Lax’s Views on His Art

My favorite part of Georgiou’s The Way of the Dreamcatcher was the discussion of his poetry. There’s obviously a strong religious element in Lax’s poetry, but I don’t think I would see him as a religious poet and I don’t think that’s the way he sees himself, either.

So how would you feel if you were defined as a major spiritual poet of the twentieth century?

(Laughter) Oh, for heaven’s sake, that would be absolute nonsense, that’s all!

Is something wrong with that title? Don’t you consider yourself to be spiritually gifted — a creative mystic?

Well, I’m very happy if someone simply considers me a poet.

I didn’t think of Lax as a “spiritual poet” when I read his poetry in 2005, though I did note at least one poem that seemed quite spiritual. I certainly wouldn’t have known he was Catholic if I hadn’t read biographical details, though.

I was attracted by the style of his poetry and his way of seeing the world. In particular, I was intrigued by his “minimalist” style, though I’d never heard the term until recently. Part of its appeal was that it did seem original, even unique, especially when contrasted with many modern poets who seem wrapped up in “thought.”

But aren’t your minimalist poems springboards to something else? Chuang-Tzu said that the purpose of the fish trap is to catch fish; when the fish are caught, the trap is put away. So when the words have conveyed their meaning, are the words discarded? In your reductionist script, are you intimating wordlessness? Can language be a veil that obscures primal, intuitive meaning?

Sure, l think there’s something to that. Language isn’t an end in itself, but may suggest the presence of a greater reality in which all things are participating. But at the same time, sometimes you need the words to remind you of where you are headed, where you are going. If you lose your bearings, words can function like a compass and put you back on course. You stay on track.

I grow less and less enamored with words as a I age. I’ve always been more interested in what words stand for than I in the words themselves, which may explain why I have long favored Imagists like William Carlos Williams to poets like Wallace Stevens. Any ambivalence toward Lax is due to his tendency to even go further than the Imagists by eliminating even imagery from some of his poems.

I’ll have to admit that one of the reasons I’m fond of Georgiou’s book is that he raises questions about Lax’s poetry that never occurred to me, but do seem important in retrospect.

Do you write to make the world a better place?

First of all, l write to better understand myself and my relationship with everything else. If my writing does indeed influence the world in a positive way, either now or in some future time, l’m all for it. And if for some reason it doesn’t, l’m OK with that too. But before any greater analysis is made, it’s important to keep in mind that my work helps me to understand who I am. What happens after simply happens. So when you write, you don’t consciously try to enlighten the reader?

I think I’ve always hated didactic poetry, but, like Lax, I try to use my reading and writing to “better understand myself and my relationship with everything else.” “In a Dark Time” is, first of all, an exploration of my world. Anyone who’s visited for long realizes that it probably doesn’t have an agenda. What began as an anti-war protest slowly transformed into a poetry discussion. Though I’ve never really abandoned either of those topics, I’ve certainly veered into related topics to the point where later visitors probably see this as a birding blog. I think I still see it as a journal where I can explore all of my interests and share them with anyone who may be interested.

Like Lax, I’m more interested in saying something “true” than convincing others that they should agree with me

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I ’m remembering now a line from one of your journals: “Don 't try to say something convincing; try to say something true. ”

That’s right. Communication simply is — there’s no reason to force anything. lt’s authentic. There’s no need for persuasion.

When somebody starts to persuade, inflection and projection may twist meaning. That kind of thing makes me narrow my eyes a bit. I prefer to communicate rather than persuade. l think it is enough to say, “He who has ears let him hear.” But if you are a talented persuader, if that’s your gift, pray heaven you’ll be persuading people to do the right thing.

I tend to agree with that, too. Although I often get the idea I would be “preaching to the choir” on my site since most visitors seem of a like mind, I really don’t like writing opinionated articles. I discovered that several years ago when I was asked to write environmental articles for a group trying to defeat Bush’s re-election. I didn’t like slanting my articles, thinking the facts already made it clear that the Bush administration was much more concerned with promoting business than preserving the environment. I was always of the opinion that distorting the facts would come back to bite you later. Even if that didn’t happen, I felt better knowing I had presented the “truth” as clearly as I could.

