Robert Lax on Art as a Mirror and Guide to Understanding

Lax writings and photographs inside a reflection of his silhouette. © Michael N. McGregor

In my conversations with Robert Lax back in the 1980s and 1990s, when I was spending time with him every year, we talked about art many times. He saw art as a guide for people but also a mirror, in which they could see our own responses to the world more clearly and understand them better. Here’s a slightly edited portion of one of those conversation:
 
MNM: 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 or a tour 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. More like that: it invites you along.
 
…You might think, if you’d never seen any art or read any poetry, that your dreams and things that go beyond the ordinary in your solitary moments 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 beyond what in the ordinary course of things you’d expect them to be, to be troubling. But fortunately somebody learned to write about them, somebody learned to put them on stage, and that helps the whole community know how to understand—not just deal with, but understand—and even appreciate those moments.
 
MNM: I’m thinking about the phrase from Blake: “the doors of perception.” Is that akin to what you’re saying about art?
 
RL: Yes. I think that’s exactly it. For example, people analyze dreams—since Freud, at least—to find out what dreams tell them about their problems, but dreams serve so much more of a function for us than just letting us know what our problems are. It’s a whole world and in a sense you might think that art serves the same function in a community that a dream serves in the psyche of an individual.


When I asked Lax how this related to his latest books, which, at that time, contained mostly journal entries, he mentioned his small book 27th & 4th, composed of descriptions of people he saw passing that corner in New York from his office at Jubilee magazine in the 1950s. Here’s what he said about writing it:
 
RL: I had a friend, Jacques Lowe, a photographer, who used to practice photography by snapping people as they walked quickly past a low narrow door, and I thought I could do the same thing with writing. So I would just describe, quickly describe, everyone who went down the block as though I was a camera or something like that. I described them as I saw them and as I would talk to myself about them. So there would be jokes about them. I wasn’t trying to be objective or something like that. I was seeing them just as I saw them, talking about them just in my own language.
 
What I’m trying to do, in a sense, is bear witness—not false witness—to life as I see it and as I like it—as I love it—whatever it is, if it attracts me, and most of it does.
 
Lax is saying many things here, but I want to focus on three in particular:

1. Artists need to begin by paying attention: seeing what is really there, but also noting their responses to it.
 
2. Artists need to risk taking their interior life into the outside world, not merely to express it but in hopes that others will see their reflection in it and understand their own thoughts and responses better.
 
3. The patient seeking of one’s own understanding about even the most common of life’s moments can lead a community to a better place.
 
While Lax was talking primarily about his own approach to writing and making art, he was also showing all of us how to foster understanding in a community and help that community rise to a higher level, whether it’s only group of friends or an entire nation. We all need to seek to see more clearly and express our reactions to what we see more honestly, bearing witness—not false witness—to life as it truly is, with understanding as our goal.

A selection from 27th & 4th

(Note: This post originally appeared in the November 2021 issue of the Lax Newsletter. To subscribe, click here and look for the “subscribe” button on the left-hand side of the page as you scroll down.)

What Visiting Robert Lax on Patmos Was Like

Robert Lax with Michael N. McGregor
Photo: Sylvia McGregor

Note: This remembrance was first published in an issue of The Merton Seasonal in 2001, a year after Robert Lax died.

After the Circus Goes By

© Michael McGregor, 2001

I don’t know how many evenings I spent with Bob Lax during the years I knew him. Dozens. Maybe a hundred. I returned to Patmos each year, staying sometimes for just a few days, other times for weeks. In approach, the visits were all the same – the climb up the hill, the cats at the door, the knock on the frosted glass and that gentle “hello” – the “o” round and full, drawn-out and rising until it was both question (“Who’s there?”) and statement (“Whoever you are, you’re welcome”).

