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Robert Lax

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

.

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.

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Robert Lax

Some Unusual Religious Views

I think most Catholic readers would read The Way of the Dreamcatcher from a very different perspective than I did. Instead of focusing on Lax’s religious views, I focused on his inter-religious views and how those are manifested in his poetry. At times it almost seemed to me that S. T. Georgiou was trying to fit Lax into the Catholic mould even though Lax seemed not to be anything but a typical Catholic. Perhaps, however, Georgiou was asking those question to illustrate Lax’s particular viewpoint, that his roots and his studies had enabled him to draw from many religious sources without losing his Catholic faith.

Knowing how close Merton and Lax were, Georgiou asks Lax if he ever wished to join a monastery:

Since you knew that you always had a strong spiritual and contemplative inclination, did you ever wish to enter a monastery, as did Merton.

No, and that’s because of the three monastic vows: Poverty, Chastity, and Obedience. Poverty, I was familiar with. Chastity I could get used to. But one thing I could never get used to was Obedience. I don’t like being bossed around! Being obedient to a superior really wasn’t a part of me. I remember when I graduated from grade school, my mother wrote in my autograph book, “To thine own self be true.” So she brought me up, right from the beginning, to be true to myself, and that’s an important lesson to get early in life.

I immediately identified with Lax’s answer. I’ve never liked taking orders, especially not on spiritual matters. For me, at least, there’s no higher truth than “To thine own self be true.”

The Christian Scientist/Unitarian in me tends to believe, like Lax, that all faiths can lead to their own form of salvation.

But exactly how do we share, especially when so many faiths differ? Do you believe that all paths to salvation are valid.

Well, I think if you live gently, honourably, focusing on the cultivation of your heart, good things are sure to follow. And I have posted a note on the wall up there which might help to answer your question. It goes like this: “There are as many paths to salvation as there are people willing to be saved.”

That sounds faintly like the Japanese Zen poet Ikkyu, who said, “Many winding roads and paths lead to the top of the mountain, but at the peak, we all gaze at the single bright moon. “

Very good, yes, I’ve heard of that. I do appreciate the ecumenical and interfaith approach. We were meant to connect with each other, to take care of each other, to check up on each other. It’s all about communication.

I’ve never felt a need to justify my own religious beliefs or to convert others to my view. I’ve seldom had the chance to get to personally know anyone who’s not Christian or Jewish, but I suspect people deeply involved in their faith tend to be happier than those that aren’t. I do know that some of my favorite students over the years were quite religious. I’ve even envied other people’s absolute faith at times, though I seem to moe of a “doubter” by nature.

As an artist, Lax finds many ways to celebrate his religion:

What if one can’t pray?

Then go to some quiet, scenic place and rest. Listen to a bird’s song. Take in the stillness. Or do something creative. Sing, dance, paint, smile. Help somebody. You know, feel the morning’s presence in every leaf. Share your joy. I feel all of that counts as prayer, especially if it proceeds from a joyful, loving heart.

I think I’ve mentioned previously that in many ways poetry served as my “religion,” particularly poets like Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson or even earlier English Poets like Blake or Donne. Later in life, I’ve turned more and more to Taoist and Buddhist poetry for inspiration. On the other hand, I know many birders who consider “birding” their church.

I’ll have to admit that I was a little shocked when Georgiou made this statement near the end of his book:

In his quiet, poetic resonance, he reminded me of an Eastern sage, the “True Man” of Chuang Tzu, the Man of Te who in motion is like water; at rest, like a mirror; in response, like an echo; who in his stillness, remains pure. Lax naturally possessed what the Asian mystics term “Beginner’s Mind,” wherein all things are possible. Like Patmos itself, his presence was a place to start from, to be reborn and begin a revitalized understanding of the world.

I’m not entirely sure I agree with that assessment, but I’ll look for those elements when I re-read some of his poems. Perhaps it was an aspect of his writing that subconsciously attracted me and I just wasn’t aware of it.

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Robert Lax

S.T. Georgiou’s The Way of the Dreamcatcher

When I recently received a note from a blog reader Scott thanking me for posting earlier entries on Robert Lax’s poetry, I decided it must be the right time to read S.T. Georgiou’s The Way of the Dreamcatcher which has been sitting on my desk waiting to be read for a month or two at least. I still don’t remember exactly why I bought the book, though I suspect that Amazon suggested it since I had purchased several of Lax’s poetry books there five years ago.

