on Patmos):

As he lingered on Lipsi that fall, he began to see that his vision hadn’t been capacious enough. He had been looking at parts rather than the whole, searching for models rather than an understanding of the greater scheme of things. The oneness of humanity–of all of life–wasn’t something to be sought, he realized, but something to be recognized and embraced. The life flowing in his veins had been flowing in veins since the beginning of time or longer. The enduring nature of life was the important thing to understand:

the continuity of life is
its meaning: it begins from
eternity & flows to eternity

there is no right way of
singing a given song: but
all ways are more or less

the variations of tone we
bring to our roles give life
its color: whether we will (to)
or not, we add variations

there is no one character in
whom the Lord would dwell &
not in others

he who dances in the middle
of the room, dances for me;
he who sits in the corner
watching, watches for me

…it is not that our lives
should so radically change,
but rather our understanding
of them

–pp. 320-321, Pure Act: The Uncommon Life of Robert Lax

“A Reaching Beyond”: Robert Lax Explains His Color Poems

(image from
the red blue color
poems in colored

(do a lot of
things at

they're poems
but look like

yet (being
neither poems
nor paintings)

are something
beyond both


and are meant to
(that) thing
beyond both
that includes


not a matter
of mélange
des genres

a reaching
beyond known

for a new one

a direction of
the discovery
of new ones

(from thesis
to synthesis)

a reaching beyond
what is
to what
(may become)


is there a sense
in which all that
may ever become

already is?

yes, is
in potentia

–pp. 350-351, Pure Act: The Uncommon Life of Robert Lax

the child’s only duty is to live and grow

“what a writer writes should have some relation (though not necessar-

ily a discoverable relation) to the meaning of his life.

and the meaning of our lives should have some relation (to the

meaning of the life of the world)

but 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”

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


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


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:



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.)