The first moments inside were similar, too. Bob would offer a cup of water or tea. If he was alone, he would hand me something to read while he shuffled out to his tiny kitchen – a new publication, a poem, a letter from someone I knew by name or from a previous visit. If it was summer, someone would always be there already, and I would have the feeling I had just missed the funniest joke ever told, or a life-changing moment, or the absolution that follows confession. More often than not, all I had missed was the latest exchange in Bob’s conversation with life. The magic of visiting Bob was that once the water or tea had been served and a sweet had been offered, nothing was ever the same. The conversation was endless but it was always going somewhere new, directed not by anyone’s will but by the personalities of those present and by the spirit Bob fostered – a spirit of playfulness and a deep desire to love and know. There were themes that came and went with the years and themes that never changed, Bob’s preoccupations, which deepened and strengthened with time, like channels rubbed into bedrock. (One of the many things he taught me was to look for the themes that defined my own life. When he was younger, he said, he once wrote for as long as he could, pages each day, with the single intention of finding out what he most cared about.) Anyone who knew Bob knew his concerns: peace, common ground, knowing God, meditation, being love…and the inexplicable joy of the circus.

In summer it could be a circus at Bob’s. (In the later years, along his entryway wall, the first thing a visitor saw was a sign advertising Circus Roberto.) His bedroom was the center ring – stuffed full of painters, writers, dancers and mystics, many pursuing their arts because Bob had encourage them. On the wall were photos of acrobats, drawings of animals, and an advertisement for the Marx Brothers’ At the Circus. Bob himself was the circus high priest – both ringmaster and clown. He sat on his bed with his legs propped up, his clothes mismatched, his face a panoply of glee. Wand in hand, he directed the magic. He was sage and child, clever and simple, alight with a joy that understands sorrow – all a master or clown should be.

But while I loved to see the circus at Bob’s, the times I miss most are those nights in winter or early spring when no one but me would be there. When he would be wearing long johns and two or three shirts, a cap on his head. When we would sit by ourselves drinking tea, sipping soup, the lights mostly off, the town beyond the window dark. We might hear a mouse scurry along the wall then or a cockroach dance across the kitchen. Bob would look up at me and smile, and I would see the love alive in his eyes, not for me alone but for the whole world – the mice and the cockroaches, the cats and the flies. We talked on those nights, of course, about his life and mine, our concerns and preoccupations. But often we just sat like that, musing in silence, two kids on a sidewalk late at night, after the circus goes by.

Michael McGregor, an essayist and fiction writer, first encountered Bob Lax in Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain while living on Patmos in 1985. Impressed by Lax’s youthful wisdom, he made a note to look for him in Merton’s later books, not realizing Lax was living half a mile away. The two met three weeks later and remained friends the rest of Lax’s life. His article “Turning the Jungle Into a Garden: A Visit with Robert Lax'” appeared in Poets & Writers magazine (March/April 1997).

The Latest Issue of the Robert Lax Newsletter Has Just Been Mailed

The September 2021 issue of the Robert Lax Newsletter has just gone out to subscribers. The newsletter, now in its 6th year, is a compendium of the latest Lax news alongside features about his relationships to individuals, the arts, poetry, Greece, and many other subjects. It is filled with photographs and links.

The latest issue includes:

  • A meditation on Lax and the visual arts.
  • News about the death of Corcaita “Corky” Cristiani, the last performer Lax knew personally in the family of acrobats he loved and was inspired by–with links to Corky’s film career and other Cristiani information.
  • Images of some of Lax’s first poems, published when he was 18.
  • News of new Lax-related publications.
  • Words by Lax on how to be present and truthful and soulful in writing.

Newsletter subscribers receive stories and news before they’re posted on the website, as well as exclusive information, stories and meditations.

The newsletter is free. To subscribe, click here and enter your email on the left side of the page.