It didn’t take S.T. Georgiou long to remind me why I had liked Lax so much when I first encountered him in 2005. The preface provides a succinct summary of three traits I most admire in Lax’s work. The one Lax is best known for is his spirituality,

In looking back at our meetings, what especially stands out for me, aside from Lax’s emphasis on the transformative and renewing power of love, is how much the poet was spiritually “ahead of his time” — a major reason he had so impressed me, and inspired my course of study. Long before it was popular to draw wisdom from various faith traditions and learn about Yoga, Zen, Sufism, and Kabbalism, the future hermit was actively engaged in a wide array of spiritual exploration.

Though Lax was born and raised a Reform Jew, his uncle, Henry Hotchner, was a high-ranking Theosophist who over the years had exposed his nephew to diverse ways of spirituality. Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism had intrigued Lax, but his growing interest in Christianity, (prompted by early Franciscan influence), and his deepening friendship with fellow student Thomas Merton while at Columbia University in New York, led to his eventual baptism in the Roman Catholic Church. Lax felt that he could be perfectly faithful to Christ while learning from other traditions. His inter-religious aspirations, extant long before Vatican II. distinguished the sage. He was a committed peacemaker who understood that the very fate of the earth depended on the world’s major religions engaging in regular and sincere dialogue. Like the early Church leaders, he understood that Christ the Word (the Logos) is accessible in seed form in both non-Christian and pre-Christian belief systems. How Christ works outside of Christianity Lax treated as a sacred, unspeakable mystery. In this way he emphasized the absolute freedom of God, who, in his divine work of providence and redemption transcends all limitations. For Lax, all inner roads grounded in wisdom and compassion ultimately led to the apophatic core of the Heart.

though as you’ve probably figured out if you’ve been here many times before, it’s the idea that “all inner roads grounded in wisdom and compassion ultimately led to the apophatic core of the Heart” that most appeals to me.

I’m really not sure I ever noticed Lax’s concern for the environment in his poetry when I read it the first time, but perhaps I did subconsciously because it’s certainly one of my major concerns:

The poet-sage was also intensely concerned about the welfare of the environment, and this decades before the “Green Movement” of the early 1970’s and the current eco-crisis. He felt there to be a profound sympathia (a deep and abiding inter-relationship) between the macrocosm (the universe) and the microcosm (the human being). Since the time of Genesis humanity had been given the most holy task of stewarding creation, and this through love. To best balance heaven and earth, Lax felt it important for every caretaker of the cosmos to be as healthy as possible, hence his lifelong interest in prayer, meditation, diet, and exercise — concerns that would become socially popular from the mid-70’s on.

When I re-read some of Lax’s poetry and read another book coming this week I’ll watch closer for these ideas in his works.

I remember, though, I was originally attracted to Lax by his poetic style, not his ideas per se.

Lax also seemed to have anticipated Minimalism, the modern art movement of the 1950’s and 60’s which emphasized purity, clarity, and elimination of non-essentials. His sparse verse — ascetic and mantra-like melded well with his philosophy, “less is more.” Even as a budding poet. Lax had strongly believed that basic elements in both art and life help to shape one’s meditative clarity. Superficiality and excess are consequently jettisoned, leaving the aspirant to better focus on the divine Source of All, the Fount of Life and Light — certainly sound advice, especially in our depressed financial times. The worldwide recession is forcing many to re-evaluate their values and priorities, particularly in terms of worldly goods. Such reductionist concerns hearken to Lax’s perennial plea to “slow down,” “relax,” and “simplify.”

Lax’s devotion to the minimalist ethos ultimately centered on the holiness of the moment. He believed that if the seeker welcomes each moment with the fullness of love, he or she “takes care of all time.” Like the power of a single word, each moment is meant to be nurtured and cultivated slowly, gently, that its seed might wholly blossom in the hearts of those receptive to it.

That last idea of focusing on the moment takes on added significance since I’ve read more Buddhist literature since I first read Lax. However, I was really attracted to his minimalist style because it reminded me of William Carlos William. In a later discussion, when asked which modern poets have most influenced him, he replies

But the name that comes most clearly to me is William Carlos Williams. His words are so well chosen, so visual, so rhythmic, and resonant. He an economy of expression that is not tight-fisted. His words are liberating. He flows. He’s musical. I remember him saying something about how vital poems are for the health of mind and body…

Even later, he talks about Haiku, another personal favorite and my entrance into Eastern thought:

“With regard to literary influences, Haiku showed me how minimal text can have maximum effect.”

Although I occasionally got the feeling that S.T. Georgiou is trying to pigeonhole Lax into the Catholic faithful, it’s a revealing book, one where I got a different perspective on Lax then I got from reading three of his poetry books. I’ll have more to say in the next few days.