I’m not sure if I’d even read enough about Buddhism when I first read Lax to know the significance of “awakening” to the moment, but I think that’s really the goal of all artists.

You know, the Buddha made the statement "I am awake, " and you often- times state, “I write to hear myself think ” Is there a link here?

Well, I do believe there’s something related there. Writing has so much to do with listening to yourself, with being awake to the present moment. And l can much more identify with the word “awake” than, say, the word “alert,” because “alert” seems to hint at impending burnout. lt’s not flowing - it’s too immediate.

Art and poetry help us to see the world more clearly, more vividly. Even more for the artist or poet himself because he must see objects clearly before he can employ them in his art. Taking hundreds of photos of hummingbirds can’t help but teach the photographer much about the nature of hummingbirds. And the more the photographer learns about hummingbirds, the better shots he can capture.

Lax expands on this idea a little later when Georgiou asks him,

What do you think is the function and purpose of art?

Art has to do with the transformation of consciousness. And I see art as a harmonic enterprise because it has the capability to make the world a better place. As you know, l particularly appreciate the search for peace through art. The artist who is peace-loving seeks not to direct attention to himself and is not interested in becoming a guru-like figure - he simply creates from the heart, doing the best he can as he gives expression to his soul. ln the process, both darkness and light are unveiled and explored. Essentially, the artist feels for balance. Ultimately, this intuitive quest can offer something valuable to the world.

Perhaps it is my attempts to find balance and harmony in a world that too often seems rendered by greed and violence that fuels my love of poetry and art in general. There is something strangely comforting even in art that portrays those things clearly and accurately, though I prefer to seek comfort in seeing the beauty that survives in the Natural world despite man’s pollution and predation.

I was a little surprised how much I enjoyed reading The Way of the Dreamcatcher. I half-suspect I actually prefer Lax as a thinker to Lax as a poet. I’ve only touched on a few of his ideas. I was inspired enough to buy A Catch of Anti-letters, correspondence between Thomas Merton and Lax and Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain which apparently mentions Lax quite often.

6 thoughts on “Lax’s Views on His Art

    • I’m a little surprised by how hard I’m finding it to figure out why I liked this book so much and why I like Lax’s philosophy even more than his poetry.

  1. You may be right that Lax is not a spiritual poet; the few poems I heard him read were beautiful (and refreshingly direct) but I wouldn’t have identified them as particularly religious. I do like his passionate devotion to peace and to the appreciation of the natural world. I’m looking forward to reading more.

    The Spiritual Canticle of St. John of the Cross, on the other hand, is unmistakably a mystic’s poem and a valuable guide to the great joy we were created to experience. I suppose the core impulse of my life is summed up in the statement by St. Theresa of Lisieux: I want the whole cake. At 61 and after serious health issues, I’m very focused on my life and how to best use it, and I look for the best guides I can find.

    I’m mid-way through St. John’s explication of the Canticle, and it’s quite a journey. The poem connects closely to the Song of Songs.

    Lax will be a companion for me along with St. Teresa and St. John through Lent, a time when I shut down the internet, television, and radio, turn away from some of the things I look to for pleasure and comfort, and spend more time in prayer.

    Thank you again for your posts on Lax and your respectful comments on Esolen.

    • Yes his stress on the importance of “love” really rings true to me.

      Taking a break from the internet is always a good thing, Tom. Hope you can post some comments on Lax’s poetry when you come back.

  2. “Don ‘t try to say something convincing; try to say something true. ”

    I think that is excellent advice. Like you, Loren, I have qualms about trying to persuade people. For one thing, I don’t believe I’m qualified to tell people what to think. And yet, I sometimes find myself trying to persuade despite my intentions. It’s then that I thank the gods for the delete button!

    I’ve been taking away a great deal from your discussions of Lax. Thank you so much!

    • I do think your blog tries to “tell the truth,” though I might feel that way because more often than not I tend to agree with what you’re saying. I guess we’re both part of the same choir.

What do you think?