“That Feeling of Having Something Quieted in You”

“One of the things I wish for poetry is that it’s somehow useful. Like a lemon or a hair brush. Like a glass of water in the middle of the day. And to me, Lax’s poems feel useful. They offer me something that’s hard to find. A companion as close as my own breath & one who is invisible, like wind. Being inside a Lax poem is like being in a cemetery, which is a place where judgment can’t live. Like coming out of a lake and being a little stunned to sit or drink or walk on the Earth. That sort of woken up feeling you get and lose quickly. That feeling of having something quieted in you. I love that. Walking away from a party, hearing less and less voices, until suddenly, somehow, you’re under a tree in the middle of the night.”

–from “The Internet is Over” by Astro Poets

Short New Video about Robert Lax and the Circus

This past spring, Cirkus Cirkör, the Swedish circus company that co-produced Philip Glass’s new opera, “Circus Days and Nights,” based on Robert Lax’s circus poems, asked me to be help with a video introducing Lax to its audience. The video won’t be released until dates for the opera’s upcoming world tour are ready to be announced, but Cirkus Cirkör has given me permission to give Lax fans a sneak peak.

To watch the video, click here.

Robert Lax: The Artist as Collaborator

I spent several hours recently looking through my collection of Robert Lax books, booklets, pamphlets, recordings, letters, and drawings and thought I’d post images of a few of them. The ones I value most, of course, are those Lax gave me himself, inscribing them to me. But others have special meaning as well. Among them are:

The multi-language version of The Circus of the Sun I was amazed to find in a Seattle bookstore just months after I first met Lax (the first of his books I owned); the pristine copy of the original hardcover version or The Circus of the Sun its publisher, Emil Antonucci, sent me after I interviewed him; the copy of A Poem for Thomas Merton Lax’s cousin Soni gave me one of the last times I saw her (image below); and the four copies of the extremely fragile and rare Pax broadsheet Lax sent out to friends and a few paying customers in the 50s and 60s (which I was able to purchase online before prices for that kind of thing rose out of sight).

Signed pages from Lax’s “A Poem for Thomas Merton,” designed and illustrated by Emil Antonnuci.

What struck me most as I looked over all of these treasures was the sheer number and variety of people Lax collaborated with or simply allowed to use his poems in whatever way they chose. The two most consistent and therefore important publishers of his work were Emil Antonucci, who started Journeyman Press just to disseminate Lax’s poems, and Gladys Weigner und Bernhard Moosbrugger, who did something similar with Pendo-Verlag. But there were countless others: poets, painters, photographers, lithographers, musicians, radio personalities, magazine editors, and multimedia artists. All of them were touched by something in Lax’s writings but also by something in him: a spirit, a way of seeing, an ability to bring the world and ourselves into clearer focus. And all of them found Lax to be a willing and enjoyable partner.

While musicians are generally used to collaborating, most artists and writers create alone. And many of them—of us—are difficult to work with when a collaborative opportunity comes along. Even playwrights, who work in a collaborative medium, often have a tough time letting go of their work so directors and actors and stage designers can turn it into something alive on stage.

A few of the many stand-alone Lax poems printed and illustrated by Emil Antonucci

But although Lax lived alone and wrote his poetry alone, he was a natural and cheerful collaborator. His first collaborations were with his college friends—in creating issues of Jester at Columbia College and when they lived together during college summers at the Marcus cottage. Out of these times—and his later observations of jazz musicians jamming together and circus acrobats perfecting their timing with one another—came his view of the ideal life: not only living fully in the moment, under God, but also performing whatever art or practice you have worked to perfect—spontaneously, in a spirit of love, in community with others.

May we all learn from Lax to be better collaborators and enjoy the synergy that can be released only when we trust and say yes to one another.

Coming of Dark, Coming of Light: Thoughts on Robert Lax’s 105th Birthday

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The lines above are from Robert Lax’s poem One Island. When I came across them in Love Had a Compass on this day that would have been his 105th birthday, I paused because it seems we are moving through a dark season and I wondered what he would have said about it. My first thought was that he would have observed the times for what they are and would have written what he observed in the simplest words, the purest combination of sound and silence. Without judgment.