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Blogging

Planned Obsolescence

As a confirmed penny pincher and rabid environmentalist, I’ve been really pissed the last few days. First, our three-year-old Sony Blu-ray Home Theater System suddenly quit playing Blu-ray movies though it took us awhile to figure that out. Since the system was relatively new, we assumed the movies we had rented were defective especially after we stuck in an old movie and it played without a problem. When the replacement had exactly the same problem, however, we decided the player was the problem.

A quick online search suggested that the first step was to upgrade the system since new versions won’t always play on older systems (though I thought our system seemed too new to be obsolete already.) We spent nearly a week trying to upgrade the system. Since the manual suggested we could simply upgrade over our wi-fi network, we tried to figure out how to connect to our home network. Turned out that only the higher-end models had wi-fi connectivity. Next we tried to download an update since one was available online. Naturally you had to have a Windows computer to do that. Leslie tried to do that from work, but the disk we ended up with wouldn’t boot.

About that time Leslie happened to mention that even the old Blu-ray discs wouldn’t play. Well, it made no sense to me that you’d suddenly need an upgrade to play discs you could play in the past. So, it was back to the internet where I discovered that there are actually two different lasers in Blu-ray players and that the one to run non-Blu-ray discs might still be working even though the blue laser was out. I was pretty convinced that was the problem and wasn’t willing to pay the price to have it repaired, especially since new systems offer advantages over our system.

We asked at the store if we could buy a Blu-ray Player that would use the speakers we had, but the clerk didn’t think that was possible. After our experience I wasn’t about to buy another Sony system, especially since they were no longer rated highly by Consumers Report. To make a long story short, we ended up buying a higher-rated Samsung system that was quite similar in layout. I spent most of the day disconnecting the old system and hooking up the new one trying to figure out the best placement of the speakers.

We inserted the disk that wouldn’t play and spent several hours enjoying a movie that we had waited nearly three weeks to see. It wasn’t until we tried to link the sound system to the television that we encountered a problem, a problem I spent the better part of two hours trying to solve. Leslie finally walked away, no longer willing to try to decipher a manual which never seemed to address our question. Since I consider myself computer-literate, I spent the next two hours doing what I usually do when I can’t figure out what to do, messing around until I stumble upon the answer I want. I did accidentally discover how to link the two together for a short while, but when I tried to do something else they wouldn’t synch again. However, once I knew that the actual wires were connected correctly, I was determined to figure out how to reconnect them through the controls. I did, and it is connected and working the next day.

The incident reminded me just how technically incompetent I am. I am nearly as obsolete as the recorders, phones, computers we constantly replace either because they fall behind technically or because they simply fail after a few years. My son or ten-year-old grandson could probably have punched in the correct code instantly.

It didn’t improve my mood when later that same evening Leslie complained that the microwave wouldn’t heat her cup of tea. I was sure that she must have punched the wrong button somehow. Nope. It nearly pushed my buttons, but it wouldn’t work. It’s only five years old, half the age of the on-the-counter model we’d junked when we moved because the new house had one built-in above the stove. Outraged, I checked online, and it said that new microwaves, on average, last from five to six years. The price to have a Sears repairman come out and replace the magnetron is almost more than the cost of a new one. I suppose Sears expects us to come back like all loyal customers and buy a shiny new one. I didn’t. I chose another brand with a ten-year warranty on the magnetron.

We moved into this relatively new house about seven years ago. In that time we’ve replaced ever appliance except the refrigerator, and that has had to be repaired twice. We replaced the furnace, the water heater, the dishwasher, the washing machine and dryer, the television, the DVD player, not to mention an endless string electronic devices. I lived in my previous house thirty years and never replaced a single one of those appliances. Of course, retailers remind you that the new appliances are much better, or, at the very least, more energy-efficient. I’m not convinced. First, I define a good appliance as one that is well-built and lasts a long time. The energy it takes to produce these major appliances and the energy used to recycle them, if they don’t end up in massive garbage dumps, is never mentioned in the equation.

Planned obsolescence. It keeps our economy running smoothly and ensures company profits, though the high number of big-name companies that have failed in the last few years should make stock holders question that argument. They argue it’s necessary for employment, though unemployment has never been higher in America.

I don’t know about you, but I get excited about buying something I’ve never had, something I’ve wanted a long time but couldn’t afford until now. I don’t mind paying a high price for a good product. I’ve got Swiss shop tools I’ve used for thirty years that I still love and would never replace. I think my Canon EOS ID is worth every penny of the outrageous amount I paid for it and haven’t regretted buying it for a second despite the sacrifices I had to make to pay for it.

I hate replacing something I purchased a few years ago, especially when I discover I have no use for the “new innovations,” innovations that more often than not require an additional investment or incur a monthly charge. I suspect the greatest cost of a throw-away society is a growing alienation from the things we own. And in America today you are the things you own, or so advertisers would like us to believe.