“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.)