My second thought was that the lines are an apt expression of our collective experiences this past year. Our strange reality. The first descending of the virus was the coming of dark. Its first receding was the coming of light. The recent surge has been the second coming of dark. And now, the promise of a vaccine allows the lines to end on the coming of light.

But when I went looking for a photograph to pair with these lines and chose the one I’ve used here, I realized the poem could be interpreted another way: as images not of the ebb and flow of reality but rather the ebb and flow of our moods. The sun in the photograph is not clearly morning sun or evening sun, so we don’t know if dark or light is coming. We feel what we feel when we look at it based on the expectations it evokes in us–on our propensity for hope or fear.

Vaclav Havel, a playwright who went from prisoner to president of Czechoslovakia, once wrote: “. . . [T]he kind of hope I often think about (especially in situations that are particularly hopeless, such as prison) I understand above all as a state of mind, not a state of the world. Either we have hope within us, or we don’t. . . . Hope is not prognostication. It is an orientation of the spirit, an orientation of the heart. It transcends the world that is immediately experienced, and is anchored somewhere beyond its horizons. . . .”

When I combine the poem, the photograph, and the quote, I think I know what Lax would be thinking and saying right now. He would encourage us to orient our spirit and our heart toward hope while also accepting that life is made of light and dark.

As Ecclesiastes 3 says, there is a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance. To paraphrase St. Francis, it is in weeping fully in the time of weeping that we learn what it means to laugh and in mourning with those around us who mourn that we earn the right to take their hand in the coming dance.

I hope with people around the world that the time of dancing comes soon, but while it is yet dark and the sound of mourning is in our ears, let us listen and feel and love and learn. Let us remind each other, in word and deed, what it means to be part of a hopeful but also compassionate community.


Remembering Robert Lax on the 20th Anniversary of His Death

Twenty years ago on this day (the feast day of St. John in the Orthodox calendar), I was getting ready to teach an evening class when I received word that my dear friend and mentor Bob Lax had died. I turned out my office light and let the tears flow–tears of gratitude as much as of grief, for I had been blessed with 15 years of close friendship with this warm, funny, smart, creative, and humanely spiritual man.

Of all the things I learned from Lax, perhaps the most important was to find and follow my own path in life. I suppose that is why I ended my biography of him, Pure Act, with these words:

Several people who knew Lax said he found what [his friend Thomas] Merton was looking for: a kind of solitude, simplicity, and peace that passes human understanding. Some have even said he was the one who became a saint. None of this would have meant much to him except perhaps as inspiration to others. What he--and Merton--found, he thought, was his own way of walking. His own way of singing the song. He own way of being pure act. For, as he once wrote,

there are not many songs
there is one song

the animals lope to it
the fish swim to it
the sun circles to it
the stars rise
the snow falls
the grass grows

there is no end to the song and no beginning
the singer may die
but the song is forever

truth is the name of the song
and the song is truth.

May the song Lax sang resound in all of us who loved him or love his work and love the truth he sang about. And may we find our own new ways to sing it too.

