More Lax

Sometimes I think I prefer Lax’s journals to his poetry; in that sense, he reminds me of Thoreau. Even though it was his sparse verse that originally drew me to his work, in the end I think I appreciate his philosophy more than I do his poetic style. Of course, reading his journals and secondary materials has also given me a greater appreciation and understanding of his poetry.

Like Merton, Lax seemed to become more open to Eastern religions later in his life, though they seemed to complement, rather than supplant, his Christian values. Considering his hermetic life, it’s not surprising to me that he found Chuang Tzu appealing, particularly since Merton’s translation of Chuang Tzu is considered a masterpiece in its own right. He obviously studied Merton’s Chuang Tzu translation extensively:

sometimes, i have conversations with an imaginary guru, naturally one who lives inside me. he used to be a psychiatrist: at least in the old days a lot of my conversations were started with, & a lot of my problems heard out or resolved by, an imaginary viennese who listened carefully, often accusingly, & showed me with a few apt technical phrases how far i had erred in my thinking, or behavior. the viennese fellow has disappeared; comes back if ever for very short visits; but has been replaced by chuang tzu (sometimes merton, or sometimes chuang tzu in merton translation) who tells me other wisdoms: usually the wisdoms of abstinence & avoidance; of retreat, prayer & preparation, of non-attachment, of “sitting quietly doing nothing,” of seeking smallness, not greatness, or of seeking nothing at all.

as i don’t think i really understood the “psychiatrist” half of the time, i'm not sure i really understand “chuang tzu.” i respect him though, don’t resent him, as i often did the psychiatrist; feel that he knows i don’t know but that little by little there’ll be things i can learn. i picture him with shaved head, a listener (& yet a practical man), a listener who appreciates, a listener with humor; a storehouse-—but very light storehouse—-of wisdom; made like modern electronic ears of light, light materials, but of great receiving strength.

what he promotes is wisdom, what he promises is grace. zen wisdom, perhaps; zen grace, but certainly wisdom & grace.

one feels that all philosophies, zen, & yoga are ways of approaching wisdom & “enlightenment”—they are ways of approaching an enlightened state in which one’s behavior is always or almost always “spontaneously” right.

to be “enlightened” is not to shine; nor to bring multitudes to the hill where one sits cross-legged, to listen.

it is rather to know what one is doing (& even, perhaps, to enjoy it).

I’ve occasionally had “discussions” with a parent or a long-time friend in my head, but I don’t think there’s a single author I know well enough that I could reconstruct them in my head. If I were going to learn someone that well, though, chuang tzu would be an excellent choice, though I’m more apt to hear Lao Tzu through the Tao Te Ching, probably as close as I come to having a “religion.” More importantly, this seems to indicate a shift from trying to understand why we do things (a Freudian approach) to understanding how we should act, or, equally important, not act. Taoism puts emphasis on accepting what has happened and not trying to understand why it has happened. That’s definitely something I’m still working on.

Lax also emphasizes being in the moment, and not the past, in his journal, another emphasis of Eastern religions:

seeing through two lenses: one lens with a hairline split (like german camera) for greater accuracy: not a split like a broken pane, a broken mirror: but not (yet) the single vision of mystic or hasid.

what could be fuller of life than this (every) moment: each moment regarded calmly is like a jungle (or aquarium) bursting with life.

as jungle is full of beasts, so any moment is full (of many lives).

to look intently at any one object, may seem to leave the others out of account. but the attempt to look at all leaves nothing seen. (nothing regarded closely or understood.)

Of course, it’s hard to imagine any good poet not having this kind of awareness. It’s that kind of attention to detail that allows the poet to convey his vision to his reader.

Much of the later poetry seems to leave out any reference to religious beliefs, to focus, instead, on the immediacy of the setting. The last poem in Love Had a Compass, manages to include both, though it’s certainly not a typical “Christian” poem:

I praise the Lord
for the beauty
of the sun

the beauty
of the sun

I praise the Lord
for the sound
of the wind

the sound
of the wind

the sound
of the wind

the beauty
of the sun

the beauty
of the sun

the sound
of the wind

the sound
of the wind

I praise the Lord

for the movement
of the trees

the movement
of the trees

the movement
of the trees

I praise the Lord

for the movement
of the trees

the sound
of the wind
the dancing
of the sun

I’ll have to admit, though, that I don’t like these later poems as much as I do Lax’s poems in Circus Days & Nights. Surprisingly, they are too minimalist for me, often lacking even the concrete images that I find so appealing in William Carlos Williams poetry and Japanese haikus. Taken to this degree, the poems almost seem abstract rather than concrete. [Apparently I’m not the first to make this observation; see this article.“Beauty of the sun” strikes me as abstract, not an accurate description of sunshine as it strikes (the water, the raindrop, etc.).

Of course, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re not meditative. My favorite form of meditation isn’t one focused on awareness or on a single object, but, rather, one focused on pure darkness, totally shutting out everything but the darkness. Listening to Lax read his later poems comes as close to Gregorian chant as anything I’ve ever heard read (though I seem to have lost/misplaced the link to the site where he read them in yet another senior moment).

2 thoughts on “More Lax

  1. in my experiance and not meant to be an end all poetry is about a feeling either you get it or not sometimes we are not in the right frame of mind to receive so reading at different times will or may bring different meanings. However the one thing of trying to boil down what a poet or writer must be like is in my opinion a complete waste of time. Accept what the poet has penned as the words as paint to a picture trying to share with the reader or simply trying to get the idea on paper. judgement of any sort tears this paper. We are all leaves on the tree of life blowing in the wind awaiting the sunny day till we shine brightly.

  2. My experience through Lent with St. Teresa, St. John of the Cross, and Lax was valuable. I presented a talk on St. Teresa, so spent most of my time on those Carmelite mystics, crowding out Lax somewhat, but not altogether.
    That’s a very beautiful poem of Lax’s that you posted, and he clearly found a connection to/reflection of God through/in nature. St. John writes about that connection, and the Spiritual Canticle is rich in natural imagery. But a little way into the canticle, he writes “Send me no more messengers”; he wants God directly. I sense that yearning in Lax, too. Perhaps it’s in all of us.

What do you think?