Eyes of Innocence

      “Whatever his failures,” Thomas Merton writes in his essay “Message to Poets,” “the poet is not a cunning man. His art depends on an ingrained innocence which he would lose in business, in politics, or in too organized a form of academic life. The hope that rests on calculation has lost its innocence.”
     I don’t know that Merton was thinking of Lax when he wrote these words, but he certainly might have been. It was Lax who encouraged him to try writing poetry himself, and one of the things he admired most in Lax was his enduring innocence.
      As for Lax, when he worked for the New Yorker as a young man, he seemed to know innately that its combination of cleverness, calculation, and commerce was killing his poetic soul. Once he left that position, he mostly stayed far away from business and politics—and even during his brief teaching gigs, no one would call his approach “organized.”
     I wish I could reprint Merton’s entire essay here because, though it was written in 1964, it speaks more clearly about the poet’s role at this moment in history than anything else I’ve read. And by “poet” I mean any person who seeks to speak of life as he or she truly sees it. I think that’s what Merton meant by the word too.  “Poetry,” he writes, “is the flowering of ordinary possibilities. It is the fruit of ordinary and natural choice. This is its innocence and its dignity.”
     Almost every poem Lax wrote focused on the “flowering of ordinary possibilities.” This is especially true of his later, more minimalist works. It was the seemingly ordinary that fascinated him, the way it became extraordinary when studied intently. And he often said that the breaks in his poems came to him naturally. He would establish a rhythm and break from it where a break felt right.
     Two of the most important traits any artist needs are the ability to see the world and himself clearly and honestly, and the ability to express what he sees precisely, neither muddying it nor gilding it. As Merton asserts, these are traits of the innocent. One of the things Lax sought to do in his 20s and 30s was unlearn the things he had learned in school that weren’t true for him, so he could see the things that were true more clearly.
     Too few of us make the effort or take the time to do what Lax sought to do. Instead of doing whatever is required, taking whatever time is needed, to know and express our own thoughts, our own true beliefs, we accept the slogans and attitudes of one group or another. Sometimes consciously, sometimes passively. As a result, we can never see the world through innocent eyes—the eyes that see love rather than hate, solidarity rather than division, open-minded hope rather than the calculations that might lead to some imagined “victory.”
     “Collective life is often organized on the basis of cunning, doubt, and guilt,” Merton writes. “True solidarity is destroyed by the political art of pitting one man against another and the commercial art of estimating all men at a price. On these illusory measurements men build a world of arbitrary values without life and meaning, full of sterile agitation.”
     The results of this arbitrariness, Merton says, are despair and alienation. “In such a situation,” he writes, “there is no joy, only rage.”
     Lax believed deeply that all of us could see clearly and know what to do in any moment if we put ourselves in a place where grace could flow to us and through us. To him, that meant slowing down and waiting until he knew what he should do. It also meant quieting his mind and his heart, especially when everything around him was unquiet. He believed in a unifying spirit that disappeared from our sight only when we drifted away from it.
     There is no magic in the images and words poets see and use, Merton tells us. “It is the businessman, the propagandist, the politician, not the poet, who believes in ‘the magic of words,’” he writes. “For the poet there is precisely no magic. There is only life in all its unpredictability and all its freedom.”
     Lax was, above all, a poet of life as it truly is. As he truly saw it, through innocent eyes. He wrote again and again (as the title of one of his books suggests) of the “thing that is.” The life that is—not as we’d like it to be or might change it to be, but as we experience it right now.
     “When the poet puts his foot in that ever-moving river,” Merton writes, “poetry itself is born out of the flashing water. In that unique instant, the truth is manifest to all who are able to receive it.”
     “Let us obey life,” he says, “and the Spirit of Life that calls us to be poets, and we shall harvest many new fruits for which the world hungers—fruits of hope that have never been seen before. With these fruits we shall calm the resentments and the rage of man.”

© Michael N. McGregor

(This post by Lax biographer Michael N. McGregor originally appeared in the August 2020 issue of The Robert Lax Newsletter. To receive this bimonthly emailing, sign up on the robertlax.com homepage.)

Alone on Patmos: My First Self-Isolation Experience, 35 Years Ago

The Skala harbor on Patmos (© Michael N. McGregor)

It was on this date, March 25–Greek Independence Day–that I left Patmos after meeting Robert Lax for the first time 35 years ago. I had been on the island for most of two months, the first month (before meeting Lax) all alone, thousands of miles from home. It was that time alone–that self-isolation–that set up the meeting to come and all that followed from it.

To read what it was like to be alone on Patmos in winter in 1985 and how it prepared me for the blessing of meeting Lax, go to my personal blog, where I’ve just posted a description of the experience: https://michaelnmcgregor.com/blog/